Hiker Safety 101: 11 Things to Think About When You Hit the Trail
Oftentimes, even those of us who talk about hiker safety get by with less-than-sufficient preparation. You know how it is—it’s just a 5-mile hike and a beautiful day. The trail isn’t that hard, and it’s easy to follow. So, what’s the big deal? I’ll just grab my Camelbak, a granola bar and my cell phone, and hit the trail for a few leisurely hours communing with nature. I’d be lying if I said I’d never gone for a “just a short day hike” without practicing all of what I preach.
The same is true for hundreds of people who are aided by Search & Rescue teams here in northern Arizona each year. Many of those people are inadequately prepared hikers whose luck runs out at the wrong place and time. Most of those times, even a small change in planning or gear would have made all the difference—sometimes the difference between life and death.
While the most prepared among us occasionally run into unforeseen trouble in the backcountry, there are things we all should think about before we set out for a hike, no matter the distance, difficulty or familiarity with the trail. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but it never hurts to review. Complacency often creeps up on the most experienced hikers, and it can come back to bite us big time.
So, here are some hiker safety tips to consider before you begin your hike….
- Have a plan. Let a friend or family member know where you’re going and when you expect to return. And be sure to check in when you do! Many a Search & Rescue mission has been initiated because someone thought to be overdue forgot to let the contact know he or she was literally out of the woods. Just give yourself a buffer to account for taking a bit longer than you expect or for driving time.
- Pack the 10 essentials. That doesn’t mean you need to carry a big, heavy backpack on a day hike; it simply means you’re well prepared for a myriad of situations, with a light pack of essential items that each fall into one the following 10 categories: hydration; nutrition; illumination; navigation (i.e. a map, compass, maybe a GPS); insulation (layers like a fleece pullover and rain jacket); sun protection; tools & repair (i.e. a multi-tool); fire starting; and shelter (i.e. a light tarp or small bivy). All of these items, including water and the pack too, can total less than 10 pounds. For more on this important gear and various options, see Ten Essentials for Backcountry Hiking.
- Hydrate before your hike. Starting a hike already in a mild to moderate state of dehydration—which many of us often are when we’re at home or work (and, no, coffee doesn’t count)—puts us behind the 8-ball when we hit the trail. Sip on a liter of water on your way to the trailhead and finish it before you begin walking.
- Charge that cell phone. If you’re going to take it, make sure it’s fully charged. Keep in mind that you don’t need as strong of a signal to send a text as you do to make a call. And while relying on a cell phone for help isn’t the best practice, it can help searchers find you simply by turning it on. Also, at night, helicopter pilots can see the light from a cell phone screen from a long distance, so point it at the sky if you hear those rotors and want to be seen.
- Check the forecast. Bright and sunny can turn into rain and lightning, strong wind or snow within a single day here in northern Arizona, and temperatures can change from freezing to sweltering in the span of about twelve hours. So, check the short range forecast on the National Weather Service site for the specific location where you’ll be hiking.
And while you’re on the trail….
- Stick to your plan as much as possible. Unless conditions warrant a diversion, don’t stray from your itinerary. If you do take a different route and something happens that prevents you from hiking out, it will be much more difficult to find you.
- Stay hydrated. The general rule of thumb is that we each need to drink a minimum of 2 quarts of water per day, but in extreme temperatures and dry environments, or if you’ll be exerting yourself, 2 quarts probably won’t be enough to sustain you. If your hike will take most of the day and it’s hot, a gallon of water is more like it.
- Balance hydration with nutrition. Drinking too much water can be as dangerous to your health (and life) as not drinking enough. Eat both sweet and salty snacks during your hike, and add electrolytes to at least some of your water on longer hikes, to avoid hyponatremia.
- Don’t overestimate yourself. Know your current ability and the difficulty of the trail. If you’ve recently been under the weather, take that into account. Also consider elevation as a contributing factor, not just the steepness and ruggedness of the terrain. If, say, you live at an elevation of 1,100 feet in Phoenix, AZ, and you’re planning to drive up to Flagstaff to hike 4.5 miles from 9,000 feet to the 12,633-foot summit of Mt. Humphreys, that 9-mile round-trip is going to take you quite a bit longer and be much more aerobically challenging than a hike of that distance back at home.
- Avoid summit fever. The trail and the destination will be there to hike another day. If the weather isn’t favorable, or you’ve stopped to smell the pines longer than you expected and you’re running out of daylight or time, turn back.
- Lost or otherwise in need of help? Stay put and make yourself visible. You may have heard about the Hug a Tree program for kids. Well, that applies to us grown-up kids too. It’s much more difficult for searchers to track and locate a moving target. Get yourself into the open if possible and spread out any large, colorful items (i.e. a tarp) you may have. If it’s dark, turn on your light source(s). Listen for voices, whistles, or the sound of a helicopter, and respond if you think you hear something. If you have a cell phone, attempt to send a text to 9-1-1 if you cannot make a call.
And remember, in most states including Arizona, there is no charge for Search & Rescue. So, whether you’re the one needs help or you’re a reporting party concerned about a hiker, don’t put off that call. It’s better to get assistance sooner than later, before conditions worsen and endanger both the hiker and those who’ll respond to help.
Deb Kingsbury, author of this hiking safety piece is an avid hiker, and a volunteer with the Arizona Search and Rescue. She has been writing about hiking in Northern Arizona and Search and Rescue for several years.