How to Minimize Hiking Hazards: Avoid Accidents, Injuries, and Getting Lost
Over the past weeks, every day I saw reports about mountain rescue teams saving hikers from dangerous spots. In some cases, there was just some seriously bad luck to be blamed – but in the majority of them, the situation could have been well avoided if only the victims were better prepared.
The common thing that repeated throughout the rescue team’s comments was a lack of proper preparation on the side of the walkers. They were not prepared for the weather conditions, didn’t have a map, no necessary gear (like a compass, crampons, warmer layers, headlamp etc.) or underestimated the trail's difficulty.
The problem with such tourists is not just that they could have died (and some did actually), injured themselves and so on, but also endangered the brave members of rescue teams who rushed after them.
We all should do whatever we can to minimize the risks of hiking accidents. This is particularly important when hiking solo – we need to rely on ourselves only.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Know the Trail
Plan your hike well: read about the trail you want to hike. A friend’s recommendation is just not enough. A beautiful image from Instagram should not be the only knowledge you have about the destination. You need to know the difficulty level, unique challenges, gear needed, water sourcing, camping options, terrain conditions, wildlife in the area, specific laws and regulations, etc.
All of that is necessary to prepare well and to know what to pack. You might take a tent – but what if it’s forbidden to wild camp? What if the terrain is such there is simply no spot to pitch a tent? What if there are no trees for your hammock?
Even a short trip for a day hike could end in a disaster if we come unprepared.
It’s always good to know what the transport options along the way are – are there any earlier exit options if anything happened or the weather turned for the worse? Do you have some extra cash to call a cab or to pay for an unexpected night at a hotel?
Whatever the trail – stay on it. Don’t try to make shortcuts or find your own way cutting through woods. It’s causing erosion and can create a dangerous situation. There can be hidden sinkholes, sudden drops or cliffs under overgrown grasses, bogs and other risks.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Know the Weather
The best way to get yourself into trouble is to ignore weather forecast or to rely on what it is for a city nearby. Nowadays we have better and better technology and scientific know-how to predict weather changes. Make sure you read them carefully and always be prepared for worsening of the conditions predicted.
Check the mountain-specific websites for information as the conditions between a big city and the closest mountain range could be very, very different. It is especially important if you plan on hiking during seasons known for sudden storms, avalanches, strong winds or short days.
No matter what the weather – prepare with some extra clothing. Take a rain jacket and a light puffy. When you are all sweaty, even light wind can make you feel cold very fast. If you are heading off for a multi-day hike, have a dry change of clothes and take care to keep all your things (and a sleeping bag) dry. Even if there are no rains in the forecast!
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Preventing Feet Injuries
Sometimes accidents just happen. But if we don’t follow some basic prevention guideline we may create a higher risk probability. Our feet are the engine to take as through the trail - if they fail, we fail.
What can you do to lower the risk of feet injuries?
Take well fitting, trail-matching foot ware. Learn what the trail is like and wear a pair of comfortable, worn-in shoes or boots. Avoid slipping on wet rocks or mud by wearing only shoes with good grip. Don’t go trail walking with just ordinary sneakers – they are made for asphalt, not trail.
Take a good care of your feet on and off the trail. Remember that your feet will probably swell so your boots should be at least one size up. Whenever possible – take the boots off during breaks to let your feet air a bit. Experiment a bit with a variety of tying styles to see what suits your feet.
It’s very important to make sure your toes never hit the front of your shoes – also when going down. You should have about a thumb –width room in front of your toes. Otherwise, you risk black toenails, blisters and losing nails.
If you feel a hot spot starts – stop and take care of it. It might be that there is a tiny pebble or sock does not fit properly. You may want to tape the spot to prevent further friction on the spot.
I found out that using double socking system helps to prevent blisters. I wear a thin liner and a woolen sock over it. Recently I got five toes sock liners and it was the perfect solution to my toes overlapping each other causing blisters.
Learn what your feet are like and if you know some spots are prone to get blisters – tape them ahead of hiking with a duct tape or a sport (fabric) tape. It worked pretty well for me.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Take Care of Your Body
Make realistic plans and don’t do overly ambitious mileage goals. That’s a recipe for disaster and disappointment. Know your capabilities and don’t try to prove anything to anyone.
Don’t take more than you need and pack your backpack well to ensure balance and good weight spreading. Also - make sure you pack all the necessities to ensure safety and comfort. Don't cut on taking basics in a wrongly perceived idea of ultra-light hiking.
Make sure you are well hydrated – take enough water and if you know there are natural water sources, grab a small water filter or purifying tablets. On the same note - take enough food to nourish your hiking machine a.k.a. body. Eat good, nutrient-filled breakfast and pack some good snacks. For multi-day hikes plan your meals well.
Grab a pair of trekking poles. I can’t count how many times they saved me from falling! They help you keep a better balance, give additional support and can serve as probes to check how deep a mud puddle is. And in a bad situation – can be used as an impromptu splinter.
Always have a first-aid kit with you. It doesn’t have to be huge but be prepared to deal with the most common ailments and injuries on a trail.
Make sure you don't wear cotton - you risk serious problems, like hypothermia. Grabbing a cotton t-shirt for a summer day hike can be fine (although possibly unpleasant as it dries forever) but you must have merino or synthetic clothing for longer hikes.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Know Your Navigation Skills
With the rise of technology, there are apps which make hiking so much easier! I love my ViewRanger and it saved me from many a tight spot. BUT we need to be very careful how we use our smartphones and not to rely solely on them. Batteries die, the connection might break… it is still important to have a regular map, a compass and know how to use both of them. The farther from “civilization” we go, the less we should rely on the phone/GPS.
To make sure your phone can be a really good tool, grab a power bank with you – dying batteries were among the most common issues with lost tourists. Even if you go just for a day hike – that kind of apps often drain batteries fast, so be prepared.
I found that when I lost a sight of trail markers it was mostly because of my own mindlessness. Spacing out, getting lost in thoughts, admiring views or taking photos – all can cause missing a turn. If you notice that you haven’t seen a trail marker in a while – return to the last spot you saw it and try to figure the correct direction out one more time.
Take your time - don't feel like you have to find your direction quickly or be some kind of a loser. I don't know about you, but because of my anxiety, I tend to get irrational when there are other people around and I need to make a decision. I have to actually remind myself it's OK to slow down, check the map, turn around, read the map slowly and give yourself the time to think if needed. That's one of the reasons why I hike alone - the presence of other people is so stressful I don't think straight. But at least I'm aware of it...
There are trails which are badly marked and it’s important to stay extra vigilant at all times and to check a map at regular intervals to make sure you are still on the right track.
There are also very well marked trails where it's almost hard to get lost. Nevertheless- learn at least basics on navigation and finding yourself in the wild. This can also help when you need to tell rescue team where you are.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Know Your Gear & What to Pack
There is no sense grabbing stuff you have no idea how to use. The same is with wrong fit or size gear. Make sure your backpack fits you well and that there are no items dangling from the outside of it. It doesn't look good and it can actually be dangerous. Stuff can catch on branches or push you off balance.
You don't have to create your own gear list from scratch - learn from others and adjust with more experience. Make sure you have the necessities and see what other people use and recommend. With time, you learn what works and what doesn't for your personal style or needs.
Play around with new gear before you hit the trail. See what the cooking stove looks like, how to pitch your tent and if all the elements are there. If you borrow or buy second-hand pay extra attention that nothing is missing and replace accordingly.
You don't have to copy someone's list exactly - but see what elements are needed to ensure safety and comfort of your trip. Adjust the gear to your needs - your body, age, size as well as your destination. If you like to see what others use - take a peak at my gear choices.
Make sure your sleeping bag fits your needs - no need to carry an amazing winter bag if you go hiking in the summer or plan on sleeping in mountain rescues. But if you tend to sleep cold, it might be a good idea to buy a warmer sleeping bag than the recommended in someone's article.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Know How Much Time You Need
It’s not always easy to figure out how much time you need for a particular hike. The mileage itself is not enough – we have to take the terrain into the account. Even when we are told that the trail takes “5h” to complete – how did the guide's authors count it? Did they count breaks into it? Was it for summer or winter walking? What about breaks for taking photos, staring at stunning views, unexpected injuries (blisters) or filtering water? What about hiking right after three days of constant rain – deep mud surely slows down everyone.
I use ViewRanger to learn how fast I really hike. I don't pause the recording for breaks - this way I know how I should calculate the time I need including my style of walking - with stopping for photos very often or just stopping and staring at a stunning view for a few seconds - all of that adds up to the final count.
Make sure you consider how much daylight you have and always have a safe buffer at the end so you don’t end up after sunset still up in the mountains. It's crazy how fast the day goes by around October or February - even when you are hiking at a location that is still/already warm - this can seriously mess with the "winter time" thinking.
Take the information given on the trail and add to it depending on specific conditions. Consider your fitness levels or health issues, weather, season or how popular a trail is (some trails have lines in particularly popular spots or bottleneck areas). Check the newest info (if possible) on closures, trail maintenance, detours or planned accommodation availability.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Know Your Company
And by that, I don't mean your hiking buddies (if you have any). I mean the flora and fauna that surrounds you. This particularly important if you hike in a foreign country or unknown to you area. You must know what kind of animals you might encounter on your way and prepare accordingly.
It could be bears, wolves or vipers but also the much smaller but possibly even more dangerous or more annoying: ticks, centipedes, spiders, midges or mosquitoes. If you know there are snakes or scorpions in the area - be careful when moving rocks or walking behind bushes - use your trekking poles to check if anyone is hiding under/behind it.
Check for poisonous plants (I will never learn how the poison ivy looks like - we don't have them in Poland!) and be ready to avoid them and/or have a proper solution to fight their nastiness. Don't just grab whatever branch is sticking out and don't sit on a ground without first checking it carefully.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Be Aware of Your Surroundings
"Constant vigilance!" - as the good old Mad-Eye Moody used to say. Pay attention to where you place your feet and check for unstable rocks, dead branches, moving tree roots, wet leaves, and other accidents waiting to happen.
Downhill hiking requires often more attention than climbing - it is much easier to lose your footing on loose sand or gravel, soft soil or treacherous scree.
Take a closer look when choosing camping site or when trying to get closer to a stream to fill your bottle with water. Use your trekking poles to check the depth of a puddle or a stream you need to cross, as well as the stability of a rock you want to step on.
Be careful when taking photos - don't walk backward without looking. People actually died that way. Don't climb dangerous rocks or hang from a cliff to shot the perfect pic. It's just not worth it.
Look for low branches - I still remember the amount of blood a tiny cut on my scalp produced when I scratched it on a low hanging branch.
Minimizing Hiking Risks: Know When to Turn Around
Knowing when to quit, turn back or change plans can save your life. There is no shame in "giving up" or "failing" - it's using your common sense and survival instincts. During my hiking adventures, I changed or tweaked my plans many, many times when the reality didn't match my plans. It could be because I overestimated my strength or because of the weather turning sour.
Sometimes it was to skip the less interesting parts to see the better sections in the time I had (who said you have to do it all and can't pick and choose? Be the queen of your hiking life!) or to simply return earlier because I was done with hiking and felt like going back.
Trying to forge a river in spate is not "brave", it's stupid. Same with climbing steep slopes over mud floods or hiking exposed ridges in gale winds. Don't risk it - turn around and come back another time.
Whatever the reason - accept adjusting plans is the smart thing to do when the situation changes. Research ahead of time what the possible Plan B's or even Plan E's could be around the trail you want to hike. Never push farther when you feel it is dangerous just to "complete" the hike. Walking straight into a storm can be lethal. If the hike takes much longer than you thought, start thinking about your options before the sun sets.