What To Take On a Hike To Stay Safe
There’s no denying the healing power of nature. A long, meandering walk through the woods or mountains can leave you feeling happier, more energized and more focused, all while connecting you with the natural world. But taking a hike can quickly turn from restorative to scary, and even downright dangerous in the wrong situation. Inclement weather, rough terrain, threatening wildlife — it’s all par for the trail when you’re bonding with Mother Nature.
Luckily, there’s one crucial thing you can do to prevent a hike from going sour, and it’s as simple as the Scout Motto: Be prepared. Basic survival skills and the right trail accoutrements can prevent you from getting lost or injured. Obviously, it’s extremely important to stay out of harm’s way and protected from the threats of the natural world while hiking. In this guide, we’re covering all the essentials you need to ensure that your open-air adventure is as enjoyable as it is safe and respectful to nature.
Before You Go
If you’re planning on heading off the main trail or going anywhere you might not have cell phone service, always follow this simple rule: Tell someone where you’re going before you leave. In the event of an emergency, you’ll be much more likely to receive help in time if someone knows where to look. Be as detailed as possible and, to be extra cautious, write it down or send it in an email.
Hike Prep: The Gear You Wear
Your first line of defense against virtually any backwoods threat — harsh sun, freezing-cold, rain, snow, poisonous plants, pesky bugs — is your clothing. What you wear can help shield you from dangers that could send you back to the trailhead prematurely, so planning your outfit is extremely important.
What you wear can help shield you from dangers, so planning your outfit is extremely important.
- Comfortable Hiking Boots — Your boots are quite literally foundational to your outdoor trek, and they’re all that separates you from the trail. Be sure to choose a pair that is waterproof, warm and padded enough that your feet don’t hurt after a few yards. Whatever you do, don’t use a long hike to break in your new hiking boots. Make sure you wear a pair you trust won’t give you any blisters.
- Water-Resistant Socks — Have you ever heard a seasoned hiker say that socks are more important than boots? It’s a cliché, but one that’s actually true in certain weather systems. When it’s cold and wet out, you need a good pair of socks to keep you warm, comfortable and safe. On all-day hikes where the weather is all over the place, consider packing a back-up pair, too.
- Protective, Breathable Base Layers — Do base layers actually matter that much? Well, yes. The base layer is the layer of slim, breathable fabric that sits directly against your skin and is therefore responsible for wicking away moisture to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. On top of that, a good base layer can keep pests, including ticks, from reaching your skin.
- A Water- and Wind-Resistant Shell — Base layers are crucial, but your top layer matters a ton when it’s chilly or wet out. If temps are mild, choose a packable shell that’s water- and wind-resistant so you can break it out when necessary. It’s also helpful to have a top layer equipped with zippered pockets so you can safely keep your phone, lip balm and other essentials within arm’s reach.
- A Neck Gaiter — A neck gaiter is a breathable tube of fabric that can be used to cover your face, ears, neck, nose, throat and head, depending on how you use it. You can wear it as a tube around the neck or as a headband or face mask to seal out cold. In the summer, neck gaiters are also great for protecting against bugs and sunburn. You don’t necessarily need to wear your gaiter if the weather is nice, but definitely pack it in your backpack just in case.
- A Heavy-Duty Backpack — Being prepared means taking some extra gear out on the trail just in case, and the last thing you want is to have to carry all that stuff by hand. A durable backpack or waist bag is essential for carrying gear without discomfort or strain. For day and overnight hikes, choose one of our heavy-duty backpacks to store all your on-the-trail essentials.
- Sun Protection — Before you head out the door, make sure you’ve got a good layer of sun protection from head to toe, starting with sunblock. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher when spending the day outdoors. You’ll also want to pack some quality sunglasses and consider investing in UPF clothing.
On the Trail: Backpack Contents
The gear you’re wearing can only do so much to protect you from the rigors of the route, but luckily you’ve brought along a backpack or waist bag that can be filled with practical gear that will keep you warm, comfortable and safe should conditions on the trail turn poor. Space is in short supply, so it’s vital that you’re selective but thoughtful about what to carry or pack in your backpack.
Space is in short supply, so it’s vital that you’re selective but thoughtful about what to carry or pack in your backpack.
- Water and Snacks — You expend a lot of energy on the trail, so it’s always good to have the ability to refuel. Always have water on hand and consider packing nutrient-dense (but compact) trail snacks, like granola bars or nuts, to keep you energized. For all-day hikes or treks to picnic-worthy locales, consider packing a cooler backpack and enjoy your lunch amidst the natural splendor.
- A Flashlight or Headlamp — If you want to stay out after dark or plan on doing any caving along your journey, it’s a good idea to pack a headlamp and some spare batteries. A reliable, wearable light source keeps your path well-lit without taking up your hands, so you don’t trip on rough terrain or find yourself dangerously off-trail. A handheld LED flashlight is always essential as well, especially when spelunking or trekking in the early morning or evening.
- A Multi-Tool with a Knife — Even on quick one- or two-milers, you’ll be surprised to find how often that multi-tool comes in handy. And it’s not always about survival. A knife aids in many routine trail tasks, from detangling yourself (or your dog) from prickly brush to removing twisted garbage from foliage or opening that pack of backup batteries stashed in your backpack.
- A Small Emergency Kit — Unless you’re heading out on an overnight expedition, you shouldn’t need any extreme survival gear. But emergencies can still happen, even during on-the-beaten-path hikes. Your hiking pack should include a few of the most crucial emergency supplies but shouldn’t take up too much space in your pack.
- A water filter or water treatment tablets
- A waterproof match kit with stormproof matches and fire starter
- An emergency whistle
- An analog compass
- A single-use rain poncho
- An emergency blanket
- Signaling devices, such as a light stick or mirror
- A small wilderness survival handbook
- Rope or bungee cord
- A Small First-Aid Kit — Again, space is limited, so it’s important to be cautious without over-packing. But first-aid is essential, even on backyard hikes. You’ll need to be especially vigilant with slippery terrain, bugs that sting, allergy triggers and other threats you might find. Your first-aid kit should have all the basics for the most common on-trail injuries — bandages, gauze, antibacterial cream, bug bite cream, wound cleaners and antiseptic towelettes. You’ll also want to consider a few basic medications, like antacids, allergy relievers and pain relievers to keep you comfortable.
- Photography Equipment and Binoculars — You’re going to need those binoculars for birding, star-gazing, hunting rare plants, stalking wildlife and just getting up-close and personal with the best views. And then, of course, if you’ve spotted them, it’s a great idea to capture them forever with your camera. Plan to take your photo gear on the go? Consider using a camera backpack that protects your expensive equipment and eliminates strain on your back and shoulders.
- Plant and Animal Field Guides — Part of the fun of being outside is catching a glimpse of all the cool, rare and elusive plants and animals that come and go throughout the year. Pack compact, laminated field guides specific to your region, and break them out while searching for animals or cool plants.
Life Lessons: Survival Skills
If your clothing and gear are your first line of defense against dangers on the trail, your survival skills and wilderness know-how are your second and third. In an ideal situation, you will never have to use your survival knowledge when you’re out in the woods or mountains. But knowing them is still fundamental, as it could save you from a serious situation out in the wilderness. Here’s what you should know before heading out:
In an ideal situation, you will never have to use your survival knowledge. But knowing them is still fundamental, as it could save you from a serious situation out in the wilderness.
- How to Build a Fire — Just like you should know how to change a flat tire in order to drive, you should also know how to build a fire in order to hike! It’s survival 101. Fire is crucial to survival, especially when the temps are low. It provides you with life-saving warmth and the ability to cook. We’re not suggesting that you master friction-based fire making (rubbing sticks together) or anything, but that you should at least know how to use the emergency matches and fire starter you packed in your emergency kit.
- Which Plants are Edible and Which are Poisonous — Plants are fascinating and confusing — one plant can save your life, while another can send you to the hospital. The lesson? Learn the poisonous plants in your area so you know what to avoid. You should never eat anything growing in the wild unless you’re certain it’s safe to eat. Knowing the edible varieties of plants and fungi can be useful in survival scenarios, of course. But, most of all, it’s just plain fun to forage!
- How to Create Emergency Shelter — In the pillars of survival, shelter ranks up there with food, water and fire. You need proper shelter to keep you safe from weather, bugs and dangerous wildlife. But, practically, you’re not going to pack a full tent in your backpack for a day hike. If something should go awry, however, you should know how to build a simple survival shelter.
- How to Signal Distress — If you’re hiking alone, the ability to signal distress is a non-negotiable. You need to be able to alert rescuers of your location as soon as possible. In your emergency kit, you should have signaling devices, such as a light stick or mirror, that you must know how to use. You will also want to brush up on how to signal distress with smoke or fire. Many survivalists emphasize the importance of knowing Morse code for SOS, the internationally recognized signal of distress: three dots, three dashes, three dots.
- Where and How to Stay Safe from Predators — Sometimes, building a full-blown emergency shelter deep in the woods just doesn’t make practical sense, such as when there are natural safe havens throughout the landscape (caves, etc). But you’ll also want to understand a few basics for how to avoid attracting animals to you. For example, be smart with your food. All kinds of animals will be attracted to your site if they know you’re hoarding food.
Pack Your Sense of Adventure
Just looking at this list can make hike preparation seem a lot more daunting and time-consuming than it truly is. But the truth is, once you’ve got a designated hiking pack and have mastered the basics of wilderness survival, you’ll always be ready for a hike with minimal preparation. As long as you throw in a sense of adventure and some respect for Mother Nature, you can consider yourself hike-ready!