Common Safety Mistakes Hikers Make in the Backcountry
Things To Think About Before Venturing Into The Backcountry
While each Search and Rescue mission is unique, my teammates and I see a number of common errors, oversights, and decisions made by hikers that get them into jams and pickles. And, regrettably, sometimes worse.
But I hesitate to call all of the following mistakes. One in particular is simply a choice and not necessarily a bad choice. So, I'm going to include it as food for thought.
Hopefully, this list, though not rocket science, will make one think just a little bit longer about what can go wrong on a hike and how to avoid those problems in the first place. Or at least how to deal with them more effectively if they do happen.
First and foremost, though, enjoy your hike!
Hiker Mistake 1: Not Having a Plan
This, I do call a mistake. Having a plan for your hike can prevent you from getting lost and go a long way towards ensuring your safe return.
Plotting your route ahead of time on a map, assessing the difficulty and perhaps technical nature of that route, making sure you have all necessary gear given the terrain and weather potential, and estimating the time necessary to complete the route are all part of an effective plan.
This may seem like overkill when it comes to a fairly short hike on a trail you've been over umpteen times before, but it's still a good idea to think things over and make a mental review, not to mention make sure the trail map—or, better yet, the topo map of the area—is in your pack. You never know when you may need to look at what's near the trail if, for example, a section is impassable and you're forced to re-route, or if weather conditions make you consider a shortcut or alternate path.
Hiker Mistake 2: No One Knows Your Plan
If, on that rare occasion, something goes wrong on your trek, what good would an itinerary be if no one else knows about it?
It's not uncommon that Search and Rescue teams get called to look for an overdue hiker, climber, skier, etc. and the reporting party has little to no idea of where their friend or loved one went. "He went to hike the Inner Basin Trail from Lockett Meadow to Fremont Saddle and back, starting at about noon" is obviously much more helpful to SAR than "she's hiking somewhere in Northern Arizona."
Leaving an itinerary and expected time of return (with a little buffer for that unplanned stop for pizza), can literally make a life or death difference.
Hiker Mistake 3: Your Plan Changes But No One Knows
A plan is great. Leaving an itinerary with a family member or friend is prudent. But if you change your plans once you're out there and someone does come looking for you ... well, you get the picture.
It's fun to be spontaneous, and, sure, sometimes we have little choice but to alter our route when the unexpected occurs. But, if at all possible, it's best not to stray too far from your intended hike itinerary.
Now I want to clarify that sometimes altering course IS the smartest thing to do; for example, when weather conditions change, or a hiker finding that he isn't properly outfitted to handle the conditions. Pressing on "no matter what" can be a huge mistake. So I'm not saying never change your plans. Just something to consider if you do.
Hiker Mistake 4: Being Unprepared For The Unexpected
In the mountains, I've experienced days that have literally gone from summer to winter in a matter of hours—from t-shirt weather in valleys to snow squalls on summits. From calm sunshine to driving rain and lightning in mere minutes.
A carefree walk in the woods can turn into a long night with a broken ankle, waiting for help.
That logjam you carefully crossed on your way out may actually be gone by the time you come back.
Who knows? Stranger things have happened, believe me. So it's always nice to be prepared with extra food, clothing, first aid supplies, and a little bit of emergency shelter juuuuust in case.
Hiker Mistake 5: Being Poorly Equipped Overall
Imagine setting out for a nine-mile, high-desert hike to and from the summit of a 12,633-foot peak without a pack, without a water bottle, and dressed in shorts and t-shirt without even a windbreaker to back that up. Sounds ridiculous, right? Yes, but I've seen it happen.
I'm a big advocate of the 24-hour pack, regardless of the length or difficulty of a hike. A 24-hour pack is not intended for an overnight trip, but it should contain just enough gear to spend and survive at least twenty-four hours in the field if it should become necessary.
A well-equipped daypack on the back of a hiker who's made a plan, and knows how to use what he or she is carrying, often means that that emergency bivvy and all-weather blanket never get used in the first place.
Hiker Mistake 6: Having the Equipment but Not Knowing How to Use It
The thing about maps, compasses and most GPS's (except maybe for some fancy-shmancy auto types) is that they don't talk much. So carrying them with you is only half of the equation; the other is actually knowing what to do with them.
When I say know how to use your gear, the first things that come to mind are navigational tools. One common misconception, for example, is that a compass always points north. No, in fact it points wherever you point it. Only the magnetized needle points in the general direction of Earth's magnetic North Pole. But a compass is an invaluable tool if you know how to use it, particularly in conjunction with your map. If you know how to use both, you'll never be lost.
One error that many outdoorspeople make, after buying that pricey new GPS with all the bells and whistles, is that they become out-of-the-box users. In SAR, it's not unusual to find that a lost subject actually had a GPS in his pack but never bothered to take out the owner's manual and practice before hitting the trail. If nothing else, learn how to set waypoints and do "go to's" in order to return to your starting point.
Something to keep in mind is that mechanical devices can fail and break. The batteries can run out and maybe you forgot to pack extras. So it's always a good idea to bring lower-tech backups like that compass and most definitely a map.
Knowing how to use one's gear would also apply to things like water purification products and tools, ice axes, crampons, snowshoes, backpacking stoves, firestarters, and so forth. If it's in your pack, know what to do with it.
A Few More How-To Gear Sites
How To Rig A Tarp
Hiker Mistake 7: Failure to Track the Weather
In the high country especially, weather can change on a dime. Always be aware of the forecast and your changing surroundings. Checking the weather for a specific location (and altitude) is quite easy to do online and takes only minutes. If that's not an option, a phone call to the area's Forest Service or Park Service office to check current and predicted conditions is a good idea.
Climatic hazards include lightning, microbursts, hail, rain, snow and ice, heat and cold.
Read about what happened when a young couple went on a multi-day hike without first checking the weather forecast in my blog post, "The Volvo Wasn't So Lucky." While they did make a mistake that got them stranded, this couple did a number of other things right that ultimately saved their lives: making a plan, leaving an itinerary with a friend, and going prepared.
Check The Forecast Before You Go
Oftentimes, weather reports for urban areas are quite different than those for nearby mountains or canyons, so be sure to get more specific information by searching online for the area where you'll be hiking.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service
For locations throughout the United States
7-day international weather forecasts for major cities of the world.
Lightning Safety While Hiking
Lightning is of the most widespread weather concerns amongst hikers.
Truth be told, there is no place that is 100% safe from lightning, unless maybe you have access to an underground bunker, a pretty unlikely scenario in the wilderness. But there are things you can do—and not do—to minimize the risk of being struck. Such precautions include:
- Do not seek shelter under a lone tree, a picnic shelter, or other object to stay dry. It will attract lightning. The rain won't kill you, so it's better to be wet and alive than dry and dead.
- Do seek shelter in a stand of uniformly sized trees.
- Descend from high places into a valley or depression. Be cautious of entering a dry wash that may flash-flood from the downpour.
- If you are caught in a thunderstorm while above treeline, seek shelter in the lowest area you can find.
- Remove your backpack and put on your rain gear. If you have a metal frame pack, leave it 100 feet from where you are seeking shelter.
- If you have hiking poles, leave them with your pack.
- If you are not able to find shelter, make yourself as small a target as you can. This means minimizing your height and your contact with the ground by crouching down on the balls of your feet. Place your feet close together with your head tucked down, reducing your exposure and encouraging any lightning strike to travel down your back instead of damaging vital organs.
- Groups should not huddle together. Instead, have each person find shelter about 100 feet apart, which lessens the possibility of multiple casualties from a single strike.
- Cover your ears and eyes to protect them from the noise and light of nearby strikes.
- Get away from water sources.
- Don't seek shelter in shallow caves. A cave must be significantly deeper than its opening is wide in order to offer protection.
Signs and Symptoms of Health Issues Caused by Exposure
- Symptoms of Hypothermia, from the Mayo Clinic
Click on the article selections for recommended treatments and avoidance techniques.
- Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion, from the Mayo Clinic
Click on the article selections for recommended treatments and avoidance techniques.
- Symptoms of Heat Stroke, from the Mayo Clinic
Click on the article selections for recommended treatments and avoidence techniques.
Hiker Mistake 8: Not Allowing Enough Time to Get There and Back
Generally, I've found that most hikers in good condition, carrying a "reasonable" amount of weight in their packs (interpret as you will) move at a pace of about 2 to 2.5 miles per hour on moderate terrain. Of course, this is a generalization, and paces will vary greatly according to fitness, pack weight, energy-level, weather conditions, terrain, undergrowth, stride and so forth.
If you know your average pace and have a good plan for your hike, you can make a decent estimate of the time it will take you to cover the planned distance. But most of us like to have extra time for stopping and smelling the proverbial roses, to enjoy the views, to have a bite to eat, and rest the feet now and then.
I've participated in a number of Search and Rescue missions involving hikers who didn't give themselves enough time to get back before dark and didn't have a light source, lost the trail, or found the terrain too difficult to maneuver on in the dark even with a light. Read about one such mission on my SAR blog.
Hiker Mistake 9: Summit Fever
Summit fever means pushing to the top despite potentially dangerous weather conditions, or despite signs of illness. Living near peaks that exceed 12,000 feet, I've seen many people who, though fit, are not used to exertion at elevation. Once on the peak, they push themselves and continue to the summit even if they aren't feeling well. Altitude sickness is easily "cured" by returning to a lower elevation, but it can in fact lead to serious problems, even death in extreme cases—if ignored.
Hiker Mistake 10: Not Charging the Cell Phone Battery
Before joining a Search and Rescue team, I wasn't a big fan of carrying cell phones while hiking. I admit I had a "thing" about that sort of technology on the trail, and I'd feel my blood pressure rise when I'd hear someone yackin' while hiking. It also irked me when I witnessed someone with little more in their pockets than a candy bar and a cellphone; they'd left the daypack, the extra clothing, the water bottles, and the map and compass at home! Huh?
Since becoming a SAR volunteer, however, I really do see the value in carrying a cell phone as part of one's emergency gear as long as people don't count on it. Obviously, cell phones often don't work in the backcountry. But they have saved lives on many occasions.
So be sure to charge your phone before you hit the trail. There's no guarantee you'll get a signal, but it's a good tool to have in an emergency. And even if you don't have enough of a signal to make a call and have a conversation, you should still dial 9-1-1. That may be sufficient for dispatch to pick up the call and then determine at least your general location. Law enforcement can try to ping your phone to get a fix on your whereabouts at the time of your last call.
Do You Carry A Cellphone When Hiking?
Why or why not?
Readers Who Said "Yes, Always" (or Most of the Time, at Least)
I take it everywhere I go! - Maria Burgess
Yes but only for emergency IF there is reception. Also use it as an Ipod. - cameron-johnson-750983
My phone goes most places with me, except swimming. It's useful if you have to tell someone what time you will be home by, but it's not always easy to get signal in the peaks. - boa11kfh
Just a cheap prepaid phone only for emergencies. - Anonymous
Always do. You never know when you'll need it! - Oneshotvariety LM
Absolutely carry my phone while hiking. - KReneeC
I carry a droidx which has been more reliable than my Garmin legend for GPS tracking even without service. - Anonymous
Always a must, and a fully charged one at that. It is rare that I need to use it, however as I hike alone quite often, it is a good backup to have. - Anonymous
Yes, I always carry a cellphone. I know it adds a few ounces, but I think it is worth it. - GeorgiaHiker
Every time. - Anonymous
Yes, even though my hikes are usually very short. It's more so my kids can contact me if they have to. - Dustytoes
Always! It's almost criminal not to carry a phone. - Susanna Duffy
Yes,always. Lots of places there is no cell service, but often you can get service on hilltops or open areas if emergencies arise on the trail. Or to check in during multiday trips to let others know you are still OK. - Wrennest
Nowadays, I always do. It's usually turned off and stashed in my pack (sometimes in my first aid kit), but it's there. I figure, it can't hurt but it certainly might help. Deb Kingsbury
Readers Who Said "No, Never" (or Not Usually)
Up until now, I have not carried a cell phone. I find that I rarely get a signal, and, the idea of a phone out in the wilderness seemed to spoil the tranquility. However, I do see the merit in having one along "just in case." In really remote areas our group has had a satellite phone available for emergency use only. - Renaissance Woman
No. Most of the places I hike in don't have reception so it wouldn't do me much good other than putting my phone at risk of getting damaged. - Jasonklass
I didn't even have a cell phone when I did my thru-hikes. These days I do take it on dayhikes, but probably wouldn't if I was backpacking. It's space and weight, not just the phone, but the charger, too...and it would be dead if I needed it anyway. And I'm a little old-fashioned, too. We managed in wilderness for millenia without it. - NC Shepherd
I don't have a cell phone right now, but I hike to "get away", so I tend to leave gadgets at home. Call me old-fashioned. :P - Anonymous
Hiker Mistake 11: Moving When Lost
Naturally, when we're lost, our instincts usually tell us to figure things out—to keep going and try to "find ourselves." Unfortunately, this can often lead to being even more, well ... misplaced, not to mention potential injury. After all, when we don't know where we are, the adrenaline is flowing and we're likely more focused on finding something familiar than we are on watching our footing and staying safe.
Keeping on the move when lost can often make matters worse and take you farther from where you need to be. So sit tight; it will make it easier for Search and Rescue to find you.
A program well-known in the SAR community is "Hug-a-Tree and Survive," designed to tell a simple story that teaches children basic principles for staying safe in the wilderness, including staying put. Visit the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) website to read the true story about the search for a 9-year-old boy that inspired a group of SAR members to put together the program.
The "Hug A Tree" Video
The new "Hug A Tree" video was produced for NASAR by the San Dimas Mountain Rescue Team and Alexander Video Productions in Glendora, Calif. The "Hug A Tree" program materials have been updated with a new presentation video, a presenter training video and the associated activity pages for children.
The following is a sample from the full production which is available through NASAR's Hug A Tree program:
If You Were Lost, What Would You Do?
If you were lost, would you stay put and wait for help or try to find your way out?
What Readers Said They Would Do
I don't venture off marked paths far enough to get lost! - Maria Burgess
Probably look behind me and follow the path that I'd just walked down to get back to what I recognised. Or look around for landmarks, e.g. beacons and roads, and then locate it on the map. If you know roughly where you are you can work it out from path angles and things. - boa11kfh
If I'm alone, I usually carry a topo map of the area. I don't have a compass or GPS, but plan to get one or both soon. I generally don't travel too far from starting point (car, camp, other). I have only gotten slightly lost a couple times due to there not being a trail, but I generally study my map before I start to get general idea of direction to travel to find a road or landmark before I leave. I am a map person with pretty good visual memory so I don't tend to get lost. Then again I don't usually venture too far without basic gear. Also, If I'm out and about on my own, I usually have a hand held ham radio with me. - Anonymous
My head would say stay put. However, it would really depend on a lot of different factors. - Renaissance Woman
If I am out anywhere hiking I will have a map, gps and phone with me and a good sense of direction and knowledge of the planned trail. If I should get lost despite this, I would try to find my way out. If that didn't work, then I would certainly backtrack to the last point on the trail where I know people would find me and probably wait as a last resort. - Anonymous
Try to find my way out. - Jasonklass
Hiker Mistake 12: Not Being Visible When Lost
If you've misplaced yourself and are waiting to be found, be sure to make yourself as "big" and visible as possible. This means putting on the brightest clothing you have, moving into a clearing if possible, and, at night, turning on and sometimes flashing your light/s. You might also start a small fire, using proper precautions of course, so the thing doesn't spread and become way more visible than you ever intended. And make noise too. If you have a whistle, blow.
Signals can include things like:
- Anything out of place
- Straight lines and right angles
- Glow sticks
Did you know?
- Three fires means "help."
- Royal blue is a good contrast with most environments.
- The light of a cell phone screen is often easily spotted by helicopters searching at night.
- If writing out SOS or HELP in the dirt or with rocks or other objects, try to make the letters about six times larger than you are.
Hiker Mistake 13: Straying From the Group
There's safety in numbers, they say.
And I say, if you go with a group, stay with the group ... or at least let someone know if you're going to stop for a break or step off the trail to "see a man about a horse" perhaps.
When hiking with a group, I believe in having a prior agreement amongst all members about how to handle different paces and preferences for stopping for breaks, so everyone is on the same page. Keeping at least one group member in sight at all times is the way I prefer to do it.
During Search and Rescue missions and trainings, we always travel in pairs at the very least, and use the buddy system in larger groups, so we know that one other person is keeping an eye on us and will know if we get hurt or disappear.
What do you think?
This one doesn't get a number, because I don't want to call it a mistake. Hiking alone can be an awesome, relaxing, exhilarating experience, and I know many people prefer it.
Me, I personally enjoy having a companion, not only for the security of having a buddy along but also to have someone to share the wonder with—-the views, the wildlife, the fresh air, and sometimes some great walkin' and talkin'. But I certainly don't fault anyone for wanting time to themselves on the trail.
If you are going on a solo hike, though, you need to be extra careful about not making the common mistakes or misjudgements I've mentioned above. Make that plan, leave an itinerary, go prepared, check the weather, know how to use your gear, charge your cell phone if you're bringing one, and know your abilities and limitations and what you're getting into.
Do You Like to Hike Alone?
Do you prefer the solitude to the companionship? Or do you feel safer with at least one buddy?
Readers Who Said "Yes," They Like to Hike Alone
Yes. Solitude is the only way to gain a true experience of wild places. - Namsak
Yes, frequently for the past 62 years. - Anonymous
I enjoy hiking alone. Not just because I'm an introvert who LOVES solitude, but because I like to set my own pace. I rarely hike off trail, but if I do it's not far and I make note of the direction I need to go to find a road or landmark. So far all my solo hikes have been day hikes and 8 out of 10 times I am carrying at least a topo map and ham radio, but normally extra gear for an unexpected overnighter. The only consideration for a partner hiker for a long hike (more than a day or two) is mostly for safety from bears or cougars (I've seen both in the wild) and from the unexpected. - Anonymous
I don't have any hiker friends, so solo is the only way to go. - TravelingRae
It can be great to share the experience with someone, but I really love being alone in the mountains sometimes, it's an awesome feeling. - ZestCareerCoach
I enjoy hiking alone so that I can take the time to enjoy the aspects that I like (photography, wildlife), however it is nice to go out with a group or buddy once in a while. - Anonymous
I have hiked alone many times, but it has always been on "busy" trails. Even though there is only me in my group, I am constantly meeting other people on the trail. I do enjoy the solitude of just me. - GeorgiaHiker
I usually do since I'm out on the reservation, but i always take my dog with me. I had once incident where i got stuck on a cliff and spent overnight with him. in the morning he showed me an old sheep trail that hasn't been used in years since my mother was born. I found out later it was used to get to the other side to get water. - Anonymous
I enjoy the solitude and if I didn't hike alone I wouldn't be going 99 of 100 times. My prior hiking/backpacking companions have turned into parents and are now unavailable. I take careful precautions because I'm alone. I never did like hiking with strangers or groups bigger than four because chaos may rule. And they may not care to go into the oddball wildlife areas I want to see. - Anonymous
My preference has always been to solo hike. I'm selfish with my time and one big reason I go solo is to get away from society and the necessary compromises. It is tough to find that compatible person. - Anonymous
Is there any other way? I mean, sure I'd like to hike with someone, but I don't have anyone to hike with. Not many people want to, or can, do the kinds of hiking I do anyway. :) That's okay, I like my own company just fine. - NC Shepherd
I have always known that it is considered unsafe to hike alone, and haven't been out because I can't find people willing to go. I just got back this weekend from camping and hiking by myself. I felt so alive--and more myself than I have in years! While I would still be leaving info with people, I have every intention of continuing to hike alone ... unless of course, I find others who want to go with me. I have considered trying to get some kind of "hiking" club going in my area, and get more people out and interested in the outdoors--and to provide me a little bit of company every once in a while. Just a thought I thought I would share, since I see others are in the same boat as me. Also, if anyone has any ideas on getting something like a hiking or outdoors group started- pleaase let me know (I live in central WI if anyone knows of one already going) at email@example.com And I really do like your articles--I am surprised by how many of these I guessed to be on the list.... - Anonymous
I am all for hiking with companions, too, but I like to be alone in nature just as much. I guess it's more habit going back to when I was a kid. I was always the "clear head" guy, and my friends would always get into trouble. Animal attacks, or just injuries. So I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I think if I don't bring people along they won't get hurt. - Anonymous
I am the Executive Director for a non-profit ten-day backcountry program (www.WYCP.org) that sets high risk youth up for four-day (yup...four days and nights) solo camping in the Big Horn country in Alberta. Four years later we have a number of youth 'walking the walk' after their solo experience. We don't do anything for them other than get them in and out safe. Last year we dropped our target age to 12, we parked five (under 14) youth on the side of a mountain and three completed their solos, all three want to go again! Solo time in the bush is as close to heaven as one can get so we figure our success is coming from their newfound connection to nature, something one can only truly experience when alone in the bush. Do I support solo camping? Not for everyone, but with proper safety plans in place it can be a life-changing experience! Personally if this was the 1800's I would have probably been a mountain man, I spend so much time alone in the bush. My personal fav way to go! Lee - Anonymous
I almost always hike alone. I can rarely find some one who is willing and able to go. I go long, far, and steep, early in the mornings or late at night. - Scott11253
It's always more fun to share the experience, but it doesn't bother me to hike alone. Most times I don't have a choice because not many people are able or willing to hike the way I do. So my answer is...yes and no. - NC Shepherd
I go out all the time by myself, including winter. I have a bunch of strict rules, which govern my travel. The main ones being: Do not deviate from the plan. Go where you have been before. Keep it well within your skill level. - Anonymous
Readers Who Said "No," They Don't Like to Hike Alone
I like to share my hikes. I'm too paranoid to go off by myself. ;) - MBurgess
never gonna hike by myself - Anonymous
I often hike alone, but, given a compatible hiking partner, would prefer to share the experience with someone who appreciates the wonders of nature. Because I live in mountain lion country, I feel uncomfortable hiking solo. It's much safer to be in a group when there are cougars in the area. - Diana Wenzel
I like to hike with someone, but most often I am alone. I prefer to take the dog too, mostly to keep the bears away! - Dustytoes
Hike with at least one other person. But if you don't have a companion, hiking alone is better than not hiking at all!! - Anonymous
I think the risks far outweigh the benefits - Anonymous
I've only hiked alone in familiar and relatively small areas, and rarely at that. - RuthCoffee
I'm going to choose no, even though I've hiked alone before. Much of the time on the A.T. I spent alone with my own thoughts for long stretches, and I've done some fairly short dayhikes by myself. But on the A.T., I never was really alone and never camped alone either. And I tend to prefer it that way--to have company on a trail, even if we're not hiking right together all the time. I feel more comfortable and generally enjoy hiking more with a companion. - Ramkitten2000
A Cascade of Hiker Errors
Things don't happen in isolation. Often, it's not just one of the above mistakes that leads to a dilemma or even disaster; the first error starts the ball rolling and another makes things worse.
For example, a hiker doesn't make a plan, so she can't make an informed judgment about how long the trek will take. Darkness overtakes her, but she doesn't have a flashlight or headlamp, so she's stuck in terrain she can't navigate once the sun goes down. She does have her cellphone, but she didn't charge it before leaving home; it had only one bar of battery charge, she left it on while hiking, and now it's dead. With nightfall, the temperature drops. She's wearing just a cotton t-shirt and shorts, and the cotton shirt is damp with sweat and doesn't dry easily. Now she's cold, but has no extra layers to put on and nothing to start a fire with. Then it starts to drizzle. She didn't tell anyone where she was going or when she thought she'd return, and she lives alone and isn't expected at work for two days.
I'll leave the story at that, but I will say that things didn't work out well for this otherwise fit and intelligent young woman.
Wilderness Survival and Safety Guides—Reading Is Great. Practice is essential.
Here are two good books about staying safe and avoiding problems in the backcountry, and how to deal with them if they do happen.
A well-liked book of camping and survival techniques, including a very wide range of scenarios. (After all, the book is over 1,000 pages!)
Written by a meteorologist, the book teaches how to read clouds, wind patterns, snow conditions, and other clues, and how you can avoid becoming a statistic -- that is, avoid weather-related hiking, climbing, and skiing accidents. This text will also cover how to limit your exposure -- to mitigate the risk -- if you do get caught in poor conditions.
While we can never eliminate all risks...
we can do risky things safely. Be able to recognize risks. Be able to assess those risks. And be able to mitigate those risks.
Know your skills, your abilities, and your limits, and go prepared.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury