Amanda Eller miraculously was found alive last week after enduring 17 days in the rainforest on Maui. Her story is about the enduring power of the human spirit, and also about hundreds of good people looking for her who were not going to give up—no matter what.
Note: As of May 30, a second Maui hiker, Noah 'Kekai' Mina, remains missing after climbing a ridge 10 days ago above Iao Valley. Godspeed to the rescue teams looking for him, and aloha nui to the family and friends of this beloved local man. Update: On May 31, Noah's body was recovered. He suffered a fall. The island mourns. Read on.
Amanda's story is about the unique dangers of hiking in Hawaii—how a couple of slip-ups can turn a bad day into a tragedy. Almost weekly a visitor dies while on vacation, but the good news is that almost all of the hazards can be avoided.
Rule number one—no, let's make it rule number one through 10—is to stay on the trail. If you lose the trail, backtrack immediately to a known spot. While walking in on a trail, look back now and then so you will later recognize what it looks like coming out. If a location is reachable on foot, a trail will exist; don't try to point to a location on a map and blaze your own route.
Don't try to use GPS or a compass to find a route. These tools might be helpful, but you will find the route using your eyes and feet. The mountain terrain in Hawaii is too steep and choked with greenery to walk in a chosen direction, even for King Kong.
Note the time you depart on a hike and the number hour of daylight hours you have. Know when half the hours are used up and then turn back. It's easy to get sucked into a beautiful spot (like Haleakala above) and not realize how far the return is.
The normal hiking safety tips apply doubly in Hawaii: Never start on a hike without an equipped daypack. Prepare for heat and cold. Bring water and food. If you do hike alone (not advisable) then make sure to let someone know where you are going. It's easy to get out of the car intent on just taking a peek at a trail, only to find yourself venturing farther. Take the pack. And—this goes without saying these days—take your cell phone.
Stay away from cliff edges. Hawaiian trails commonly go up ridges that are very narrow. Greenery disguises drop-offs. Being injured is no joke in remote locations, and a remote location may be only one step away.
Nothing can be more mellow than barefooting through the sand at the foamy shoreline of a Hawaiian beach. But, believe it or not, more people die in this situation than on mountain trails. The photo above depicts a safe day. But stay well back from the shore when high surf is present. Beaches in Hawaii have nuanced shorelines, resulting in freak wave action and with steep sand into the water. People get knocked down and swept away. Don't turn your back on waves and stay inland from wet sand. When walking coastal bluffs, don't venture out onto wet rocks.
Hiking poles are almost essential gear for Hawaiian trails—for stream crossings and navigating steep, rooted, slippery mountain descents.
The sign above says, respect the land. This concept is ingrained in Hawaii, where people survived for nearly 2,000 years by keeping agricultural and fishing practices in balance with nature. Do or die. This concept cuts two ways: Respect means protecting nature from human impact; it also means respecting the power in Mother Nature compared to mere humans.
Playing in a pool beneath a waterfall is fodder for fantasy postcards. Remember that rocks and limbs can be falling with that water.
Streambeds are another common danger zone for hikers, and valley trails often require several crossings. Flash floods can be lethal, sweeping hikers away. Heavy rains are common in the subtropics, and steep terrain means stream levels can rise dramatically.
It can be raining a few miles up the mountain and dry downslope. If you get caught on the wrong side of a stream during high water don't try to cross—wait until the waters recedes. In a narrow stream valley, get to high ground fast if you hear (don't worry, you'll know) or see a flash flood coming.
You'll do enough bouldering while on trails. Don't rock climb. The land is unstable.
All of the above is not to scare visitors. Nature in Hawaii isn't going to jump out and grab you. But many visitors get off the plane thinking the Islands are Disneyland.
Trailblazer guides—for Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island—have detailed safety precautions. Some of the tips are general, but the guides also list the hazards associated with a specific trail or beach. As long as you are aware, you will be fine. Aloha!