Along with the COVID-19 pandemic has come an explosion in outdoor recreation. Millions of people in the United States, and around the world, have turned to the outdoors as a way to unwind and to deal with the pressures and stresses of everyday life.
Many of those people have turned to hiking. And for good reason. Compared to other outdoor sports such as cycling, for example, the barrier to entry is minimal—the gear is relatively inexpensive and trails seem to be everywhere. But that doesn’t mean heading out on a hike comes without risk. Search and rescue teams are busier than ever responding to hiking-related incidents in the United States and around the world.
Fortunately, risks to new hikers can be minimized with proper planning, gear and the right frame of mind when out on the trail. How? For some guidance, let’s turn to Kahtoola Founder & Adventurer, Danny Giovale and Hiking Guide & Friend of Kahtoola, Myriam Bishop.
Danny is passionate about the outdoors and outdoor safety. In fact, making outdoor adventure safer is why he founded Kahtoola nearly 20 years ago. Danny loves alpine rock climbing, backpacking, skiing and rafting in the wilder places on the planet. He lives in Flagstaff, AZ and has taken his adventures to dozens of countries on six continents.
Myriam grew up in the French Alps and currently lives in the southwest United States. She has a degree in Outdoor Recreation and Tourism and has been guiding hiking and backpacking trips for nearly two decades. She’s explored and hiked on four continents—from the Sahara Desert to the glaciers of Greenland and is a certified Wilderness First Responder and European Mountain Leader. Currently, she’s a hiking guide with US based Wildland Trekking, and through her guidance, hundreds of beginner hikers have returned safe and happy from their adventures.
For those new to hiking, and for experienced hikers looking to mitigate their risk, here are Danny and Myriam’s tips for staying safe on the trail.
Know Before You Go
When preparing for a hike, it’s important to know as much as you can about where you’re going and about yourself. That way you’ll be able to minimize as much risk as possible before even setting foot outside.
Know the Terrain and Conditions
Maps are a great place to start to get the information you need about a specific hike. A map can help you determine the length, and contour lines will give you an idea of the elevation and the grade (or incline) you’ll be dealing with. Paper maps are available for virtually all of North America and many other parts of the world. For the most popular destinations, such as national parks, maps are available that show specific trails and distances in those locations.
Apps like AllTrails—which provide maps in digital form on a smart phone—are also a great resource. They’re easy to use, convenient, and provide access to thousands of trails right at your fingertips. But technology can fail, so it’s advisable that if you do use these apps to also have a paper map with you as a backup.
In addition to trail specifics, Myriam suggests learning as much as you can about local trail conditions around the time you are planning to hike. For example, snow can linger at higher elevations well into the summer months, or creek crossings may have low water volumes in the late summer, but can become impassable due to high water during the spring melt or after a heavy rain. Trail conditions can be found on apps like AllTrails or on social media message boards and groups, among other places.
And finally, before you head out on any hike, be sure to check the weather and bring appropriate clothing. Being unprepared for a downpour or other inclement weather miles into a hike can, at best, be uncomfortable, but also has the potential to be dangerous and even life threatening.
Knowing as much as you can about where you’re going is the first step in planning a hike. For Miriam, the second is knowing yourself—including your comfort zone and limitations.
“It’s important for people to take stock of what they do in their home environment, where their comfort zone is and how much margin of error they’ll need to keep for any given hike,” she says. “For example, if a person can easily do an eight mile hike at home—the Pacific Northwest let’s say—but is planning a desert hike, it’s likely a good idea to shorten the distance because they’ll be in a new environment that they may not be familiar with.”
Knowing your own personal strengths and limitations and staying well within them will ensure that you end your hike comfortably.
Leave Nothing to Chance
Knowing as much as possible about yourself and where you will be hiking is indispensable when it comes to minimizing risk. However, there will always be an element of unpredictability to hiking. Injuries can happen, or you can take a wrong turn and end up off course. It’s important to be prepared for that eventuality, even if the chance is small.
Involve Others in Your Adventure
Many of us have been familiar with the “buddy system” from a young age—and for good reason. Having others around to go for help in case of an emergency or to help with an injury can mean the difference between an inconvenience and having to spend the night outdoors or even worse… And, if you’re able to hike with someone more knowledgeable than yourself, you might even learn some things along the way!
Another way to involve others in helping to keep you safe is by letting someone responsible back home know where you’re going and when you plan to return. That way, if an accident happens and you aren’t able to finish your hike, you’ll have someone looking out for you and in a position to contact help.
A Note on Hiking Alone
While it’s easy to say you should always hike with a partner, both Danny and Myriam agree that it’s not always practical.
“I actually think that the ‘never go alone’ mantra is a little detrimental,” Danny says. “When you say that to people, they’re basically like, ‘you might as well just tell me not to eat sugar.’ People are going to do it anyway, so it’s better if they know the risks and are prepared for them. I think people want a little more substance than just to be told that they shouldn’t hike alone.”
For Myriam, never hiking alone is limiting, but she points out the need to be extra cautious if you choose to go this route.
“It’s always a tricky one for me, because while hiking with a partner, or in a group is safer, if I never went outdoors by myself, I would definitely not be where I am today,” she admits. “Sometimes there just isn’t anybody to go with and that’s okay. But that level of precaution, and that margin of error you build into your hike needs to be bigger if you’re alone.”
Carry a Handheld Satellite Safety Device
Whether you are hiking alone or in a group, carrying a satellite safety device is a good way to add some peace of mind. A device like an InReach or a Spot satellite communicator doesn’t rely on cellular service and can be used to communicate with people back home, or directly with search and rescue, from remote locations. And they can be your best bet for getting help quickly.
“I think you always need a check-in person so that if you don’t show up, someone starts looking for you,” notes Danny. “But if you’re on a long day hike or a multi-day trip, you don’t want to wait for that to happen if there’s an accident. You want to be able to relay that message right away.”
But Danny is also quick to point out a couple of caveats. First, technology can fail, so it’s important to test the unit before every trip. And second, satellite communicators often require a subscription, so be sure that that is always kept current.
Be Flexible and Communicate
Of course, we’d all rather avoid having to bring in help in the first place. And for Danny and Myriam, two of the best ways to avoid problems on the trail are to be flexible, and if you’re with a partner or in a group, to communicate with them effectively.
Always Be Evaluating the Situation
Sometimes things don’t always go as expected during your hike. Terrain can be more challenging than planned, weather can change quickly, or your food and water can start to run low. In these types of fluid situations, it’s important to be continuously taking stock of your environment and circumstances.
If you’re stuck on a certain objective—like reaching a summit or hiking a predetermined number of miles—it’s easy to ignore small issues that may stand in the way of that object until it’s too late. If something unexpected occurs, you need to be able to recognize it and make the decision to turn back, if necessary.
“If you start to feel that you’re on the edge of your comfort zone, maybe it’s a good idea to turn around,” says Mriam. “Or, on the other hand, maybe it’s a good idea to just take a step back and think things through before continuing. What is making you uncomfortable? How am I prepared to face it? Will it get better? Will it get worse? How much of a margin do I have? And from there, decide if you should continue.”
Speak Up and Encourage Others to Do the Same
If you’re hiking with others, group dynamics also come into play on the trail. Keeping the lines of communication open in a group—even if you’re only with one other person—to let them know how you’re feeling and what your comfort level is at any given time is very important.
“Often the trip leader or organizer is more prepared or comfortable than some of the participants in the group,” notes Myriam. “They may want to push on when others don’t, and so it’s really important to communicate with everyone—not only to make sure that they’re surviving but actually having a good time, because that’s the whole point!”
It’s easy to get into a situation where groupthink takes over, and because no single person wants to be responsible for turning everyone around, nobody speaks up. Avoid that by letting others know if you are being taken out of your comfort zone and encourage others to speak up if they are being taken out of theirs.
Know Your Gear and Keep It In Good Working Order
Gear is an important part of almost any outdoor adventure, and so having the right gear, knowing how to use it and being sure it is in good working order is essential.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you haven’t used a piece of gear in a while, make sure it still works as expected before you get out on the trail. Finding out your satellite communicator or hydration pack isn’t working after you’ve started your hike can be at best inconvenient, and at worst, dangerous.
“Make sure you’ve tried to pitch your tent in your backyard before you take it on a backpacking trip,” insists Myriam. “Make sure you’ve worn your jacket in non-extreme conditions to make sure it still works. I always tell people who have not been hiking for years, to make sure their boots still fit. Your foot might have changed, so you want to be sure they still work for you. And make sure you know how to use the gear you will be taking with you. I’ve seen numerous people buy a hydration pack, get out to the trailhead and realize they don’t know how to open the valve or that there are features they’re unfamiliar with.”
Use the Right Tools For the Job
On top of making sure your gear is working, having the right gear can make or break the hiking experience. A gear list can range from a few things like a raincoat, water bottle and backpack for a day hike, to dozens of items for a backpacking adventure.
If you’re new to hiking, take the time to do your research and go into a store and talk to a salesperson. Each hiker’s needs are different and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.
A Special Note on Footwear
Footwear is critical to hiking. Poorly fitting footwear can ruin your day, and blisters can make it difficult, or even impossible, to walk. If you’re buying new hiking boots or shoes, talk to a salesperson about what style, size and type are best for you—proper fit should trump everything else.
Properly fitting, broken-in footwear is important on day hikes and becomes critical on multi-day backpacking trips where you are relying on your feet day after day. Foot problems that start small can quickly escalate into large blisters, for example, and once you have them, they will be with you for the rest of the trip.
“I do feel that footwear tends to be such a huge factor in people’s having a good or bad experience, especially in backpacking,” says Danny. “On some day hikes you can get by a little bit easier with running shoes, and trail shoes aren’t as picky, but once you get into hiking boots, you have to be more careful. I’ve dealt with a lot of blisters and have hiked with partners who have had pretty serious issues with blisters, or other problems with their feet, and it’s a big deal.”
When you’re out on the trail, carry a first aid kit with blister care and take care of any hotspots, or other foot issues, early and often! Ideally, it’s best to avoid blisters in the first place by, as Danny puts it, “breaking in your feet” as well as your boots.
“There’s a lot of talk about breaking in your boots, but I think at the same time you’re also breaking in your feet,” he says. “You’re actually eliciting that response in the toughening of the skin in the areas on your feet that come into contact with your boots. And if you can do that over a period of time, say starting a month before your trip and you hike a couple of days a week, you can get those areas of your feet toughened up.”
For Myriam, finding the right boots comes down to sizing.
“I would say that when it comes to buying new boots, a bit bigger is always better,” she cautions. “During a hike your feet will swell throughout the day, and they’ll swell even more when it’s hot or after several hours or days, so it’s cumulative.”
Be Safe AND Have Fun!
In the end, the goal of getting out on the trail is to have fun. Planning ahead, knowing yourself and your gear, and using the right gear can go a long way toward helping you achieve both of those goals. In the end safety is about making good decisions, so take some time to set yourself up for success and have a blast out there!