Take Care! Helpful Hiking Safety Tips
A few hiking safety tips can keep a wilderness adventure from becoming a life-threatening ordeal.
“Don’t worry about a thing, honey. I’ll be back here at 2pm sharp tomorrow, I promise.”
“If you aren’t here at 2:00, I’m going to kill you.”
It was my first solo backpacking trip since we had been married — a simple, easy one-nighter. Nothing to worry about.
But she was worried (of course).
My wife gave me a long hug and a tender kiss, and left me at the Granite Tors trailhead.
I had a great trip and came back in one piece — on time, as promised — with some beautiful photos and the requisite blisters, bug bites and fatigue.
Over the next few days, events unfolded that showed my wife’s concern for my safety was well justified.
A good friend on a solo hike in the same area became seriously ill and had to be rescued by helicopter. (He was extremely fortunate to get a cell phone signal to dial 911.)
And a woman who had gone for a day hike on the same trail as I, on the same day, got lost and spent three nights in the wilderness before being found.
Every year, situations like these happen on trails throughout the world. Many hikers come home safely, a little worse for the wear — some don’t make it back alive.
What’s the lesson to be learned? With proper preparation and a few hiking safety tips, you can significantly increase your chances of returning safely from the wilderness.
Hiking Safety Tips: What You Need To Carry
You should always carry the 10 Essentials.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you don’t need these items if you’re just going on a day hike. Many day hikers, like the woman mentioned earlier, end up spending one or several nights in the wilderness when they get lost or suffer an injury.
Think about the worst-case scenario. Be prepared to spend a night outdoors.
Some of these items are negotiable, depending on the circumstances. For instance, I don’t intentionally carry extra food because I know I can survive without it. (I usually end up with more than I need anyway.)
However, you should only leave an item behind if you are absolutely certain you won’t need it. When in doubt, bring it.
A GPS device is a very useful navigation tool, although it should never substitute for a map and compass. I actually lost the trail a few times on my trip, and used my Magellan Explorist to quickly find it again.
My wife also made me buy a SPOT Personal Tracker for my trip, which enables you to send “I’m OK”, “Help” (not life-threatening), and “911” messages with your exact GPS coordinates.
It gave both of us some peace of mind, knowing that I could send regular “OK” messages to her via e-mail and text message, and I could call for help if I got into real trouble.
Hypothermia is a real danger in the mountains, even in summertime. Bring warm clothing — a fleece jacket, long pants, hat and gloves. Conditions can change rapidly — be ready for rain and high winds with rain gear or an umbrella.
In hot weather, dehydration and heat stroke can strike the unprepared. Pack lots of water, keep sodium levels high with salty foods or sports drinks, and hike in the morning or evening when it’s cooler.
Hiking Safety Tips: What You Need To Do
Always leave a trip plan with a trusted friend or family member, even if you are going on a day hike.
This is a detailed written statement of:
- Where you are going (include a copy of the map),
- Who you are going with,
- When you are leaving and
- When you plan to be back.
It should also include detailed emergency instructions — who to call for help if you aren’t back by a certain time.
My friend told us where he was going and to start looking for him if he wasn’t back by 10pm that Friday.
The woman who got lost that week simply told her friends she was going hiking, not where or when she’d be back. Her friends started looking for her when she hadn’t returned after two days, but they had to first locate her car and then guess which way she had gone.
She ended up being found by a Medevac crew on a training mission, miles from where the search party was looking!
Don’t let that happen to you. Take the time to write up a detailed trip plan.
Always check the weather forecast for the area you will be hiking in, so you at least have some idea of what to expect (but be prepared for weather changes, too).
When you’re on the trail, pay attention to your surroundings. Take note of landmarks and distinctive features that can help you orient yourself if you lose your way.
If you do lose the trail, don’t keep going, hoping to find your way back to it. That’s the quickest way to get lost. Stop and retrace your steps until you recover the trail.
If that doesn’t work, then you need to stay put and plan on waiting until you can be rescued.
Hiking Safety Tips: What You Need To Know
Every wilderness area has its own unique hazards. In Alaska and many parts of the western and eastern U.S., you must be “bear aware”.
In the high peaks of the Rockies, afternoon lightning storms are extremely common. In the Grand Canyon, heat and lack of water can be a deadly combination.
What are the specific dangers where you are going? Take the time to read up on it and talk to experienced hikers you know. Special precautions must be taken for these unique threats.
Some basic wilderness survival skills are essential to know if you end up lost in the backcountry. You’ll need to stay dry, warm, and hydrated.
Learn how to build a lean-to shelter with tree branches, how to start a fire in any weather, and how to find water, even in unpromising environments.
Basic first aid skills are also a must. You should know CPR, how to dress a wound, how to treat a broken bone, how to recognize and treat hypothermia, altitude sickness, and heat stroke. You should take a wilderness first aid course that will teach you these skills.
Hiking Safety Tips: Knowledge Is Power
The more hiking safety tips you know, especially the risks specific to your area, the more confident you will feel heading out into the wilderness.
When I spent a night alone on that alpine ridge, I wasn’t afraid of what could happen. (Okay, I did get a little spooked when I heard strange noises in the middle of the night — don’t tell anyone, alright?)
I knew that even if things didn’t go quite as planned, I could improvise and survive until help came.
Of course, you can’t plan for every possible situation — there is always some risk involved.
But with these hiking safety tips, you can reasonably prepare for most of the dangers you will face. In doing so you’ll make it much more likely that your friends and family will get to hear a lovely story about your safe and exciting trip.