Ten Tips for Safe Hiking: How to Prepare for a Day Hike
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Get Ready to Hike
Take a hike! That sounds easy enough, even when shouted with a menacing scowl and accompanied by an obscene hand gesture. However, in review of ranger rescue reports across the country, hiking may be more complex than simply "taking" one.
All outdoor activities are risky in their nature, however it is possible to mange that risk. Surely, as in all things, there are some aspects beyond your control. However, from the gear you carry to how you walk, there are several controllable factors which mitigate the risk involved in hiking.
The following tips offer ten easy ways to prepare for a day hike and stay safe in your next wilderness outing.
About the Author:
Outbound Dan has been suffering from an addiction to hiking and other outdoor activities since he was a wee tike. Though there is no cure, he treats the symptoms by embarking on frequent adventures. He is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, an Adirondack 46R, and a wilderness Search and Rescue Team member.
1. Research the Trail
It's hard to prepare for a hike if you don't know where you are going and what to expect on the trail. Though there are some fantastic guide books and maps out there, rarely do they contain all the current information you need for a safe hike.
One of the best resources is your local hiking club. Joining an outdoor club like the Adirondack Mountain Club, Appalachian Mountain Club, or Sierra Club will introduce you to like-minded folks and give you great ideas for local hiking trails.
The one downfall to printed hiking guides is that they don't give current conditions to the trails you are hiking on. When the remains of Hurricane Irene passed through the Adirondacks, it washed bridges out, obliterated trails, and created new slides. Even the most current hiking guide, won't prepare you for something like that.
Most wilderness and hiking areas have active internet forums in which users post current conditions and potential hazards. Check out Views From the Top for a fantastic North East outdoor internet forum.
Trail conditions can change in an instant when bad weather hits. Always check local forecasts and watch the sky for weather hazards.
2. Physically Prepare
Hiking is a physically demanding activity. Sure it may sound just like walking, but add a pack and scramble over rough terrain and you'll see how exhausted you become. If you are just starting to exercise, consult your doctor and get a check-up to make sure you healthy enough to begin hiking.
Yoga is an outstanding activity for developing the strength, agility, and flexibility that you need for hiking. Check out "Yoga Basics For Beginners" for more information on getting started in Yoga.
It is important to stretch before and after hiking. Though, it seems like you may just be using your legs, hiking works your entire body. Be sure to stretch your back, abs, and arms too.
The great thing about hiking is that the more you hike the stronger you become. Hiking is after all a great to increase fitness, lose weight, and reduce stress.
3. Prepare a Trip Plan
Before venturing outdoors, prepare a "trip plan" that lets people know where you are going and the basics of your jaunt.
Make sure you leave a copy of your trip plan with someone back home. Preferably this person awaits your return and is responsible enough to call for further assistance.
Include the following in each trip plan:
- Your name and names of companions
- Emergency contact information
- Date and time of departure and expected time to return
- Place hiking to and route followed
- Equipment carried
- Which authority to contact if you don't come back
While at the trail head or on the trail, be sure to sign in (and out) of registers. This is extremely important if you change your proposed route or plan. If rescue parties are looking for you, their first step is to examine all the sign-in registers.
4. Hike with a Buddy
Though solo hiking has many pleasures as described in my article The Art of Solo Backpacking, for safety reasons it is deal to hike with a small group of competent people.
Many outing organizations, the Adirondack Mountain Club for one, recommends hiking in groups of four people. That way in case someone is injured, one stays with the victim, while the other two get help. No one is ever alone that way.
Be careful not to hike in too large of a group though, as it is destructive to the environment. Most wilderness areas have hiking party limit of ten. The safety factor also diminishes with large groups.
Looking to buy new boots, check out my article on: How to Buy Hiking and Backpacking Boots: Secrets from a Footwear Manager.
5. Dress for Success
One of the most technical and advanced pieces of safety gear that many hikers carry is the apparel that they wear. Sure the pioneers of the backpacking revolution of the Seventies wore blue jeans, cotton shirts, and waffle stomper boots; however, today's garments provide better thermal regulation, are more comfortable, and dry faster.
Though cotton clothing is a comfortable fabric for bumming around town, in the backcountry cotton kills (and at the very least will make you uncomfortable). The problem with cotton is that it dries very slowly, causes chafing, and loses its thermal properties while wet. Wet clothing causes additional heat loss through the process of conduction, creating a perfect storm for hypothermia (especially in summer when you least expect it).
Conversely, modern backpacking clothing is made to wick away swear and expel moisture while keeping you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
Some clothing is even treated to do the following:
- Resist odor-causing bacteria
- Keep away insects
- Protect from the harmful rays of the sun.
Boots are the platform upon which hiking is built. The right boots immerse you in state of ecstatic exploration unbound by the pressures of the world. The wrong boots will leave you a blistered bloody mess begging for a quick death. Though boot selection, is part wizardry, part research, and part experience - the right boot can make or break your trip.
Quick Boot Tips:
- Wear the lightest weight boot you can get away with - avoid wearing mountaineering boots while hiking through your local park.
- When buying boots, try on multiple brands, sizes, and styles. If you don't love them in the store, you'll hate them on the trail.
- Pair boots up with a great quality merino wool (personal preference) sock. Merino does a great job of moisture management.
- Experiment with advanced lacing techniques to avoid pinching and heel slip.
6. Carry the 10 Essentials
Even on a local day hike, be prepared to stay the night by carrying the 10 Essentials. The general rule is, if you carry it - know how to use it. Carrying a fully stocked first aid kit does you little good, if you aren't sure which side of the bandaid is sticky.
- Sun and Insect Protection
- Extra Food and Water
- Extra Clothing / Rain Gear
- First Aid Kit and whistle
- Matches / lighter
- Fire Starter
For more information on the 10 Essentials, check out my article on The Ten Outdoor Essentials
7. Watch What You Step On!
Ever hear the term, "easy as falling off a log?"
Guess what, that's because logs are slippery, sniveling, deceptive creatures that invite hikers to step on them, then throw them thrashing to the ground.
It sounds simple, but - step over logs and rocks and not on them. Granted, when traversing a boulder field this won't be possible, but do the best you can and using a hiking staff or trekking poles to steady yourself.
8. Use Trekking Poles
Ever see those those weird hikers with ski poles, what the heck are they doing? They are being safe. As most animals know, four legs are better than two.
Ever get sore knees while hiking? Trekking poles, according to several studies, reduce knee strain by as much as 25%. Not to mention their general aid in stability,
If you don't feel like shelling out the greenbacks for a nice set of trekking poles, an old pair of ski poles or even a hiking stick will be better than nothing. Avoid the economy poles you see at the big box stores; they are made of inferior materials and use dangerous locking mechanisms.
WATCH YOUR PEE! Urine color is a great indicator of hydration. Most people should aim for a color between clear and light yellow.
9. Drink Plenty of Water and Eat Healthy Snacks
Your body, like a car, won't go too far without the right kind of fuels. A hiker's body requires a consistent supply of nutritious long-burn food to drive the muscles which propel us over rocky crags and lead us down overgrown trails. Before you start planning an eight-course gourmet meal for your next ravine hike, consider the following ideas for trail food:
- GORP: Make your own Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts at home from a mixture of raisins, peanuts, banana chips, m&ms and whatever else is quick and easy to enjoy. I like to put a few gummi bears in mine just to change things up.
- Granola Bars: Perhaps cliché, but granola bars are an easy way to get a few calories.
- Apples: There is nothing like a crisp apple on a long climb; remember to pack out the core.
- Jerky: Though denture wearers may want to avoid the shoe-leather variety, a few pieces of salty jerky can be a welcome electrolyte rich snack.
Perhaps nothing is as important to a hiker as water; however it is sadly one of the most ignored too. Anyone who has ever given a thirsty wayward hiker water out of their own bottle can attest to the importance of estimating water consumption.
So how much water do you need? Though all individuals vary, most hikers need to consume between 1/2 and 1 liter of water for every hour of hiking. That is a lot of water, and nearly impossible to carry if you are on a long hike.
Most hikers follow this hydration strategy:
- Hydrate for a few days before you go.
- Carry 2 liters of clean water.
- Have a way to purify water on the trail and refill their bottles or camelbak. Consider all water sources (even pristine mountain streams) contaminated.
- Use electrolyte replenishing powder like Gatorade.
10. Know When to Turn Around
It's getting dark, you're bleeding, and out of water: time to turn around. Honestly, it was probably time to turn around hours before that. One of the most difficult tasks for any hiker to acquire is the ability to judge yourself, your companions, and the path on which you are headed.
In our competitive society, where abandoning your path is seen as a failure, turning back when "the summit is right there" is hard to do. Summit Fever, that irresistible drive toward the peak, is characterized by an extreme lack of judgement and has been the demise of many backpackers and hikers.
If you die on the trail, they'll probably only name a campsite after you - is that really worth it? One of my favorite outdoor quotes from mountaineer Ed Viesturs is,"Getting to the summit is optional but getting down is mandatory." There will always be another day for a summit bid, but you only have one life to live.
Many hiking blogs advocate carrying cell phones as a means of extra security; however, most mobiles offer false security and over-confidence. How many times have Search and Rescue teams been deployed to extricate hikers whose only equipment was an iPhone? Unfortunately it happens all too often. Sure carry a phone, but don't depend on it.
Though technology, like satellite messengers, are tools to increase hiker safety, they shouldn't be relied on in absence of common sense. Like all tools, technology is only as effective as the person operating it.
Have a safe hiking trip, see you on the trail!
This page © Copyright 2012, Daniel Human
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.