Friday night my girlfriend, Trouble, and I packed up camp at 2:00 am and left the forest behind. We hadn’t walked a single mile on trail. The weather was pristine. No bears chased us away. Instead, we left because I could not feel good about the safety of our car, and us as people who need that car. Let me back up.
We arrived at the Johns Mountain WMA in NW GA around sunset on Friday afternoon. We planned to hike about twelve miles on the Pinhoti Trail over the weekend, from John’s Mountain to Snake Creek Gap. I felt comfortable bringing her here for her first real overnighter since not only have I hiked the Pinhoti in its entirety, but I had also camped on top of John’s Mountain many times. So, we walked down the John’s Mountain trail, a loop spurring off the Pinhoti, maybe 200 yards, set up camp, and chatted until we got sleepy.
At 1:30am, I woke up to what I thought was, in my half-asleep state, drums. I leaned up in my hammock and peered toward the sound. There I saw headlights illuminating my car at the overlook parking lot. Over the next minute I heard car doors open and close six or eight times before red taillights disappeared in the distance. All I could think was, “a little odd to look up at the stars for only a few seconds.” Struck with suspicion, I put on my headlamp, called Atlas (my Aussie), and told Trouble I needed to go check on the car.
I switched my headlamp from red to spot as I stepped out of the treeline. All looked normal until I got closer. There I saw my driver’s side back window had been jimmied and pulled down about six inches, leaving the handprints of the burglar behind. I checked for other damage, or anything stolen, but there wasn’t anything missing. I’ve always heard not to leave anything valuable in your car at a trailhead, so I don’t. But all my doors were now unlocked (I made sure it was locked before we left) and nefarious touches had disturbed the fresh dirt-road dust all over my car.
Time to bail. I walked back, told Trouble about the break in, and we promptly packed up. I was not going to risk losing my car or my catalytic converter if they came back. I desperately wanted to get her through her first overnighter, but it was not worth the risk. They might have never come back. Still not worth it. I’ve seen “The Hills Have Eyes.” Pass.
While my most recent bail, this isn’t even close to the first time I’ve left nature behind for safety:
- 2014 – Pinhoti Trail – Late April storm line tore through the Midwest US, so I left trail the next day just before tornadoes ripped through Georgia. I also bailed on a later section when the water reports were all bad two days straight (water + heat can be tough on the Pinhoti in June). Deliriously hitched out and came back the next week after some rain.
- Spring 2017 – Coosa Backcountry Loop near Vogel State Park GA – Weather report showed high tornado risk, so I switched to staying at a tent site in the park near a concrete structure. Hiked a shorter trail the next day.
- 2019 – Panther Creek Trail – High fast water made me uncomfortable fording alone, so I left and hiked elsewhere.
- 2022 – Cloudland Canyon State Park – Trouble and I went car camping/day hiking with our backpacking gear so she could get used to her new stuff. A cold snap pushed it to 30 degrees, and she could not stay warm. We were prepared to sleep in that, but not walk in it, so we left after one day instead of staying for the weekend.
That’s just four, though it’s closer to ten in reality. What are the other bails? Tornadoes. I live in Georgia, so of course it’s tornadoes. If the tornado risk is more than mild, I hike out. I’ve done enough trail maintenance to never be comfortable sleeping under trees in anything worse rough thunderstorms.
Now, you can’t bail every time you get a funny feeling, or you’d never get anywhere. So where do you draw a line in the sand? When a situation on trail looks to be going south, you have to take a second to do a risk assessment. Notice I didn’t say, “when something goes wrong.” At that point, it too late and you need to take care of your immediate safety first. We’re talking hours to days ahead here, when you still have the option to bail out and leave the trail. Anything shorter is probably an emergency or urgent situation, which needs to be addressed in better specifics than I will provide in this post.
Unfortunately, risk is not straight forward, but you can break it down into a few questions:
- Have I been through this before?
- Am I equipped to handle this situation?
- If I don’t leave, am I unreasonably risking my life, health, or a search-and-rescue event?
Asking yourself about your previous experience gives you a better position in deciding whether or not to push on. If your gut says keep going, but you have no idea what is about to happen, your ignorance can be your downfall. I see this every year at Kennesaw Mountain when city folks climb what I assume is their first hill ever on a hot summer day in a brand-new REI getup, only to be carted down trail on an ATV with a heat injury. This is not hyperbole; I called the park service up for a man with nice boots but no water just two years ago. He wanted badly to top that mountain, but didn’t know he could get dangerously hot, especially without water. Temper your resolve with your experience. If you have no experience with a weather condition, trail feature, animal, whatever, temper it even harder. If you have no experience, go with a friend. There are also great references to get started backpacking like PMag’s book, “How to Survive Your First Trip in the Wild: Backpacking for Beginners.” Highly recommend, and right now it’s free with Kindle Unlimited.
Being properly equipped is simple if you are honest with yourself. If the forecast shows -5 degrees and you have a 50-degree sleeping bag, bail. Don’t tell yourself, “I was just a little chilly at 40 degrees and I can put on my puffy jacket.” Get off the trail before you generate a search-and-rescue event, or worse.
The “unreasonably” in that last question is poignant. Are you risking your life to some degree every time you get on trail? Yes, but it’s a normal risk of hiking. On the other hand, an April blizzard two days out the southern side of the Appalachian Trail is not a normal risk. This actually happened in 1992, and there were almost definitely folks on the AT. Also, when you risk your life, you risk the lives of the search-and-rescue (SAR) folks who come to save you. Don’t be that person if you can help it. We understand a trail rock turning over leading to a broken leg, but don’t be the guy on a fourteen-mile day-hike without a headlamp who needs SAR to bring them a flashlight before leading the unequipped hiker back to the trailhead. You don’t want that SAR bill either, and in many places whether or not you pay for it comes down SAR/a judge determining if you were negligent. I’ll expand on that another time.
I really don’t like to bail. It pisses me off every time, especially when the storms roll through, and they turn out not to be so bad or when it’s my fault for being improperly equipped. I don’t mind a little thunder and lightning. What if I stayed? I could have finished blah or summitted mount blank. But, what if I didn’t? There are people who care about my life and health. I’m one of them!
So, again, when you see trouble brewing down the trail, lay your ego down and ask yourself: “Have I done this before? Am I equipped for this? And, am I risking my life or others lives?” I didn’t like my answers to those questions when our car was broken into at the trailhead. Hopefully the same questions can help you avoid some tough or dangerous situations.
If you made it this far, I hope you enjoyed the read. Do me a favor and click the like button below. Feel free to join in the conversations with a comment or question below as well.
Also, I’m working on a Trouble on Trail video on our Youtube channel with footage from that night on John’s Mountain. You can find our channel here.