The Danger of Leaves

Leaves are dangerous? Only when you least expect it.

As in, they might fall and…what? Hit me in the eye? Possibly, but the real dangers of fall are less an edge case and more a reality that you unexpectedly encounter—and then never forget.

To illustrate our point, here’s a quick story from days of autumn past…

Late fall had arrived, and a dense carpet of wet leaves covered the sidewalks of Washington, DC, brushed up against the curbs due to winds, street sweepers, and the constant hum of traffic. And though it was clear the fateful night I biking home, it had been raining on and off for two days. As a regular commuter, navigating the slings and arrows of an urban landscape by bike wasn’t anything new…but what happened next pretty much came out of nowhere.

It was dark, and I followed the path of my bike light as I turned toward the bike lane on my left, angling right to head north, when I traveled over a thick patch of dead leaves and suddenly found myself sliding–my tires losing purchase with the ground—and then crashing down onto the pavement.

Thankfully, only my ego was bruised; that mound of leaves made it more a sliding-into-home moment rather than something bone-jarring. But my jeans were pretty much ruined—only a small tear where my keys poked through the denim from inside my right pocket, but the entire length of my right leg was caked in an earthly mass of dead leaves, dense mud, and stagnant moisture. It was a sartorial version of the same autumn goo that lined the bike lane and was responsible for my crash, an inch-thick shag rug of slippery detritus.

And that’s when I learned fall’s seldom-told secret: The foliate may look stunning, both on the trees and falling to the earth. But they also present a few unexpected hazards.

Here’s a few guidelines…

Wet Leaves Are Slippery

Fallen leaves can easily coat a trail or patch of pavement in a thin layer that might look like the kaleidoscopic perfect of nature, but a minor bit of rain—or even morning dew—can transform that surface into one nature’s most slick surfaces. When traversing terrain covered with wet leaves, move slowly and with confidence, and do not change direction mid-stride or perform any maneuver that would require your shoe tread or bike tire to bite into the ground, because the leaves can’t provide the friction you need to execute a a change in direction. It’s like running in gravel or sand, only instead of a slow shift of support, the rug gets pulled out from under you.

Beware the Depth

The leaf-covered surface may also hide other hazards, like a week’s worth of leaf matter—mud, dirt, moisture—that can make a tricky surface a veritable danger zone for anything except the most confident and straightforward of passage. In the backcountry, leaves can also hide deep puddles of mud and water, a beatific layer floating on an ankle-twisting pothole of mud and rain water. Best to probe the trail ahead with your hiking poles, or avoid stepping on leaves altogether, when possible. And don’t dive into a pile of leaves unless you’re the one who raked the pile.

Wet Wood Sucks

Just like wet leaves, sodden wood—think logs, bridges, fences—transform into one nature’s slickest surfaces. The same rules apply: do not try to turn or gain purchase when crossing wet wood because you will have your legs/bike/whatever come right out from under you. Move confidently, in a straight line. The same goes for wet logs; avoid stepping or riding on or over them whenever possible. And as for leaf-covered wet wooden surfaces, you’ve found nature at its most slippery. Go slow.

Other Autumn Pitfalls

If you’re out for a long day hike in early autumn, remember that the sun sets earlier; packing a small headlamp will help you dodge hiking in the dark if things happen to go awry. And as the months edge closer toward winter, you should expect more temperature fluctuations and possibly hail or snow squalls, especially in higher altitudes. Some parts of the country may also fall into a danger zone thanks to the tumultuous weather caused by the hurricane season further south. Always pack as if you’re expecting rain and temps cooler than the forecast may predict.