Ask an Expert: A Retired Forest Ranger Debunks Some Wilderness Whoppers

by | Guide to the Great Outdoors 2022, Recreation

illustration by Gwen Jamison Vogel

Scott van Laer, a recently retired Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger, knows a thing or two about how to safely recreate outdoors. After three decades working to protect the environment while educating, rescuing and recovering folks, first in the Catskills and then in the Adirondacks, he’s an expert and then some. These days he shares his knowledge as director of the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (www.paulsmithsvic.org). He was gracious enough to chat with Adirondack Life about common questions—and myths—that arise when playing in the great outdoors.    

Does peeing around your campsite keep wildlife away?

If anything it might be the inverse—when animals mark their territory, that’s a boundary, so other predators might urinate adjacent to it. But urinating around your sleeping area is completely unnecessary. People should take other precautions to keep animals away, such as cooking and then storing their food away from where they camp, preferably in a bear canister.

But what if you do encounter a bear?

Consider it a wonderful wildlife-viewing opportunity. Black bears that are not habituated to humans will quickly leave at the scent of one. However, in areas where humans have gone in extensively and regularly to bear country, such as the eastern High Peaks, we’ve created a human problem, not a bear problem. Bears recognize humans as a food source—not the people themselves, but the food they carry. Because enough people improperly cook and store food, bears lose their fear of humans and can be dangerous. Every couple of years the DEC has to euthanize bears for this reason. By following backwoods protocol, you make it safer for humans and you protect black bears. But if you do have a problem with a bear, make noise and look big. And don’t waste your money on bear bells—all they do is tell other humans that you’re there. Better to enjoy the silence of the wilderness.

Is it safe to hike alone?

For most adventures it’s not dangerous to solo hike. People should select adventures that fit their skill level with a real honest risk assessment. Remember that anything you do outside has risk, primarily if you get into trouble. There’s no such thing as a quick McRescue. Think about how long it took you to get where you are, double that time and that’s how long it will take rangers to reach you. Basic things you should always do include leaving an itinerary with someone else that includes where you’re going, where and when you anticipate to be at specific locations, and most importantly, a time by which, if you have not made contact, to notify the DEC.

Does the DEC check trail register books at the end of each day?

No. You are in a backcountry setting. The wilderness, trailheads and Forest Preserve are not like Whiteface Mountain, where ski patrol does a sweep of the trails at the end of the day. However, trail register data is extremely important if something does happen—perhaps the person you left your itinerary with calls and says you did not come out of the woods when you said you would. Then rangers will go to the trailhead and they’ll know right then and there if you did sign in and out.

Is it a bad idea to drink from a stream or pond? Couldn’t you get beaver fever?

One time, back in the 1990s, we had a search for someone who was lost on Giant. They took shelter and waited for rescue. When we found them, high on the slopes of the mountain next to a brook, they were very proud that they knew not to drink that water and instead drank their own urine. Don’t do that. It might take up to a week for symptoms to come on from anything you may get from water. And the truth is that high mountain brooks—unlike low-country beaver ponds—are pretty good sources of water. It is important for hikers to purify their water, but it is more important to be well hydrated and deal with other consequences later. 

Does cotton really kill?

I see a lot of blue jeans on the trail, even in winter. I think it’s just in people’s mindset that jeans are rugged—they don’t realize that they’re wearing a sponge for pants. I can tell how long they’ve been on the trail just by how much moisture permeated from their ankles to their knees, because of the cotton’s capillary action. People really need to have breathable clothing, such as synthetics or wool, otherwise they’re at risk of getting hypothermia. Nowadays, synthetics are very inexpensive and readily available. It’s critical to dress in layers so you can shed and add: a wicking shirt, a long-sleeved shell, thermal long johns in varying degrees and a pair of nylon rain pants will cover most of your outdoor needs. That combo is probably cheaper than a pair of jeans.

Is lightning the most dangerous weather event in the Adirondacks?

A bigger weather threat here is the wind. People don’t always recognize dangerous trees around their campsite and we’ve had campers die from treefall. At designated sites, the DEC monitors these things and will close down potentially hazardous sites. But when at-large camping, it’s the camper’s responsibility to look up. If a tree is dead—look for woodpecker holes and rot—it might fall. Trees are good to block the wind, but only if they’re alive.

Is it true that cell phones have no place in the wilderness?

Bring your cell phone. Phones are great and they’re only going to continue to improve. They’re also responsible for greater reports in backcountry incidences—in emergencies people can call quicker and get located faster. But keep in mind that a phone isn’t a Swiss Army knife. Yes, it has functions like a flashlight, GPS and a compass, but it requires electricity and a signal. It’s not going to work in a lot of places. If you’re going into the backcountry you still need a flashlight and a paper map and magnetic compass and to know how to use them.

I’m going hiking this weekend. Should I buy new hiking boots?

You definitely want time to break in a new pair of hiking boots. I’ve seen people’s feet that look eaten alive. And if you’re on the trail and your feet are in bad shape, there’s no quick treatment other than getting off your feet. Once your boots are broken in, keep in mind that there are no long-term waterproof boots—they’ll need to be treated and re-treated to repel water. When choosing a boot, my preference is a heavy boot that protects toes against rocky trails and gives more rigid support to ankles, especially if you’re going to carry a load on your back.


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