There is a lot of resources covering the general safety issues in the mountains and we’ll discuss only some aspects of them that might be more specific for the region and therefore unexpected. This is not a complete list of all the possible troubles that may occur while being in the mountains of Bulgaria, so be sure that you have that type of knowledge before starting a trip. Generally relying on your common sense in combination with appropriate knowledge, equipment and skills is the way to save yourself from troubles of any sort.
Loosing the right way – its a common thing to happen in the mountains and usually if someone had get lost a few times, he or she is confident enough to cope in that sort of situations. Even if you follow clear markings as in most of the cases, sometimes, especially in a low visibility conditions, unclear trail, lush vegetation and so on, these can be lost (in such cases the lost ones usually say that markings “get lost”, not they). The main rule is to find the last waymark that you remember, and not to continue walking without. On some routes in the mountains of Bulgaria the waymarks are not in a good condition and it takes time and efforts to follow them – the best thing to do is to research in advance for the condition of the certain trail you want to take and judge carefully if you can cope. The ability to read a map and use a compass is very important in unknown environment and can save us a lot of trouble. Loosing the right way in winter can lead to much more troubles due to possible fall on an avalanche prone slopes, hypothermia, caused by a long exposure on a low temperatures (which might happen not only in winter) and so on.
There is a new issued GPS-compatible maps with a good scale (1:30 000 and 1:40 000) of Rila, Pirin and Vitosha Mountains, published by Iskar Tour. Problems may be caused by the older maps, issued by Kartographia, as they are scaled 1:50 000 , 1:70 000 or 1: 100 000 which is sometimes not sufficient for a good orientation. Add to this is the irrelevant current condition of some routes shown on the maps as they’ve been existing decades ago. Such a maps are still available in the book stores and are the only ones that cover Balkan and Rhodope Mountains at the moment. In the Rhodopes this is combined with a complicated relief, bad maintenance of the waymarks in some areas and number of crisscrossing roads and trails, which may turn orientating to a big hassle.
Using a GPS-transceiver may be very helpful, but there is a few very important moments. The transceiver may not always work properly – because of weak satellite signal due to thick forest cover, complicated relief, etc. The GPS maps doesn’t show the terrain clear enough – it might be impassable because of (even very short) vertical sections, lush vegetation, slippery slopes, steep scree, etc. If you use GPS for orientating it is strongly recommended to upload relevant map of the certain area and tracks of the trails you are going to follow. Furthermore, you should be sure that your GPS is set to the same datum as of any GPS-compatible map you are going to use together with the unit (usually WGS84, read more in the manual of your GPS transceiver), otherwise significant discrepancies may occur. The GPS should be also set to the same position format as any coordinates you upload from a map or anywhere else.
Slippery slopes – this is common in summer after rain or early morning frost and might be a problem when crossing steep rock or covered in grass sections. The most common trap is in early summer, between May and June, when there is still few snow drifts in the highest parts of the mountains, some of them on the summer hiking trails. Crossing covered in snow steep slopes without any type of belaying may lead to uncontrolled fall, injuries or death.
Snowfalls in summer, severe weather – it is not a common issue, but happens sometimes and should be treated seriously – proper equipment and following the weather forecasts are essential.
Avalanches – every year there is an avalanche accidents caused by humans in the high mountains so proper equipment, knowledge and judgement are essential if going to the mountains between December and April.
Wildlife – rare emergencies occur because of snake or tick bites, attacks by wild or shepherd dogs or bears.
The is six types of poisonous snakes in Bulgaria, but only two of them can actually cause any problems to humans. These are the vipers and the horn vipers. Vipers are more common for the high mountains and can be met on a high altitude. Both are not aggressive – they usually try to avoid people and accidents happen when somebody step on them unexpectedly. Anyway they are not deadly poisonous and a snakebite can only take you to the hospital for a few days, unless you are allergic to their poison, which is the most common occasion to death. Immediate actions and medical assistance are needed in any case of snakebite. Precautions include long pants and ankle supporting boots, trekking poles and attention on the way.
Dogs – sometimes shepherd dogs bark and simulate attack to strangers passing near their herds. The best thing to do is to go around, or to stay calm and not show any aggressive intentions till the shepherd cope with the dogs or they calm down on their own. Sometimes throwing stones or using your trekking poles may help, but it depends on the dogs character. Any dog bites should be treated in a hospital because of possible infections.
Ticks are most active in spring and early summer, usually they can be found near domestic animals habitats like pastures, and not very often in the high mountains. In rear cases they may cause diseases like Lyme borrellosis or TBE. The precautions include daily lookout of the body for potential bites, avoiding areas with lush vegetation and high humidity or near livestock, wearing proper clothing that covers the body and use of repellents. Most important is the fast and correct removal of the tick, which should be done by competent person, and further monitoring of potential symptoms.
Brown bears are also “shy” and try to avoid people, exception form this are some of them who start to attack livestock or even humans – this happens very rare in different regions, most often in the Rhodope Mountains, and the bear is killed quite quickly by the local rangers. Such a situation is not common – it will be in the local news and the area of the cannibal-bear will be known by the locals. Unexpected meeting with a brown bear in the mountains can happen and usually the bear will runaway, unless it has to protect its generation or is angry for some other reason. Precautions – it is not recommended to walk in absolute silence in an areas away from any humans. All the other recommendations are not 100% proved in life, so improvise.
Bulgarian Mountain Rescue (PSS, ПСС) has bases with 24/7 stuff in the most popular mountain areas. In case of emergency you can contact them via 112 or +359 14 70.
Author: Lyuben Grancharov
“The World is a book and those who do not travel read only a page” (Augustine of Hippo). I enjoy filling up the page, called “Bulgaria”, both working as a guide and writing about the mountains of Bulgaria on this blog.