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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 11, 2002

Winter hikes may lead down dangerous path

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

'Tis the season for wet weather and slippery slopes.

Rain and wind, combined with poor decisions by hikers, can lead to dangerous situations on trails, particularly during the winter months.

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Not the friendliest climate for hikers.

Hawai'i's winter weather may turn trails around the state into mud bogs and slick paths, sometimes dangerous and often cumbersome.

December and January are typically the wettest months, with an average of about 3.5 inches of rain per year between 1947 and 1999. According to the National Weather Service, Hawai'i's heaviest rains come from winter storms between October and April.

The combination of heavy rains and high winds with treacherous trails and foolish hikers can make for a dangerous situation.

Or sometimes it can be the smallest mistake.

One hiker from Kane'ohe fell to his death three weeks ago in the mountains near Ka'a'awa. He had been hiking with friends on a ridge trail mauka of Swanzy Beach Park when he slipped and fell 200 to 250 feet.

Hiking during the coldest, wettest months can be an uncomfortable experience, to say the least.

"It's not really a safety issue as much as it's a personal comfort issue," said Curt Cottrell, program manager for Na Ala Hele, the state's trails and access program.

He added that hikers can get hypothermia, a condition in which the body temperature is below 95 degrees.

Hypothermia is usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold, when more heat is lost than the body can generate. Wearing wet clothing for an extended period of time in windy weather is a common cause.

"People can get hypothermia at the summits of mountains, when they're wet from heavy rain and they're standing in 20 to 30 mph trade winds," Cottrell said. "And hypothermia does impair judgement, causing people to make mistakes."

Whether hiking in a group or alone, it’s always wise to check into the weather conditions and dress properly for the outing.

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While the state's trails aren't closed during these wet and windy months, hiking experts do advise thrill-seekers to take the necessary precautions.

"Basically, people should use their own common sense and judgment," said Aaron Lowe, trails and access specialist with Na Ala Hele.

Since the weather in Hawai'i can change abruptly, he cautions hikers to be prepared for anything.

"It could be a beautiful, wonderful day, then the next thing you know the weather switches on you," Lowe said. "That can happen anywhere in the state ... but these are natural occurrences. It's the responsibility of people who are going out in these wild places."

For the adventurers and hardcore hikers, here are some safety tips to keep in mind when you hit the slopes this winter:

• Know your trails: Check out hiking guides and Web sites about the trails you're planning to hike. Some trails are better suited for winter weather than others. And know the trail's degree of difficulty.

Ridge trails, such as Makapu'u and Kuli'ou'ou, tend to be drier, while valley and gulch trails, such as Manoa and Maunawili, are wetter and muddier.

Lowe also advises hikers to be cautious on trails with stream crossings, as flash floods have swept away hikers before. "If it starts to rain heavily, consider turning back if you had to cross a stream," he said. "Streams could flood and you won't be able to get back. And if a stream has risen considerably, definitely think twice before crossing it. That's where a lot of people get into trouble."

• Check weather conditions: The weather can change at anytime, but you should at least know what to expect. The National Weather Service provides timely, accurate weather information from which you can decide on the appropriate trial.

• Wear proper clothing: During the winter months, it's a good idea to bring rain gear. You don't want to be hiking in wet clothing for a long period of time, as you could get hypothermia.

"They should have, if they like at this time of the year, pretty good rain gear and extra clothes in their pack in plastic bags," Cottrell suggested. "So if they do get soaked, they can change into something dry while they're still hiking."

Or at the least, keep extra clothes in the car, he added.

And even though winter months aren't typically as hot or sunny as summer months, hikers should still use sunglasses and broad-spectrum sunscreen, and bring along extra water (at least two liters per person for a full-day hike).

For more information about hiking in Hawai'i, check out Na Ala Hele's Web site at www.hawaiitrails.org.

To schedule a hiking safety presentation for your school or organization, call Aaron Lowe at 973-9782.