Before my husband and I got married, we did something really stupid. We were in Point Reyes National Park, out in California, and we decided to backpack into a site near the ocean, stay a night, and backpack out. We were fit — both, at the time, runners. We were prepared for the weather, which was supposed to get below freezing. We had adequate food and water; we had separate first-aid kits and weren’t going more than four miles in. Easy-peasy hikes, especially for people who’d trekked ten miles in a day. We were golden.
Except we didn’t tell anyone where we were going. And we saw fresh cougar scat on that trail. As in, that afternoon fresh. Literally no one on earth knew where we were. And we were in the California backcountry with freaking cougars.
Hiking seems like the most prosaic of pursuits. You strap on a backpack with some water bottles and stride out into the great outdoors. Right? Wrong. Hiking can be more dangerous than any other sport, because, as the adage goes: You might care for Mother Nature, but she doesn’t care about you. You’re potentially miles from other human beings, help, or even cell phone range. Here’s some very basic ways to stay safe, most of which I have violated at one time or another, to my detriment.
Tell Someone Where You’re Going
Someone needs to know where you are, and more importantly, when you expect to be back. In Death Valley, it’s traditional to leave word at the post office. But it can be as simple as a check-in call in to mom or brother: except if they don’t get that call, they put the wheels in motion for a search party, because something’s gone wrong. This is especially important if you’re going out of cell phone range.
Consider A Satellite Phone
If I ever take kids to Death Valley, you can bet we’ll be armed with a satellite phone. We just spent time in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and with the way my phone popped “NO SERVICE” most of the time, on a multi-day hike, I’ll make sure to have a reliable way to contact the outside world. This is especially important if you’re going deep into the backcountry, and if someone in your party has a medical condition, like anaphylaxis.
Bring A First-Aid Kit
Always. Everyone should have their own, and it should contain enough stuff to get you through everything short of splinting a broken limb (and you’ll have the gauze, but you’ll need some wood to stabilize the limb). Someone will get cut. Someone will need a bandage and neosporin. You will have to remove a splinter. And if you’re bringing a pet, remember to make sure to have enough first-aid supplies to care for it, too.
[Camping: it’s sort of like hiking’s cousin. Check out our camping tips here.]
Know Your Big Bad Fauna
In the East and most of the West, you’re worried about bears: bring bear bells or make lots of noise on the trail (and yes, we have heard bears chuff at us and seen fresh scat in the tame, tame woods of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge). In parts of the West, the concern is mountain lions: wear brightly colored clothing, which can distinguish you from their natural prey, according to MountainLion.org; be careful crouching over, which exposes your head and neck; and stay far away from dead animals, which could be a mountain lion cache and which they will defend.
If attacked, “make noise, look big, and do not run.” Be alert for venomous snakes: they may be out sunning themselves on rocks or logs, and always kick or check downed logs before stepping over them. Remember: a snake will not chase you.
Know Your Annoying Flora
Learn to recognize poison ivy — “leaves of three, let it be” — plus hairy vines, and often a reddish tint to the leaves; poison oak, which looks almost identical to poison ivy, but less red; and poison sumac: parallel, pointed leaves with a red stem, check out some more pictures on Poison Ivy here. Stay away, or you’ll end up with an itchy rash.
Make Sure Your Boots Fit
Do not buy new hiking boots and hit the trail. Wear them around for a while before you take them on that multi-day hike. This will avoid possibly painful blistering and sore feet, which can really make a hike miserable.
Prepare For The Weather
You don’t know how cold it will get: in Point Reyes, we didn’t expect 18-degree chill, and my husband had to make me eat a midnight candy bar to stay warm. Make sure your gear is warm enough, and waterproof enough: nothing produces hypothermia more quickly than being cold. Your clothes should be quick-dry (no cotton, please). Bring a rain shell, especially if you’re hiking somewhere where rain whips up without warning.
Don’t Hesitate To Turn Around
Running out of stamina? Better to get home in one piece than to see that waterfall. Sketchy dude on the trail? Best get out of his way than to soldier onward. Hurting feet, legs, injury, bad weather on the horizon: all good reasons to head back.
Know Where You’re Going
Preferably with a map, and please, stay on the trail. Do not go on side excursions that could see you get disoriented and lost. Bring a topographical map of the region and pinpoint your location frequently. You can read a topo map, right? If not, REI can help.
Don’t Hike Solo
Want to be alone in the great outdoors, like the kid from Into the Wild? At least bring a dog. It’ll give you someone to talk to and sing to, while warding off the big bad fauna. It’ll give you a visual deterrent against any sketchy characters you may encounter, especially if said dog is large. Also, you still can stick a doggie backpack on them and haul more gear.
There’s plenty of other safety tips I could add. Bring a whistle to call for help and keep it on you at all times. Don’t eat any plants — especially mushrooms — you cannot identify with absolute certainty. Practice fire safety. Camp only in designated areas. Walk slowly downhill. Wear socks. Try not to get your feet wet, which can cause blistering. Make sure you can carry your backpack and set up your tent: five miles in the Shenandoah National Forest is not the first time to try. And watch out for wild pigs. They can be vicious in defense of their young.
Hiking can be a blast. Mostly, it is. But you’ve got to be prepared. By design, you’re removing yourself from human society to immerse yourself in something else. Something primal. Something wonderful. But yes: something that can be, if not treated with respect, wildly dangerous.