Getting lost can happen to anyone. Trails disappear, maps are wrong, and injuries happen. What you do BEFORE you even start out on the trail can save your life. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about seven-day, across-the-Andes hikes. These are hiking safety tips you should follow even for day trips in local parks with clearly marked trails.
Hey, the S.S. Minnow only went out for a three-hour tour, and look how that turned out. I like to follow the “Just Rule.” If at any time you use the phrase “I’m JUST going on a little hike,” you’re already in trouble. Keep the following hiking tips and suggestions in mind.
Table of Contents
Essential Hiking Safety Tips
1. Begin With Preparations
Safety on the trail is ensured before even lacing up your hiking boots.
Plot your route: Getting to know the ins and outs of your intended path is critical. Leverage reliable maps and compasses, guidebooks, or advice from local experts in national parks. Take into account factors like altitude, trail difficulty, distance, and any specific hazards along the route.
Equip yourself: Crucial items such as a map and compass, a first-aid kit, a multi-tool, a flashlight, a fire starter, extra food and water, and an emergency shelter should form the core of your hiking gear. Don’t forget to pack rain gear and extra clothing for unforeseen weather changes. Always dress in layers and wear sturdy, broken-in hiking boots. Carry a hat and gloves, sunscreen, and insect repellent for extra protection.
Before you leave the house, learn to work your technology. If you have never used a handheld GPS, don’t wait until you are halfway up the trail to turn it on. Some of those fancier models require a degree is astrophysics to program them. More than once, people have used their GPS wrong, and given rescuers the wrong coordinates. Wouldn’t hurt to learn to use a compass as well. The batteries never die in a compass. While you’re at it, light a small campfire in your backyard. Ever tried to use a knife and a flint to start a fire? It’s not as easy as it looks on TV. Find a place it’s legal to fire a flare gun. If you are carrying it with you, learn how it works.
Tell someone where you are going, and when you will be back. No one will come and look for you if no one knows you are missing! Call your family, check in with the ranger station, or leave an envelope in your glove box. This not only will signal that you are missing but will give the search and rescue teams a better idea of where to start looking for you. The smaller the search area, the quicker they can find you. Telling someone your schedule may be the most important thing you can do to save your life in an emergency.
Check the weather: Your trusted weather forecaster should be your last stop before embarking on the hike. Weather can change unpredictably, especially in mountainous regions. Review the forecast closely before you set out and be ready to modify your plans if need be.
2. Understand Your Abilities
Recognizing personal limitations and respecting them are essential parts of a safe hike.
Fitness level: Ensure you’re in sound health and possess the necessary endurance and strength for your intended hike. Begin with simpler trails and gradually progress to more challenging ones.
Acclimatization: If high-altitude hiking is on your agenda, remember to allow time for acclimatization to prevent altitude sickness. Rise slowly, hydrate with extra water, and consider spending the night at a high altitude before going higher.
Rest and hydration: Regularly take short breaks, especially during demanding hikes. Drinking water frequently is key to staying hydrated, so don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink.
3. Nature Deserves Respect
A conscientious hiker safeguards not just their well-being but also the environment’s.
Maintain your path: Straying off the trail can lead to erosion, harm delicate ecosystems, and increase your likelihood of getting lost. It’s always safer and more respectful to the environment to stay put on the marked path.
Adhere to the ‘Leave No Trace’ principle: Pack out all trash and leftover food to preserve the beauty of nature for generations to come.
Wildlife interaction: Always maintain a safe distance from any wildlife. Attempting to feed or touch animals is dangerous and disrupts their natural behaviors.
4. Prioritize Safety on the Trail
Group hiking: Hiking in groups is often safer and more enjoyable. Make sure everyone stays within sight and check periodically on those following.
Admit when you are lost. Many people think they KNOW how to get back on the trail only to end up deeper in the wilderness. If you are lost or injured- STOP! Sit down and take stock of your situation. Find shelter, make a plan, and wait for someone to find you. If it gets dark, stay in place. Stumbling around in the dark will only get you more lost and possibly injured. When you do not return by your designated time or date, someone will come and find you. You did check in at the ranger station, right?
Signal for help: Should an emergency arise, whistles, mirrors, flares, or bright fabric can aid search and rescue teams in locating you. Ensure you have cell service or an alternative form of communication if possible.
5. Arm Yourself with Basic Survival Skills
Basic wilderness survival skills are invaluable when the unexpected happens.
First aid: Learn how to treat common hiking injuries such as sprains, cuts, blisters, and insect bites. Recognize symptoms of heatstroke, dehydration, and be especially aware that hikers are susceptible to hypothermia.
Navigation skills: Know how to use a map and compass. As you hike, mark landmarks and other signals on the map you will be carrying with you at all times. This is your hiking reset button. If you start to get lost, you can restore to the last known working settings, ie: the big rock that looks like a badger. I’d like to stress that your phone is NOT a substitute for a map. Rain, lack of signal, and a good thunk on a rock will all disable your phone or GPS device. It’s hard to disable a map.
Shelter building: Should you need to spend the night, understanding how to build a simple shelter can keep you safe from the elements.
Must-Have Hiking Gear
Whether you’re setting off on a quick day hike or a multi-day adventure, there are several items of hiking gear that you should always have with you. These essential pieces of equipment can make your trip safer and more enjoyable.
- Backpack: A good hiking backpack is essential for carrying all your gear. It should be comfortable, durable, and ideally have plenty of compartments for easy organization.
- Hiking Boots or Shoes: Footwear should be sturdy, comfortable, and appropriate for the conditions you will be hiking in. Waterproof boots can be particularly useful in wet conditions. And boots with ankle support are a must when carrying weight or navigating uneven terrain.
- Hiking Poles: Hiking poles can help with stability and reduce strain on your joints, especially on uneven terrains or downhill paths.
- Navigation Tools: These include a map and compass. Even if you’re familiar with the trail, these are important in case you get lost or the trail is not clearly marked. GPS devices can be helpful but always have a backup in case of battery failure.
- First Aid Kit: Your kit should include bandages, antiseptic wipes, tweezers, medical tape, painkillers, and any personal medication. Make sure to add Moleskin for blisters. Knowledge of basic first aid is also crucial.
- Food and Water: Always bring more than you think you’ll need. Energy bars, nuts, and dried fruit are good hiking snacks. For water, a hydration bladder can be a convenient option.
- Multipurpose Tool: This can include a knife, can opener, tweezers, scissors, and a bottle opener.
- Weather-appropriate Clothing: Dressing in layers allows you to adjust to changing weather and activity levels. Avoid cotton, which takes a long time to dry when wet, and opt for moisture-wicking and quick-drying materials.
- Dress in bright colors: This isn’t just a fashion statement; it aids visibility, helping you stand out against the natural environment and making it easier for others to spot you in case of an emergency.
- Flashlight or Headlamp: Even if you plan to return before dark, a light source is essential in case your hike takes longer than expected or you need to find something in your pack.
- Emergency Shelter: A lightweight bivvy or space blanket can be a lifesaver if you have to spend an unexpected night outdoors.
- Fire Starter: Waterproof matches, lighters, or a fire starter can help you start a fire for warmth, cooking, or signaling for help.
- Whistle: A whistle is used for signaling help in case of an emergency. Three short blasts is the universal signal for distress.
Remember, every hiker’s needs might be slightly different depending on the specific conditions of the hike (such as weather and duration), so it’s important to adapt this list as needed.
Hitting The Trails
Hiking may be low tech, unplugged, back to nature – but use some high tech before you leave. Research, read, and learn all you can. Some hard work before you go means you can relax and enjoy your hike later.
The trail is yours to enjoy, and with these safety tips, you can do so while ensuring a safe and enriching experience. Happy hiking!