Fall is my favorite hiking season, with one major drawback: it’s also hunting season. I don’t have a problem sharing the woods with sportsmen, as long as they hunt responsibly, but being around flying bullets does tend to put me on edge, especially with two dogs who look a lot like black bears.
Hunting season doesn’t mean you have to stay home, but it is important to take some precautions before you hit the trail.
First, check the rules for your area. Generally, archery season starts in October and gun season starts in mid-November and runs through January, but seasons varies from state to state and location to location. The calendar for southern Virginia, where I’m currently living and doing most of my hiking:
• Archery bear season: 10/6 thru 11/16 (statewide)
• Muzzleloader bear season: 11/10 thru 11/16 (statewide)
• Firearm bear season: 11/26 thru 1/5 (varies by county)
• Archery deer season: 1o/6 thru 11/16 and 12/3 thru 1/5 (statewide)
• Muzzleloader deer season: 11/3 thru 11/16 and 12/15 thru 1/5 (statewide)
• Firearm deer season: 11/17 thru 12/1 (varies by county)
• Archery turkey season: 10/6 thru 11/10 (statewide)
• Firearms turkey season: 10/27 thru 1/26 (varies by county)
Confusing, right? To be on the safe side, I consider hunting season to run from early October until mid-January.
The single most important precaution you can take during hunting season is to make sure you are visible by wearing bright, blaze orange. Your orange should be visible 360° around your body, from all angles. I have a blaze orange jacket and a bright orange backpack specifically for fall hiking. You can buy cheap blaze orange vests at any store that sells hiking gear or sporting goods. Target has them for $5. Blaze orange hats are good too. Around Halloween, a lot of places sell bright orange trash bags that you can use as pack covers. Also try to avoid wearing brown or white gloves or socks that might be mistaken for the flash of a deer’s tail.
Dogs should be outfitted with a blaze orange collar, scarf or vest. If your dog runs around off trail or chases game, keep it on a leash. In fact, you should both stay on the trail; hunting season is not the time for bushwhacking. Most trails are considered safe corridors and hunters are supposed to refrain from shooting on or near established footpaths.
I’ve heard a few horror stories about hikers being bullied by hunters. I was once told quite rudely that I had no business being in the woods if I wasn’t carrying a license and a gun. That’s bullshit, but I don’t argue with people who are armed. If you run into a jerk, remove yourself from the situation as quickly and neutrally as possible. Conversely, it’s also illegal to harass hunters or interfere with their quarries. Public lands are for everybody and we all need to get along out there. Be smart, be safe, be visible, and be nice.
Every now and then hikers do take a bullet. In 2002 and 2003, two hikers were shot in separate incidents on the Appalachian Trail. Neither hiker was wearing blaze orange and both hunters admitted they hadn’t clearly identified their targets. Both hikers lived and both hunters were prosecuted. Overall, however, hunting accidents involving hikers are rare; most incidents involve self-inflicted wounds or one hunter shooting another.
Still nervous? You can always hike in a place that doesn’t allow hunting at all. Most National Parks are hunt-free (always check before you go), many state parks have limited hunts and 11 states – Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia – ban hunting on Sundays.
For more information on hunting in your area, visit your state’s Fish & Game department website. Some additional hiking safety resources: the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and Appalachian Mountain Club. Curious about my feelings on guns? Check out my previous post Into the Ojito Wilderness.