Hiking is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the natural world. However, this popular pastime doesn’t come without potential hazards. If you’re hoping to get into hiking as a hobby, it’s important to educate yourself about the dangers of hiking, and to consider whether hiking is safe for you.
Hiking is safe if you stay informed and take proper precautions. You can increase your security by bringing along the right equipment, choosing a trail that matches your skill level, and knowing about the local wildlife and weather conditions before you begin hiking.
Staying safe on a hike doesn’t have to be difficult. The most important thing you can do is to learn about the risks and take steps to avoid dangerous situations before they arise. Read below to discover how to protect yourself so you can have a fun, safe hike in the great outdoors.
Can Hiking Be Dangerous?
Hiking can be dangerous. Dozens of people die every year while hiking, and thousands more are injured. Sometimes, this happens because of factors beyond our control. Wildlife encounters, freak weather incidents, and misinformation about a route can all make hiking more dangerous.
However, danger can be minimized through proper preparation. When you come in expecting the unexpected, you won’t be taken by surprise. For example, even if bears haven’t been reported in an area, you can still bring along a can of bear spray. It’s better to have bear spray but never use it than find yourself facing a grizzly without it.
Some dangers are made worse by human error, and some are created solely by our blunders. Not taking the time to learn about a hike before you attempt it is the worst mistake you can make. What could be a deadly route for one hiker could be perfectly safe for somebody who has brought the correct equipment with them. But no matter how informed you are, some dangers are unavoidable.
Dangers Of Hiking
So, what exactly should you be afraid of when hiking? Nothing! You should be cautious, but not afraid. You’re taking the time to learn about the dangers of hiking beforeyou head out. That way, you’ll know how to deal with problems responsibly if and when they arise.
When you’re out on a hike, be aware of the path’s conditions and the topography around you. Is it steep, rocky, or unstable in any way? The terrain impacts your safety, as many hazards can arise from rough terrain. You can stay safer by paying attention to your footing.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to injure yourself on rough terrain. When loose rocks and gravel slide around underfoot, you can slip and fall. The risk is compounded if the trail’s grade is steep, as you can break bones during a fall. The unstable ground can also cause a twisted ankle or knee sprain.
Rough terrain also includes streams and swamps. If you need to cross water at any point, you could be swept away. Even if the water is relatively shallow, you could slip on wet stones and get hurt. And when injuries from terrain are combined with bad weather or extreme climate conditions, it’s a recipe for disaster.
The climate is a long-term weather pattern in a certain area. Depending on the climate where you’re hiking, you’ll need to bring different equipment and be prepared for different conditions. There are different risks associated with certain climates.
For example, those hiking in desert areas such as Arizona, Nevada, and Utah could suffer from heatstroke, sunburns, and dehydration on their hike. Those hiking in mountainous areas or regions with colder climates like Montana or New York could suffer from frostbite and hypothermia.
There is always less risk when you’re hiking somewhere with a mild climate. Extreme climates make for extreme conditions, and safety issues are compounded when things like frostbite or dehydration come into the mix. Dangerous temperatures can cause disorientation, increasing the risk of other physical injuries like sprains and breaks. They can be quite hazardous to the beginner.
Unlike climate conditions that stay stable over time, the weather can change instantly out on the trail. It’s more difficult to prepare yourself for inclement weather because there’s a lack of predictability. Changes may not be in the forecast and can happen when you least expect them.
The chances of inclement weather affecting you depends on your mindset, the terrain, and your level of preparedness. A surprise barrage of rain, snow, or hail can derail you quickly. While you shouldn’t be afraid of the weather, it’s important to stay up-to-date with the forecast and be prepared in case of inclement weather.
Factors like steep, rocky ground combined with blinding snow or torrential rain can increase your risk of injury tenfold. You can stumble and fall or wander off the trail and get lost due to lack of visibility. Being unprotected from bad weather can also cause your stress to increase, which always makes a bad situation worse. But if you come ready for inclement weather, you’ll be much safer.
It might seem unlikely, but natural disasters are a real threat to hikers. It’s important to research the area you’ll be hiking in to determine the climate, weather conditions, and history of natural disasters so you can assess the possible risk to you.
If you’re hiking in a region where natural disasters often occur, it’s a real possibility you might run into one. Some, like hurricanes and wildfires, are more likely to happen during a certain season. Others, like earthquakes and tidal waves, can happen anytime.
Some natural disasters, like flash floods, landslides, and avalanches, are more likely to happen after bad weather or human behavior has disturbed the environment. You can often gauge your risk of falling victim to a natural disaster by examining recent events.
Sometimes, you can be rescued from a wildfire or an avalanche. Other times, conditions are too unstable to attempt rescue. Hikers can become stranded, run out of supplies, or succumb to harsh elements and perish during natural disasters. Being prepared can help you avoid such a dire situation.
If you’re heading out into the wild, chances are you’ll run into some wildlife. While most of these encounters end with the animal scampering back into the bushes, there is always the potential for danger. Unknown plants and animals should be treated with caution.
Certain plants like poison ivy can cause discomfort, but they are rarely dangerous. However, some people may have allergic reactions to certain plants or insect bites. This can be deadly, so those with known allergies should never hike without their medicine.
Even if you don’t have an allergy, certain insect and animal bites can still be very dangerous. Spiders, snakes, and bees can put you out of commission rapidly. Larger animal attacks are rare, but they do happen. Mountain lions, wolves, bears, deer, moose, and other big animals should be respected on the trail. Always keep your distance.
When Should You Not Go Hiking?
Everyone is different, so only you can know when you shouldn’t go hiking. However, there will always be some circumstances that just aren’t worth the risk. You should listen to your gut, your body, and the weather forecast. If you don’t feel good about it, you should not go hiking.
During Bad Weather
The first is bad weather. This doesn’t mean a light drizzle, but bad weather that is forecasted to get even worse. Heavy rain that could turn into a hurricane, snow flurries that could turn to a blizzard, and high winds that may form a tornado all make for poor hiking conditions.
Inclement weather cannot improve your hike. If the forecast is sour, your safety is in question. You don’t want to risk getting lost or injured, and you probably won’t have an enjoyable hike anyway if the weather is awful. When storm clouds are brewing, wait to hike another day.
When You Feel Unsure
Confidence is key during a hike. If you’re scared or stressed out, a bad situation will get much worse. This holds especially true if you’re going solo, because you have no one to rely on but yourself. Panicking can cause you to forget safety protocols or make basic errors in judgement that can get you hurt or killed.
But even if you have a partner, you need to feel secure in your journey. You must educate yourself on the terrain and topography and feel sure in your abilities to complete the hike. This is for your safety and the safety of your hiking partners. Unsure steps can cause injuries, and hesitation can spiral into panic when you lack confidence in yourself.
When You Don’t Have A Plan
Spontaneous hiking is great if you know the area well and are an experienced trekker. However, hiking on a whim can be perilous for greenhorns and those who have never hiked the trail before. You can run into all sorts of problems, and you need to have a plan, both for your general itinerary and in case of emergencies.
If you don’t have a plan, you won’t know what supplies you need and you could be left without essentials like food and water. This can cause exhaustion and dehydration, both extremely dangerous in the wilderness. If you have no idea of the trail length or conditions, it’s better not to hike.
Furthermore, what if something happens to you on the trail? Will you be able to cope in an efficient manner? Having a plan of action in place in case of emergency can mean the difference between life and death. Always have an idea of what you’ll do in case someone is hurt or if you’re put in danger.
Are Hiking Trails Safe?
Hiking trails are usually safe. Safety is a combination of factors like weather, preparedness, and a general knowledge on the part of the hiker. However, some trails are naturally safer than others. Factors like altitude, isolation, and length can all affect the safety of a specific hiking trail.
Hiking at higher altitudes is more dangerous than hiking near sea level. If you go too high too quickly, you can get sick from a lack of oxygen. This is known as altitude sickness. Altitude sickness can cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness. In severe cases, it can cause fainting or even death.
Most cases aren’t that severe, but altitude sickness at a high elevation can increase the risk of serious injury from a fall. If you become dizzy and fall, you could take quite a tumble, and that can be deadly. Always check the altitude of your hiking trail and consider getting medication from your doctor if you are at risk.
Just because a trail is long doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, but extremely long hikes are more physically demanding than shorter hikes. They take more stamina to complete, so you run more risk of physical exhaustion. You also carry more supplies with you on long hikes and you have more time to make errors in judgement.
You could make a mistake and not pack enough food or forget to bring a water filter with you and get sick from unpurified water. If you get ill or hurt on a lengthy hike, it will take more time to reach help and safety. Always consider how many miles the trail is and consider physical training for more strenuous hikes.
Even if the trail is relatively short, you can still become stranded or immobilized due to injury. If you’re hiking somewhere that has a lot of people, you can get help from other hikers. But if the trail is isolated, there may not be anyone around to help you.
Isolated trails tend to have spotty cell phone reception as well, so calling for help may be an issue. And even if you do get through, it could take a rescue team hours or days to reach you in an isolated area. If you plan to hike in a far-out place, always let somebody else know of your plans and leave a detailed itinerary to be on the safe side.
How To Stay Safe When Hiking
As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When you stay ready for any eventuality, you’ll be able to handle yourself easily on the trail and you won’t feel as stressed out if something happens. The biggest keys for success are research and preparation.
Preparation starts with your body. Before you set off, you need to make sure you’re able to complete the hike. Are you physically fit enough? Even if you’re a gym junkie, a long-distance hike is completely different than an afternoon of treadmill jogging. It’s a good idea to train for hiking with a loaded pack so you don’t run into any nasty surprises on the trek.
Preparation also extends to your mind. Are you mentally strong enough to complete the hike? It takes a surprising amount of resilience to continue hiking with swollen feet, blisters, and other discomforts. However, you won’t have a choice once you’re on the trail.
To prepare properly, you shouldn’t begin your hiking career with a massive trek. It’s much better to hike a few miles at a time and slowly work your way up to longer distances and rougher terrain. That way, you’ll ease into more difficult hikes by building up stamina and confidence for when you may need it most.
Stay aware of your surroundings as you walk. You should constantly be on the lookout for uneven ground and unstable terrain so you can avoid falling and hurting yourself. Pay attention to shifts in the wind and temperature changes, as these can indicate that foul weather is coming. Likewise, watch the sky to see if the clouds change.
Don’t walk too slowly or too quickly, as this can cause you to lose your balance. Instead, walk with a normal gait that feels comfortable to you and fits the terrain and your individual circumstances. As you survey your surroundings, note sharp drop-offs, cliffs, and ledges. When you must hike through a more dangerous part of the trail, do so with confidence.
Keep your eyes peeled for dangerous plants, insects, and animals. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac looks very innocuous and can appear very different depending on the region. Always know about poisonous plants in your area. The same goes for animals. If you see a wild animal, do not approach it.
Stay far away and follow the safety protocol for that specific animal. For example, do not run if you see a bear or mountain lion. Speak calmly to identify yourself as a human, and either stand your ground or slowly back away. If you see a snake, give it a wide berth and do not provoke it.
Have A Plan
Never set out without a plan. This begins by learning about the route you intend to hike. Find out exactly how long the trail is and how long it will take you to hike it. Research the entire area to discover the terrain and wildlife you may encounter.
When you know how long the trail is and what the terrain will be like, you can plan how much water and food to bring along. If you want to camp, be sure to note campsites along the route. Research backcountry camping to get a feel for what it’s like around your destination, so you can plan where and how you’ll be sleeping.
Look up the weather to make sure it’s fair, but have a plan in place in case it turns bad. If possible, read reviews other hikers have left about the trail conditions. While you may not agree with what they have said, reviews can give you an idea of what to expect so you can formulate your plan.
Make an additional safety plan in case you run into trouble. Bring along extra shelter items and make sure to have a way to contact help. Always inform someone of where you are going by leaving a detailed written note about your destination and specific trail. The note should include your exact itinerary and a description of your vehicle.
5 Essential Pieces Of Gear For Hiking Safety
1. First Aid Kit
Hikers should always pack a first-aid kit. Even if you’ve been hiking for years, it’s still good to have one on hand. At worst, it will be a bit of added weight to your pack. At best, it will save someone’s life. Cuts, scrapes, and breaks can and do happen regularly on the trail, even during day hikes.
A first-aid kit will patch up your wounds until you have time to get appropriate medical attention. Your medical bag doesn’t have to be big, but it should contain bandages, gauze, antiseptic wash, antibiotic ointment, and antihistamines at the very least. You can buy a kit like this at an outdoor supply store or you can make your own.
2. Navigation Set
You can’t rely on your cell phone’s GPS signal all the time, so you should bring a compass and a detailed map of the region. Getting lost when hiking can be a very scary experience. But if you have the tools to navigate back to civilization, you’ll feel empowered and stay safer on the trail.
If you want to double-down on safety, or if you believe getting lost is a real possibility for you, buy a satellite GPS. No matter what sort of navigational tools you bring, make sure to practice using them at home before you need them. That way, you’ll be prepared, confident, and capable if and when the time comes.
3. Signaling Tools
In a perfect world, you would have a surefire way to contact someone in case of an emergency on the trail. However, cell phone signals aren’t always reliable. Though you should always bring along your mobile device, it’s imperative to have a backup plan in case you get stranded with a dead or useless phone. A satellite phone is a good idea, but even these can die.
To lessen the chances of this happening, always keep your phone off until you need to use it. Bring along an alternative signaling tool like a flare or a light beacon as well. A light beacon is a strong light that reflects off the sky, giving others a signal of where you are. You can also take a whistle with you to signal for help audibly.
If you’re going backcountry hiking on a multi-day trip, consider purchasing a personal locator beacon (PLB). This satellite-connected device sends an SOS signal at the touch of a button. The entity that receives the signal will be the Coast Guard, Parks Service, or another applicable branch of the government.
When the signal is received, a search-and-rescue party will be dispatched to your location. Keep in mind a PLB is no joke. Once you send a signal, it cannot be unsent. They cost a pretty penny, but one can give you peace of mind, especially if you have a medical issue and need extra protection.
A multitool is a valuable addition to any hiking backpack. These nifty gadgets are the size of a pocketknife and contain a variety of tools like a screwdriver, knife blade, pliers, and many more useful implements that can add a whole new layer to your capabilities on the trail. Most of them are tiny enough to fit in your pocket and barely add any weight or mass to your pack.
Whether you’re going out for a day or embarking on a weekend thru-hike, your multitool can help you with nearly anything. It comes in handy when constructing a shelter, starting a fire, preparing food, repairing your equipment, and many more applications. If you get stranded, you’ll be glad you have one.
A firestarter is an absolute essential if you’re heading into a cooler climate zone. Even in more temperate areas, nights can be extremely cold. If you get stranded, you’ll need a way to heat yourself up (and you don’t want to get stuck rubbing two sticks together until dawn). You can also cook over the fire, and the smoke can signal to others where you are.
Your firestarter can be as simple as a book of matches or a lighter. Many prefer to bring a stone-and-flint starter kit with them in case of rain, but these can be costly. You can usually keep a lighter dry by wrapping it in a plastic baggie. No matter what kind of firestarter you choose, make sure to bring some paper or cotton balls with you to help the flame ignite while you start the fire.
Hiking is a perfectly safe way to enjoy the great outdoors if you take steps to protect yourself and your group. Remember to bring the proper equipment for the hike, and always stay informed about the conditions on your chosen trail. Being prepared is the best way to stay safe on any hike.