Every summer (and sometimes the snowy winter) I get filled with excitement for hiking mountains and seeing views that are beyond beautiful but with so many reports of heat exhaustion, deaths and horror stories, it makes me wonder if hiking is safe so I did some research.
Like many activities, hiking can be safe but it isn’t without risks, and mistakes can end in serious or deadly consequences. The majority of injuries come from falling such as a sprained ankle, bruises and scraped elbows. Though it isn’t as common and is dependent on the area you are hiking in, snake bites and spider bits can also be serious. Sexual assault and rape is reported a few times each year in the United States so that is also a risk for anyone hiking (even with a companion).
With hiking being such a rewarding activity for me, I’ve taken a bit of time to research safety tips and what to avoid to ensure that I am being as safe as possible (within reason since staying home might be a little safer…).
1. Research the hike before leaving your house
Getting an idea of what risks to expect while hiking can help you dress appropriately, bring the amount of water you will need and also bring any extra gear that you may need for that area.
For example, if you are hiking through bear country, it might be a good idea to bring bear spray. Some hikes in South America have such a high risk of deadly snake bites that hikers wear ankle and shin protection to prevent snake bite penetration.
In addition to researching the trailhead and recommended guidelines before heading out, consider reading other peoples experiences or “reviews” to help you recognize if there is anything else you need to bring such as a towel and extra pair of socks for the waterfall so you don’t get blisters from hiking with wet feet.
2. Stay on the trail
Most hikes are well marked and it’s clear where the trail is and where the trail isn’t. Wandering off trail increases your chances of walking through poison ivy or stomping on a deadly spider’s tunnel nest/web (brown recluse) which can have serious consequences (in the case of a brown recluse… it’s pretty bad and may be worth Googling if they’re in your area – they’re in mine…).
Hiking off trail is one of the most common ways that hikers get lost, which American Hiking Society has explained is the number one threat to hikers and backpackers. Getting lost can be dangerous if the weather turns and you get caught in a scary storm (and catch hyperthermia) or you can’t find your way back to base before the sun goes down and the really scary critters come out… (can you tell that there are a lot of deadly night critters where I live in Utah?).
Plus, staying on trail helps nature stay healthy and beautiful.
3. Know your limits
Understanding your physical condition, experience in that type of environment and at that level can help you decide before getting on the trail whether or not you should give it a try. However, listening to your body is also important as you are on the trail.
Meg, my wife and favorite hiking buddy, knows that she will push herself to the point that she can’t walk for a week after. To prevent this from happening, we always start our hike by telling each other that it is ok to turn back at any time during the hike. This tends to take some of the pressure off Meg when she is considering pushing well past her limits.
This is a practice that you can also use. Set the expectation for yourself and with your hiking companions that it is ok to go back down the trail and/or take as many breaks as needed.
On a similar note, sometimes that meal that you ate an hour ago starts to come up again and you may consider puking and continuing. Being able to stay hydrated and nourished when you puke your guts out is very difficult and you should consider going back.
4. Hiking alone?
Hiking alone is among the riskiest things we can do as hikers and it’s generally recommended to avoid. Your risk of getting lost increases, your risk of getting stuck increases, your risk of sexual assault increases, your risk of dehydration even increases. That being said, it’s unrealistic to suggest that no one will ever hike alone…
Some people feel that hiking with a dog decreases your risk (and in case of sexual assault, it may), but it also increases your responsibility. Dogs aren’t able to double check the direction you are hiking or lend you a bottle of water. In addition, they usually can’t help you in case of serious injury.
If you are hiking alone, provide a detailed plan to someone you trust. That way it isn’t days before they start looking for you if you only planned to be gone for 8 hours.
Consider bringing extra water, ways to filter water (if the trail has access to natural water), and get an emergency satellite messenger device for emergencies that require calling for help (since you probably won’t have cell service).
5. Prepare for the weather!
I live about 4 hours away from Zions National Park, which is among my favorite parks to hike. Before I drive all that way, I review the forecast and make plans accordingly. Over the last couple of weeks, national park rangers have reported hundreds of visitors at Zions with severe heat exhaustion. Visitors from out of state were among the most commonly reported, likely because locals know what to expect from the weather (in this case, severe heat).
When it comes to severe heat, which Zions is known for during the mid-summer, you need to pack additional water, wear breathable clothing, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses and for those that struggle regulating body temperature in the heat, a cooling towel of some sort. The most important thing with heat is WATER – hydrate before, during and after the hike.
Unfortunately, a lot of hikes in Zions are also known for flash floods so be sure to check with the visitor center for flood warning as people die from flash floods each year at Zions.
If rain is in the forecast and you are somewhere that it’s safe to hike in the rain (though that is unpleasant, in my opinion), then make sure that you have the additional layers for rain, waterproof shoes, head coverings, and plan for where it is safe to hike and isn’t (slippery mud, rocks, etc.).
6. Share your itinerary with someone you can depend on
If you read the section about hiking alone, then you already know the importance of sharing your itinerary with someone you trust. However, this is a practice you should do, even if you are hiking with companions.
Say you are planning to be gone for 8 hours but it’s been 16 hours – if you didn’t share your itinerary with anyone besides your hiking companion, then no-one would know that something may be wrong. Oftentimes, when reports of a missing person on a hiking trail comes through, the messaging usually starts with “last seen 3 days ago…”. That is a long time to be on a mountain and depending on the situation, it may be a deadly amount of time.
Sharing your plans – what trail you’re hiking, when you are starting the hike and what time you’re planning on being back is a great place to start as that is what search and rescue will need to know if they become necessary.
Be sure to communicate why you are sharing the itinerary with that person and set expectations for what to do and when to call for help. It is best if you can provide them a phone number and instructions for how to conduct that call.
Don’t forget to follow-up with them when you get back into cell service so that they know you are safe and everything is ok.
7. Use your brain and maybe your gut
Animals are known to have a sense of danger and their natural responses kick into gear but sometimes it is totally inaccurate and the danger they perceive never existed. This is the same problem that humans have – sometimes we have a sense of danger or discomfort that may or may not be accurate. However, we are able to make choices to act on those feelings or to ignore them.
Consider why you have the sense of danger or discomfort and make the decision that you feel best about – if your gut says turn back, then consider turning back.
Six years ago, Meg fell 50 ft. while repelling. After weeks in the ICU, months in rehab and months of physical therapy, she was able to walk again and even hike after a couple of years but not without challenges that she deals with every day.
She says that she had a gut feeling at the edge of the cliff and she wishes she had listened to it. I don’t know if she had a gut feeling or if that was just a post-accident memory she created, but it certainly makes you want to listen to your gut a bit more.