Hiking is one of the greatest outdoor activities on the planet and a perfect way to decouple from the stresses of modern life. But nature’s unpredictable. Things can and do go wrong. After 25 years of hiking and falling down mountains, I wanted to list the top hiking safety tips I’ve learned. Taking these with you on your next hike will help keep you safe and happy on the trail.
There's no finer teacher than experience, and boy, do I have a lot of it, both good and bad. There are plenty of hiking tips out there to follow, but it’s harder to find a complete process. And yes, hiking is a process. Essential things should happen before, during, and after the activity. In this article, I'll cover all of it. Let’s get to it.
Before The Hike
The planning and preparation you do before a hike is one of the best ways to help guarantee success.
1. Plan Ahead
A successful hike is based largely on your ability to prepare for it. Do you have the right gear? Do you have relevant experience? Have you checked the weather? Is high elevation a factor? Try spending a few hours reviewing maps, apps, and additional sources to cement a strategy.
If you're a beginner hiker, always start with less difficult trails and shorter distances. If you're organizing a group trip with others, always cater to the slowest hiker among you. Check out our backcountry planning apps article for great resources to get you started. Remember, nature rewards the well-prepared.
2. Hike With A Partner/Group
When you’re starting out, it’s always a good idea to bring someone with you. More than good company, a partner can assist if something goes wrong. For example, if you twist an ankle, a partner can hike out to get help.
Many hiking accidents occur because we decide to take shortcuts. A hiking partner can help you avoid these careless last-minute decisions.
This tip comes with a caveat, though. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to get someone to go with you. In that case, you shouldn't abandon existing outdoor plans. A solo adventure can be very rewarding on its own. But, if you choose to go solo, the next step triples in importance.
3. Tell Someone Your Itinerary
When you’ve established your plan, it's time to tell others. Someone who isn’t on the hike needs to have your itinerary and a time range of when you expect to be back. I also tend to give what I like to refer to as an “oh sh!t” time. If you say that time is 5 pm and you haven’t made contact, that’s when they spring into action.
If you’re hiking in an area with coverage, check in occasionally to let your people know you’re ok. However, in many places, cell reception is unavailable. That’s when this step becomes your insurance policy.
Here are some useful emergency numbers to leave alongside your itinerary. It’s, of course, dependent on where you go:
- National Forest Ranger District phone numbers
- National Park Phone Numbers
- State Park Phone Numbers
- Local Sheriff Numbers (look up the county or municipality where you’re hiking)
Why the sheriff? Not all trails are in well-traveled areas or in national forests. In many rural, mountain-dominated communities, the sheriff’s office has all the emergency response contacts. They can alert EMS, search and rescue, and activate a slew of useful resources designed to find you quickly.
Don't just give your itinerary to anyone; choose a responsible person. Whoever has this information needs to transmit critical information quickly and coherently.
4. Pack The 10 Essentials
The night before a hike, go over the essentials in your pack.
- Navigation: Map, Compass, GPS/GPS watch, or offline phone app & extra battery charger.
- Appropriate layers: Insulation, a shell, hiking pants, and comfortable moisture-wicking clothing. Think about wearing bright colors so you are more visible to others in bad weather.
- Light Source: Headlamps are the easiest, but flashlights and cell phone lights work as long as you have extra batteries and chargers.
- Nutrition: If you eat a lot of food, bring a lot of calorie-rich, lightweight food.
- Hydration: I always try to bring (or purify) around 3 liters. If you don’t want to carry the weight in from the trailhead, bring iodine tabs or a filter that you can use to purify stream water.
- First Aid Kit: Slips, trips, and falls happen. Make sure to also put matches or a lighter in there for backup warmth.
- Emergency shelter/blanket: In emergencies, if you have to spend the night outdoors, make sure you're prepped. A small emergency shelter or emergency blanket can keep body temperatures stable when a cold night settles in.
- A repair kit. It helps to have a repair kit to fix holes in your backpack, clothing, or tents. An extra pair of shoelaces isn’t a bad idea either because they can also be used to tie things together if you need to construct an emergency shelter.
- Sun protection: Even in the winter, it’s easy to get burned. Make sure to bring a high SPF-rated sunscreen along with polarized sunglasses.
- A backpack: Make sure you can carry everything you want to bring on your shoulders.
5. Curate Your First Aid Kit
A generic first aid kit can be helpful for a hiking trip, but you won’t always need what they include. For example, I do a lot of hiking in high alpine environments where a tick tweezer and Tec-nu for poison ivy are less helpful. I tend to replace these with more bandages for potential cuts on the talus, moleskin for blisters, and electrolytes to fight dehydration.
If you have certain medical conditions like an allergy to bees or altitude-related problems, make sure to put treatments in your kit, like Diamox and Benadryl. I also recommend sticking a lighter or matches in your kit in case you need to spend a cold night outdoors.
The point is to match your kit with your environment. You won’t know exactly what you need the first time you hike. However, it’ll become obvious what you do and don’t use as you keep hiking.
6. Buy The Right Footwear
Tennis shoes may be comfortable, but they don’t have great traction. If you hit the trail, make sure you have something that can grip uneven or potentially wet surfaces. Proper hiking shoes and mountaineering boots support your outdoor endeavors and come with increased arch and ankle support.
During The Hike
The following tips are easy to remember and will increase your capabilities and confidence while hiking.
7. Stay On The Trail
Unless you have years of experience in the backcountry, stay on established hiking trails. The risk of getting lost increases tenfold if you stray from a dedicated path. Plus, trampling vegetation can reduce the scenic beauty of an area, while uneven backcountry terrain can easily cause injuries.
Many popular trails also have a trail register at the trailhead. Take a moment to sign trail registers, especially for backpacking trips. They are checked regularly by park and forest rangers and offer a brief account of where you're going.
8. Stay Hydrated And Well Fed
Dehydration is awful. I remember a hot weather hike where I ran out of water. I started making poor route choices, my footsteps suffered, and I nearly drank a mud puddle out of desperation. A 10-mile day hike quickly ballooned into a 25-mile odyssey.
Carrying just a little bit of extra water or bringing water purification supplies would’ve prevented all of that. If you’re unsure of how much water to bring, check out our companion article on water for hiking and mountaineering.
Hydration is important, but hiking on an empty stomach can also be miserable. Make sure to bring extra food, especially if the trail or route is difficult.
9. Watch Your Step
The threats differ by location, but they are everywhere. Yellowjackets nest on the ground, and snakes often sunbathe on rocks along the trail; I’ve stepped on both. Not all flora is kind either, and poison ivy takes a while to clear up. On the same hike as the snake encounter, I stopped paying attention and nearly broke my ankle.
Slow down, and watch where you’re putting your feet. This step is twice as important on the way back when we’re tired and not paying attention as much.
10. Follow Trail Markers
Trail signs, markers, and symbols are fantastic tools to use on the trail. Thick fog, heavy rain, and other environmental factors like strong wind or dust can severely impact vision. In those situations, signs and marks help a lot.
In many situations, the forest service or state parks will erect temporary signs warning of dangers like flooding or erosion. If a sign says that a trail is closed, it’s there for a good reason. Don’t tempt fate by being stubborn and ignoring trail closures.
11. Respect Wildlife
Wildlife sightings are great. But, between disease, infection, and bodily harm, there are plenty of reasons to give animals a wide buffer. Even habituated creatures like squirrels at popular trailheads can become aggressive.
After The Hike
When you get back from a hike, it's tempting to put the activity aside. However, I strongly encourage you to use the following tips to help you make important adjustments for future hikes.
12. Check For Ticks
Lymes disease and rocky mountain spotted fever are both caused by ticks. If you are in a tick-infested environment, when you get back to the trailhead, check yourself and your partner. Ticks love dark, moist environments. If it's just you out there, position a mirror and check your armpits, back, hairline, and feet. You should also thoroughly check your private areas.
If you find a tick, removal is a bit tricky. They burrow head first, so if you pull on the back of a tick, you could wrench part of it off while the head is still biting you. Grab a pair of tweezers and grab as close to the skin as you can. Then pull firmly and steadily. Eventually, the tick will let go.
13. Properly Dispose Of Trash
Trash doesn't belong on the trail. If you packed it in, you can pack it out. If you find some from fellow hikers, pick it up. When you get back to the trailhead, look for a trashcan or recycling receptacle. If none exist, take the trash with you to the nearest trash can.
Try to always leave nature better than you found it. Spectacular views are much less exciting when trash is strewn about.
14. Stretch And Recover
After each hike, you should stretch. Give your legs plenty of attention, along with your shoulders. Muscle fatigue is cumulative. The more you hike without stretching, the easier it’ll be to pull something the next time you go out. Treat your body right.
Additionally, after a hike, make sure to rest. Your body will appreciate it, especially as you get older. Waking up sore and miserable after a hike is profoundly uncomfortable.
15. Clean Your Gear
This is a tough one, but not because the process is long. In fact, for most items, it’s fairly simple. It’s hard because it occurs after what could be an exhausting outing. When we’re tired, the last thing we want to do is clean our gear. Try to prevent this urge from taking over.
Dirty clothes will start to smell, wet gear will develop mold, and equipment can wear down if it’s not properly cleaned and stored. This is a great money-saving exercise because the more you take care of your gear, the longer it’ll last.
What went well? What went poorly? It’s important to check in with yourself and your partner after a hike. A lot can be learned and improved upon if you spend a little time analyzing the hike.
Five miles, for example, seems like a lot more if it's mostly uphill. A hike with 10 stream crossings will also be a lot more challenging than a similarly distanced hike with none. Terrain features like burn areas, steep uphills, steep downhills, and rock scrambles will also impact the difficulty regardless of the overall distance.
A lot goes into planning and executing a successful hike. Here are a few basic things you should always do to minimize risk.
- Start with shorter hikes.
- Check the weather and bring clothes for all possible scenarios.
- Stay on the trail and use maps and apps liberally.
- Bring the ten essentials (including extra food and water)
- Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.
From there, slowly build out your process until you hit all 15 tips without thinking about it. When these things become second nature, you’ll always be ready to prepare and adequately handle the demands of future hikes.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.