A National Tragedy
On Thursday last week 25 graduating high school students went on a ‘get to know you’ hike with the pre-military school they planned to attend next year. Despite the bad weather, they were taken out to one of the narrow gorges (‘wadi’) in the desert, and when flash floods rushed down from hard rain in the hills above, 10 of them were killed. Friday and today (Sunday) the news is full of pictures of their funerals, crying friends and family, statements about the dead, and accusations of malfeasance on the part of the school which planned the trip.
This is a personal tragedy for the families involved, and a national tragedy for the country as we join them in their sadness. But this was also particularly tragic because it was so avoidable. This is not the first time in recent memory such an accident happened here, though this is by far the largest. Since torrential downpours like happened last week happen once or twice a year, but hot weather happens for long periods every year, the more common danger is from the heat. Nearly every summer young people die, or come close to it, by heading out into nature unprepared or unfit to deal with the heat.
As a licensed guide, my first responsibility is to keep you safe. Before having fun. Before being nice. Before sharing interesting stories. So here are a few tips to keep yourself safe if I’m not around, or even if I am!
Summer: Safety for Hot Weather
I’m addressing safety in hot weather first because this is the most common safety issue you are likely to face here. Anything above the mid 80s Fahrenheit (26-27 Celsius) should be considered hot weather, and if you’re going to be outside for more than an hour, think of it like a hike, even if you’ll be in the city! Here are five suggestions to stay safe in extreme heat.
1. Cover Up
The easiest way to stay cool is not by stripping down, but by covering up. For many people this is counter-intuitive, but the more of your skin is exposed to the sun the quicker your body temperature will rise. To keep the sun at bay wear a broad brimmed hat, long pants and a long sleeved shirt. Columbia and other sportswear brands have specialized clothes for this purpose, but anything light and loose fitting will work. The idea is that the fabric should not be tight to the skin. The space between the fabric and your skin will insulate you from the direct heat of the sun.
2. Take a ‘Crazy’ Amount of Water
For every hour you plan to be outside, bring a liter of water, and drink it. I know that sounds like overkill, and it weighs a ton, but it can absolutely make the difference between a fun day and a disaster. Make sure to stay hydrated before the hike starts. Once you start exerting yourself in the extreme heat you will sweat faster than your body can absorb water, so you want to start out nice and hydrated.
3. Follow Instructions and Seek Out Information
The national parks will let you know at the entrance what trails are ‘open’ and which are ‘closed’ on extremely hot days. There is usually nobody blocking the entrances. These are safety regulations. LISTEN TO THEM. If they say a trail is ‘closed,’ it means you would have to be stupid or suicidal to go on that trail in that weather. If you are going to a place where there is nobody to ask, you can get in touch. See the resources section at the bottom of this page about who to contact and how.
Also, make sure you know the length and difficulty of the hike before you start. Whether by hiring an experienced guide like me, or asking someone, or looking it up online. Be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into before you pack your bag for the trip.
4. Wear Sunscreen
It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many of my clients refuse to wear sunscreen. While under normal circumstances getting sunburnt may have long-term health consequences and be merely a bit unpleasant in the short term, while doing an outdoor activity in extreme heat a sunburn will reduce your body’s ability to regulate its temperature and cause you to heat up even faster. Of course, the more you follow number 1 above (“Cover Up”), the less sunscreen you’ll need!
5. Listen to Your Body and Take Regular Breaks, Don’t Forget to Drink, Stop in the Shade
When hiking or otherwise traveling with a group one often feels pressure to push themselves to keep up. After all, nobody wants to be the one holding the group back, right? Pushing oneself to achieve can be good, but in extreme conditions it can also be outright dangerous, both to you and to others in your group who will have to take care of you if you overdo it. Be cautious and reasonable. Don’t be a hero. When you’re starting to feel overheated, find a shady spot and stop for a break. Yes, if at all possible, stop in the shade, even if it means pushing forward a bit longer. Take breaks regularly and at the very least drink EVERY TIME YOU STOP! I wear a ‘Camelbak’ when I’m out and sip on it regularly as I’m walking as well. I highly recommend this method, as you absorb more liquid by taking small sips continuously than drinking large quantities all at once.
Winter Weather Hazards
There is one major hazzard to keep in mind in Israel in the winter. Most of the trails in Israel’s deserts go through narrow gorges, ‘wadis‘, which are dry most of the year and flash flood only when it rains. There may be a flood even in a place where it is not raining, because further uphill it is raining. One of the most common places for this to happen is in the Jordan valley near the Dead Sea, where rain in Jerusalem in the hills above will result in flash floods beneath the blue skies above the desert. It is not uncommon for rocks as large as a bus to be picked up and thrown down the gorge. This is the type of event that killed ten kids last week.
1. Check the Weather
Be aware that if you are hiking in a narrow gorge, and rain is called for, even if not in your exact location, you may be in danger. If the weather calls for rain, skip it. If you’re unsure, see the resources section below and get in touch with someone who can advise you.
2. Don’t Be a Hero
If you’re unsure, skip it. It’s not worth getting killed or endangering others.
But What About Terrorism?
Honestly, you are much more likely to be in danger from normal, everyday things like weather or bad drivers than from violence that is part of ‘the conflict.’ There are, however, some areas that are less safe than others, and if you’re unsure and would like some advice ask a local. Just like knowing what neighborhoods back home you wouldn’t want to park your car, you need someone with local knowledge to know where you may be less than fully welcome, and where you can go without worrying. I plan to address this more in-depth in a future post. In the meantime feel free to write to me with any questions.
Unfortunately there is no central source of information available to the public to check conditions for outdoor activities around the country. So for now you’ll need to:
- Check the weather
- If still unsure, call one of the resources listed below. I can’t promise there will be an English speaker on the other end, so do this with someone at hand who can translate for you. The concierge at a hotel, or someone friendly at the corner cafe will more than likely be happy to help. Don’t be shy!
- Keep in mind that both of the resources below keep regular work hours in their offices, so plan ahead and call during the workday. Don’t wait until 9pm the night before your 7am departure to get in touch.
The National Parks Authority Website lists phone numbers for all the national parks. If you follow THIS LINK you can find the park you are going to, or the park closest to the location you are going to on the map and call them. They will be able to tell you what trails are open or closed and what they recommend. They will not have definitive information on trails outside the parks, but you can get a feel for conditions in the area, and if you want more specific information for an area which is NOT in a national park, see below.
Field Schools, run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, are the closest thing we have here to ranger stations. They are essentially simple, clean, inexpensive accomodations in or next to places where people like to go to enjoy nature. They have staff on hand to help hikers plan their routes and give advice. If you follow THIS LINK to their English website you can find the field school in the area of the country you are going to and contact them by phone. Again, I can’t promise you’ll find an English speaker, so have someone on hand to help if necessary!
Ultimately, all the advice above comes down to a few key points, which I’ll summarize here:
- Think ahead. Know what you’re getting into and if you don’t know, then seek out that information.
- Caution is the better part of valor. Don’t risk your safety so you can cross that trail off your list.
- Seek help. Don’t be shy to ask locals for information. If there’s one thing Israelis love, it’s telling you what you should do!
Of course the easiest way to stay safe is to hire an experienced guide who knows the area and can give you all the relevant information. For that, you can fill out my booking form, and in any case stay safe and happy trails!