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Safety Essentials: A Toolkit for Hikers

Before you head out for a hike, here are the 5 key things you need to know to have a great time, and return safely.

We think hiking is an incredible way to connect with both the natural world and with each other. One thing that could ruin a perfect day on trail? Realizing you've set out unprepared. Although hiking does come with a few inherent risks, there are plenty of ways you can prepare ahead of time to minimize risk and maximize your ability to handle what the trail throws at you.

Whether you're totally new to hiking or just want to dial-in in your safety protocols, here are five key things to think about before you hit the trail:

safety checklist

Spokane State Park. Photo by Ben Anderson..jpg
Carrying a map can mean the difference between being lost or having an enjoyable hike. Photo by Ben Anderson.

Plan your adventure

Ah, planning. You love it or you hate it  but either way, a solid hiking plan is key to minimizing stress and lowering your chances of an on-trail emergency. After browsing WTA's Hiking Guide and finding your dream hike, take some time to research the area and craft a perfect plan.

Check conditions

Checking recent trip reports can tell you a lot about the conditions you'll encounter on trail: Will you encounter a snowfield? Do you need to prepare for a deep water crossing? Have mosquitoes been extra active? If you can't find any recent reports, there are few additional ways you can sleuth out what the current conditions may be. In addition to trip reports, we recommend checking the upcoming weather conditions and the avalanche forecast, if applicable.

Make a backup plan

Even with thorough research, it's still possible for something to go awry on your way to the trailhead — a freshly fallen tree blocking road access or a jam packed parking lot may force you to change your plans. For that reason, we always recommend having a backup trail in mind before you head out.

Share your plan

Once your plan is ready, it's time to write it down on paper (or in email). Sketch out your rough itinerary with the trail name and location, the time you plan on leaving and the time you plan on returning. Other helpful information to include is the make and model of the car you will leave at the trailhead, the color of your pack, the size of your hiking boots and any medical conditions or medications that may be relevant in a search and rescue scenario. We also recommend you include clear instructions for what to do if you do not return on time. Leave a copy of your itinerary with someone you trust, and be sure to let them know when you have safely returned from your hike.

Hermann Saddle. Photo by Thomas Overlin..jpg
Expecting to see snow? You might need to pack a few extra essentials like trekking poles or traction devices for your boots. Photo by Thomas Overlin.

Pack for success

No matter where or when you're hiking, the first step before you head out the door will always be the same  preparing your pack. While the contents of your pack may differ depending on the timing, difficulty and location of your hike, there are a few essentials we think should always be included.

10 essentials for hikes outside urban areas

The 10 Essentials are an excellent guideline for hikers unsure of what to bring. These include: navigation, hydration, nutrition, insulation, firestarter, first aid, tools, illumination, sun protection and shelter. And, perhaps more important than bringing the essentials themselves, is bringing along the knowledge of how to use them. Before tossing your new water filter and headlamp into your bag, make sure you've given them a solid trial run at home.

Also consider packing ...

Beyond the essentials, there are plenty of other things to consider while building out your packing list. Planning on being out all day? Pack along a trowel in case you can't make it back to the trailhead bathroom. Have difficulty with inclines? Strap a set of trekking poles to the exterior of your bag. Meeting up with friends at the trailhead? Throw in an extra water bottle or a spare hat in case someone in your party forgets something. Want to be an excellent trail steward? Pack along a trash bag and clean up litter as you hike.

Water crossings are everywhere in Washington. Oftentimes a sturdy bridge or log crossing will help you across. Other times, you may need to get your feet wet. Photo by Roger Mosley.

Hike smart: Making decisions on trail

One of the most useful  and hardest to cultivate  skills for a new hiker to learn is how to navigate risk on trail and to know when to turn back. When your endorphins are running high and you're nearing the finish line, it's easy to overlook the risks in front of you and find yourself in a sticky situation.

Even with thorough planning, there's a chance you might encounter a situation on trail that you weren't prepared for. A stream is running higher than expected, the weather takes a turn for the worse or a trail seems to disappear into the brush. Before you push onward into uncharted territory, consider the risks associated with continuing, and ask yourself if you are prepared in the event that something goes wrong.

When addressing risks, think about all the possibilities that could occur as a result of your actions, decisions and plans. Not only are you responsible for keeping yourself safe, but you also need to be accountable for how your actions that may impact others. Only put yourself in situations you know you can get out of, and rely on your knowledge and know-how, not someone else to save you if something goes wrong. And remember, it's never a wrong decision to turn around in unsafe conditions.

Pika. Photo by Lydia Strunk..jpg
Washington is home to a lot of friendly (and adorable) wildlife. Just be sure to treat them with respect. Photo by Lydia Strunk.

Be ready for encountering wildlife

Washington is home to a large variety of wildlife ranging from common critters like deer, elk, squirrels, pikas, goats and marmots to the slightly-more-intimidating wildlife like bears, cougars, wolves and moose. Wildlife incidents are rare, but it's important to know how to react if you find yourself in an unexpected encounter.

Keep your distance

The most important thing to do when encountering wildlife on a hike  regardless of the animal  is to keep your distance. Never approach an animal on trail, and if you're hiking with a dog, be sure to keep them at a safe distance. Before your hike, research which animals are common in the area you plan on visiting, and take note of any special considerations. Don't forget the smallest critters, too. You're far more likely to encounter mosquitoes than moose.

The most important thing to do when encountering wildlife on a hike  regardless of the animal  is to keep your distance. 

For everyone's Sake, Never feed wildlife

For the safety of both yourself and the wildlife, never attempt to feed an wild animal. It habituates them to humans and is bad for their health. Make sure to keep your food and other scented items close at hand and to pack out any trash you bring in with you  including organic material like apple cores, banana peels and orange rinds.

Know what to do in case of emergency

Despite every hiker's best intentions, on-trail accidents and injuries do happen. In Washington alone, search and rescue conducts more than 800 missions a year to help lost and injured outdoor enthusiasts. Before you head out, it's worth gaining a deeper understanding of how search and rescue works, and which groups work in the area you will be visiting. After all, at some point you might be the one in need of help.

Remain calm & Make a plan

Each on-trail emergency will be a little different, but an important first step after an emergency occurs is to stop, remain calm and stick with your group. Then, take the time to observe your surroundings, think through your options, and make a plan.

How to Get help

If you need help and are within cell service, calling 911 is your best bet in case of an emergency. For more remote trails, you may need a satellite communication device such as an InReach or Spot in order to call for help.

President of King County Search and Rescue Association, Jennifer Brenes, encourages hikers to call for help as soon as they need it, "If something unexpected happens and you need help, don’t delay calling 911. Time often complicates rescues; rescue teams are prepared to act quickly before the problem escalates." 

If calling for help is not an option, it might be best to stay put and wait for another hiker to come by. However, if you're on a a more secluded trail, you may need to leave, or split up with your group to get help. (This is also why leaving an itinerary is so important.)