An important part of enjoying your hikes is being a responsible hiker. This means that no matter how many times you’ve been on the trail, how much awesome safety gear you have with you, or how confident you are with your athletic and physical fitness levels, safety awareness is a must for all hikers. With just a little pre-planning and come common sense, you can ensure that you come back from every hike in the same condition that you entered the trail.
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Fact: You Can Get Hurt When Hiking
The hard truth is that hiking is not without it’s safety risks. Even those of us who have done it hundreds of times are still at risk when it comes to safety blunders. In fact, just recently two experienced hikers in Las Vegas tragically fell to their deaths when hiking at Red Rock. Here are three hard truths about hiking:
- The only person responsible for your safety is you.
- Risk is everywhere – from lightning to wild animals to falling rocks to sudden changes in the weather. Something as simple at tripping over an exposed tree root can result in a sprained ankle, which could end up as a life threatening condition on the trail.
- Being prepared and educated on hiking safety can help you minimize these risks.
Before You Hit The Trail
The best way to stay safe out there is to be prepare for safety before your hiking boots even touch the trail. This often means proper preparation at home. Depending on where you are hiking, what time of year it is, and your skill level; the exact preparations will vary slightly. However, there are some basics that apply to everyone.
Always Tell Someone Your Plans
Never go out hiking without telling someone where you will be. I am guilty of this sometimes myself. When I forget to tell someone about my hiking plans, I get on social media and post an update about where I am and what trail I will be on for the day. Obviously, this is not an ideal way to do this, but it is certainly better that not having anyone knowing where you and your hiking partner are if you don’t return at the end of the day.
Never Hike Alone
I know that it can be challenging to get a hiking partner if you are single or new to your city, but with the internet there are always ways to get a hiking buddy before you head out. If you have a local REI, then check out their events to see if there are any hiking excursions coming up. Another good place to find local groups of hikers is MeetUp – just enter in your location and start searching. And, if those results fail you, then look for a subreddit for your city on Reddit and ask for a hiking buddy.
Pack A Trail Map and Compass
Even if you have hiked the trail before, it is a good idea to carry an updated trail map on your person. You never know what might happen out there. And if you end up off the trail, the map can be invaluable when it comes to getting your bearings and get yourself back on that trail. Don’t rely on a map or map app on your phone. Why? Because your battery can drain and then you’ll have no map. Plus, some online maps and apps aren’t accurate or up-to-date, which is also dangerous. If you’re hiking at a National Park or other park, then stop by the park ranger office or info center to get an updated map. Keep in mind that some parks do charge for the maps, for instance at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada you get a free map when you enter but the really good one is only available for purchase in the gift shop at the Visitor Center.
You’ll also want to make sure that you carry a compass with you on your hikes. Yes, I know that your iPhone has a compass on it, but that won’t do you any good when your phone runs out of battery. Get a real compass – they are cheap, small and lightweight.
Don’t Expect To Use Your Cellphone For Emergencies
I think it’s pretty commonplace to pack your cellphone in your hiking gear (I know that I do), but you can’t rely on it for emergencies. A recent well-publicized news story of hiker Geraldine Largay shows that your cell phone doesn’t always work out on the trail, and trying to use it for a rescue might not work at all.
Instead of relying on your iPhone, go out on the trail with some emergency electronics that will actually work out there – no matter where you are on the trail. A good, cheap option is the SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger.
Consider Getting Wilderness First Aid Training
If you intend to do a lot of hiking or backcountry backpacking, then you might want to consider taking a wilderness first aid training class. This type of classes gets you familiar with the outdoor risks that you might encounter and gives you actionable tips on what to do if anything happens to you or your hiking group while out there. This includes everything from what to do is a member of your hiking group has a heart attack to dealing with allergic reactions and minor injuries. The Wilderness Medical Institute is a good place to get this sort of training.
Pack A First Aid Kit
Always include a basic first aid kit in your hiking gear. What you’ll need will really depend on the weather, how long you’ll be out on the trail, and the terrain of the trail. Some basics you’ll probably want to include are:
- gauze and/or band-aids for wound care
- an ACE bandage for sprains or strains
- pain killers like ibuprofen
- Benadryl or other allergy medication
You can also just buy a basic hiker first aid kit. REI has some great options that are pretty cheap, if you don’t want to put together your own kit.
Remember to tailor your kit to your hike, the terrain, and climate. Also keep in mind that some members of your hiking group may have existing conditions that require other supplies, like an Epi pen or insulin. You may also want to pack things like sunscreen to prevent sunburns and sun poisoning.
Don’t Forget The Water and Snacks
Dehydration can be a serious problem for hikers, especially if you are out West in places like Death Valley. For this reason, you should always pack lots of water for your hike. Consider how much you will need and then double that amount. I like to get some electrolyte water for my hikes, but just regular water is fine. I always pack a cooler of water in my car and then add some bottles to my pack before I hit the trail. This way, if I end up drinking all the water in my pack, I will still have some available once I get back to my vehicle.
I also pack some healthy snacks to help me power through my hikes. Don’t underestimate how quickly you will burn off those calories from breakfast once you get out there. Some of my favorite things to pack for snacking are almonds, peanuts, granola bars, dried bananas, fruit leather strips, and Barnana packs. I advise snacks that give you some protein and some sugar so that you can really keep powering through it. I’m sure some hikers opt for healthier options that I do, but this is what works for me. And if I am going to be out all day, then I will pack PB&J sandwiches or some tins of tuna with carrot sticks.
Carry A Whistle
I admit that I am guilty of not doing this myself, but hikers should always carry a safety whistle with them. Why? Because if you get into a situation where you need some help, that whistle will be much louder than your voice when you are yelling. And honestly, a whistle is both cheap and ultra lightweight so there is no reason to not carry one. Just remember that three short blasts from is the whistle is a well-known sign of distress.
On The Trail
Now that you have made all the necessary preparations, it’s time to hit the trail and have an amazing time out there. But just because you prepared for safety doesn’t mean that it’s time to get lax about it.
Start Out In Layers
It may sound counter-productive, especially if you are in a hot place like Death Valley, but definitely start out in layers that you can strip off on the trail. If you end up injured and have to spend the night out in the woods, then you’ll be thankful that you have long sleeves and pants to put on and prevent hypothermia. Of course, the weather can change at any time as well, so you never know when it might turn cold out on the trail.
And if you’re in the desert, then expect it to get cool at night. A few months ago, I was hiking at Death Valley during the day and it was extremely hot. Since I stayed until dark to see the night sky without light pollution, it got kind of chilly out there. Luckily, I’d packed a hoodie and pair of pull-over pants to keep me warm.
I’m a big fan of SmartWool socks and clothing for my hikes as they keep me cool when it’s hot and hold in my body heat when it is warm. SmartWool is also perfect for when you start sweating since it is moisture wicking. The socks are great for keeping your feet dry when you’re hiking in the heat, too. I wholeheartedly recommend adding some SmartWool clothing to your outdoor gear.
It’s easy to be focused on the trail ahead without actually being alert to surrounding danger. This could be anything from a seemingly large sounding animal moving around in the nearby woods to a trail marker covered by overgrown weeds. It is especially important to keep an eye out for the trail markers to ensure that you stay on the safest path through the wilderness. Of course, some trails are better marked than others as I discovered when I hiked Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia, Turkey.
Use Trekking Poles
If you want to ensure that you keep your footing on the trails, then take some trekking poles with you. These are a great addition to your hiking gear because they give you extra stability. They can also be used as a weapon if you encounter some wild animals.
Keep To The Trail And Don’t Climb Waterfalls
Yes, you might see something just off the trail that looks like it might be amazing. It happens. But don’t stray from the trail or you risk serious injury, or even death. And definitely don’t decide to climb a waterfall that you see off the trail. Earlier this year in Vietnam, three British tourists died after trying to climb a waterfall. Yes, there were also other factors at play that contributed to their death, but the fact is that this is not the first time that hikers and climbers have died when straying from the trail or climbing a waterfall.
What To Do If You Get Lost
Despite our best efforts, even the most experience hikers can get lost and off the marked trail. When this happens, the most important thing to remember is to not panic. Then, use your gear to determine if you can find your way back to the trail.
- Check your trail map to determine if you can locate where you are
- Use your emergency GPS and compass to see if you can find your way to the trail
If you can’t determine where you are, then you should STAY PUT! You definitely don’t want to get further from the trail and even more lost.
- Use your whistle to send out emergency distress calls
- Use your emergency GPS messenger to send out a distress message
- Attempt to make a shelter to stay warm and dry
- If there is a clearing nearby, move to it so that helicopters will be able to see you
- If you hear air rescue, stretch out on the ground instead of staying standing so that you are easier to spot
- Ration your water and food in order to make it last until you are rescued
As you wait for rescue, remember to continue making yourself heard with your whistle so that rescuers will be able to easily find you out there.