TripSavvy / Linda Strauta
These safety tips for hiking may seem like common sense, but way too many hikers find themselves in bad situations due to lack of knowledge or research. Some basic preparation can keep your hike in the happy-memory category where it belongs.
Scary situations on the trail often begin with a sequence of seemingly small things that go wrong. A light rain makes the trail slippery and soaks your clothing. Then you dig into your pack to discover the water bottle has leaked its precious contents all over the map. That causes you to take the wrong trail and fail to get out before dark. Now, instead of sharing a celebratory meal and beverage with the other hikers, you’re cold, thirsty, and in for a very long night.
Plan for an Overnight (Even on Day Hikes)
Day hikes can unexpectedly turn into overnights in the woods, and you probably won’t be making any s’mores. Getting lost or spraining an ankle (or helping a fellow hiker with one) could delay your getting back to the car on time, so it’s essential to be prepared as if you might have to spend the night on the trail.
Hikers who fear the idea of spending an unprepared night in the woods are more likely to be in a hurry to finish the trail and then fall or get injured in darkness. Falls and hypothermia are two leading causes of fatalities on trails, and both are more likely to happen at night.
That said, always and without exception, carry at least one reliable light source while hiking (such as a flashlight), a couple extra snacks, and an extra layer to wear—even if you plan to be out before sunset. Don’t waste valuable phone battery by using it as your light! If you become lost without a light source, stop moving and wait for rescue or sunrise. Statistically, spending an uncomfortable night is safer than trying to find your way out.
Let Someone Know Where You’re Going
Even if hiking with a friend, it’s still a good idea to let some someone back in civilization know when you expect to return. You won’t be rescued if no one knows you might need rescuing. Make a trip plan and leave it with someone reliable.
The National Park Service recommends your trip plan include:
- A map with itinerary and planned route
- Expected return date and time
- Color, make, and license number of your vehicle
- What color clothing you and others are wearing
- List of people going with you (including any essential medical needs of people in your group)
Research Your Route in Advance
Before hiking in an unfamiliar area, learn about the layout of your hike, including the distance, the terrain, and the elevation gain. Note how far you would need to walk in any one direction to intersect a road or water. Ask yourself (and be honest) about whether you’re in good enough shape for the elevation gains. A topographic map can be a valuable resource for getting an overview of the terrain.
On the day of your hike, take a few minutes to visit the park headquarters or ranger station if there is one. The experienced rangers will be happy to talk about weather, wildlife, fire alerts, trail closures, stream crossings, and anything else you should know. While you’re there pick up a paper map rather than depending solely on technology for orienting.
Bring Snacks and Extra Water
Water is a necessary but unfortunately heavy essential, so hikers tend to carry only as much as they think they’ll need. However, dehydration is a common problem on the trail, especially in winter or dry air. Make a habit of packing an extra bottle. (You may encounter someone else who needs water.)
And consider purchasing a filtration device in the event you’d run out of water. Any water source you come across probably needs to be purified; better to err on the side of caution and avoid befriending the local parasite. A LifeStraw, Sawyer Mini, or other filtration device weighs very little but will solve a big problem should you become stuck.
Snacks are essential for boosting morale and energy as needed. A “hangry” hiker with low blood sugar is more likely to make poor decisions. Always keep some energy bars, nuts, or other snacks you prefer in your pack.
Don’t Interact With Wildlife
Spotting wildlife while hiking is typically a blessing, but you should know how to properly handle encounters. Generally speaking, give all wild animals a wide berth. National Park rangers recommend at least 100 yards for bears and 25 yards for moose, bison, and elk. Make noise throughout your hike to alert a bear of your presence (and therefore, avoid surprising it). If you do see a bear, try not to be noticed, and slowly back away the way that you came.
If you’ve already attracted attention, never try to run away. The National Wildlife Federation reports that grizzly bears can run 35 mph4. Instead, keep your eye on the animal (no selfies), and move sideways in a wide circle around it or back up slowly until you’re safe. Wave your arms and make noise but not in an aggressive way. Let the animal know you are neither a threat nor tasty prey. (Experts also warn against climbing trees; bears can climb trees much better than you can.)
Read more tips here about bear and other wildlife encounters from the National Park Service.
Start Your Day Early
Beginning your hike earlier provides many advantages. The light is better for photos, birds and wildlife are more active, and thunderstorms occur most often in the afternoon. More importantly, you’ll have an extra buffer before dark for sorting things out if something goes wrong.
If hiking in bear country, be extra vigilant at dawn and dusk when they’re most active. Surprising a sleepy bear is always a bad idea.
Know What to Do in Bad Weather
Checking the forecast is prudent, but Mother Nature can quickly change things up. Brief thunderstorms can turn trails into slippery washouts. Easy stream crossings often become hazardous, and strong wind can cause large branches to fall.
If you hear thunder while hiking, even if the sky is still blue, you should turn around immediately or head for the nearest shelter—ideally, a fully enclosed building or a car. If there is no nearby shelter, head for low ground and avoid tall objects like trees, and crouch down (don’t lie) on the ground.
Hypothermia may seem like only a winter problem, but getting “hiker’s hypothermia,” as it is known, is possible even in 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Experienced hikers know the adage “cotton kills.” Becoming wet, either by rain or sweat, while wearing the wrong clothing can cause a quick drop in body heat. The condition is often exasperated by exertion, fatigue, and dehydration—things hikers face. Fortunately, hypothermia is easily preventable:
- Dress in layers to better control your temperature
- Choose moisture-wicking layers over cotton and denim
- Don’t push for a windy summit if you’re already wet and cold
Carry a Whistle
A whistle takes up little room, and should you need help, the sound will carry much farther than your voice. Blow your whistle in bursts of three (SOS) to indicate you have an emergency. Keep it handy in a pocket or on a lanyard, not buried in backpack!
Don’t Wear Headphones While Hiking
A lot of people enjoy music on a long hike, but eliminating one of your most important senses comes with a cost. Not only will you miss the birdsong, nature often warns with sounds, giving us enough time to respond. You need to hear that irritated bear’s snort, rattlesnake’s rattle, or falling branch’s sharp crack!
Music is nice, but wait until you’re on your way to enjoy that celebratory beverage at the end of a safe hike.