The beauty of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore can be so calming and soothing, so maternal and gentle, that you might easily forget that nature isn’t always harmless. “Incidents” on park trails are very rare. I have never once, in my countless times hiking through this region, had a frightening incident or even felt unsafe at all. So I don’t want to overstate the risk – get out there and enjoy yourselves! But it’s nature, and it’s life, so things happen, and taking basic precautions is always a prudent idea. Here’s a list of tips for trail safety that I hope you’ll find helpful! 

By Paul Baumbusch | Trail Genius

1. Take a friend, or at least tell someone where you’re going.  Empire Bluffs

It’s always safer to go hiking with a buddy. That said, sometimes you want to venture out on your own. I savor the solitude of a solo hike. But it’s a good idea to tell someone where you’re going. Just in case. You can also use your smartphone to pin your location and share it. When I tell my roommates I’m going hiking, I make sure to mention where, because for all they know I could be at Empire Bluffs, Pyramid Point, Windy Morraine, the Cottonwood Trail…anywhere.  

2. Take these things with you… Otter Creek Loop

You may be tempted to hike without a backpack. I’ve been guilty of it. And on short hikes you might not need one. But if you’re hiking for several miles, such as on the Otter Creek Loop, you’re probably going to wish you’d brought some stuff with you. Here’s what I bring. Bug spray (which can help ward off ticks…more on that in a moment). Sunscreen. Plenty of water. A snack. Sunglasses, which can protect your eyes from the bright glare of the sun on Lake Michigan. And a fully-charged smartphone. Here’s what I don’t always bring, which I should be bringing every time! A first-aid kit. A knife with multiple tools. And a map and compass, in case the smartphone battery dies or you don’t have cell service.

3. Invest in some serious waterproof hiking shoes.  Sleeping Bear Dunes

A friend of mine wouldn’t take me seriously as a Leelanau local until I replaced my flimsy shoes with Merrell “Moab Adventure” shoes. Best purchase I’ve ever made. They’ve lasted two years, and they work well in all terrains. Waterproof is important because you never know when you’ll have to cross through a wet muddy patch, and wet feet ruin a hike. An inadequate pair of shoes can be a safety hazard, because obviously you want to avoid tripping or slipping and spraining an ankle – especially if you’re hiking alone. Honestly that’s my biggest fear. The park service recommends wearing shoes or at least taking them with you on the sand dunes and beaches, and I agree.

4. Take basic steps to protect yourself from ticks.

Forget lions, tigers, and bears. For many hikers, the bogeyman is the humble tick. I have a bit of a contrarian view on this. I suspect the fear of Lyme disease is way overblown in Leelanau County. According to the website, the total number of human Lyme disease cases in Leelanau that were confirmed  by the CDC from 2000 to 2016 was…five. I mean, five isn’t good, but it’s still just five. Granted, the risk is rising with the recent arrival of the Lyme-carrying deer tick, but still, I hope unjustified paranoia isn’t keeping people from exploring the great outdoors. Everyone will tell you that the tick population is rising. On a few occasions, I’ve seen one on my pants after a hike, and brushed it off. But I spend a lot of time outdoors, and I’ve never in my life been bitten bit a tick. (I’m literally knocking on wood as I write that!) Maybe we can tamp down the hysteria a little.

That said, no one wants a parasite on them. They can carry diseases. So here’s what I would advise. Wear long pants. Use insect repellent, and spray it on your ankles and pants. Don’t go off-trail. Don’t walk through tall grasses. Check yourself before getting into the car after a hike. Take a shower soon after a hike, and check yourself again. Here’s what you should do if you’re bitten by a tick, according to the Mayo Clinic.

5. Obey the signs. 

Behind every sign, there’s a story. A story about someone who did something dumb that necessitated the creation of a sign. For instance, you might've seen signs on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive or Pyramid Point warning you not to run down the sand dunes, because you might not be able to climb up again, and you might need to be rescued. An expensive rescue operation could mean you’re slapped with a hefty fine. So trust the park service when they advise caution. Or else you could end up in the Leelanau Enterprise and become the butt of snickerings at the local tavern. Which stings worse than the fine!

So there you have it. My five tips. I’m reluctant to talk about encounters with large animals in the wild, because such encounters are vanishingly rare, and my attitude is that you’re lucky if you do see a majestic creature. It’s a spiritual experience. I will tell you that the one time I spotted a coyote in the forest, I stood tall and stared it in the eyes for several minutes. We were both very curious about each other. At some point, Mr. Coyote decided to press his luck by walking toward me, so I made a loud noise, and he ran away. They’re more afraid of us than we are of them. And they should be. Had he come closer, I might've sprayed him with the sunscreen from my well-stocked backpack.