Hiking is not always a safe activity and it can sometimes turn into a real nightmare fast. Without proper gear and planning, even a shorter hike on a low altitude mountain can turn into a very dangerous outing. In this article you will find a list of safety tips for hiking and how to prepare in advance to cope with disasters.
We all make our first steps in the wild before we have any real knowledge of safety in the mountains. Although I will always recommend joining a hiking or mountaineering course, some people focus on short hikes close to their home and consider hiking courses a waste of time. For people who want to do longer hikes in serious mountains, these types of courses are a must.
Mountaineering and hiking courses are usually held in mountaineering associations or mountaineering clubs, depending on the city and country you live in. They are usually posted online, so in this modern age you have all the information at your disposal in just a few seconds of googling on the internet.
What do you get from a mountaineering course?
Firstly and from my experience, most importantly, you meet people that have similar interests with you. These people will go with you on your trips and some of them will teach you a lot.
Secondly, mountaineering and hiking courses teach you how to safely move through mountains. There is usually a set of lectures and trips in which you learn the basics of mountain safety. These are the basics you will build upon in the future.
Essentials For Hiking Safely
Preparation and planning
When we talk about preparation and planning, there is a need to distinguish two different types of outings: short hikes or runs close to your home and serious mountain climbs. They vastly differ in the type of caution and focus needed while preparing the trip.
Short hikes and mountain runs
They are usually close to our home in the familiar terrain, so there is no need for special preparation. One thing that is very important to mention here is to always carry our essentials.
- Waterproof jacket (even in the summer)
- Proper footwear (hiking boots, approach shoes, trail running shoes)
- A map (GPS on the phone is also very usable, but not a substitute for a hard-copy map)
- Headlamp or a flashlight
- Enough food and water
- First aid kit
Be sure to check the weather too. Although you have a much bigger opportunity to bail fast when you are on a short hike close to home. Sometimes the weather can change in seconds and create serious problems for you. We use moutain forecast website to check the weather before hiking.
Serious mountain climbs
These activities require much more preparation and planning. Preparation usually includes researching the peak you are planning to climb – approach, current conditions, weather reports, etc. It’s always good to hear information firsthand from someone you know, but there are also websites in many countries where people write their reports from trips. So you can read them and find about the seriousness of the climb and conditions at the day they were there.
Whatever the type of outing, one thing you always have to do is to create a plan of the route which you want to do and leave it to someone. In case something happens, someone will know where you are and he or she can pass it on to the mountain rescue service. They will then have a much easier job of finding and rescuing you. One important thing to mention here is to try to stick to the plan once you give it to somebody. We all sometimes want to change it up in the spur of the moment. Remember that changing your plan renders your “fall-back” useless. This is one of the most important safety tips for hiking you can follow.
How to pick a route?
Novice mountaineers and hikers often overestimate their capabilities and plan to climb or hike routes that are above their current hiking ability. Knowing someone who has done the route is a good way to find out if the route right for you. Also another good tip is to check the guidebooks and websites that specialise in route descriptions. Guidebooks usually have a grading system from beginner to expert, so you can check if the route is within your capabilities.
Expert mountaineers and hikers have a much bigger selection of routes they can do. Although it’s always good to remember that mountains do not forgive mistakes. Be confident, but never underestimate the potential hazards.
Whether expert or novice, always be honest with yourself and what you are getting into.
Outdoor activities are in contrast to indoor sports very susceptible to weather changes. Nature can treat you with a beautiful, sunny day to enjoy your hike, but it can also be a real nightmare and ruin your day. The idea is to always be prepared for the worst, no matter the forecast. Thus it is always suggested to have a waterproof jacket in your backpack. Especially nowadays when the modern Goretex jackets weigh less than 400 grams.
Today’s weather models are becoming more and more accurate, so we have 3-day forecasts that are relatively accurate. 7-day forecasts should only be used as a guide for the upcoming fluctuations in weather, not as an accurate forecast for the specific day.
In planning your trips and routes, you should always use the daily forecast that is updated the evening before. Mountain towns and areas usually have weather bulletins for the specific mountain areas. So mountaineers and hikers can have the best possible information before embarking on a trip into the mountains. Weather forecast is especially important in the winter months when there is an add-on in the form of avalanche bulletins, but we will talk more about that later on in winter essentials.
Rain and wind
Weather factors like rain and wind can be a problem in urban areas, but the discomfort they create multiplies when you are out in the mountains. Rain can range from an unpleasant drizzle to a serious downpour, which can become a danger for hikers on the trail. Rain and wind often come together. So we group them when we talk about the dangers in the mountains. Their combination can present a potentially threatening situation for the insufficient equipped mountaineer or hiker. Good equipment will protect you from the effects of wind and rain, so it’s very advisable to invest in quality equipment if you plan to spend a lot of time in the outdoors.
The wind is a very frequent phenomenon in the mountains, ranging from a slight breeze to really strong winds. Really strong winds can create problems even for experienced hikers and mountaineers. They usually have a detrimental effect on morale but are also a potential danger if you find yourself on an exposed ridge in those conditions. When winds hit at a barrier like a mountain range, they are squeezed between the mountain and the top of the troposphere which in return causes them to speed up. That is why it’s almost always windier on mountain tops and mountain saddles than in the valleys below. High winds can also present the danger in the form of wind chill, which can bring to rapid loss of heat in extremities. Again, quality equipment can limit the effects of wind chill and protect you from the adverse weather.
Sometimes rain and wind add a little fun to their inventory and come together with thunders to create a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms can be very unpleasant if you find yourself in the mountains during one, but they are also a very dangerous natural phenomenon. Which can have fatal consequences if you find yourself in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
Day and night hiking
One thing an experienced hiker will always do is give himself enough time to complete the route before the sun goes down. Hiking through the night is not the end of the world if you have a headlamp and you are familiar with the route, but navigation always becomes more complicated during the night. If you are hiking in an unknown area, always plan the trip in a way that you complete the route in daylight. Experience comes in handy at this point, firstly and foremostly to be aware of your own pace. The pace of your group and to always calculate for the unexpected time loss that happens almost every time.
If the sun sets and you find yourself on a route without a headlamp do not panic. Try to follow the route markings back to your car, but only if you are sure what you are doing. The biggest mistake one can make in a situation like this is to get lost trying to find the way through the night. If you are not completely sure that you are on the right trail back to your car try to make a bivouac out of your equipment and backpack. Use branches and leaves you find in the surroundings and wait for the first light to carry on. It is always a better solution to wait for the first light than to get lost somewhere and create a bigger problem for yourself.
Wherever we go, one thing is important to remember – weather in the mountains can change fast. This is especially true for higher altitude mountains in the summer months. A beautiful sunny morning very often turns into a stormy afternoon. Hence it is very important to plan your start early in the morning.
In ancient ages people (especially seamen) used different techniques to navigate their way through the world. Some of these techniques are still used to this day, but thankfully the technology went pretty far in this area. We have a much easier job today while navigating our way in the mountains. Having said that, navigation is still not an easy task and sometimes it can get very complicated. Adverse weather like heavy rain, snow or fog can turn a straightforward situation into a much more complex one. These are the moments when you have to rely on your training (If you have it!) and knowledge that you gained from mountaineering courses at the beginning of your outdoor traveller career.
Map and compass
The most important safety tip for hiking is to always carry with you a map of the area and a compass. Two navigation essentials from the beginnings of navigation till this day are a map and a compass. The ability to use a compass and interpret a map is an essential skill that every hiker should know, whether hiking in the high altitude mountains or a low altitude mountain near your home.
Navigation starts at home while preparing and planning your trip. It is best to examine the map of an area you are planning to go to in the comfort and safety of your home. That way once you get to the trailhead you will already be familiar with the specific map and it will be much easier to interpret it. Maps are usually bought at outdoor stores or tourist offices, but they are also usually available to order online. With technology advancing we have now come to a moment in time where there are open-source maps, which are constantly upgraded with new features like new trails etc. These maps are available for your GPS applications on the smartphone, but it is also possible to print it and use it as a hard copy. Moreover it is always good to have a hard-copy map with you in case batteries on your GPS device or smartphone run out of juice.
It’s wonderful to use it. There is no other way of saying it. You have a little dot or arrow on your screen, you have a map loaded and you navigate with real ease. Many trails are recorded in the form of a GPS track, so it gets even easier if you load it into your GPS device or smartphone and follow it. The downside is that your electronic device has a limited battery time. It’s not a bad idea to bring a power bank with you if you use GPS for navigation.
We have already mentioned some of the essentials that you need to bring with you while hiking in the mountains. Outdoor equipment can be very expensive if you are aiming at top quality products. There is a wide variety of products in the mid-range, which deliver when you need it. Serious mountaineering usually involves buying top-quality equipment, which can sometimes make a difference in serious situations, but for more casual hiking, cheaper stuff is more than good enough.
The first and most important gear in every hiker’s inventory. They need to be cozy enough so you can walk many kilometers in them, but sturdy enough to withstand punishment from the trail. There are many types of boots today, so it’s best to do a little research online or ask the guy at the store to recommend an exact model for your needs. This is the part of the equipment where you do not want to save money. Buy the best you can. Your feet will be thankful.
First aid kit
A very important part of the hiker’s equipment. Unfortunately, many people ignore it until they need it. Some people on the other hand buy fancy, super expensive first aid kits that would put to shame expedition doctors. It’s best to make your own, so you can adjust it depending on the type of activity.
Essential items that form the core of your first aid kit:
- antiseptic wipes or gel
- gauze pads in different sizes
- triangular bandage
- emergency blanket
- medical tape
- latex gloves
- classic and blister band-aid
- ibuprofen and antihistamine
- safety pins, tweezers, and scissors
This is the most basic stuff you need to have in your first aid kit. Depending on your knowledge, you can upgrade it with things like breathing barriers, SAM splints, etc.
The most important thing to say here is that your medkit is useless if you don’t know how to use it. Get some training in first aid.
The list of essential items for hiking with safety:
- Hiking backpack (size depends on the trip)
- Good quality hiking boots
- Waterproof jacket and good quality pants
- Mobile phone
- Map and compass
- First aid kit coupled with survival items (matches, knife)
- Sun protection
- Enough food and water
- Extra layers of clothing
This is a very general list of hiking safety tips, which can vastly differ depending on the type of hike or climb you are going to. Sometimes it’ll be a lot more items on that list, sometimes even less for some people, but this is the very essentials list that you should always have with you.
Hiking is a fun and engaging activity that can do you a lot of good, mental and physical. Mountains are a place where you can fill yourself with positive energy and come back to the urban jungle much more relaxed and ready to take on the new tasks. But, never underestimate the power of nature and dangers that it can present to us. Stay safe!