People wonder how safe trails in Hawaii are. The fact is, whether a Hawaiian trail is rated for beginner, intermediate or advanced hikers, the route is as safe as the people who hike them. In other words, a hiker with a high fitness level and plenty of backcountry experience can get hurt on a trail rated as novice if he is careless or inattentive. On the other hand, a hiker can traverse a higher rated trail without incident if he negotiates it in a focused, careful manner and practices hiking safety.
People also wonder how hikers and backpackers can get lost on trails in Hawaii. After all, the Hawaiian Islands aren’t so big. If a hiker is lost, it’s just a simple matter of heading for the ocean or finding a stream and following it back to lower elevations, right?
It’s not so simple. And anyone who has hiked Hawaii trails with regularity can tell you that getting lost, or more accurately, getting into trouble on trails in the Islands can and does happen.
So what’s the deal?
What happens in some cases is that people underestimate the ruggedness of the terrain. Many of Hawaii’s trails are steep, muddy, and overgrown with vegetation. Some traverse sheer, precipitous ridge sections. For visitors to the islands who are used to well-groomed and sidewalk-like trails found in many areas of the continental United States and in Europe, or for neophyte hikers who do not realize what they are getting themselves into, Hawaii trails can be very challenging and potentially life-threatening.
Two Danish hikers found this to be true in 1999, when they hiked into what they thought was a seemingly safe and mundane trail in Kahana Valley on Oahu, only to find themselves climbing to a high peak called Ohulehule, where they decided not to chance a descent due to dangerous conditions. Stranded for eight days, the hikers were later found cold and hungry but alive by members of the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club, who were assisting in a massive search and rescue operation.
In other cases, hikers become disoriented. Apparently, such was the case of Wade Johnson, a Brigham Young University-Hawaii student who in 1995 set out to hike the rugged and remote Ko’olau Summit Trail on Oahu. He was never found even after an intensive search, but clues found seem to indicate that he had gotten lost and wondered off his intended route.
Another case of a lost hiker who vanished was Robert LeFevre, who in 2000 was last seen hiking on the Wahiawa Hills Trail on Oahu and was never found, again after a large-scale search effort.
What might have happened to these hikers, as well as others who went hiking but never turned up? It is possible that they fell off the trail they were hiking and were hurt. As veteran Hawaii hikers will tell you, a person can be just a few feet off the trail but go undetected due to the dense nature of vegetation along mountain footpaths. If such were the case for hikers like Johnson and LeFevre, they might have been incapacitated yet alive, only to die after prolonged exposure or due to untreated injuries.
We may never know their fate.
So it is possible to get lost on Hawaii Trails. And the best way to prevent this is to follow simple hiking safety procedures such as the following:
1. Hike with someone else (both Johnson and LeFevre were hiking alone). If one gets hurt, the other can assist and/or summon help.
2. Have information about the trail you are hiking. A good guide book is written by Stuart Ball. Get a copy and carry it with you.
3. Leave a hiking plan (starting place and time, intended end time and destination) with someone who is not hiking with you. For example, leave a voice mail
with a friend or family member or leave a note or message with the front desk of your hotel.
4. Bring a cell phone to call for help if you need it.
5. Wear good shoes with tread. Many trails are uneven and slippery.
6. Also, know that Hawaii’s trails can be rugged, so assess your fitness level practice good hiking safety and have a memorable time rather than a nightmarish time.
In all, have a safe time hiking in Hawaii. While the chances of getting lost and in trouble are small, incidents can and do happen, so be prepared.