Although the excitement of reconnecting with nature may send some of us running out joyfully with nothing more than a pair of shorts, t-shirt and sneakers, it is always a good idea to consider the basics of safety and preparedness when walking more than two hours from your car, home, or other location that provides access to life support and connection to others. These precautions become even more important in areas subject to fast-changing weather conditions such as mountains, ridges, deserts and open water as well as areas known for potentially dangerous wildlife encounters.
If you haven’t already, consider investing in a day pack. Not only will it carry items essential to your comfort and safety while hiking, it can also be helpful with other activities, such as picnicking, bicycling and even grocery shopping. With a smartly designed pack, i.e, efficient storage, light weight, sturdy, easy access and clever organization, you will be ready for almost any surprise that comes your way.
What to Pack – Ten Essentials
- Water (amount depends on how long you will be gone).
- Snacks (nutrition bar, dried fruit, nuts, granola).
- Rain jacket or a thin, inexpensive poncho (especially if you are going to the mountains).
- Hat, preferably something that is water resistant and has a brim to shade the eyes & deflect the rain.
- Sunscreen (scent-free if in bear country).
- Bug Repellant (ticks love the woods too!)
- Cell Phone (remember that signals aren’t always available, especially in the mountains). A phone with a camera will not only help preserve memories, it can also help if you get lost or injured in a remote area and need to send images to a rescue team. A smart phone with a GPS tracking app and a first-aid app is even more valuable.
- Trail Map (you can also take a picture of the trail map at the trail head kiosk if one is available, which could be the latest version of the map). If bringing a printed map, bring a photocopy and keep the copy protected in a zip-lock bag. In addition to having a backup dry copy, the copy can be useful if you run into someone who is lost.
- Identification (your name and emergency contact number).
- Local currency (in case credit cards aren’t accepted).
Just in Case:
- A bright colored shirt (for visibility if there is an emergency).
- A whistle (preferably, one that doesn’t need a ball to make a sound).
- Small flashlight (store electrical stuff like this in a zip-lock bag).
- Emergency Mylar blanket (these are inexpensive, recyclable, and take up little room).
- Compact first-aid supply, e.g., band-aides, antiseptic, clean wipes, moleskin, ibuprofen, etc.
- Swiss army knife (or something similar).
- Plastic trash bag (in addition to leaving without a trace, you may find yourself cleaning up after others…).
- Bear spray (if appropriate).
- Water shoes (for crossing unexpected creeks).
- Extra pair of socks (in a zip-lock bag).
- Weatherproof matches or portable lighter (in a zip-lock bag).
What to Leave at Home:
- Make sure someone knows where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Do you really need three pair of shoes or that extra book? When you are carrying a pack out on the trail, every ounce left behind translates into additional happy moments hiking.
Outside the Pack
- Be sure your shoes are sturdy & closed-toed; are broken in and that you have tested them with the socks you are using on the hike, e.g., they are comfortable and discourage blisters from forming.
- Try to use socks that are double-layered and are not made of cotton. The fabric should whisk away moisture.
- Try to wear a shirt that will whisk moisture away and if possible, will provide sunscreen.
- If you are hiking in mountains with considerable changes in altitude, or expect to be crossing creeks, walking sticks /trekking poles could come in handy. Collapsible trekking poles can be attached to most day packs when not needed.
- Consider layering your clothing (especially in higher altitudes or early in the season where the climate is widely variable).
- If driving to a trailhead, keep a dry set of clothes, preferably something with a soft fabric, dry socks and sandals in your vehicle. Your feet will love you for the sandals! Also, have some water waiting in an insulated container if possible.
Day of the Outing
- Check the weather report for the area of your outing. Pack, plan, and dress appropriately.
- Be sure someone (not on the outing) knows where you are going and how long you expect to be gone. Remember to let that person know you have returned.
- Pack everything on your list and know where it is. In general, pack heavier stuff on the bottom of your pack and closer to the body, especially if you don’t expect needing it while walking. That said; keep your smaller emergency stuff in a convenient place. I like to organize the emergency supplies in zip-lock bags, keeping them close to the top or in a convenient pocket in my pack; especially the food. Water should be easily accessible and sipped periodically to prevent dehydration.
- Before starting, know how much time you have before sunset. The average, conditioned hiker will cover 2-4 miles in an hour in relatively flat terrain; usually more like 2-3 miles. Half this distance should be planned on mountains trails. In higher altitudes, or when you change altitudes frequently, you can count on needing more water and more rest stops.
- At the trailhead, stretch for a few minutes before starting.
- Start off at a slow pace.
- Depending on where you are, make some sounds occasionally so you don’t startle snakes or bears. Also keep in mind that when you are quiet, you have more of a chance of seeing and hearing wildlife. It’s a balancing act.
- Stay on the trail (in addition to preserving the natural habitat, you will be safer this way, especially if you are lost or injured).
- Stay hydrated.
- With out-and-back trails, note visual cues along the hike when trails split or intersect. Take photos if necessary.
- If you are lost or injured, don’t panic. Think with a clear mind and act slowly and methodically. Use your whistle and other emergency gear you packed (you did remember to pack this stuff, didn’t you?).
- If you come across someone else who is injured or lost, follow the same rules as the preceding tip. Most important, don’t attempt to offer help or advice if you don’t know what you are doing. Call for help, if necessary.
- If you are in a group, be sure everyone is present and accounted for.
- Be sure to thank your leader if applicable.
- If available, enjoy a drink containing electrolytes.
- Using a light-colored towel (dampen it if it’s a hot day), slowly wipe down your skin while you visually inspect for ticks. The damp towel rub is an especially refreshing way to end a long hike.
- Follow the tick inspection with 5 -10 minutes of stretching.
- When you return home, remove all wet or used items from your pack. Make necessary replacements.