Hiking Safety Tips: How to Plan for Your Next Outing
As a physical activity, hiking is one of the most rewarding things that people can do. Experiencing nature while pushing forward through the obstacles it provides is tiring yet satisfying. Of course, avoiding getting hurt, injured, or sick is an important component of enjoying this exercise; No one wants to cap a day out with a stay in the hospital. Beyond general preparation, hikers need to bring adequate food and water, wear proper clothing and footwear, and pack the right equipment to protect them. This is true for brief visits of an hour or two as well as week-long backpacking treks through unfamiliar territory. By knowing what they should do in various scenarios, hikers can better ensure their health and happiness from beginning to end. Whether this is your first hike, or you are simply brushing up on the basics before experiencing a hike in a new climate, the following information can help you plan your next adventure.
Table of Contents
- Physical Assessment & Conditioning
- Hike Preparation
- Strength in Numbers
- Avoiding Sickness or Injury
- Safe Hiking in the Heat
- Cold Weather Hiking Tips
- Rain/Lightning Safety
- How to Prevent and Manage Getting Lost
- Bear Safety Tips
- Hiking With Dogs
- Senior Hiking Tips
- Staying Safe With Children
Physical Assessment & Conditioning
Almost anyone can hike, but any hike will require the use of a body's muscles to varying degrees. People who consider themselves in good physical shape still need to prepare for the kind of exercise they will be doing on the trail. Each path has its own quirks, such as:
- walking through deep dry material, like sand
- trails with a steep incline or decline
- climbing up or over rocks
- packed dirt or rocks that can get slippery
- icy trails that could lead to injury
If people want to start hiking, one of the best ways to get used to it is to take short, fairly flat hikes within easy driving distance. Hikers who have no joint problems and perform aerobic exercise on a regular basis may be able to use this practice to condition the right muscle groups and determine their weak spots.
Exercises to Prepare for Hiking
Hikers can address the common problems they could face while hiking by focusing on increasing the strength of specific muscle groups, while minimizing joint stress and injury. Walking up and down steep hills is hard on hips, knees, and ankles. Squats help to strengthen muscles around the joints, as well as improving flexibility and balance. People can target weak areas with exercises like calf raises, wall sits and hip stretches.
The stronger the muscles used for hiking, the less stress on nearby joints. People should engage in a regular routine of walking, jogging, or biking that increases in duration and intensity. Climbing stairs can help to get people used to upward and downward action, but practice going up and down steep hills is often more effective conditioning for this activity. Additional exercises to build and tone the quadriceps, calves, back, and shoulders will provide necessary support for equipment. As people get closer to the hike, they may choose to add their backpack to their exercise routine.
The degree to which people need to prepare depends on their experience and the complication of the hike. Planning for the unexpected helps to keep an emergency from turning into a tragedy. Hikers with little experience in the local outdoors should try to stick to trails that are well-marked, easy to find, and relatively short in length. Before anyone tries a new route, they should inspect the trail and see if they can read reviews of hikes people took in similar weather. Researching local weather patterns and the climate expected in the area (especially if it significantly climbs or drops in elevation) will help people choose a good time to go. Close to the anticipated hiking start date, they can look at weather forecasts and prepare for all temperatures and other concerns during the hike.
Anyone who goes on a hike could possibly get injured or lost, even when they go in a small group. Setting a predictable and well-considered schedule will make it easier for others to follow the trail. A good plan includes an estimated start and end time, time for breaks and meals, and alternatives in case of delays or detours. People who intend to hike alone should make sure that someone knows where they are, with the following information:
- day and time of the planned hike
- name and location of the trail
- names and contact information for close friends and/or family members
These details should be left at home and in the car, so that people can provide help if necessary.
People are so accustomed to using their smartphones for everything from GPS positioning to flashlights that it might be a bit of an adjustment to not have that technology at hand. Although many trails offer steady and quick access to mobile technology (in the form of cellular and data) through satellite, hikers should not rely on it as a guarantee of communication wherever they go. The best advice for people going out of reach of general communication methods to minimize the need to ask for help, by packing appropriately and knowing what to do in case of emergency.
Sometimes, hikers have no choice but to call for assistance. Many GPS devices can offer offline location guidance, which is a boon for people hiking off the trail or those who get lost. These tools may also feature the ability to communicate with someone who works in local emergency rescue, although that service is often subscription-based. Knowing how to identify a hiker’s location and relay useful information to first responders is also crucial. Two-way radios make it easy for separate parties to talk to each other, although proximity may be important in this capacity. Simple tools like a loud whistle or bright flashlight can also alert people to a person’s location.
There are a few concepts hikers need to keep in mind before they start packing and dressing for the hike. Of course, backpacking the Appalachian Trail in the middle of cold winter will not be the same as a leisurely local hike on a beautiful summer’s day. Hikers should aim to:
- pack layers that are easy to put on and take off
- dress for the weather of the season, not just the day
- wear clothes that are comfortable and easy to adjust as needed
- prepare for the possibility that it may get colder or hotter
When people think about the most important clothing item they can choose, shoes usually rank at the top of the list. Good shoes for hiking or backpacking may not have to be very expensive or particularly rugged. The best footwear will offer protection from the elements, adequate traction on dry and wet surfaces, and the ability to keep out rocks and dirt. Certain types of hiking boots need to be broken in, especially if they are made of a stiff material like leather. Hikers are better off to do this for at least a week or two before a long or difficult hike. Packing an extra set of shoelaces provides an added layer of preparedness, just in case.
How to Select Fabrics for Hiking
Even fairly simple or short hikes call for the right clothing choices. People who dress appropriately for the trek are less likely to get injured or have to turn back early. Denim jeans and cotton shirts may be easy to wear and comfortable around the house, but not the trail. Instead, hikers should look for synthetic materials like polyester and nylon, or natural options like merino wool. These options will provide adequate protection against heat and cold, with wicking properties that help keep hikers dry.
The temperature makes a big difference, too. For cold-weather hikes, layers with insulation that can reflect body heat will allow people to stay warmer longer. Jackets that are waterproof, windproof, and breathable block rain or snow without trapping sweat inside the clothing. In hot weather, hikers should look for clothing with resistance to ultraviolet rays. Hats and protective clothing can be as important in heat as it is in cold. The ability to add layers and remove them could make the difference between a successful hike and serious injury.
Beyond proper clothing, people going on a brief day hike may not need to bring that much. Regardless of the level of activity, hikers should look to address the following categories with the gear they pack on any outdoor trip they take:
- Back and Neck Support: A backpack that disperses weight appropriately across the body
- Nourishment: 1.5-2.5 lbs. of food per day, plus cooking implements if preferred
- Hydration: A pint of water or other hydrating liquid per hour, and tools to purify water if needed
- Temperature Control: Multiple layers, plus disposable packs to heat or cool
- Body Comfort: Changes of clothing if necessary, and trekking poles to provide extra balance
- First Aid: A kit that will address at least the most common injuries and illnesses on the trail
- Way-finding: Map, compass, or other devices to stay on the path
- Emergency Supplies: Equipment to allow lighting a fire, a flashlight, and a mirror to attract rescue
- Weather Protection: Plastic bags or coverings that can provide shelter from sudden rain or snowstorms
Choosing the Right Backpack
The proper pack for the hike depends on the person and the trip. Backpacks are measured in liter capacity. A daypack may be 11-20 liters, compared to 70 liters or more for a pack that will support an extended backpacking trip. Backpacks must have a comfortable fit that places more weight at the hips than the shoulders. Hikers should be able to stand upright when they wear the pack. Most people do best with a frameless pack for day hikes, or an internal frame backpack for overnight trips. Beyond these basics, hikers should select a backpack that offers the features and simple use they need.
Packing for Longer Hikes
Anyone who is going to sleep overnight needs more equipment for eating, voiding, and sleeping. The latest sleeping bags, pads, and tents are extremely lightweight. This allows hikers to load up necessary gear without making the bag too heavy. As a general rule, people should avoid packing more than 20 percent of their body weight in the pack. Too much weight will slow down progress and increase the likelihood of injury. The bag should be packed with attention paid to balancing weight throughout the interior. Large, heavier, or bulky things can go on the bottom, to ensure that the weight distribution does not become top-heavy. People need to place the most commonly-used items in accessory pockets on the outside, so that they do not have to continually unpack the bag on the trail.
On the trail, food is fuel to keep going. People who pack the right kind of nutrition will find that they can keep going longer and stay focused on the task at hand. Hikers should focus on packing:
- the calories they need for the length and intensity of the hike (about 2,500-4,500 calories a day)
- foods that are lightweight and minimally bulky
- a balance of complex carbohydrates and protein
- plenty of water
Water is probably the heaviest thing that people will need to bring with them, simply because they have to consume so much of it. Experts suggest getting well-hydrated in advance of hiking, drinking at least 3-4 cups of water the day of the hike, and consuming two cups of fluid per hour on the trail.
With a variety of backpacking-friendly products available, people can take anything from dried fruit and nuts to orange chicken. Usually, hikers will be better off if they pack food they want to eat and know how to prepare. This means that people with limited outdoor cooking skill should restrict their choices to options they can easily manage. Some lightweight foods (e.g. freeze-dried) may require access to safe drinking water to reconstitute. Hikers need to factor food preparation needs into their water plan.
Food Safety on the Trail
There are two essential aspects to food safety that hikers should remember: How to protect themselves from food or water contamination, and how they must keep their food safe from predators. For day hikes, the former may be fairly easy to achieve. On a longer trek, people may need to provide for additional water and clean up after cooking.
Hikers who use water purification techniques should ensure that the tablets or methods they have will neutralize the risks they face. Cooking or serving equipment that comes in contact with almost any organic material could grow bacteria. Hikers should plan to use separate containers for raw meats and cook them thoroughly before serving. When cleaning up, each surface must be disinfected before using again.
Food safety from animals requires care in serving and storage. As a general rule, overnight hikers should change clothing after eating their evening meal. This will help them avoid attracting large predators to their tents at night. All food (and waste from the meal, if it cannot be thrown away) should be placed into a tightly-sealed bag and tied to a tree. Bundles secured from a branch somewhat away from the trunk will distance the scent from the hiker and make the food supply harder for animals like bears to reach.
Strength in Numbers
Some people prefer to go on a solo hike, but this is a decision to be made with caution. Inexperienced hikers have a higher risk of getting lost, sick, or injured if they are hiking on their own. Protection against the elements or from animal predators is more effective if there is more than one experienced and knowledgeable adult who can put their effort into it.
Inexperienced hikers may choose to join a hiking group or ask a friend or family member with more hiking knowledge to accompany them on their trips. This allows people to gain more solid information about the local trails ,and how to take care of themselves, than they might pick up on their own. Although multiple people on a long backpacking trip can spread out some of their supplies to lighten the load, they should confirm that everyone has the basic supplies they need in case they are separated from the group.
Avoiding Sickness or Injury
Hikers often have to deal with mild sickness or accidents during the hike. Knowing how to prevent these injuries and treat them as needed will improve people’s overall experience. Common injuries people encounter on the trail can be prevented or managed in these ways:
- Blisters: Use thicker socks and shoes that fit snugly
- Sunburn: Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and apply sunblock
- Muscle Cramping: Stretch before starting, and stretch lightly on long breaks
- Twisted or Sprained Ankle: Wrap snugly with a fabric bandage and apply a single-use icepack
- Cuts or Scrapes: Clean the wound with antiseptic wipes and apply a protective bandage
- Dehydration: Consume more liquids and minimize sun exposure
- Insect Bites: Apply an anti-inflammatory or anti-itch cream and observe for changes
A small first-aid kit can help to make tools easy to locate and use.
Handling Digestive Upset
Dealing with loose bowel movements calls for a safe place to go and attention to the cause. Most people get this problem while hiking as a result of what they ate or drank. As such, taking care in handling raw foods and untreated water will help people to avoid becoming sick.
Raw water from streams, rivers, or waterfalls should always be treated before use in cooking, cleaning, or consumption. If people need to dig their own toileting facilities, they should keep them at least 200 yards away from a water source, and a few hundred feet from the campsite. Treating these conditions after they present may require antibiotics from a doctor, but over-the-counter medications like Imodium could help lessen the symptoms. Increasing water intake is a must to minimize effects from the sickness.
Encounters with various animals is almost inevitable on certain kinds of hiking paths. Hikers should seek to minimize their interactions, to reduce the risk of dangerous or even life-threatening injuries. Small animals, like rodents and snakes, live under rocks, bushes and low-hanging branches. People may be able to avoid bites simply by staying on a clear path and taking care when hiking at night. Snake bites usually call for medical care, since the extent of poisoning could be difficult to tell simply by looking at the bite. Large animals are more likely to attack when surprised or provoked.
Safe Hiking in the Heat
Although many people prefer to hike in warmer weather, there are reasons to take care even on the best days. Hikers often make the mistake of bringing too little clothing when they go for a hike in the heat of summer. Sunblock only goes so far to minimize burning and the loss of moisture. Proper protection for the skin and particularly the head requires adequate coverage. Hikers should invest in a hat with a brim at least 3” wide. This will reduce sun exposure on the head, neck, and face. Sunglasses with UV protection can help to prevent or reduce sunburns to the eyes and eyelids. Clothing should be lightweight and made of cotton to keep sweat with the body, creating a swamp cooler type effect.
Good nourishment and hydration is also vital for rigorous exercise in a hot climate. Hikers should plan to bring at least one liter of hydrating liquids for every two hours of the hike, including breaks. They may need to pack more in case they misjudge the duration of the hike. Although water is generally preferred, people may want to bring a small quantity of drinks containing electrolytes. These stores are often depleted through sweat as well as moisture, and need to be replenished so that people have the energy to keep going. During dry seasons, hikers ought to avoid food preparation that requires them to build a fire or cook over another heat source. Meals that are ready to eat or snacks like trail mix can provide necessary nutrients without making hikers sweat more.
How to Manage Summer Hiking
People are more likely to get a good experience from hiking if they can minimize discomfort throughout the day. During the warmer months, hikers should:
- Choose trails that offer plenty of shade up and down
- Start early enough that part of the hiking can be done in the coolest local weather
- Stay close to water, which can be used for cooling if not consuming
Timing and trail choice could make seasonal trekking more realistic for everyone involved.
Heat-Related Conditions to Watch For
When hikers start to feel a little lightheaded or sick on the path, they may be dealing with dehydration. The body needs a lot of water to sustain physical exercise for long periods of time. Dehydration causes headaches, confusion, exhaustion, back pain, and other symptoms. In the early stages, hikers can correct the condition by taking a break, getting out of the sun, and drinking more liquids.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are conditions beyond mere dehydration. With these health concerns, the body is trying to decrease its internal temperature but not succeeding. Heat exhaustion can sometimes be treated with cool liquids and shade. Hiking companions should keep in mind that cooling a body too quickly can trigger other troublesome concerns like shock. Heat stroke is a stage past heat exhaustion, where the body is no longer sweating to lower temperature. It usually requires prompt medical attention.
Cold Weather Hiking Tips
Although people tend to prefer hiking while the weather is cool to mild, there are plenty of reasons to get out on the trail when the days are short and the nights are cold. Extra preparation and packing makes all the difference with winter exploring. As with summer hiking, people should invest the effort to look at the trail and make sure they are ready to deal with whatever the winter weather can throw at them. This involves:
- opting for trails that are easy to identify under snow
- considering whether they will have to walk on packed snow or ice, and how they can do it safely
- timing the hike for the warmest and lightest part of the day
- packing alternative sources of warmth, with extras in case of emergency
With these assumptions met, people still need to pack appropriately for the weather.
What to Wear
What people put on while hiking in the winter or on mountain ranges may need the most attention. Generally, experts suggest wearing three layers to protect the skin. The inside layer has wicking technology so that hikers can minimize the cycle of sweating and excess cooling. The middle layer offers insulation that reflects body heat instead of dissipating it. Outer layers block wind, moisture, and cold temperatures from infiltrating the inner layers. Hikers should consider packing extras of the inner layer so they can change if they get sweaty.
Hikers also need proper coverage for their head, neck, hands, and feet. Exposure to very cold weather can lead to frostbite even without regularly touching snow or ice. All pieces of clothing should fit properly, as items that are too tight could reduce circulation.
Winter hats should cover the ears and forehead. Face masks can allow regular breathing and minimize exposure. Gloves should have two layers: one to insulate, and an outer shell made of waterproof material. People need to pack an extra pair of thick socks that they can change if their feet start to sweat or get hot. Waterproof boots with adequate tread on snow or ice are a must. Some hikers may need boots with extra insulation.
Outdoor Eating and Drinking in Winter
Being able to eat and stay hydrated in the cold mostly revolves around keeping food and water from freezing. Snacks like nuts, dried fruit, and cheese are less likely to freeze so solid that biting them becomes a safety hazard. People going on longer hikes may need to pack a heat source to cook food. Keeping liquids from freezing can be more difficult. Hikers can minimize this problem by:
- starting with room temperature or warm liquids
- clearing out straws or valves after drinking
- drinking regularly to slow the freezing process
Keeping a small amount of water close to the body could help ensure a source of hydration is always liquid.
Winter Weather-Related Health Concerns
People who spend hours outside in the cold have two conditions to worry about: hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia means that the body is getting so cold that it can no longer retain a healthy temperature. People dealing with hypothermia may stop shivering as their body shuts down to conserve energy. They need warm liquids, dry clothing, and heat from another source. Disposable heat packs are lightweight and can provide temporary heat for cold hands and feet.
Frostbite can happen from wind or water exposure, and needs to be treated quickly. For the mildest cases, putting the frozen extremity in a warmer place (e.g. an armpit) will help. People should avoid putting hot water on frostbitten skin or rubbing it to make it warmer. In more severe cases, medical attention is a necessity.
People do not necessarily have to target their hikes for the most beautiful day possible. It is often difficult to predict weather changes on a long or unfamiliar hike, especially during the spring and fall. Hiking on a rainy or stormy day requires attention to four details:
- avoiding temperature control issues from getting wet
- staying at higher ground, away from water sources
- minimizing the likelihood of injury from lightning strikes
- protecting gear from damage due to moisture
Generally, people should try not to hike on days when heavy thunderstorms are expected. It is wise to continually watch the skies and be prepared to turn back when the weather turns bad. If people get caught in a lightning storm, they should steer clear of open fields or tall, lone trees. Removing equipment that contains metal, like an external frame backpack, will help prevent attracting the lightning. Heavy rains can lead to flash-flooding, swollen streams, and landslides. People should take care where they choose to walk, and avoid crossing rivers with water flowing quickly.
Otherwise, hikers need to work through it as much as they can. Staying dry is much easier than drying out after the fact. Using bags of various sizes can keep equipment dry inside the backpack. Wearing layers made of synthetic materials will resist water better and dry out more thoroughly. People should pay attention to their temperature throughout. Rainstorms when the weather is cold can cause hypothermia more quickly. Limiting exposure to the ground will prevent loss of body heat.
How to Prevent and Manage Getting Lost
At times, people will lose track of the trail. Sometimes, heavily-worn animal paths will cross the designated trail and lead hikers astray. This can turn into a big problem quickly, so people need to try to remain calm and make a plan. For people traveling in a group, stopping and calling out to other members may be all they need to direct them back to the trail. Most of the time, experts say that staying put is the best way to avoid making the problem worse. Since it is not always clear how long people will have to wait before they are found or return to the path, they should quickly inspect their surroundings. The location of water and shelter is important because people may need it.
Finding the Way
People who know the general direction of the path they are taking, as well as the direction they need to follow to get back to the trailhead, will be in a better position to find their way back. Hikers should remember the last time they were confident that they were on the right path. Breaking twigs in a circle around the spot will help to make it easier to explore the area without getting more turned around. Using a compass or GPS device can provide necessary information about direction. Following water sources, such as a creek or stream, could lead to a more open area for rescue.
Bear Safety Tips
Bears tend to live in areas where humans like to hike. Typically, bears would prefer to stay away from humans. However, humans and bears have similar dietary preferences, and they both stick to water sources. This means that encounters with wild bears are more likely while hiking than with other animals that may choose to stay hidden. Hikers can reduce the likelihood they will come up on or attract a bear if they:
- travel in groups and stay close together
- stick to the designated trail
- make regular noise to avoid surprise
- hike in the high daylight hours, instead of dawn or sunset
- secure food in airtight containers and store it away from the campsite
- pay attention to surroundings
People need to learn the common signs that a bear is or may be nearby. Studying tracks and looking for bear scat will help to identify common bear living or foraging areas. Hikers should avoid dead animals, and remove all traces of food with them when they leave.
What to Do When Finding a Bear
Adult bears may be many times larger than humans, in almost any species common to North America. If hikers see a bear but are not noticed, they should carefully leave the area as quickly as possible. People may need to keep bear spray as a deterrent, although they must confirm that the spray is allowed in the area. Spotting bear cubs usually means the mother is close and may attack if worried about the cubs’ safety. Experts often say that if a bear charges a hiker or attacks a tent at night, hikers should be prepared to fight back as much as they can. However, it is almost always better and safer to avoid the contact in the first place.
Hiking With Dogs
Taking a favorite pet and companion on the trail is something that many hikers enjoy. Dogs often need a lot of exercise and the great outdoors could be a wonderful place to get it. Before hikers pack up the leash and a water bowl, they should ask themselves the following questions:
- Are dogs permitted here?
- Is my dog in the right condition for the hike?
- How is this breed equipped to handle long walks in the current climate?
- Do I know how my dog is likely to react to the trail?
- What other animals could we see on this hike?
- Could I carry out my dog if they get injured?
People need to pack adequate food and water for their pets as well as themselves. They also need to familiarize themselves with trail etiquette for dogs, and be ready to haul out any waste that the dog produces.
Preparing Dogs for Hiking
In anticipation of the hike, people need to make sure that their dogs are up to the task. They can start with a visit to the veterinarian. Puppies should have all the shots they need to avoid picking up disease on the trail. Dogs often dig into dead animals they find, and can get sick from this. The vet can perform a basic health assessment to confirm that the dog is the right place to benefit from the hike. Hikers should check the forecasts in advance, and choose a day with fair weather. They need to give their pets an opportunity to practice walking on surfaces different from grass, sidewalk, and asphalt. Some dogs may require more regular exercise of longer duration before they are ready to hike more than a mile or two. Hikers who consider their dog’s needs throughout are less likely to have to carry the pet half the way.
Senior Hiking Tips
People who enjoy hiking in their youth and middle age can often continue to participate in this activity as they get older. As long as hikers are prepared and honest with themselves about their abilities, they can keep hiking into their golden years. At the outset, people need to recognize how their abilities change over time. Even a fit person will not have the same kind of stamina they could have had 30 years before. Hikers who have not been on the trail for several years may want to visit the doctor for a checkup. The doctor can identify certain things that people should watch for, related to their personal health and physical fitness.
How to Stay Safe Hiking as a Senior
Senior hikers should give themselves several weeks to gear up and condition for a longer or difficult hike. People often have a better time if they set themselves up for little complication or stress on the trail. They should:
- choose hikes that present a good experience without a significant challenge to strength or stamina
- get plenty of sleep the night before
- bring all medications needed that day (or other days, if backpacking overnight)
- take extra breaks to rest
- be careful when climbing, jogging, or walking on slippery surfaces
- avoid extreme heat and cold, as older people could be more sensitive to it
It is usually better to work up to overnight hikes or long backpacking trips with a series of day hikes that increase in duration and intensity. If senior hikers decide to go on a hike together, they should plan hikes that will accommodate the needs of the person with the least physical strength and capability. This reduces the chance of needing help on the trail.
Staying Safe With Children
Many parents love to introduce their love of hiking to their children from a young age. Of course, a child will not be able to complete the kinds of hikes that an adult can, but this is an excellent opportunity to impart a respect for the outdoors and a commitment to fitness and healthy living in even the youngest kids. Although most children can start to learn to hike safely at a young age, parents still need to remain in charge of them at all times. Kids have a harder time understanding and obeying the rules of the trail. They count on their parents to stay nearby, watch for possible hazards, protect them from danger, and allow them to explore in nature. Parents should:
- start with hikes that are easy or familiar for adults to complete on their own
- pack adequate clothing and footwear for all children, including those who will not be walking
- be ready to carry small children the whole way, if necessary
- watch for signs that kids are tired or overwhelmed and need help
- build up to longer hikes slowly
- allow children time to play or practice new skills
If parents focus on these actions, they will make hiking an enjoyable activity for the whole family.
Hiking safely can allow people a way to improve their fitness and enjoy the world around them. By packing for the weather, thinking ahead, and preparing for the unexpected, hikers will conclude their trip in a better state of body and mind.