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How to Think Ahead for Safer Hiking

Hiking comes with inherent risk, but by preparing ahead of time and thinking through those risks, you can future-proof your hikes and be ready for (nearly) anything.

For many of us, hiking is a way to relax and enjoy time outside without the stressors of work and home. But, it does take a bit of planning to ensure that your time outside stays stress free. Hiking comes with inherent risk, but by preparing ahead of time and thinking through those risks, you can future-proof your hikes and be ready for (nearly) anything.

Hiking through fresh snow at Mount Rainier
Snow can present some additional risks on trail. Photo by Andrew Holland.

Minimize risk before you go

Preparation is key for a fun, safe and low-stress hike. Consider building out a pre-hike checklist and running through a few key steps before you head out the door.

    • Check the conditions: This is one of the best and easiest ways to prepare for a hike. Recent trip reports can shed light on any hazards you may encounter, and the National Weather Service can show you hyper-specific forecasts for the trailhead you are visiting (find a link for these on our hike entries, below the map and directions).
    • Study a map: A map in your pack is an essential, but it’s worth getting familiar with the larger map of the area before you head out the door. Know what trails intersect with your route and what possible bail-out routes may be available if you end up needing one.
    • Pack for the occasion: You likely have your 10 Essentials dialed in by now — but depending on the season and the type of adventure, those essentials might not cover all the bases. Cold temps and wet weather call for more insulation, extra traction and plenty of spare headlamp batteries.
    • Leave an itinerary: A good itinerary will include your route, the trailhead(s) where you plan to start and end your trip and the time you plan on being back. Details like the color of your gear and the size of your boots can also be helpful.

Manage risk on trail

Risk can come in many forms on trail. How you approach these risks defines the outcome of your hike, and thinking through possible risk scenarios will help you make smart decisions if you do face them.

    • Consider the side effects of your actions: Will jumping over loose rocks cause them to tumble onto the trail below? Will making it to your destination mean you'll end up returning after dark? Always think ahead.
    • Take your time at tricky spots: If you’ve assessed a potential hazard and decided to continue, proceed with caution. Watch your footing, be aware of your surroundings and wait for the rest of your group.
    • Hike your own hike: Don't get caught up with what fellow hikers are doing — you never know the experience (or lack thereof) that influenced their decisions. Always make your own evaluation of hazards.
    • Know your limits: It’s OK to turn back if conditions become unsafe or if someone is uncomfortable. We all want to reach the summit, but returning safely is more important.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.