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Safe hiking: Trust your instincts
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Outdoor recreation experts have been inundated with questions about trail safety ever since hiker Meredith Emerson was abducted and subsequently murdered in the Northeast Georgia mountains last week.

"Everyone’s afraid now. Even myself," said David Foot, superintendent of Vogel State Park, where authorities and volunteers spent several days searching for Emerson. "This experience has been so intense for us here."

But at Amicalola Falls State Park, located near the starting point of the Appalachian Trail, resource manager Elisabeth Pinion said the recommendations for hiker safety haven’t changed.

"Be aware of your surroundings, and have a plan in the back of your mind," she said. "If you come upon a situation where you are uncomfortable, try to hike out with other people, if you can."

Foot said he has always advised people not to hike alone, and it’s not just because of fears about crime.

"If you get hurt out there, you’ll need someone with you who can go for help," he said.

However, Foot acknowledges that many hikers go into the wilderness specifically to enjoy the solitude, and they prefer not to have a partner.

"In that case, you should always give someone your itinerary and when you plan to be back," he said.

Foot said there’s no particular item a hiker can bring along that will necessarily keep them safe.

"Guns are not allowed in state parks," he said. "Some women carry mace, but that’s not a cure-all. And a dog is not protection either."

Having a cell phone is a good idea, Foot said, except that it’s difficult to get signal reception in the mountains.

"Technology is fallible," he said. "The best advice I can give anyone is to go with your gut feeling. Always question the intentions of people you encounter."

A lot of hikers had a "gut feeling" about Gary Michael Hilton, the 61-year-old man who has been charged with Emerson’s murder. The two met near Blood Mountain on New Year’s Day, and Hilton allegedly killed Emerson in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area three days later.

"This guy’s been on our radar since March," said Winton Porter, owner of Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, a hiking gear store located on U.S. 129 east of Blood Mountain, very close to the parking lot where Emerson left her car on Jan. 1.

Porter said Hilton, who was apparently homeless, spent months migrating up and down the Appalachian Trail.

"He was squatting at the Gooch Gap shelter," Porter said. "He knew that according to Forest Service rules, he could stay at a shelter for two weeks, leave for a day, then stay another two weeks. He had (stuff) scattered all over the shelter. He took over the place and wouldn’t let anyone else stay there. We also had reports of him at Slaughter Gap shelter a couple weeks ago."

That was why investigators were able to quickly identify Hilton as a "person of interest" in the case. Most Forest Service rangers in the area had encountered Hilton before, in response to complaints.

And after Hilton’s photo appeared in the media, many people recognized him. "Lots of my customers are now saying, ‘Yeah, I ran into that guy.’" Porter said. "One customer said they met him on the trail Saturday (the day after Emerson is believed to have been killed)."

Porter said every person seemed to have the same reaction to Hilton.

"People said he was ‘twitchy.’ He’d be polite one minute and rude the next," Porter said. "Sometimes he would just stare really hard at people. Other times he acted like he was seeing something that wasn’t there."

Hilton also didn’t look like a typical hiker.

"We have a high tolerance for strangeness on the trail," said Porter. "But we get a sense of who’s fitting in and who’s not. There are people we call ‘duffle-bag’ hikers, people who usually are carrying improper gear. They typically don’t stay very long on the trail. This guy was an exception."

Because Hilton was essentially living either in his van or at free campsites, he had possessions with him that a recreational backpacker wouldn’t carry, Porter said.

"The guy had a pack that was probably 20 years old, with all these pots and pans hanging off of it," he said. "In the city, he would have been the guy you see pushing the grocery cart."

Brian King, spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the caretaker organization for the 2,175-mile trail, said you can also get clues about a person from what they say.

"Hikers tend to talk about things like food and water," he said. "If someone comes up to you and says, ‘Nice outfit,’ that would be a red flag. Hikers don’t comment on other hikers’ fashions."

Since almost everyone who encountered Hilton had a negative reaction, the unanswered question is why Emerson, a 24-year-old Colorado native and experienced hiker, apparently did not perceive him as a threat.

"Her friends told me she would not have gone with someone she didn’t trust," Foot said.

Many people have speculated that Emerson assumed Hilton was friendly because he hiked with a dog, just as she did. But what transpired between the two on Jan. 1 may never be fully known.

Fortunately, King said, violent criminals are extremely rare in the wilderness, even on the heavily traveled Appalachian Trail.

"In the past 34 years, there have been six murder incidents, with eight victims, on or near the AT," he said. "But if you consider how many people use the AT, your chances of a violent death along the trail are about one in 15 million."

King said in five of the six cases, the perpetrator was described as a "drifter" like Hilton. Only in one incident did a fellow hiker kill another.

He said one of the previous murders did occur in Georgia, at Low Gap shelter in 1974.

"The most dangerous places for hikers are close to roads," King said. "We have since moved most of our shelters away from roads, to deter crime."

The Appalachian Trail is unique in having numerous permanent shelters along the way, so backpackers can have a place to stay without setting up a tent. But sleeping in a shelter requires a willingness to share space with strangers, whose intentions may be questionable.

"We always tell women (not to) go into an empty shelter and unpack all your gear for the evening. Wait to see who else shows up," Porter said. "If you feel uncomfortable, leave and set up camp somewhere else."

But campers can also be targeted by criminals. "In 1996, two women camping off an AT approach trail in Shenandoah National Park were murdered," King said. "That incident got a lot of publicity, and it led to the writing of the book ‘Trail Safe.’"

Subtitled "Averting Threatening Human Behavior in the Outdoors" and authored by Michael Bane, the book is sold at Mountain Crossings and is available online. Porter said he recommends it to his customers.

Paige Perkins, a Chamblee resident who frequently hikes in the Chattahoochee National Forest, said she hopes the recent tragedy does not discourage people from enjoying the outdoors.

"I think people who don’t hike believe there’s something to fear out in the wild, when it’s actually a thousand times more dangerous in the city," she said.

However, the beauty of the wilderness can blind people to the possible dangers.

"I think you do develop a sense of complacency out on the trail," Perkins said. "Bad things happen everywhere."

She said she is "hypervigilant" on the trail and never hikes alone. But of all the risks Perkins might expect to encounter, she said she never dreamed of anything as horrific as what happened to Emerson.

"Our minds just don’t wrap around that type of evil," she said.