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
SPOT HIDDEN HAZARDS Avoid these common–but hard-to-identify–nearshore and trailside dangers.
DANGER ZONE: Underwater drop-offs HAZARDS: Waves that break twice as they reach shore may be hitting a drop-off that hides fast currents and cold water. SAFETY TIPS: Unfasten your pack’s hipbelt while wading. If you can’t see your feet, use a trekking pole to test surfaces, and step cautiously.
DANGER ZONE: Rocky points and jetties HAZARDS: Longshore currents, which run parallel to the beach, may bounce off of these obstacles and shoot seaward, forming a permanent rip current. SAFETY TIPS: Swim and wade at least 100 feet away from promontories, and look toward an onshore landmark often to ensure you’re not drifting downshore or toward danger.
DANGER ZONE: Intertidal zone HAZARDS: Slick, ankle-turning rocks, foot-trapping boulders, and shoe-sucking tideflat mud are exposed during low tide. SAFETY TIPS: Scout intertidal zones with partners, use caution on unstable beach surfaces, and carry a trekking pole for digging or to use as a crutch.
DANGER ZONE: Surge channels HAZARDS: These narrow canyons amplify surf. Water shoots in and out at high velocity, sweeping trees, packs, and unlucky hikers out to sea. SAFETY TIPS: Discuss known channels and crossing strategies with a ranger before hitting the trail. When in doubt, or if tides are high, make an inland detour around the channel.
DANGER ZONE: Undertows HAZARDS: On steep beaches, waves crest and collapse quickly and powerfully, creating a backwash that can trap you in (and under) the water. SAFETY TIPS: Stay away from encroaching waves and above wet sand on steep beaches. Use caution crossing coastal streams, which also create undertows.