Hidden dangers lurking in the forest: When hiking, always look up

When hiking in Shenandoah National Park, including along the Appalachian Trail, one doesn’t often lump falling trees into the category of potential hazards. We keep an eye out for ticks, bears and venomous snakes, we take precautions against heat and hypothermia, and we are careful when crossing streams and navigating steep slopes.

Hikers encounter exposed tree roots on numerous popular hiking trails in Rappahannock, which are warning signs that trees aren’t stable. Photo by John McCaslin

But as Rappahannock property owners know all to well of late, falling trees or branches — as tragically seen last week along the AT in nearby Clarke County — are not only commonplace but potentially deadly, particularly given out extreme weather.

Like people, all trees are in varying degrees of health. The tree on August 21 that had a large branch break off and land on top of 72-year-old hiker Tae Sung Kim, killing the Northern Virginia man, was rotting.

Most trees at first glance will give some sign of deterioration — from cracks and cavities to decay and discoloration — so it’s always smart when pausing along wooded trails to check your immediate surroundings.

And be sure to look up. Broken limbs often lurk in trees, caught up in other branches and in many cases just teetering there.

But it’s what we don’t see that is most dangerous.

Tree roots — 90 percent of which are in the upper 18-24 inches of soil — weaken during heavy rains, and with the severely saturated ground of late in Rappahannock a toppling tree can prove deadly. Particularly when high winds slice through the mountains, as this county experienced earlier this year when thousands of otherwise healthy trees came crashing down. The taller the tree the more susceptible to winds.

Keep in mind that deciduous trees — oaks, maples and elms — have a greater lateral root spread, offering more support, whereas the roots of conifers — pines, cedars and firs — are more compact and fibrous.

Finally, exposed roots around the base of a tree are a sign of danger, adding to the hiking hazards.

About John McCaslin 403 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.