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
ESCAPE RIP CURRENTS Keep calm, shed your pack, and survive.
>> Spot trouble. Rips are circular currents that create narrow jets of water rushing offshore through the surf, and they can form anywhere waves are breaking, including lakes. Look for a band of churning water, a line of debris washing seaward, or plumes of foam projecting beyond the surf. >> Don’t struggle. A typical rip moving at one meter per second will quickly exhaust you. Don’t try to swim straight back to shore. >> Relax and float. Ditch your pack. Then, assuming no other hazards are present (freezing cold, pounding waves), tread water to keep your head afloat. Most rips will return you to shallow water within five minutes. >> When necessary, swim parallel. In about 10 to 20 percent of cases, a rip will pull you outside the surf zone instead of returning you to shore. In that case, after drifting beyond the breakers, swim parallel to the beach (shown), then make your way toward shore at an angle. You can also swim parallel in the surf zone to escape a rip that’s dragging you toward other hazards. If swimming one direction is a struggle, go the other way. >> Brave breakers safely. When approaching land, be alert for crashing surf, which can swamp and disorient you. If turbulence knocks you off your feet, prepare to hit bottom; grasp your head, pull your elbows in, and hold that tuck-and-roll position until you can find your footing again. Instead of fighting your way through the surf zone, “let the whitewater push you toward shore,” says Dempsey.