Even now, some 25 years later, it was an October afternoon to remember. The trees on the Pennsylvania mountainside blazed with color, and the cool breezes softened the warm sun. No stranger to hunting pheasant and rabbits, I had joined friends on a grouse hunt, and we picked our way to the creek bottom below, ears straining for that heart-stopping explosion of wings in full flight.
We soon discovered that while the grouse were apparently somewhere else, we were not alone on that Pennsylvania mountain.
As we stepped into a clearing, a very non-birdlike whistle drifted down from above. There, some 15 feet in the air, perched an archer in a tree stand, camouflaged, waving quietly to catch our attention. We returned the wave and quickly left the clearing.
Every one of us – the archer, my friends and myself – were armed with potentially lethal weapons, yet we were all confident in the safety of the situation. Why? Because we had all been through state-mandated hunter safety courses, and we knew how to protect ourselves and each other.
Fall is a great time to be outdoors, and there are plenty of activities for anybody who wants to get away and get some fresh air.
Hunting is a major draw, whether firearm or archery, but many other activities are also at their best this time of year. It’s a perfect time for photography, foraging, hiking or horseback riding, just to name a few. It’s also the last chance to look for fossils and arrowheads, or to go on a camping trip before winter closes in. All these are good reasons to get outside, but they can also put you in the crossfire.
While every sportsman has a responsibility to handle his firearm in a safe manner, non-hunters also share in the responsibility of staying safe. However, while a sportsman must attend a safety course before buying his first hunting license, she will be sharing the woods with plenty of other people who haven’t. That means if you go out into the woods this fall, gathering leaves, foraging mushrooms, snapping photos, hiking to a fishing hole or otherwise, you may be putting your life in danger without even knowing it.
Know the risks
In taking responsibility for one’s own safety, where does the non-hunter start? Education is the key. Take a tip from sportsmen and sign up for a hunter safety course. Depending on your state’s requirements, you can typically expect to complete a course in a weekend. These hunter education courses provide a wealth of information, and even as a non-hunter it’s good to have a grasp on the rules at play. You may even be able to read your state’s course information online.
You can also find a wealth of information by visiting your state’s wildlife management websites. These resources can tell you not only the hunting season you’re in, but where sportsmen are most likely hunting and with what means. You may want to rethink a trip to the local wetlands during duck season, or cross-country horseback riding during deer season. Fall isn’t the only season for hunting, either. For example, there are spring turkey seasons, and groundhogs are in season all summer in many states.
Dress the part
When you go out, remember that being seen is being safe. Depending on the season, hunting method and state, most sportsmen must wear approximately 250 square inches of safety orange, also called “blaze.” To put that in perspective, a baseball cap provides 100 inches of coverage, and a vest provides 500 inches.
If you are walking between a sportsman and the buck he’s sighting in on, or even beyond the buck, and he can’t see you, you may be in grave danger. Dress loudly. In other words, do not wear earth tones, grays, or anything subdued, especially neutral-toned camouflage. Instead, select bright, fluorescent, not-found-in-nature colors. Safety orange is the best. This is the color sportsmen will most likely recognize, and will therefore avoid when contemplating a shot.
This should also be applied to your companion animals. For instance, use a fluorescent saddle blanket on your horse or outfit your dog with a blaze jacket. Don’t rely on a neon collar or bandana around your dog’s neck or your horse’s saddle, because such items do not have nearly enough coverage for them to be noticed at long range.
Speak up in the field; game animals don’t talk. Conversing quietly with a companion or whistling a tune will alert nearby sportsmen to your presence. This can be a delicate subject, so be courteous. Don’t shout, don’t be obnoxious, and if you see a sportsman, wave to him and quietly leave the area.
Take the time of day into account as well. Sportsmen know that game is on the move most often during “long shadow” times – early morning and late afternoon, making a greater risk of hunting accidents during these times. If it’s all the same, consider waiting until midday to go for a hike or to forage for mushrooms and wild fruits.
Speaking of timing, stay out of the woods on a hunting season’s opening day. This is the single busiest day of each season, and the risk of danger is greatest. If you are planning a hike on opening day, visit an area that sportsmen will avoid.
Instead of riding a forest trail on the first day of deer season, consider following an open country road. Walking in fields looking for arrowheads on the pheasant opener is also risky. If that’s the only day you have available – and it is indeed pheasant season that you’re worried about contending with – try walking a wooded stream bank instead.
Check your state’s regulations to be sure of the safest day to get outdoors. On average, more people hunt on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, making midweek a much safer time to get out and enjoy nature as a non-hunter. A few states have bans on Sunday hunting, making that the safest day of all.
Location is everything
Where you spend time outdoors warrants some thought as well. Check with your state about hunting regulations in state parks and forestlands. State game lands, while technically public, are paid for by the proceeds of hunting license sales. This makes you a guest, so act accordingly. Remember, the game lands are there specifically for hunting. Check with your state’s regulations before removing any plant material or gathering anything on state game lands, as this may be illegal.
Stay on the main trails and along access roads and lanes. Most sportsmen will look for more secluded, less traveled areas where game is less likely to be spooked and wary. While some sportsmen like having game flushed out for them, others will resent the intrusion.
Rails-to-Trails (www.RailsToTrails.org) offers an attractive alternative for outdoor activities, but don’t assume these are guaranteed safe zones. Hunting restrictions on rail trails vary from state to state: Some prohibit hunting, others allow firearms on the trail only while unloaded, while still others allow free hunting on the trails while restricting non-hunting activities in season. Check your state’s regulations before you set out, and as always, wear plenty of safety orange.
Township parks are often smaller and located within safe zones, meaning that hunting is prohibited. While not as extensive as state parks, they are often just as enjoyable on a crisp October day.
What about private lands? First and foremost, never trespass. When scouting out a new area, learn who owns the land, and strike up a conversation with them. Nothing will permanently close a stretch of land faster than being caught trespassing, and a friendly conversation with the landowner beforehand can lead to a lifelong friendship. Ask about where you can and cannot enter, and have the landowner show you where his property lines are. He can also tell you whether anyone hunts on his property, and when they are most likely to be hunting. Most of all, observe all property signs. If the sign says “Keep Out,” there is probably an excellent reason.
With more than 16 million sportsmen heading into the fields and woods each year, hunting is undeniably a popular activity. Thanks to hunter education courses, it’s also a remarkably safe activity, with less than one injury for every 2,000 sportsmen. Staying safe is everyone’s responsibility – both for those of us who are carrying firearms and for those of us enjoying Mother Nature in other ways.
Education is the key to a safe experience. Take a hunter education class. Go online to learn what is in season. Know and follow safety gear requirements. Learn where and when to go outdoors safely before planning your trip. Be courteous and share our wilderness. And most of all, get out there and enjoy the beautiful outdoors.
Andrew Weidman is a freelance writer living in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He has spent many days afield, walking a gun, walking dogs, and simply walking. Over the years, he has safely hunted pheasants, fossils and photographs in season. Many thanks to the sportsmen and commission officers who contributed suggestions for this article.