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Hike Your Own Hike, and Other Tips for Managing Risks on Trail

Posted by Loren D at Jul 17, 2015 05:40 PM |
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Summer is an amazing time to hike. Wildflowers are blooming, the weather is nice, and the views are stunning. But summer, like any season, comes with its own risks and knowing how to tackle adverse conditions will help keep you safe.

Hiking, like any outdoor sport, comes with some inherent risk. Making sure you pack the Ten Essentials, leaving your itinerary with family and friends, and other common sense precautions go a long way toward minimizing that risk so you can just enjoy the wonder of your hiking experience. But accidents, sometimes truly tragic ones, do happen.

We've all had those close calls—skidding your boot across some loose gravel and feeling your heart skip a beat because there's a drop-off right there, or realizing a little too late that you might be in over your head.

Whether you are brand new to hiking or have been at it for years without incident, it's never a bad idea to go back to basics. Experience and being well-prepared count for a lot outdoors, but good communication and developing decision-making skills are just as essential.

Tips for evaluating hazards and managing risks on trail this summer

Every season brings unique challenges and hazards to factor in when hiking or backpacking, and summer is no exception. You can't control the environment, but there are ways to be safer while you hike.

Here are some tips for staying safe on trail this summer.

Hikers crossing Leroy Creek
Take your time at water crossings. Here, three generations navigate Leroy Creek (very gingerly). Photo by Andrew Snoey

Identifying and dealing with hazards during your hike: stop, think and talk it through

Crossing streams and snowfields, navigating through a washed-out area of trail or a stand of dead trees are all common hazards you might encounter on trail. If you hike alone, stop and think through the risks at each hazard. If you are hiking in a group, stop and talk your approach through.

  • Consider the implications of your actions and talk through hazards with your group. Will jumping over loose rocks cause them to tumble down onto the trail below? Will making your destination mean you'll end up returning after dark? Always assess potentially dangerous activities and conditions and discuss them with your group before acting. If you take a risk, make sure it's a calculated one.
  • Hike your own hike. Don't let others' actions determine your decisions without careful consideration. You don't know the experience (or lack of experience) that influenced another hiker's decision to press on, turn back or take an alternative route. Make your own evaluation of hazards, every single time.
  • Heed the signs. It's good stewardship to follow the guidelines and advice of rangers and other land management agencies. Heed warning signs at trailheads and listen to the well-informed advice of agency staff you meet in ranger stations or on the trail.
  • Know your limits and the limits of everyone in your group. Turning back if conditions aren't safe or if someone in your group is uncomfortable is always the right decision. We all want to reach the summit, but reaching it safely is more important (and more fun). If someone is uncomfortable, consider finding a different hike or trying again when conditions improve.
  • Make sure everyone is heard. If you are more experienced, communicate with your group on how they're doing throughout your hike. If you are a less experienced hiker, ask questions and speak up if you have any concerns. Your safety should be put above reaching the destination!
  • Take your time at water crossings. Crossing streams and fording rivers are one of the more common hazards on trail. It's always best to cross water on a bridge where available. Rivers can be fast-moving, and getting caught in one can take you somewhere you don't want to go. Be especially mindful of children and pets around moving water sources. Water is refreshing, but powerful—know that it can be dangerous if treated without respect.

Kendall Katwalk
Can you spot the hiker? This section of Kendall Katwalk is stunning, but this kind of trail may not be for everyone. Talk it through before crossing exposed slopes. Photo by Turgut Isik.

Reflect on your choices to learn

Whether you've been a hiker for a day or for decades, make it a habit to think about your day on trail—the good, the bad and the ugly. Writing a trip report is a great time to reflect on your smart decisions and to learn from your mistakes.

  • Think about the decisions you made, and whether they turned out the way you intended. Would you do anything differently next time?
  • Smart, or just lucky? Ask yourself if you got home safely because of your decisions or because you got lucky. If luck brought you home, think about what you might do differently next time out.

Each one of us is ultimately responsible for our own safety in the backcountry. Choose hikes that you and your group will feel comfortable doing, and can do safely. Remember, coming home safely is far more important than reaching your destination.

Safety Tips Blog
Is it safe to navigate? Talk it through with your group before taking action. Photo by Austin Boese.

How to have a great trip: pre-hike checklist

As with any hike, one of the best ways to have a great trip is to go well prepared. Here are some tips for making sure you're ready to hit the trail.

  • Check conditions and file an itinerary. Have a sense of what road, trail, weather and wildfire conditions you will encounter, and go with a backup plan.
  • Be aware of wildfires and their locations. Fires can move quickly, especially in windy, hot conditions. Always have an escape route planned in the event a fire starts near you. Finding hikes far from known fire locations is best to avoid any potential issues.
  • Pack for the unexpected. Always pack the 10 Essentials for hikes outside of city or county parks. This includes a topographic map, compass, extra food, extra clothing, firestarter, matches, sun protection, a pocket knife, first-aid kit, and flashlight. It’s also a good idea to bring some sort of emergency shelter, even on a day hike. Cell phones make great cameras, but reception is limited in wild areas and batteries die, so they should never be relied on to get you out of a jam. Phones are not a substitute for carrying the backcountry essentials that could save your life.
  • Plan to stay hydrated. Warmer weather means you'll most likely be sweating more than you would on a hike in the fall, and replenishing fluids is an important part of staying safe on the trail. Be sure to pack in plenty of water, as streams and rivers may not be reliable sources of water late in the season. Always bring a water filtration system with you as a backup.


Weather - will it change?

If so, would your group be well prepared? Could you navigate out if visibility was limited?

Posted by:

Paul Thomsen on Jul 19, 2015 06:48 PM

How would the group cope with injuries?

If it's a trail with many people on it, you can hope they'll help you out. Otherwise your group will have to manage. What if it's the leader that gets injured? Both are remote possibilities, but they happen. What if you got a late start and nightfall is imminent? Could the group stay overnight? That's a Spring or Fall issue mainly (Winter, if you're so brave), but that's 3/4 of the year.

Posted by:

Paul Thomsen on Jul 19, 2015 07:32 PM

Water crossings

Always unbuckle your pack, no matter how easy the ford appears! If you fall or are swept down stream. It's difficult enough to extricate yourself, let alone with a drenched pack weighing you down.

Posted by:

LizzyRN on Jul 20, 2015 07:17 PM

Hiking in hot weather

I pay attention to how I feel in hot weather. If I start to feel uncomfortable, I turn around. No use being a masochist. Same with dogs. I've seen a lot of selfish hikers dragging their overheated dogs up a mountain. Better to leave them at home then make them suffer too.

Posted by:

MapleLeaf on Jul 21, 2015 03:57 PM

Hiking Companions

This is one reason that I am selective about who I'll hike with. I am always willing to turn around if things don't feel right, and if I get any sense that a prospective hiking buddy is in the "we'll get there or die trying" camp, I respectfully decline.

Posted by:

VanMallynch on Jul 21, 2015 08:35 PM