Waves, currents, and tides threaten thousands of miles of American
trails (any within a quarter of a mile of a waterway), and hikers can get caught in the barrage. Headland-sculpting, beach-pounding waves can swallow an unwary trekker without so much as a burp. Learn how to recognize, negotiate, and avoid nearshore hazards
NAVIGATE A HEADLAND Scramble over or skirt around? Here’s how to pass rocky points.
>> Calculate water levels. Tide charts show the approximate time and level of each high and low, which change daily. Note that chart accuracy is also affected by your distance from the nearest data-collection point; check with rangers to see if there’s an offset for your hiking area. Beware of storms, which can negate tidal predictions and eliminate or dramatically change the timing of extremes. >> Follow the tide out. Start rounding a headland before low tide, following the water as it recedes. Head to safety above the tide line quickly after rounding the point. Move cautiously; rocks will be slick. >> Consult your coastal map. Promontories marked “Caution +3,” for example, become unsafe to skirt when tides rise three feet above the average daily low (“0” on your tide chart). Headlands marked “Danger” are always dangerous or impassable via the beach or shoreline, even at extreme low tides. >> Identify danger zones. Weathered headland edges (A) may be slick, beaches (B) sometimes disappear completely at high tide, surf-zone debris (C) can shift in waves, and rip currents often form where streams meet surf (D). Stick to trails on headlands, stay clear of beached debris, camp well above the tide line, and cross nearshore streams during outgoing tides. >> When in doubt, take the high road. Many coastal trails have inland routes allowing passage over headlands no matter what the tide. Be careful on cliffy routes, which are often slick and may be washed out. Test existing ladders or standing ropes before using.