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6 ways to stay safe on LA region's hiking trails

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What should you do to avoid getting into trouble on a scenic mountain trail? Hiking safety expert Mike Leum gives his tips for staying safe.

There was sad news Wednesday for the Los Angeles hiking community. The body of Seuk "Sam" Doo Kim, famous for climbing Mount Baldy nearly 800 times, was found on the mountain. He was reported missing on Friday.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department was in charge of the search. Its spokesperson said that to lose such an experienced hiker was rare. Usually, rescue operations are sent out to find people who were ill-equipped for their outing.

Improvising a hiking route by going off-trail is a common reason hikers run into trouble on a mountain. Even the most experienced hikers can get turned around. Ultimately, sudden changes in weather and medical emergencies or injuries can happen to anyone. 

So, what should you do to avoid trouble on a mountain trail? And if you find yourself in an urgent situation, what can be done to maximize your chances of rescue?

Mike Leum is an expert in trail safety. He's the search and rescue group leader for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He joined Take Two's A Martinez to discuss his tips for staying safe on mountain trails. 

1. Make a plan for your hike and tell someone about it

Always, number one: have a plan. Have a plan as far as having enough time in the day. A lot of people might start too late in the day and they end up in the darkness. They're not ready for it and don't have a flashlight. So, it's always good to be conservative in your plan and in your estimation of your own ability. 

Tell someone a plan and stick to the plan. It's not going to do any good if you change your mind halfway up the mountain after you've already told someone you're going to go hike some other place.

Check out the LA County Parks and Recreation Department's trail information page to help choose your route. 

2. Have up-to-date information about where you're going

If you Google "LA Sheriff Hiking Plan," the very first thing that comes up is a two-page document that we designed specifically to help us find someone should they get lost. This is a two-page document that you could give to a loved one or family member. 

A lot of guidebooks are out of date. The most current information usually is found on social media. There's also websites you can go on to verify the trail status. But social media has caused a resurgence of interest in our local waterfalls and hiking areas. Before you go, it's always good to read reviews, and you'll get an idea of how difficult the trail is that way. 

The problems come when they post video of them jumping off a waterfall and, let's say, that video is three months old. Well now, that waterfall may be a trickle so that pool they jumped into could have been 10 feet deep. It's now 4 feet deep. So, people get hurt. 

You can also check for special alerts on your trail here

3. Bring a buddy

Ninety-five percent of people we go out looking for are men out by themselves. So that's a big problem, going out hiking by yourself. Because if someone's with you, they can assist you if you get hurt, or go for help. 

Local areas like in the Hollywood Hills or the Santa Monica Mountains, you could go running on trails that are very well established and well trafficked, so you wouldn't be out in the middle of nowhere necessarily. But I don't suggest that. 

4. Pack adequate supplies

There is a thing called the 10 Essentials. That's designed for keeping yourself warm, being able to signal a helicopter.... Basically, plan for the worst and just assume you may have to be out there overnight, which means taking some type of a jacket. Take enough food. There are millions of energy bars out there that could sustain you overnight. 

Because of the increased coverage areas that we have, we're able to send our subjects a text message from a search-and-rescue app. All they have to do is click on it, and we will get their exact location and GPS coordinates. And we find about 20 percent of our missing persons based on our cellphone technology.

But the bottom line is, if you're hiking along and you come across some snow, and you don't have an ice axe and you don't have crampons, turn around. Some people think that if they have it inside their pack and they think that's enough. But if you're not using it, it's not going to help you. 

LA County Sheriff's Department winter rescue
Courtesy of the LA County Sheriffs Department
LA County Sheriff's Department winter rescue

Just make sure to keep your phone off until you really need it because it will lose its battery quickly when looking for a signal.  And don't forget to bring enough water!

5. Don't wander off trail

One of the most difficult searches we get is a call for a missing hunter, because hunters do not follow trails, hunters follow game. Anyone going off-trail has just reduced their chances of us finding them. We are trained in tracking, so we will track people from their car into the forest. But once you go off trail, it becomes much more difficult. 

6. If you get lost or hurt, stay put

I always tell people all the time, if you're going to get lost, do it in Los Angeles County. Because in Los Angeles County, you're going to have rescue teams racing to find you. You're going to have the sheriff's Air Rescue 5 coming to look for you. You're going to have the Forest Service and you're probably going to have the fire department. You're going to have multiple agencies coming to look for you, so the best thing you can do is stay put. Don't try and find your way back thinking you might come across the trail, because that's likely not going to happen and you'll end up further and further into the forest. Staying put is the most important thing.

Creating some type of shelter to keep you warm, because hypothermia is the number one thing that is going to immediately impact you. Once you've done those things, make yourself visible from the air. Whether that's bright clothing, or taking some tree limbs and forming letters in the trail. Anything that is not naturally occurring will pop out to an air crew that's looking for you.

If you sprain an ankle, don't try and walk out with it. Stay put. And if you've done the things like having a plan and telling someone the plan, someone should be making a phone call once you're delayed in coming home.

Courtesy of the LA County Sheriffs Department rescue at altitude
Courtesy of the LA County Sheriffs Department
Courtesy of the LA County Sheriffs Department rescue at altitude

*Quotes edited for clarity*

And if you want to help out in your area, you can join your local Search and Rescue team.

LA County Sheriff Search and Rescue is looking for more volunteers
Courtesy of the LA County Sheriffs Department
LA County Sheriff Search and Rescue is looking for more volunteers

To listen to the full interview with Mike Leum, click on the blue Media Player above. 

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