Park rangers train for dangerous situations in the Smokies

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS (WATE) – It is the most visited national park in the country, and sometimes some of those visitors end up in troubling situations.

That is not something most of us expect when taking a hike through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it is something park rangers are constantly thinking about. There are about a dozen of them that make up the Technical Search and Rescue team within the national park. On Tuesday, they were repelling from a cliff, training for any possible scenarios.

“As we all know practice makes perfect. If you don’t do things, you lose those skills,” said Ranger Phil Basak.

Rangers say they train for all sorts of incidents inside the park to falls off of cliffs, to lost hikers, even water rescues, and they say a lot of the skills for each of those translate between situations. They respond to more than 100 calls for help each year. Most of those are fairly minor.

SLIDESHOW: Smokies search and rescue training

“That’s our biggest thing that we contend with is someone who’s come up with like a leg injury that’s up the trail and can’t get back to the car. :07 and that can take 10 to 14 people just to do that,” said Search and Rescue Lead Coordinator Marc Eckert.

Heading into the colder months, rangers say they need to be prepared for the worst and so do you.

“As we go into the winter months it’s going to slow down, but the search and rescue missions I think become more dramatic,” said Eckert. “The chance for hypothermia is very real and happens on a regular occasion here, so being prepared for proper clothing, rain gear, and taking food, water.”

Letting someone know where you are going is key. If you do not return, the rangers need to know where to look for you. Those searches can take hours or even days, and rangers say it is helpful if you stay put while they search. In the winter it is also imperative to know the weather. It can change in an instant in the mountains.

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“There were a few people that had ventured out in a rainstorm for a backpacking trip, a rainstorm at a lower level, but you might imagine as they climbed to a higher level the snow set in,” said Eckert. “Their bodies weren’t able to stay warm enough. A message was sent out for help, and through the middle of the night we end up going in, braving feet of snow to get to them because that’s how quickly it gathered.”

That rescue was successful, but this team says while they regularly practice those skills, not having to use them is ideal.

“Searches can go on for several days and hopefully come to a good conclusion. That’s not always the case because when you’re looking for somebody you just hope you find them,” said Eckert.

Park rangers say staying on the trails is the best way to make sure you can get help if you need it.

The national park has the following recommendations for hikers on their website:

  • Let a responsible person know your route and return time. Have them contact the park at (865) 436-1230 if you do not return within a reasonable time.
  • Always hike with another person. Keep your hiking party together and stay on officially maintained trails. Always keep children in your sight when hiking-do not allow them to get ahead of you or fall behind.
  • Do not rely on technology to save you. Cell phones do not work most places in the backcountry and GPS is sometimes unreliable.
  • Carry a current park trail map and know how to read it. Remember that the park trail map is a flat representation of the park’s rugged, mountainous terrain.
  • Carry a flashlight or headlamp-even on a dayhike. If you have trouble on the trail, darkness may fall before you can finish your hike.
  • Take adequate water-minimum 2 quarts per person per day. 3-4 quarts are recommended per person. All water obtained from the backcountry should be treated either by filtering or boiling.
  • Carry a small first aid kit.
  • Check the current weather forecast and be prepared for quickly changing conditions.
  • Wear shoes or boots that provide good ankle support.
  • Avoid hypothermia (the dangerous lowering of body temperature) by keeping dry. Avoid cotton clothing. Dress in layers that can be easily removed or added as you heat up or cool down. Always carry a wind-resistant jacket and rain gear-even on sunny days!
  • Don’t attempt to cross rain-swollen streams; they will recede rapidly after precipitation stops and the wait may save your life! When crossing any stream more than ankle-deep: unbuckle the waist strap of your pack, wear shoes, and use a staff to steady yourself. Additional water safety information.
  • Do not hike at night. If you are camping, plan to get to your campsite before dark.
  • Research the terrain of your trip, and plan an itinerary that is realistic for your group’s level of backcountry experience and physical abilities to backpack in steep, mountainous terrain.
  • Do not leave any valuables in your car where they can be seen by others. Take them with you or hide them in your car.
  • If you have an emergency and have cell phone access, call 911. Be sure to tell the operator that you are in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, what trail you are on or what campsite/shelter you are at. If you are on a trail, giving the nearest trail intersection and your distance from it is very helpful. Be prepared to give the operator a thorough description of the problem. If you do not have cell phone access, send other hikers to get help.

The following factors often result in backcountry emergencies in the Smokies:

  • Failure to plan and prepare
  • Inadequate footwear, clothing, or equipment
  • Lack of skill or fitness level for type of terrain or outing
  • Impaired or poor judgement, sometimes induced by fatigue, exhaustion, or hypothermia
  • Failure to let family and/or friends know of your specific plans or route and date of return
  • Failure to keep your hiking party together

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