Hiking is a fantastic outdoor activity that allows you to connect with nature, explore breathtaking landscapes, and challenge yourself physically. However, it’s essential to prioritize safety when setting out on a new trail, especially if you are new to the world of hiking. By following some key guidelines and disciplining yourself with a few tried-and-true principles, you will be able to safely enjoy all that nature has in store for you. In this article, we will provide you with a detailed guide on how to stay safe while hiking, covering everything from planning and preparation to on-trail safety and emergencies.

Planning and Preparation

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True success on the trail, regardless of whether it’s a challenging hike or a weekend stroll, begins with preparation. There are multiple components to this preparation; from physical to mental, and even emotional. Depending on one’s hiking ability, there’s even a strategic level of preparation that plays a part in overall trail victory.

Let’s break it down and see how each component fits into staying safe while hiking.

Choose Suitable Trails

One of the first places to start in overall trail safety is choosing a trail that is, in fact, safe. What does this mean? Well, in essence, it means selecting a trail that is suitable for one’s own hiking ability. If a person is new to hiking, Everest is probably not the first outing to try. Hikers should always select trails that match fitness levels and experience. 

If one is new to the world of hiking, perhaps 1-day trails with limited elevation climbs are in order. By easing into the world of hiking and outdoor excursions, one will help the body acclimate to the demands of the sport. Not only this, but it also gives trekkers a chance to test out new equipment, practice packing a bag, and time to break in fancy new hiking shoes.

With a few low-elevation climbs under one’s hiking belt, more challenging one-day routes may be in order. Angel’s Landing in Utah makes for a good test of both physical and mental fitness. Another gorgeous trail that will test the limits of endurance while expanding the horizon of one’s view is Kalalau Trail in Hawaii. Like Angel’s Landing, this beautiful trail on the island of Kauai can be completed in one day. It’s challenging with elevation changes as well as terrain difficulties, and will make for a great “next step” in one’s evolution as a hiker. 

Starting with easier routes and gradually progressing to more challenging ones provides the body time to develop endurance, lung capacity, and mental fortitude for longer, multi-day and even multi-country hikes. This progression is key in learning how to stay safe while hiking.

In preparing for a hike, it is great to check in with and maintain good physical health. Try walking two or three times a week gradually increasing distance and incline overtime in order to build endurance. It is also recommended to try walking on different terrains, particularly those that are unstable like sand. Also, incorporate steps ups and as much cardio as you can handle into your exercise routine. This will help you identify what your fitness level is in order to choose the best trail for you and then work your way up to more difficult ones. With consistent practice, any trail will be within reach and ready for your enjoyment.

Research the Trail

Another aspect to trail safety is research. Hikers should know where they are going beforehand, what sort of terrain they will cover, and even known weather patterns for the time of year. Another way to research trails is by searching social media for specific hashtags (like #appalachiantrail on Instagram) for in-the-moment pictures of different trailheads. This type of information and research may be the difference between making a wrong turn into a Yeti’s arms or coming out safely to where cars were parked (yes, sort of and sort of not kidding with this one). 

Following social media hashtags is not the only important research to be done. Take time to research the areas plant and animal life. Is it known for mountain lions in the area or have there been recent sightings? Perhaps there is a type of blueberry that grows in the area that, though on the outside looks safe to eat, on the inside is a deadly as can be (Viginia Creepers). 

Gathering information on a trail’s length, elevation changes, and potential hazards can be the difference between arriving home safe and sound or taking a medivac to the nearest hospital. So, put the time into learning the objective and getting through it safely on the other side. 

Share Your Itinerary

No, not on social media. That can be dangerous. Instead, tell a trusted friend or family member about the trip. Include the location, travel dates, and even the time expected on the trail. Let that individual know whether there are spots known to drop smartphone signals. Such details may be the difference between a life and death experience while out in nature enjoying this earth. 

Better Yet, Share Your Journey

Sharing an itinerary is one thing, but to truly stay safe while hiking, it is best to go with a hiking partner or in a group. Too much tragedy has struck the trails for even experienced hikers. The risk is definitely greater than the reward. Stay safe while hiking by bringing a friend along to talk, watch each other’s backs, and even go for help if the unfortunate occurs. 

Know Weather Conditions

Hiking is all about getting out into mother nature; but at times, mother nature may choose to strike back. Knowing weather conditions and tendencies for inclement weather in the trail area is key to staying safe while hiking. Some trails, though beautiful, may be known for flash flooding. Monitoring weather conditions up until the day of a hike will be key. Be prepared for extreme shifts in weather from heat to cold, sunny to rain, and gusting winds. All of these conditions (and more) can make for a most unpleasant and unsafe experience. 

Know Skill Set Level

What skills are necessary for a safe hike? Well, it all depends on the type of hike one is preparing for. Is it a single day hike? Perhaps what is in order is knowing how to use an ACE bandage and properly wrapping a twisted ankle. 

Is it a multi-day hike? Things become a bit more serious once a hiker decides to spend the night out in the open on a trail. Does the trekker know how to build a fire from scratch? What about more serious First Aid issues like properly tying a tourniquet? It’s not enough to buy a First Aid kit, one has to know how to use it. For this reason, it is highly recommended that hikers take a basic First Aid class in order to know proper field application and dressing of wounds. These issues may be experienced on the trail in one’s own self or, unfortunately, encountered as hikers come across others who have fallen or are in serious trouble. It is the duty and responsibility of hikers to help one another. So be prepared and ready by taking a class beforehand. 

Packing For a Proper Hike

The proper gear and equipment are also fundamental for hiking safety. The type of hike will determine the type of gear needed. If a hike is just a day trip, then a light backpack with water, a few protein bars, and a carb source (gummy bears are always good!) will do just fine. If anything, ensure that more water than is needed is readily available just in case of an unfortunate event. 

What if the trip is longer, like a multi-day hike? Here’s where things can get trickier and research comes in handy. Does the multi-day hike have accommodations along the way where hikers can purchase equipment and food staples? This will help determine what must be carried on the trail.

If it is the case that such is readily available, hikers should pack for emergencies. An emergency blanket, a first aid kit, a water purification tool (or tablets), a multi-tool, and both a headlamp and flashlight are the bare minimum. 

Consider also taking along the way food rations and layered, dry-wick clothing that will air dry quickly. Of course, a hiking jacket with hood, polarized sunglasses, and a hat will also help.

What about tech or navigation tools? 

Of course, a smartphone will be essential. This not only helps with taking pictures (and, depending on the type of smartphone one carries, can eliminate the need for carrying a camera) but can also be used in case of emergency to connect with a satellite. Modern smartphones like the iPhone 14 Pro have an emergency SOS satellite system built into it. This can become very helpful if trouble strikes on the trail. Even if an individual is out of range from a 5G tower, the phone can be put into SOS satellite mode and held up to the sky. Once activated, move around slowly and wait for the satellite signal to connect and transmit the SOS signal. This system was developed for times such as these and will work with modern-day iPhone and Android devices that are satellite capable. 

Another way of using a smartphone for hiking safety is by downloading trail apps that use a device’s GPS system to track one’s point on the trail. These apps tend to be better than Google Maps or Waze because they are type specific to trails. They can show detours, points of interest, and dangerous and treacherous terrain that ought to be avoided. Some of the more well-known trail apps are AllTrails and FarOut. 

Now, all that being said, one thing must be noted: If it has a battery, a signal, a screen, a button … it can fail you. Devices fall out of hands, get wet, run out of battery charge, and somehow, inevitably end up with cracked screens. Let Murphy’s Law dictate the day here and be prepared for the worst. How? Carry a physical map in a waterproof cover or pouch. This also means that one needs to be able to use the map when called upon. In other words, know North, South, East, and West by looking at the sun and stars. It may sound funny, but out on the trail in the middle of the night with nothing to guide you but a few stars in the dark sky … well, it could save a life.

Prepped and Ready to Go … Now What?

If all of the above is in order and it now comes down to actually placing one foot in front of the other on the trail, there are still a few more guidelines to follow in order to stay safe while hiking. 

It may sound simple and logical, and it should go without saying, but it needs to be said anyways: stay on the path. Sure, that side path looks cool and all and people may suddenly feel like they need to know where it leads, but as anyone knows who has done a little gaming in life, side quests are always a little too involved and overly complicated. Straying from the marked trail is when things can go wrong. What if that path that looks so cool is actually a badger trail with said Honey Badger just waiting at the end of it for some intrepid hiker? It is never worth it to step off the marked path. Do not do it because disaster may quickly follow.

One more word about the marked path. As hikers who are there to enjoy the natural wonder and beauty of nature, remember to follow the “Leave No Trace” principle. What does this mean? Well, as it sounds, as one makes way through the trail it should be as if that one was never there. This means that the increasingly popular behavior of building cairns on the trail should be avoided. This does not follow the “Leave No Trace” principle. When this principle is followed, not only is the hike safe for the hiker but also for nature itself. 

Hiking is a remarkable way to explore the outdoors and enjoy the wonders of nature. By following these guidelines and prioritizing safety, you can minimize risks and maximize your enjoyment on the trails. Remember, always be prepared, stay aware, and make responsible choices while hiking.

Stay safe and have a memorable adventure!