10 Safety Essentials for Hiking
This week I heard news of a female hiker who had gone missing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After a week-long search effort involving over 50 different state, local, federal and private agencies, the body of 53 year-old Mitzie Sue “Susan” Clements, from Cleves, Ohio was found in a densely wooded area, ¾ of a mile from the Appalachian Trail. My heart goes out to the Cleves family and to the hiker community at large for this terrible loss.
Whenever I hear of incidents like this, my mind can’t help but think there is a chance that could have been me or someone I know, because unfortunately, as with any physical activity, accidents can and do happen while hiking and backpacking, even to the most experienced among us. As heartbreaking as these events are, they are always good reminder to re-evaluate my own safety measures so I can get back into the woods with a clear head.
While nothing is fail-safe, it is often it is the small measures taken ahead of time that can help prevent disaster, or at least keep injury to a minimum. The following is a list of basic items to bring in a backpack, regardless of the length of your hike. Even if you think you’re just going out for a 2-mile jaunt, you should assume that you’ll get back after dark and prepare with the right items.
10 Safety Essentials
1. Water. At least a liter or two, depending on how far you plan to go, plus the means to treat more from sources like springs and streams. Use a filter or chemical treatment to take care of bacteria and other organisms when refilling your bottles.
2. A map and compass. Grab a map from a park office, print one out before you go or download one to your phone. Even the most experienced hiker can make a wrong turn. In case you get lost or hurt, being able to pinpoint where you are makes it much easier to find your way back to your starting point. If you opt for the phone, make sure you have plenty of battery power and that the viewing of your map doesn’t rely on having access to cellular service, as you may not have any in the woods.
3. First Aid. Minor cuts, scrapes and bruises make you feel kind of badass, but sometimes a slippery tree root can take you down when you least expect it. Having band-aids, antibiotic ointment and some ibuprofen on hand are a must. A whistle to call for help and an ace bandage are also recommended. Upscale your first aid from there depending on where and for how long you are planning to hike.
4. An extra layer or two. Even on 90º days, its good practice to carry something to cover up with. If you forgot sunscreen, you can protect your skin with it. If you are out later than planned, then you’ll stay warm after the sun has gone down. And if you get wet, you have something dry to change into, which can be the difference between being a-ok and hypothermic.
5. Sunscreen and a hat. Sunglasses are optional, depending on where you’re hiking. Your skin is the first line of defense for blocking out the sun. You can wear protective clothing with UPF built right into it, or you can slather on the SPF. As long as you are covered, you’ll have a much better time. And don’t forget your lips! Get a lip balm with SPF in it to protect your smackers.
6. Extra food. Knowing that you’ll be going out for a burger after a long day hike may make you think you don’t need to carry extra food. But you could be having such a great time that you want to extend your hike. A handful more of trail mix, an extra bar or another peanut butter & nutella sandwich will help fuel your fun, or be the just calories you need when you realize you made a wrong turn and inadvertently added 5 extra miles to your day.
7. Knife, lighter or waterproof matches & fire starter. You may just end up using your knife to cut up salami for a snack, but it is one of the most useful tools you can have if you get stuck in an emergency situation. And while the guys on the survival shows make starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together look easy, save yourself the time and effort by carrying fire starter. Most pre-packed emergency kits come equipped with a pre-soaked piece of tinder that will easily ignite. You can make your own by coating a cotton ball in Vaseline. If you get stuck out there, fire could be the key to your survival.
8. A watch. These days, many folks rely on their phones to tell them the time of day, but being in the woods doesn’t mean you’ll always have power or service. If you’re not attuned to telling time by the location of the sun in the sky, a watch will help you to figure out your pace and when it may be time to turn back. Depending on terrain and how many breaks you take, most hikers walk about 1.5 – 2 miles per hour.
9. A headlamp. This will help guide your way and keep you on trail when the sun drops. Way more fun than a flashlight because it keeps your hands free to do other things, like for eating those extra snacks you packed when you’re still making your way back past dark. Bring an extra set of batteries for multi-day excursions.
10. Toilet paper. Because leaves and rocks do not make for comfortable wiping and you may need to heed nature’s call if out longer than expected. Follow leave no trace principles and bury solid waste in a 6 – 8” cathole.
This list may sound like a lot to carry if you’re only planning for a short hike, however accidents can happen to anyone. Even if you don’t need them, your extra supplies or safety know-how could be the key to helping another person make it through. Dealing with the nuisance of a sprained ankle, or backtracking after a wrong turn at a trail junction is much easier to handle when you come prepared. Those extra pounds of safety item weight on your shoulders are counterbalanced by the lift of confidence and security they provide.
Stay safe and happy hiking!