10 Tricks to Hiking Safer on the Trails

Hiking is fun, and an excellent way to enjoy the outdoors. But it can become dangerous for the unprepared. Even a short day hike requires planning. Lack of experience or proper planning causes nearly 75% of all search and rescue requests. Sometimes even experienced hikers do not return on time or encounter life altering disasters, such as broken bones. So, whether it’s your first hike or your hundredth, it is always important to plan and prepare.

These ten tips will help you do that.

  1.   Leave a Detailed Trail Plan

Make sure you tell someone where you are going, which trails you are hiking, and when you plan to return. Also, check in with whomever you shared your plan with, to let them know when you get back.

Your hiking plan should include:
  • When you leave – date and time.
  • When you plan to return – date and time.
  • Where you are departing from.
  • Your planned destination.
  • The route you plan to take and, if applicable, the trail name.
  • Any alternative plans you may have.
  • Any medical conditions you have.
  • What communication gear you have, including phone numbers or radio frequencies you use.
  • Leave a copy of your hike plan in your vehicle at the trail head, one of the first places a search and rescue team look for information.

  2.   Study Your Trail

Before ever setting foot on your chosen trail, you should have a good idea of what it looks like, and what is physically required to successfully complete the hike. Most trails are rated, and you can find their rating in online hiking databases. Of course, you want to choose a trail suitable for your level of expertise.
Know the terrain, so you can wear the proper clothes and take the necessary equipment. For example, walking shoes are fine on a level, well-traveled trail, but you will want boots for rocky, steep areas.

As a standard rule, it takes twice as long to hike up a trail as it does to hike down. Allow 2/3 of your time for ascent and 1/3 of your time to descend.

  3.  Never Hike Alone

Avoid hiking alone. Hikers are must less likely to panic in an emergency situation if they are with others. Consider these tips:
  • If traveling with a group, stay with the group.
  • Pace your hike to the slowest person, to leaving someone behind.
  • If you are traveling with someone else, you can assist each other up steep grades and help if first aid is needed.
  • If one hiker is injured, than you have another who can travel back to the trail head for help.
  • If you get lost and need to spend the night in the cold, body heat can be much better conserved with more than one person; hypothermia can kill.

  4.   Dress Appropriately

Select clothing based upon your hiking environment and the expected weather. Do not underestimate the importance of dressing appropriately. In a survival situation, the clothes on your back and any clothing you carry with you will be your primary source of protection and shelter.
Be aware of the best fabric for hiking clothes. Avoid cotton, which absorbs moisture and can lead to hypothermia, and choose from fabrics that wick moisture, dry quickly, and conserve heat. Layer your clothing, rather than wear one heavy item. If you get too hot, you can always remove a layer. Always pack an extra layer of clothing in case you need it.

Wear bright colors so if anything happens, you can be spotted quickly. Do not dress yourself or your children in camouflage for hiking.
Wear boots or hiking shoes to support your ankles. Make sure you do not wear new shoes on your hike; painful blisters may form if your feet are not accustomed to the shoes. If you are staying on level, well-maintained trails without rocks, walking shoes are okay for hiking.

  5.  Take Adequate Supplies

Take enough food to last for the anticipated length of the hike. Remember, however, that water is more important than food, so if you have to trade off, choose water. Toilet paper is welcome on a longer hike. A knife, one with useful attachments, could literally save your life. Take a simple first aid kit with the basics: gauze and bandages, anti-bacterial cream, prescription medications, and aspirin. Take sunscreen if hiking in the summer sun, and lip balm to prevent chapped lips.

A map and a compass are essential. A GPS unit is great, but may not work in every area. Take both a lighter and matches. A lighter may run out of fuel, and matches can get wet; having both gives more options. Since over 75% of all search and rescue calls involve cellphone use, take one with you. Just remember that if you are going far into the back country, your cell phone may not work.

  6.   Stay on Marked Trails

When you hike, stay on clearly marked trails, unless you have a great deal of hiking experience. Taking shortcuts and “bushwhacking” can cause erosion, and both greatly increase your chance of getting lost. Pay attention to trail markings and landmarks.

  7.  Prepare for Emergencies

You should consider carrying these signaling devices:
  • A flashlight, for use at night
  • A small signaling mirror, to use to signal during the day
  • An emergency whistle, to alert nearby search teams to your location

  8.  Know Your Limitations

Choose a trail that meets your physical and mental capabilities. Remember coming back up a trail is much harder than going down it. Also, do not push yourself too hard. Take a ten-minute break every hour, or more often if you feel you need to do so. A break helps you recharge your energy level. Fatigue and unexpected conditions, such as change in weather, may require you to postpone or shorten your hike. Remember, you can go on your hike another day.

  9.   Know Potential Dangers

Be aware what wild animals live in the area where you’re hiking. Wild animals may look cute, but they are protective of their young, unpredictable, and territorial. Most of the time, animals are afraid of humans and will run away. But you should never approach or attempt to feed wild animals, because that is when most injuries occur.

Watch where you are walking, and look out for snakes and spiders. Kicking the occasional stone or talking while you hike will usually warn them you are coming, so they can get out of your way. Be able to identify poison ivy, oak, and sumac, so you can avoid them. Protect yourself from insect bites, and carry your epi-pen, if you have had an allergic reaction in the past.

  10.   Use Common Sense

When you are hiking, use common sense. Many hikers become injured taking chances or making thoughtless snap decisions.
It is especially important to use common sense if you become lost. Stop and analyze your situation. If you are sure you can make your way back to your trail, do so. Otherwise, stay where you are, to avoid getting even farther away from the trail.

No matter how long your hike is or how difficult or easy the trail, hiking can become dangerous without adequate preparation and planning. If you follow these ten tips for hiking safety, your hike will not only be safe and enjoyable, but also provide memories to share in the years ahead.