Before You Go
Exploring wildlife management areas and state and national forests (herein referred to as “the woods”) can be incredibly rewarding; where else can you find nature’s abundance for free or almost free?
If you are looking for natural or historical landmarks , wildlife, campsites, photo ops, firewood, haunted houses or simply a scenic drive you can find these things in the woods.
However, the woods are not without peril, and it’s very important to not just go yahooing in there without a plan or some bit of practical know how.
One of our favorite things to do is pop open google maps and look for the green areas. After some research, off we go and hopefully we don’t get stuck in the mud or run off by vandals or Bigfoot.
Thankfully, MOST of these inconvenient situations can be avoided by following the following guidelines:
Know your vehicle
Most of the vehicles you will see in woods are, well, trucks, but don’t think your exploring days are done if you drive a compact car.
Indeed, we have taken our 1995 Honda Accord into the woods on numerous occasions and have rarely had an issue, except when the road turns extremely rutty or washed out. At that point, we turn around.
However, I KNOW that as long as the tire tread is good, my little Honda is a beast in the snow and has braved many a muddy mountainside with ease.
I also KNOW (from experience) that she can’t handle puddles of almost any kind. She tends to stall and spit and sputter and get pissy. I’d rather have to execute a 35 point turn or go a half a mile in reverse than to stall in a foot deep puddle in the woods with no signal.
We also had a Dodge Ram pickup that could handle wilder roads and deeper water. It had its own limitations like suddenly going to ZERO miles to empty after having plenty of gas five minutes before.
Needless to say, it’s important to know your vehicle before you try to conquer forest roads with it. Some cars love the adventure and some just can’t hang.
Know the Area
This may come with research or experience. Maybe you grew up in the area or have heard stories throughout your life. Maybe you went online and were able to find some reviews or videos of others who had gone before you.
Below is one such review of a preserve on the Georgia/South Carolina line:
Having never been here, and not knowing the area, I don’t know if this is true but it’s certainly compelling. Needless to say, this is probably a place we will not be visiting in our travels.
Crime, in a word, can happen absolutely anywhere and while I don’t suggest that you allow fear to rule your life, I absolutely advocate being aware and prepared.
Knowing the area also means knowing whether or not it’s hunting season or if the area is seasonal.
There are tons of roads that are closed for winter and you may make a drive only to find the gate locked. A major road through the white mountains in New Hampshire is closed off season and you’d think that being a major road it wouldn’t be.
Other items of import are where is the nearest gas station?
Nearest town or city ?
How close is the hospital and police station?
It’s good info to know, even if you never have to use it. Heck, some towns in Vermont don’t even have gas or police stations.
Know the Terrain
Swamps. Mountains. Beaches. Plains.
All terrain is different and behaves in its own way. Swamp roads, obviously tend to be lower and wetter while mountain roads can bring you up steep inclines and along ravines.
I do speak from experience when I say that mountain roads in winter can be especially treacherous which would explain why many of them are closed in the winter.
Depending on how well maintained the roads are, forest roads in swampy areas may also be impassible.
As most (not all) forested areas don’t have reliable cell phone signal, a good idea is to get a paper map of the road and trail system in the forest. These can be available online through the appropriate state or national forest website or other.
Often, too, you will find them at the ranger station if one is present.
Since we enjoy flying by the seats of our pants, we almost never have a paper map.
Instead, I like to head to google maps while we have signal and screen shot the map in sections. That way, if we lose signal and the map online, we still have the route.
The drawback to google maps is that sometimes a road will show up and…it’s so not a road. You arrive at the junction where you expect to turn and it’s a grass path.
Know the wildlife
Wildlife is all around us and more so in the woods.
From beetles to bears, critters are abundant in this world!
While it’s super awesome to see wildlife up close and personal, your safety and well-being can greatly depend on your knowledge of what wildlife is in the area you’re going and how it behaves.
If you’re traveling with kids, it’s also prudent to drum it into their brains how to act around wildlife.
We have very light wildlife in Rhode Island compared to a place like Florida which has a crap ton of snakes and panthers and gators.
While we are wary of apex predators, it has helped us immensely to learn about their habitats, behavior and how to avoid getting mauled or trampled or bitten while still being able to view them from a reasonable and legal distance.
As a photographer, I am constantly on the lookout for animals I can capture the souls of.
In my vigor to see a grizzly bear, I will never go into grizzly territory without knowing that I am, in fact, in griz territory and how to behave legally and safely should I encounter one.
This goes for poisonous snakes and spiders, too!
Know the weather
If you’re planning a trip to a national seashore, it’s good to know if a hurricane is on its way.
Certain places like Mount Washington in New Hampshire have their own weather systems which are quite separate from the surrounding area.
Consider the Donner Party.
You don’t want to find yourself in a blizzard in the Catskills with nothing but a McDonald’s bag with a few fries at the bottom and lukewarm soda water.
When we took our 3 Months In a Tent ⛺️, we kept getting delayed from heading further west by tornadoes that kept popping up in east Texas. We watched the weather almost religiously and thankfully so. We could have potentially propelled ourselves into a world of hurt.
I’ve heard stories of people who set up their RV on the Padre Island National Seashore only to wake up in the morning with the tide lapping at their door.
If that’s not disaster unpreparedness I don’t know what is.
Weather happens, and often you can adapt and work around it, though it’s helpful to know what you’re going into or what’s coming at you!
As stated above, exploring nature can be awesome but also dangerous if you aren’t educated and prepared.
Good luck out there!