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
READ THE SURF Anticipate wave behavior to scramble, wade, and swim with more confidence.
>> Find the set. Big waves typically arrive in distinct sets of five to eight regularly spaced swells with as much as 30 minutes between sets. Before hopping into the water, count the waves in a set and time the interval between sets. Those numbers stay generally consistent for several hours so you can loosely forecast breakers. >> Expect change. The largest waves in a set may be five times larger than the smallest ones. “Don’t begin navigating a dangerous stretch of coastline or just drop your pack and run straight into the water for a swim thinking that what you see right away is what you’re going to get a minute–or 20 minutes–from now,” says Captain Lance Dempsey, a lifeguard for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. >> Time your moves. Big surf strengthens rip, longshore, and undertow currents. Avoid being swept off your feet: Time your swimming or wading to avoid being in the surf zone when a set is approaching and wait for an entire set to pass before crossing beach streams or rounding points.