Well, maybe day hiking safety is not as simple as “just having fun” but you sure can combine both! In this article we’ll explore the question “What is safety?” from the point of view of hikers, especially those venturing out into the woods, canyons, and other dangerous terrain. Having a basic understanding of day hiking safety is very important, especially for beginning hikers. If you are a beginner, you should bookmark this page and refer to it whenever you are about to venture out of your house and into the wilderness. A walk in the woods doesn’t have to be scary, dangerous or boring – as long as you follow this advice your hikes will be both fun and safe! Before we go into the details, here is a video for those with ADHD 🙂
Organize a group to go with you
The first rule of hiking safety is to make sure you have help available in case an emergency happens. The easiest way of ensuring this is to go hiking with a group of people. Not only will your friends make the hike more interesting, but they can also help you get to safety if you injure yourself or get lost. But how do you convince your friends and family to go on a hike with you? Well, there are a few tricks:
- Tell them they will not have to worry about you getting lost if they actually come along.
- Tell them that hiking is one of the funnest workouts they can do and that it burns an incredible number of calories (show them this calorie calculator if they don’t believe you or if they are on a diet and need to count every calorie they burn/eat).
- If they are interested in photography, tell them they can bring their camera and get some great shots of wildlife and beautiful scenery.
- If there is cellphone coverage on your hike, tell them they can check in to their Facebook or Foursquare right from the top of the mountain!
Alright, so now you have at least one person who will come along. Next, you need to make sure people who are NOT going hiking with you are aware of your route and the time you expect to return. The easiest way of doing this is to sign up for a personal worrying robot service like WorryBot.com which will automatically alert your emergency contacts if you do not come back on time from your adventure. Alternatively, you can call your emergency contacts yourself and tell them where you are going and for how long, but if you are a frequent hiker, doing that might get quite bothersome for you and your contacts. Be sure to notify your contacts no matter if you end up going hiking alone or with other people!
Now let’s talk about …
Things To Bring On a Hike
Here is a list of very basic things every hiker, including you, should have in their backback:
- Water – enough to keep yourself hydrated during the whole hike.
- Food – something that is dense in calories. If your are going for a short and intense hike, take food rich in simple carbohydrates and protein (protein bars, energy bars and chocolate milk are perfect for these types of hikes). For longer hikes pack foods rich in all macronutrients. including protein, carbs and fats.
- Dry Clothes – something to change into once you reach the top of the mountain. Bringing change clothes is especially important when you are hiking steep trails and sweating a lot. Wet cotton clothes draw heat away from your body and release it into the cold environment.
- Knife – this can turn out to be your real life-saver if you get lost and have to make shelter or hunt for your own food. If you don’t have one, here is a great knife you can buy for less than $40. This knife was co-designed by Bear Grylls, known for his extreme outdoor survival show Man vs Wild.
- Matches / Lighter / Firesteel – anything that is faster to make fire with than rubbing two sticks together. Having a quick way to start a fire is especially important if you’re going hiking during winter or in alpine areas. The most reliable way of starting a fire, even when soaking wet, is using Swedish Firesteel (around $10). Bear Grylls, the survival specialist in Man vs Wild, has relied on this wonderful firestarter to beat hypothermia multiple times. If you expect to be hiking in damp/swampy areas, be sure to bring some dry paper or lint from your clothes dryer to use as kindling.
- Toilet Paper – not all trails have toilets with toilet paper! Actually, not all trails have toilets… period! Having something in your backpack for that moment when you just have to go, especially on longer hikes, can make all the difference between an enjoyable hike and a terrible one.
- Cell Phone – your personal tracker, emergency communication device and light beacon.Take one with you even if you know there is no service on your hike. Some search and rescue teams have sophisticated equipment that can triangulate your cellphone position within a search area even if there is no cell coverage there. Be sure to conserve your battery life by powering off your phone or switching it to airplane-mode, and only turn it on in an emergency. If you are hiking in an area with cellphone coverage, you can install a free GPS tracking application such as MapMyHike to track interesting statistics about your hike, like elevation gain, time and distance. You can later use the hiking calculator to find out the exact number of calories you burned. If you signed up for the WorryBot.com personal worrying robot service, you can use your phone to arm the personal safety alarm before leaving on the hike, as well as check-in throughout your hike (if there is cellphone service) and keep your friends and family informed of your current safety.
- Stand-Alone GPS Unit or Compass (if no cellphone coverage on trail) – to make sure you can always get back to the trailhead. On remote trails with no cellphone service, there really is no substitute for a full-blown GPS unit like this one (around $80). You can use the unit to mark and later locate the trailhead and other points on your trail.
- Map of the Park – to help you orient with your GPS device/phone/compass. More often than not, your cellphone map application or GPS unit’s build-in maps will not have enough detail for the area you will be hiking in, so for non-emergency orientation (for example, trying to figure out what trail to take at an unmarked trail intersection) nothing beats a detailed trail/park map.
- Paracord – a lightweight rope used for parachutes. No matter if you expect to be hiking in the woods or canyons, getting lost might force you to traverse down big drops, build shelter, catch your own food and protect yourself from wild animals. Having a light and strong rope like the 500lb military-grade Paracord (around $5 for 50 feet) can literally save your life even without being attached to a parachute.
- Camera – for taking those “wish you were here” photos. To make sure you remember “those crazy twisted trees”, “that fat chipmunk” or “that bear that tore up our backpack” in the years to come after your adventure, bring a camera and take lots of pictures!
Things To Wear On A Hike
There are a two simple rules to follow when choosing what to wear for a hike. First, always check the weather forecast for the area you will be hiking in (simply punch in the name of the park in the search box). Armed with the forecast, choose multiple layers of suitable clothing that you can put on/off as your hike progresses and you get colder/warmer. Second, always wear boots with good ankle support. While it is possible to hike even in tennis shoes, having boots with ankle support can save you from getting stranded on the trail after twisting your leg. Hiking is nothing like walking on a paved road – there are wet leaves, rocks, tree roots and branches which can get extremely slippery, especially in humid/rainy areas.
Phew! So now you have notified your emergency contacts where and when you’re going hiking and when you’ll be back (or personal worrying robot using your phone), convinced a friend to come along, filled up your backpack with hiking essentials and are dressed appropriately! The only thing that’s left is to actually HIKE!
The most important thing to remember when hiking is to actually have fun! The second most important thing is to stay safe (actually, this should probably share the first spot with having fun :)). Here are a few tips on how to stay safe while having fun on a hike:
- Ration your water use during the uphill half of your hike. When you are going on a hike that goes up a mountain/canyon, be sure to always have some water left in your reserve at least until you reach the top. Going uphill can be extremely exhausting and drinking water is the only way to stay hydrated, but not all uphill trails are equally hard throughout the whole ascent. Some hikes start out easy and finish hard, some start out hard and finish really easy. If you don’t know your trail, stay on the conservative side and drink the bare minimum you feel you need – you can always drink up after you get to the top.
- Avoid eating salty or overly sweet foods on your way up. These foods will typically make you more thirsty, forcing you to finish that water bottle sooner. Avoiding salty and sweet foods puts you back in control, allowing you to ration your water use as you make the ascent.
- Stay on marked trails. To avoid getting lost, stick to the marked trails and don’t take any shortcuts or “scenic detours”. In tough to see areas, trails can be marked with a colored metal diamond nailed to the trees and/or ribbons tied to bases of branches. When coming to a trail intersection, always follow the official sign posts and/or your trail map.
- Make noise when hiking in bear country. Most bears will mind their own business when they hear a human approaching. But if a bear gets startled by your close presence, it may attack (either to defend itself or its pups). Make sure to talk loudly when hiking with a group. If hiking alone, you can hum a song or attach a bear bell (about $6) to your backpack. You can also bring along a bear spray ($35) for ultimate protection against bears.
- Never drink water from streams. While the water in streams may look sparkly-clean, it can also be contaminated with bacteria from dead, decomposing animals upstream. Only drink water you brought with you. The only way to safely drink water from the streams is after boiling/filtering/purifying it. You can also bring water treatment tablets to treat stream water in cases of emergency.
- Walk carefully. Trails can be very slippery and rocky, so be extra careful where you place your feet especially when going downhill.
If you’ve made it this far, here is a treat for you – here is a beautiful video of the Alps:
And this is it – “Day Hiking Safety 101” class dismissed! Simply follow the pre-hike preparation and on-trail safety advice above every time you go into the woods and soon staying safe when hiking will become like second nature to you! If you want to delve deeper into advanced hiking safety topics, you can pick up one of these books:
And here is a list of essentials and gadgets recommended in this article: