Any avid hiker knows that time spent among the trees, breaking a sweat and taking in beautiful panoramas is an excellent way to feel physically and emotionally healthier. Science even supports this – according to the Harvard Medical School, hiking lowers stress levels and builds up neglected muscle groups, such as the core.
At first glance, hiking only requires a bit of time, some pretty scenery, and the willingness to get out there. While it is indeed straightforward, a few basic safety rules should be observed on every hike so as to ensure that this relaxed, enjoyable experience stays that way. Read on to learn about the basic steps and gear needed for hiking safety to have the most fun and successful excursion possible.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – this old adage might sound most like something your mother would tell you in regards to studying for a test, but it also applies beautifully to preparing for a hiking trip. Make sure you do the following things while getting ready for your hike – they take only a few minutes and could make all the difference in case of an unlikely emergency.
Don’t Hike Alone
Hiking alone can be peaceful, but according to best practices, it is not the safest option. Unfortunately, this one is all about worst-case scenarios – if one of you gets very hurt or lost, the other can make it back to town to alert the authorities. Or, heaven forbid, like a pair of snowshoers I encountered once – if one partner becomes disoriented due to hypothermia or hypoxia, the other can make decisions for the two of you.
Hiking with a partner is highly encouraged in places like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks due to the large grizzly populations. Groups tend to talk and make more noise which allows bears to hear you coming and flee, thereby eliminating the dangerous situation of coming upon a startled bear. This applies to other locations and wildlife as well, including snakes, mountain lions, and other dangerous animals. Take a hiking buddy or consider joining a hiking group.
Tell Someone Where You’re Going
It’s also a good habit to let someone know if you’ll be heading into the woods. Some trailheads have a logbook which rangers infrequently check to see if the people who signed in also signed out when they planned to. However, this is not a fail-proof option. Instead, designate a close friend or family member, and ask if you can send them the coordinates of where you’ll be on each hike, your general route, and return time. That way, if you don’t come home as expected and your network starts asking around, someone will know where you were supposed to have been and can use that information to track you down.
The skills and information you take onto the trail with you will be essential in keeping the fun/discomfort ratio in your favor.
Bringing a map and knowing how to read it are of the utmost importance on any new or remote trail. Learn to orient yourself using a compass. Figure out how the topography on the map is going to affect the elevation gain of your hike. For example, a 10-mile flat hike and a 10-mile hike that gains 4,000 feet in elevation are going to feel very different, and you don’t want to be underprepared in time or supplies for the harder challenge. Familiarize yourself with how to find your location based on water crossings – especially if you’ll be depending on lakes or streams for refilling your bottles.
On a familiar trail, these skills might be an entertaining pass time, but on a new trail, this could be the difference between being aware that you have to cross another mountain range before nightfall and getting stuck in tricky terrain in a precarious situation.
Water and Calories
Having adequate food and water is imperative to a fun hike. If you start running low on either of those, you not only lose your playful enthusiasm for the day, but you also risk weakness and mental fatigue which could lead to inability to navigate potentially dangerous situations.
For moderate, mild-weather hiking, you should plan on drinking half a liter per hour. If you find yourself at high altitude, in hot weather, or significantly exerting yourself (like in a really hilly area), plan on potentially doubling that. This is, of course, per person – don’t accidentally use these formulas for an entire group! Hydration packs are great for hiking, but carrying that amount of water can be just as tiring as the hiking, so consider bringing a water filter (which we’ll discuss later) to mitigate the weight.
Similarly, proper caloric intake is important for peak hiking performance. Most people burn about 400 calories an hour while hiking, so you’ll want to bring lots of snacks to help you replenish your energy. In general, you’ll want to prioritize your nutrients with mostly carbs, then some fats, and less than 20% protein. Think nuts, dried fruit, a peanut butter sandwich, some candies, etc. Bring additional, heartier food if you’re hiking for more than a day.
It’s a rookie mistake, but everyone’s done it – set out without checking the weather. In some locations, like at high-altitude or wide open spaces, being unaware of a pending storm could leave you vulnerable to scary lightning and violent hail. Mostly, though, it’s just nice to know the temperature or if it’s going to rain so that you can come prepared with proper clothing.
There are a few pieces of gear a seasoned hiker never leaves behind. These are the keys to safety and comfort.
It’s worth mentioning that quality, supportive shoes can make all the difference on the trail. Trendy boots that are comfortable in the city might not be intended for extensive, trail walking and could lead to unwelcome joint problems. You don’t have to wear extreme hiking boots – many hikers don’t – but be sure you have a lot of support, and test your choice out before you set off on any 20-milers.
GPS (+ Charger)
With everyone having a phone nowadays, it’s kind of a no-brainer to make sure you have GPS capabilities on the trail in case of emergencies. Many camping and hiking apps like All Trails and Backcountry Navigator allow you to pull up the trail on your phone and track your progress. Having GPS is a great combination with map skills to ensure that you never get too far off the trail. But with the notoriously short battery-spans of older phones, bring along a charger so you’re not left with a dead phone and no idea where you are.
Bring waterproof gear including a jacket for yourself and a cover or trash bag for your day pack – even if it only rains once the whole year you dragged them around, you’ll be thanking yourself on that one day that you didn’t get soaked.
As mentioned earlier, a water filter is first, a great way to eliminate the need to carry several liters of water per person (we’re not camels, man!), and second, is a great emergency survival tool. If you got lost, with your handy 10 oz. filter, you’ll be able to drink clean water to your heart’s content. A word of caution, though – if you’re in an arid area or near the end of summer or fall and you are depending on the rivers you see on your map, it might be a good idea to call the local ranger station and get an update on water levels. You don’t want to count on a single water source for a day’s rations only to find its nothing but cracked mud.
It’s amazing the suffering a single blister can cause and how comforting a single band-aid for that blister can be. Don’t go anywhere without these very basic first aid items, and for anything more ambitious than a day hike, seriously research and compile a robust kit that includes more than the 10 essentials. However, for a simple day hike, you will be well covered with:
- Assorted bandages
- Antibacterial wipes
- Antibacterial ointment
- Anti-itch cream
- Bug spray
Time to Climb Every Mountain (Safely)
Now that you know the strategies to ensure a safe hiking trip, go out and conquer some trails, leave your worries behind, and start your journey to your most relaxed and healthy version of you!