Fear and miseducation are two of the biggest roadblocks a person encounters when considering stepping into the backcountry. Hiking can be intimidating to someone inexperienced and uneducated, and fear of the unknown adds fuel to that fire.
Wildlife attacks, tick diseases, injuries, and lack of cell service are among the top fears of prospective hikers. If I get injured on the trail, will emergency services be able to reach me? What happens if a bear approaches me? I’ve never set foot on a trail; what if I’m not fit enough? These are common questions that cause hesitancy, and questions I myself had years ago.
Whether you’re afraid of a possible human or animal threat or you’re unsure of what to bring into the woods, I’m going to provide you with eleven ways to stay safe on the trail. These safety precautions will help you get started hiking and out on the trail.
11 Ways to Stay Safe While Hiking
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1. Carry the 10 Essentials
The 10 Essentials was originally created in the 1930s by a Seattle-based organization called The Mountaineers. Since then, it has been tweaked and mildly altered but it essentially contains the same items.
Having the 10 Essentials loaded into your backpack will help you conquer everything from starvation and dehydration to illness and disorientation.
- First Aid
- Sun Protection
Tailor the list to your unique hike. Consider things like the length and duration of your hike, weather, and trail difficulty.
Shelter on a day hike will look different than shelter on an overnight backpacking trip (emergency blanket vs. tent or hammock).
The duration will determine the amount of food you bring.
But having all of these items will ensure safety and emergency preparedness for any sticky situation in which you may find yourself entangled.
2. Educate Yourself on Wildlife Threat Responses
Wildlife threats are a major reason why some people don’t venture into the backwoods. But the truth is, animal attacks are rare, and death by wildlife is even slimmer. With a little knowledge and preparedness, you can arm yourself against most threats related to wildlife.
Where will you hiking or backpacking? Will there be bears, wolves, or mountain lions?
For example, if you are backpacking Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, research will show you that bears are nonexistent on the island, but wolves and moose inhabit the area. So you can save your bear research for another day and focus on how to protect yourself and your food from wolves instead.
If you are backpacking in the Smoky Mountains, black bear protection and food storage research will be crucial.
You get the idea!
How to Protect Yourself from Bears
Black bears and grizzly bears are the two main types of bears that you might encounter along the trail. Black bears are more common; they are widespread throughout the country. Grizzlies, on the other hand, are sprinkled around the Northwest in western Canada, Alaska, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, and Montana.
The reason why research is important before embarking on the trail is that some forests, National Parks, and public lands require certain bear protection while others prohibit such items. For example, Yosemite National Park does not permit bear spray, but Grand Teton National Park encourages you to carry it. Bear canisters are required in heavy bear regions such as the Sierras and Yosemite.
Ways to Prevent Unwelcome Bear Encounters
- Hike in daylight hours.
- Make lots of noise.
- Hike in groups.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Carry bear spray.
- Don’t litter.
- Properly store your food.
If you follow all of these precautions, a bear should keep its distance. In the rare event that a bear approaches you, remain calm, back away slowly, and have your bear spray ready.
If a black bear approaches you, raise your arms to look bigger than you do, yell and bag pots, and throw objects. If a black bear attacks you, do not play dead! Use your spray, and if that doesn’t work, use sticks, rocks, and punches on its eyes and nose.
If a grizzly bear approaches you, back up slowly and don’t make eye contact. They may “bluff charge” you, which means they’ll huff and bound toward you, ears on alert. Do not run. If one attacks you, you’ll know because its ears will lower and it will become aggressive, meaning this is a full-on attack. Use your bear spray, but make sure it is less than 30 feet from you before you spray. You don’t want to spray too soon. If you don’t have spray or it doesn’t work, you can play dead for grizzly bear attacks. Lie flat on your stomach to avoid being flipped over. It should walk away.
How to Protect Yourself from Wolves
If a wolf approaches you, it’s important to back away slowly, look big, and maintain eye contact. Do not turn your back or run. When in doubt, be loud, and note that bear spray can be used in the event that it advances toward you.
As with bears, wolves have incredible senses. They can smell food, trash, or other scents from miles away. Keeping your food secured in a bear canister will prevent wolves from getting curious and approaching you or your campsite.
Keep an eye on your pets while in wolf territory. Wolf attacks on dogs are more common than on humans as dogs’ natural instinct is to approach and fight. Always keep your dog leashed and within eyesight.
Wolf attacks are rare. Wolves just want your food; rarely are they looking to devour a human. They are not aggressive toward humans by nature, so if you secure your food and remain vigilant on the trail, you’ll minimize your chances of a close encounter with a wolf.
3. Wear the Appropriate Clothing
More often than not, inappropriate attire is the root cause of an injury or bite.
Wearing pants and long sleeves in the summer may sound uncomfortable, but doing so will eliminate the possibility of tick bites and sunburn. (Try tucking your pants into your socks for an added tick-repellant technique. You might look silly, but at least you’ll be protected!)
Sliding bug netting over your face may seem embarrassing, but doing so will keep the mosquitos away and eliminate the inevitable bites that will sprinkle your skin.
Wearing wool in the summer may sound itchy and hot, but this is a myth: wool wicks moisture and keeps your skin cool and dry, making it a perfect material to wear no matter the weather.
Donning the correct pair of sturdy boots may seem like overkill if you’re just on a small day hike, but the boots will protect you from slipping or twisting your ankle.
Choose to wear wool instead of cotton; wearing cotton will cause you to sweat and overheat, and it won’t offer any protection against the elements. This could cause an exposure-related injury such as heat exhaustion or hypothermia.
4. Stay Hydrated
Water is obviously a crucial necessity to bring with you on the trail. But drinking it is another story.
Make sure you are hydrating your body as you hike, no matter the temperature. Your body needs water regardless if you’re in the midst of a North Cascades snowstorm or traipsing through the California desert.
A general recommendation is drinking a half liter of water per hour, maybe more depending on how strenuous the terrain is or how hot the air temperature is.
Add a packet of electrolyte powder to your water bottle to further prevent dehydration, especially in high heat.
5. Research the Trail
Researching the trail you’ll be hiking will prevent unwelcome surprises and cause you to come prepared. Knowing exactly how long the trail is, how steep the terrain is, and the level of difficulty is important to note prior to setting foot on the trail.
This will ensure you bring the correct gear and the right amount of food and water, and you’ll know if you’re capable of hiking the terrain based on your physical capabilities. Injuries are less likely to occur this way. Preparedness will decrease the risk of dehydration and starvation while in the backcountry.
6. Be Aware of Your Surroundings
Staying vigilant is crucial to survival, no matter where you are. Vigilance is important whether you’re riding the bus to work, sitting in your favorite restaurant, or navigating the backcountry. Hesitancy to step into the woods stems from safety risks.
But the truth is, your safety is always a risk no matter your location. Constantly being on alert and aware of your surroundings will reduce the element of surprise and prepare you for complete focus in the event of an emergency.
7. Don’t Overestimate Your Physical Ability
Know your body. Know your limits. It’s tempting to want to push yourself on the trail. Believe me, I get it. I like to see what my body is capable of but do so with caution. And when your body responds with negative feedback, listen to it, and have the wherewithal to know when enough is enough. Succumbing to an injury on the trail could put you at great risk of severe harm if you’re not careful.
It’s okay to not hike the scariest trails or summit the tallest mountains. Avoid rock scrambles or steep mountains if you have bad knees; try to find trails with switchbacks and steady inclines instead. Or even a flat, paved path!
Avoid hiking in hot weather if you are prone to dizziness; try to hike in milder temperatures, which would be early spring and late fall for most areas of the country.
Avoid trails with strenuous terrain if you aren’t in decent physical shape or have lung or heart conditions; consider flat trails until you regain your strength and are sure of your ability to hike harder routes.
Try lifting weights and working out regularly at home. This will build your physical strength and in turn, you’ll be able to use that renewed strength to climb that mountain, paddle those rapids, or simply be able to hike further.
But it’s important to know that there’s a trail for everyone. Whether paved and flat, switchback-filled and moderate, or steep and strenuous, there’s always a trail that everyone can enjoy, no matter your physical strength or ability.
8. Let Someone Know Where You’ll Be
Whether you have a satellite messenger or not, it’s important to let someone know your itinerary.
If you’re thru-hiking the CDT, backpacking the Whites, or simply day hiking through a local state park, giving someone your whereabouts increases the likelihood of a safe hike.
In the event that you don’t answer your phone when you’re supposed to be leaving the state park or you don’t show up in town on a supply run for your thru-hike, authorities can immediately be alerted.
Letting your loved ones know where you’ll be also gives them peace of mind. Make sure to update your contact when you arrive home safely!
9. Check the Weather
Weather can be unpredictable at times. Sure, we have meteorologists that get paid to follow weather patterns and storm systems, but Mother Nature is known to do her own thing.
If you check your weather app ten days in advance, you’ll most likely see a completely different forecast than when you check it the day before or even the day of.
Weather patterns change constantly as they ebb and flow throughout the country. Storms dissipate; fluctuating temperatures cause rain to turn to snow; and the jet stream can create heat waves or floods with a simple tweak of its current.
My point is, before you embark on an adventure, always check the weather and keep an eye on the sky. You don’t want to get caught in a thunderstorm above the tree line or snowed in on a peak without the correct gear.
10. Stay on the Trail
Trails are blazed for a reason: to keep hikers on the path. They are carefully constructed by expert teams of designers and built by volunteers that keep hikers, plants, and wildlife safety at the forefront of their minds.
Stepping off the designated footpaths can wreak havoc on the environment. Oftentimes ecosystems beyond the trail are being carefully preserved and protected by an organization, such as the NPS; certain plants, grasses, and wildflowers can’t always handle foot traffic. Contamination becomes a risk as many wildlife species need those plants to survive.
Also, stepping off the trail means you are essentially pushing through thick groves of tree limbs, which could cause injury or disorientation. You’ll lose your sense of direction, and the potential for injury escalates. If you aren’t experienced, don’t attempt to venture too far off the path.
Staying on the trail will ensure both your safety and the plant’s and wildlife’s safety.
Is Off-Trail Hiking Ever Allowed?
On long trails such as the Continental Divide Trail, you will hear a term called bushwhacking. Bushwhacking is essentially hiking off-trail, creating your own path.
This type of hiking is often frowned upon by park rangers and environmentalists, as it can potentially be dangerous to both the hiker and the land. But oftentimes bushwhacking, or hiking off trail, is necessary when a trail isn’t cut or finished, such as on remote trails like the CDT. This makes for quite the challenge for experienced hikers who wish to push their limits and test their skills.
Also, hikers who venture off-trail are generally more careful and respectful of the land. If you follow Leave No Trace and adhere to any park rules, hiking off-trail can be a really neat alternative to your typical hiking adventure. No crowds, no eroded pathways, no litter, and just a little dash of uncertainty to keep you wondering if you’re getting lost in the right direction.
Beginners: always stay on the trail and follow blazes. Off-trail hiking is for experienced hikers only and only legal on certain land.
11. Trust Your Instincts
Your instincts are one of the body’s most powerful defense mechanisms. When you feel the tiny hairs rise on your back and arms, when you feel sure about something without even the slightest thought, that’s your intuition talking. Don’t ignore it. Follow your gut.
This could potentially save you from a dangerous situation, such as a hiker or hunter that rubs you the wrong way or impending trail conditions that just don’t seem safe enough to advance further.
Even if you can’t explain or rationalize your feelings, trust your instincts.
I hope this post has educated you on how to stay safe on the trail by identifying possible threats and protecting yourself against them.
With the right tools, the right education, and the right preparedness, you will relax on the trail and conquer your fears simultaneously. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.