Hiking Safely In Hunting Season

Which hiker would you rather be during deer season? This one… (Susan Marean photo)

One refrain we commonly hear is “I love hiking in October and November, but I’m afraid to go into the woods with all those hunters and guns out there.” On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable concern, particularly since the media reports tend to dramatize the bad news, but not provide any statistics on how safe it really is…or, how to make it even safer.

So, in the interest of getting you out of your chair nd onto the hiking trails, here’s a quick reality check: First, we offer a quote from the University of Utah Medical School site; for the record, this is NOT a pro-firearms, pro-hunting organization, but rather a site that provides information in a factual, clear manner.

“Hunting accidents with firearms, despite the large gun ownership in the U.S. and numerous game seasons in most states, remain relatively rare and do not appear to be increasing. (Huiras, et al, 1990) A study in Sweden indicated a rate of 0.074/100,000 and that, when hunting big game, most accidents resulted from a mistaken target. When hunting small game, accidents occurred most frequently as a result of mishandling the gun. Hunting accidents did not increase with increasing gun ownership or numbers of hunters. (Ornehult and Eriksson, 1987)” 

For more information, here’s a link to their website:


…or this one? (Susan Marean photo)

In other words, not only are accidents rare, they generally happen to the hunters and their companions. Even organizations such as “The Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting”, which could hardly be called unbiased, was only able to find a total number of accidents nationwide in 2004-2005 of 333 (http://www.all-creatures.org/cash/taah-sh-20060302.html). That includes self-inflicted wounds, falls from treestands, and one hunter shooting another in the same party. Of those accidents, 135 were fatal, and many of those fatalities were not shooting related.

Translation:  you’re a lot safer in the woods than you are in your car. Or, for that matter, in your bathtub…in 2000 alone, 341 people died nationwide from falling into their tubs, or just plain drowning in them (http://danger.mongabay.com/injury_death.htm). Particularly given that most of those accidents happen to the hunters themselves, there’s simply no reason, statistically, to not get out and hike during hunting season!

Still don’t believe us? Well, here’s a little more research. Let’s take Vermont as an example. It’s a small state, but with 80,000 licensed hunters afield in 2009 they had five shooting accidents. All were within the same hunting party–in other words, one hunter mistakenly shooting another. Most significantly, none of the people shot were wearing hunter orange. By the way, three of the five shooting accidents were during spring turkey hunting season, not in the fall.

With hunter orange clothing, you can feel safe enjoying the beautiful fall weather and views (Tim Jones photo)

Since 2000,  New Hampshire has  had an average of 3.1 “incidents” per year. Serious incidents are even rarer – a total of four hunting-related fatalities have occurred in the state in the last 15 years. And, if you back out the self-inflicted shootings, and the cases of one hunter accidentally shooting another in the same hunting group, incidents are so rare as to be statistically non-existent.  The “mistaken for game” incidents that most people fear, where a hunter thinks an  innocent passer-by is an animal, are the rarest of all.

The last one in Vermont was in 2005. No one could remember the last one in New Hampshire. In Maine, there was a famous one that still gets talked about…in 1988.  And the victim wasn’t hiking.

These stories make news: ask yourself when was the last time you heard of one?

Now, while the odds of any hunting-related injury to a non-hunter hiking are miniscule, there’s still no reason to not reduce them more by wearing fluorescent hunter orange (sometimes called “blaze orange” or “safety orange”). Anyone who has been in the woods in the fall knows that you can see someone wearing blaze from a LONG distance away. Since you want to make as sure as possible that hunters know you’re there, it’s a simple matter to wear decent amounts of fluorescent orange on your upper body and head, where it’s most visible.

Here’s why orange works to reduce accidents: Hunters are looking for game, and sometimes the human brain can put together pieces of a puzzle to see something that isn’t there. A horizontal movement glimpsed through brush suddenly looks like a deer. Blaze orange instantly stops that process. It doesn’t belong in the picture. Especially early and late in the day, fluorescent orange shines like a beacon, proclaiming to all the world that there’s a human being out there. Orange also makes you easier to find if you get lost or hurt . . .not a bad idea at any time of the year!

The wide-open mesh of the Bean Ventilated Cap makes it both comfortable and visible (David Shedd photo)

The problem, however, is that most hunter orange clothing is designed for hunters…and hunters typically do a lot of sitting still, especially early and late in the day. So, most of hunter orange clothing is relatively thick, insulated, not the right stuff for an active hiker trying to cover distance with a backpack. On warm fall days, it’s way too easy to turn into a clammy sweatball.

Now, one solution is  a lightweight vest that goes over your regular clothing. Particularly in the fall, when it tends to be cooler, that’s a great option. However, the vests aren’t typically well-built apparel; they’re inexpensive, functional, and geared more toward highway workers than hikers.

We decided to look around and see what we could find in safe, bright, hunter oranget hat would meet the needs of hikers. To do that, we had to look beyond the familiar realms of EMS, REI, Campmor, etc.; in other words, beyond the typical place where backpackers and hikers look for clothing options. Instead, we went into the hunters’ world to see if anyone had produced anything that  worked as a crossover product.

And, kudos to L.L. Bean…they came through with flying (orange) colors!  That’s not a huge surprise, if you think about it; they’re the atypical company that has a large following in both hunting and general outdoors. While they had the usual heavily insulated hunting gear, they also had three products that surprised and pleased us as hikers.

First is the Ventilated Upland Cap. Made to meet the needs of hunters in earlier seasons, it’s a baseball-style cap made of a wonderfully lightweight, open mesh.  Comfortable even in warm weather, it’s a great way to keep orange on the most visible part of you. At $19.95, it’s a cheap way to add a significant level of safety to your hikes.

The light weight and excellent ventilation of the Bean Ventilated Upland shirt made for a comfortable day of fall hiking (Tim Jones photo)

For people who want more orange coverage, there’s the Ventilated Upland Shirt (do you sense a theme here?).  For $45, this is a shirt you may want to consider buying in other colors as well; it’s that good. Exceptionally light and breathable, it has front zipper pockets that open to mesh to allow air to flow directly through. Because of the design of the pockets, they won’t get in the way of your backpack’s shoulder straps, either. The material, though light and breathable, has an SPF rating of 50+; for people who are extremely sunsensitive, this may be a great shirt for summer, too. The cut is attractive enough to wear as an around-town shirt (as long as you’ve also gotten one of the non-orange versions!)

It’s hard for anyone to mistake an orange hiker for anything else (Susan Marean photo)

Finally, there’s the problem of backpacks. Why buy a nice orange shirt, and then cover much of it with a large, dark-colored daypack?  The reality is that you’ll still have a substantial amount of orange showing, particularly if you wear a hat, but for anyone who wants to make really sure they’re seen, there’s the Basic Hunter’s Day Pack. This is orange on a major-league scale; there’s a lot of it, and it’s bright. And, for $50, it’s a surprisingly functional piece of hiking gear. It’s 1800 cu. in., has a top pocket, two fairly large removable side pockets, and good shoulder straps and a decent waistbelt, plus a handy internal zipper pocket for your keys and several attachment points on the exterior. We stuffed about 15 pounds into it and used it for a while; it was comfortable with that weight, as long as you paid attention to what was against your back (no internal frame or sheet to protect you from hard edges).

One minor weakness: it doesn’t have any provisions for a hydration bladder.  However, we “Frankensteined” it with a 1 liter Platypus Hoser bladder in the left hand pocket (a tight fit, but workable), ran the hose under the top pocket, and through a loop in the sternum strap.  Presto…instant hydration! Rigged like that, it was a perfectly adequate daypack.

Obviously, there are other products out there that may work as well or better for your personal needs. If you have a backpack you like already, tie a few strips of orange surveyor’s ribbon (available in any hardware store)  to it. Or drape it with a fluorescent orange bandana (you have to carry a bandana anyway . . ). The main point is that you CAN get out in the fall, and be safe, comfortable, and highly visible.  There’s no rational reason to miss the best hiking season of the year…get your orange on, and get out there!


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