Dangers on the Oregon Coast Trail, or any hiking trail for that matter, should be well researched beforehand. Don't get yourself caught in a situation that you haven't anticipated. You are the only one that you can depend on. And I'd like to remind you that this thru hiking guide is offered for informational purposes only, I'm no expert, and what you choose to do is ultimately up to you.
With that legal disclaimer out of the way...
Tides and Currents
Tides along the Oregon coast can make all the difference in how you experience your hike and the trail.
On my first thru hike south through Arch Cape, Silver Point and Humbug Point just below Cannon Beach, the tide was at times knee to thigh deep as I pushed my way around the points. The rocks were slippery and I was getting soaked, but at the same time I had a blast. It was a beautiful, clear blue sky kind of day that I will never forget.
On my northbound thru hike I hit the exact same location at low tide. The beach was wider than the length of a football field. Not as exciting as fighting waves, but the low tide exposed all sorts of starfish and other things normally hidden below the oceans surface that I found fascinating.
Keeping an up to date tide chart with you is important and they can be picked up for free or very cheap at many places along the coast. More important than just having a tide chart though is knowing how to read it.
There are also a couple of places along the Oregon Coast Trail where tides are not mentioned on the map as being important in being able to pass that section. Just north of Newport comes to mind, and I'll talk more about that in that section, but since I didn't think tides mattered I was almost trapped by the quickly rising ocean water and had to fight my way through waist deep waves back to safety before the tide could get any higher.
Also a danger are undertows, or so called rip currents, that are fairly common along the Oregon coast. A swimmer can be pulled out to sea and even if they can stay afloat the cold water temperature will eventually cause hypothermia.
Doesn't sound too fun.
If you find yourself being pulled out to sea in an undertow the best thing to do is to swim parallel with the shore until you are out of the rip current before attempting to swim back to the beach.
Not waves of sneakers, but waves that can sneak up on you.
They are more common during the winter months when storms can cause unpredictable ocean activity but can happen at any time. Increasing the danger of sneaker waves are logs and other debris floating in the water or at the waters edge. These things can move unpredictably, and though the logs at the ocean edge may seem massive they can shift and roll causing broken bones and even trapping you under their massive weight.
The best course of action is to always be aware of the ocean.
That sounds simple enough but the one time I was hit by a sneaker wave near Nesika Beach I realized afterwards that I hadn't been paying attention at all. I had been more worried about getting my camera out to take a picture. The waves hadn't gone up to more than my ankle the entire time I was there walking along the waters edge. Under water though the beach dropped off rather quickly. While I was framing my shot a wave hit that was waist high and knocked me to the ground. Luckily it didn't pull me back into the water with my pack on, because that would have gone very, very bad.
You'll see Tsunami Hazard Zone signs up and down the Oregon coast. Often they will be accompanied with evacuation maps and information.
Tsunamis are waves created by earthquakes and many people believe that Oregon is overdue for a big one.
The waves will come in fast, and if you see one coming it is probably too late to do much about it. If you are hiking along the coast and feel a tremor, or a shaking that wakes you up from sleeping, it would be best to get to high ground, and as far inland as possible.
Some people warned me about quicksand along the coast. Most of the warnings were centered around the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area and most of the danger seemed to be in the winter months.
I never have come across any personally, but I am told that the low areas without any vegetation between dunes are all potential danger spots as this is where water pools and floats the sand.
If you happen to find yourself stuck, or sinking in quicksand, it is important to remain calm. If you stay still the chances of sinking deeper than your waist are pretty slim. If you struggle against the quicksand and panic you will disturb the sediment making it possible to sink much deeper.
Remove your backpack and toss it to dry ground.
Standing there waiting for help, unless you know that someone else is close, is not a great idea. The cold winter water and sand mix can easily cause hypothermia if you are stuck there for any amount of time.
If you can't reach solid ground from where you are then slowly lean back putting the upper half of your body against the quicksand. You will float much better in the sand than you do in water. This will allow you to slowly free your legs from the sands grip. Now you can slowly paddle your way to drier ground.
I can't stress the fact that you have to do this slowly enough. Fast movements will help liquefy the quicksand causing you to sink.
So take your time.
River crossings are much more common on the Oregon Coast Trail and potentially more dangerous than quicksand.
There are several river crossings, some of which have to be done at low tide, and which can be a bit scary if you are hiking alone. The crossing at Sand Lake comes to mind.
Plan ahead and be there at the right time and that will take care of most of your problems. Also, using trekking poles or a walking stick can help your stability quite a bit.
The currents can be strong and the bottom of the river is hardly ever anything like an even surface. In sand there will be highs and lows formed by the currents beneath the waters surface. You could be knee deep in one spot and step a foot away and suddenly be waist deep. Also the surface of the water can disguise exactly how deep or shallow much of the river crossing can be. On top of all that sometimes the sand itself isn't solid and your foot will sink into it up to your ankles.
Just know your limits, take your time, and hopefully the worst that will happen is that you fall over and get wet.
So pack that cell phone in a Ziploc bag and stuff it inside your pack.
Automobile traffic isn't something you only have to worry about on the road walks. Oregon allows auto traffic on many of the beaches, mostly from October to April, and while it may seem to be an annoyance, it is actually the reason that the beaches were originally made to be public.
The biggest area of concern regarding traffic on the beach is between Fort Stevens State Park and Gearhart. Most people don't drive excessively fast, in fact most people seem to use this section either to get to a place to fly a kite, BBQ, or to let their dog out and run while they drive.
Once, just out of curiosity, I hitchhiked this section and found that the very first pickup stopped and let me hop in the back. That three to four hour hike turned into a 20 minute drive.
For the road walks that comprise at least 40% of the Oregon Coast Trail it is best to have something bright, or even reflective, to put on your backpack to make you more visible to oncoming traffic. I had a portion of a fluorescent green road worker vest with a reflective stripe running down through the middle. It folded up small enough to take up hardly any room in my hip belt pouch, and when it was needed I simply safety pinned it to the outside of my backpack so that it would be visible to traffic coming up from behind me.
Traffic is probably the most dangerous part of hiking the Oregon Coast Trail so stay visible.
While there are black bears along the coast, and there have been cougar sightings, most of the wildlife that you'll have to concern yourself with is much smaller.
For instance, the Snowy Plover. This is a small shorebird that nests in sandy beaches in the dunes near the high tide line. Their nesting season is from March all the way until September, but if a Snowy Plover nest is disturbed in anyway the birds will leave their nest, and perhaps even eggs and baby chicks, behind.
Human activity has caused their population to decline until it was declared a protected species. Now many sections of the coast above the high tide line are roped off, usually with a small sign attached, declaring it off limits.
It's great that we are making efforts to protect this wild bird, however, when I was once caught in a storm south of Bandon all I wanted to do was get out of the wind and vicious sand blasting that felt like it was tearing the skin off my legs. There was nowhere to go though as the dunes were all protected habitat. I had to suck it up and deal with the storm instead of taking temporary refuge in the dunes.
I can tell you that I didn't appreciate that little bird that day, lol.
Fires on the Beach
For the most part Oregon allows beach fires as long as they aren't closer than twenty-five feet from a wooden seawall.
The rules can vary though depending your location on the coast. Oregon State Parks will have their own set of rules as to where you can have fires, and if there are fire restrictions in effect from a particularly hot or dry stretch of weather all fires may be prohibited.
Just use common sense when starting a fire on the beach. Don't make it so large that it is going to be hard to put out or keep an eye on as you fall asleep. Use downed branches and small pieces of driftwood for your fire and don't cut down branches from living trees or vegetation. Don't start a fire against huge pieces of driftwood or in a pile of driftwood.
The winds can change at a moments notice so don't build a fire too close to beach grasses or other vegetation where an errant spark could spread your fire.
And most importantly make sure it is out before you leave. Simply covering it with sand is not enough. Make sure you soak it with water and give it sufficient time to cool down before you move on.
You're on the beach, there should be some water nearby.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is an important set of guidelines to follow no matter where you are hiking or camping.
If you pack it in, then you should pack it out.
Towns are fairly close together on the Oregon coast so you will easily be able to get rid of your trash on an almost daily basis.
Also, with towns being so close together you shouldn't really be pooping on the beach. Bathrooms are close enough together so that a little planning ahead will get you to the next one before you'll need it.
By way of an example as to how close the bathrooms are to one another, I never once used the toilet paper that I had in my backpack on either of my thru hikes.
If you have to, if it's an absolute emergency, use the intertidal zone, the sand below the high tide line, and dig a deep hole, at least six to eight inches deep to do your business in. Just remember that poop doesn't decompose the same way in sand as it does in soil, and the colder out it is the longer it will take to decompose.
So please don't poop on the beach.