Unless you’re hiking over mountains, or crossing a dangerous pass, hiking is generally a safe activity, but if you’re unprepared, taking unnecessary risks, or missing vital information, you can encounter real life-threatening danger on the trail. So, what are some safety tips and tricks for hiking that you can employ to stay safe backpacking outside in the great outdoors?
10 Safety Tips and Tricks for Hiking and Backpacking
- Bring a personal locator beacon, or a spot device, with preloaded trail maps to make navigation and communication simple. If you’re unable to purchase a personal locator beacon, your phone can be very helpful as well with apps such as Guthook for trail guidance.
- Purchase a paper map of the trail for backup purposes.
- Have a high lumen headlamp with at least one replacement battery for night hiking and emergency SOS signaling.
- Carry other methods for search and rescue such as a flat faced signaling mirror, an emergency whistle, a safety orange colored bandanna, or a flare gun.
- Use trekking poles, and wear properly sized and laced lightweight shoes with quality insoles, to decrease joint pressure and avoid foot and back injuries.
- Rest your feet for ten minutes of every hour to reduce moisture and swelling. Take off your shoes and socks at least two to three times per day and dry your feet out to prevent trench foot. Have one rotation of dry socks to change into after lunch, then hang your wet socks on your pack.
- Bring two methods of water filtration and purification such a squeeze, gravity, or pump water purifier, and perhaps even a UV treatment device or chemical treatment like iodine, or chlorine dioxide tablets if the water is very bad.
- Consume approximately two pounds of nutrient dense foods such as energy bars, nuts, backpacker meals, or homemade dehydrated and vacuum sealed foods for each day of your journey to maintain energy levels.
- Bring a wide brimmed hat with a bug net, long pants, picaridin insect repellent lotion, and permethrin clothing spray to ward off mosquitoes, black flies, and ticks especially near swamps.
- Carry pepper spray, a knife necklace, bear spray, or even a firearm for protection against potential assailants or possible deadly animal encounters.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re out hiking alone, or if you’re with a group, being knowledgeable and well-prepared for any situation, within reasonable weight limits, is the most crucial way to reduce risk and stay safe while hiking through the wilderness.
This comprehensive guide will attempt to cover all the numerous challenges that you may encounter while traveling across the countryside, and how to conquer them.
If you see anything that we’ve missed in this guide we highly suggest that you leave a comment down below with any suggestions, questions, comments, or concerns. The reason we hope to hear from you so much is because your experience could help save someone’s life in the future.
We’ll continually update this article based on your feedback, as safety technology improves, and as time permits, but forever will this be a living document to be continually updated to help as many people as possible avoid danger in the future. We hope to hear from you soon!
Personal Locator Beacons and Spot Devices for Hiking and Backpacking
For the most critical of moments while backpacking, a Personal Locator Beacon, or a Spot Device in your possession is paramount to being considered well-prepared. The only drawback to these devices is their price, but if you believe you’ll be without cell phone coverage, you really need to consider investing in this piece of life-saving equipment.
Despite the high sticker price of Personal Locator Beacons, they provide immense value if you’re out traveling since the topographical (elevation) maps give a detailed trail report, and if you’re with a group and each person has a Garmin device, you can add each other as friends and text with each other.
These devices are so valuable too because if you’re ever lost off-trail in a dense forest, or if you unfortunately find yourself the victim of a horrible situation such as a venomous snake bite, a critical fall, or a deadly assault, you can get help heading your way immediately.
In times like that, having the ability to call and reach out to emergency medical responders instantaneously can mean the difference between life or death for you, a friend, or a loved one.
With that being said, the absolute best investment for a personal locator beacon on the market, if you’re unwilling to settle for anything less than the best is the $465, Garmin InReach Explorer with the backpack attachment holder, and the Protective Silicone Sleeve.
The reason we like the Garmin InReach Explorer is that it has an exceptionally long battery life, high resolution topographical maps, and excellent communication tools.
Unlike the old personal locator beacons of the past, which are just single use devices only ever to be used for calling emergency services, then discarded, the Garmin inReach Explorer allows you to add friends, track each other’s locations, view the upcoming weather, and send two-way text messages to anywhere in the world using a global network of iridium satellites through a paid subscription service.
The Garmin inReach also comes pre-installed with topographical maps, can track the barometric air pressure, has an accelerometer to calculate your acceleration and velocity, can be submerged underwater for 30 minutes, links to your cell phone, and supports cloud functionality which tracks your progress across the world.
The service itself is quite expensive, but in our mind absolutely essential if you’re investing in a long distance trip. The best plan is the Expedition Plan which costs about $50 per month and eliminates the $0.50 cent cost for each 160 character text message.
You can find the link to the subscription services for Garmin inReach devices, on the official Garmin website here.
In addition to the Expedition Plan, there’s the Extreme Plan which will change your Tracking Interval to approximately every 2 minutes, instead of the standard 10 minutes.
This plan would be best if you intend on using your device a lot and want to see your progress updated on the cloud consistently for friends, family, or social media to follow.
With all that being said, if all of those features of the Garmin inReach Explorer sound amazing, but the investment cost is simply too high, then you should really consider the $180, Garmin eTrex 30x,
This device works very well as a baseline personal locator beacon while still offering preloaded topographical maps, a barometric altimeter to plot your elevation, and features location, route, and waypoint sharing with other Garmin devices.
Trail Maps and Where to Find Them
There are a few different ways to get your hands on paper trail maps, or digital files for your outdoor excursion. One way which we suggest scouting the trail is by using the main page provided by the U.S. Forest Service found here, which also has an Interactive Visitor Map, and a Geo-Enabled Topographical Map, where you can find the trail you’ll be traveling with numerous details about the surrounding area.
There’s also the option of purchasing paper maps from National Geographic which are super high quality and give detailed topographical information and other useful information about your destination.
The Best Phone App for Hiking and Backpacking
When it comes to map and trail guide programs for your phone we suggest using Guthook Guides: Hike and Bike Offline which you can find here for iOS, and here for android devices.
The reason that we like Guthook Guides is because they have a very wide variety of trails to choose from and comments are being provided constantly by other hikers that are traveling those trails which detail updates on water source conditions, recent animal sightings, downed trees, weather conditions, and much more.
The only drawback to this app is that it does consume quite a bit of battery life keeping it open, so make sure to turn your brightness down to the lowest setting, and enable battery saver mode, to get the most out of your battery life.
Useful Items for Hiking and Backpacking
Other than having a personal locator beacon, or a paper map, one very vital for navigation and critical to your survival when you’re out hiking, especially when you’re in the woods is proper lighting.
The headlamp is the perfect option for light since they keep your hands free for your trekking poles. We suggest the very popular and highly rated Cobiz 6,000 Lumen LED Waterproof Headlamp which is incredibly bright.
The Cobiz headlamp has excellent light production at 6,000 lumens which is a measure of the brightness of the light. The light can be seen from very far away, and can very easily double as an S.O.S. light for emergency signaling if turned on and off.
Beyond having a super high lumen headlamp light, you can bring along a simple flat signaling mirror, for reflecting a flashlight or sun’s rays toward a populated area or emergency helicopter.
An emergency whistle is also an excellent option for bringing people’s to attention to your area, especially the Storm Safety Whistle, which can even be heard from 50 feet away when blown underwater, and has piercing sound which can be heard from exceptionally far away. Make sure to take care when testing these whistles since they are powerful enough to damage your hearing. They should really only be used for emergency purposes.
Finally, a safety orange or yellow colored bandana for flagging down help is great as well, but these are truly the primitive methods, and while every hiker should absolutely no doubt about it have them in or on their pack, they’re really the last resort options.
If you want to get really fancy you can pick up this safety colored ranger hat, and use it in conjunction with a bug net for a black fly, and mosquito repellent in infested swamps.
Dangerous Personal Injuries While Hiking
We’re not going to mince words. There really are a bunch of silly ways that you can hurt yourself while you’re out on the trail, but almost all of them can be prevented with a bit of knowledge.
Below we’ll detail many of the injuries that you can encounter from your feet to your head, and how to prevent these injuries, so you can enjoy your trip instead of managing pain on a zero day from an avoidable mistake.
Hiking Foot Injuries: Choosing Insoles and How to Never Have Sore Feet After Hiking Again
Most injuries are foot related. Your feet are carrying you and all your gear across many miles of countryside which means they’re going to take a beating and you need to take special care of them.
The best way to take care of your feet is to get properly sized shoes for your feet, lace them the correct way to reduce friction, and possibly purchase insoles that are molded to your foot.
If you have it in your budget visiting a podiatrist and having professionally made insoles before your hiking adventure is the scientifically optimal way to go and these super high quality insoles will save you a lot of discomfort in the long run.
If visiting a podiatrist isn’t in your budget you can find a local Dr. Scholl’s machine and find some quality insoles that way, otherwise high quality hiking shoes will often come with insoles made for long hiking excursions.
In fact, we’ve made an article which catalogs our selections for the Top 5 Best Women’s Ultralight and Lightweight Hiking Shoes and Boots which you can check out here.
The reason that proper insoles in shoes are so important is because as you walk without arch support, over long periods of time, your feet will start to flatten out, and your heels can become sore which can make walking painful with each step.
In addition, constant pressure on your foot without the proper insoles or toe box for your foot’s shape can eventually damage or compress the nerves in your feet or toes and cause numbness.
Improperly sized shoes without the proper insoles can also harm your plantar fascia, the ligament that stretches across the entire bottom of your foot, or can cause you to sprain the arches of your feet.
Spraining the arches of your feet is exceptionally painful, and can take up to a couple weeks, or a couple months, or even longer to recover. Plus, if you sprain the arches of your feet while you’re out hiking, and you can hardly walk, you’re going to be in some seriously trouble and you’ll probably have to set up camp for the day and rest before you can limp back to civilization.
The most important and simple way to keep your feet from getting sore or injured is to take a break every hour for ten minutes.
Set your pack on the ground, lay down on your back, take your shoes and socks off, and prop your feet up on your pack so they’re resting above your heart, then just relax for a bit.
Doing this consistently will reduce the swelling in your feet and give your muscles and tendons a chance to recover from the trauma of the constant walking, plus you can dry out your feet and prevent trench foot from forming during the day.
We can’t really stress enough how important it is to take frequent breaks, so do your feet a favor and let them relax from time to time, they’ve earned it.
How to Size Hiking Boots to Prevent Tendinitis and Other Harmful Foot Conditions
You’re going to want to perform a few tests to make sure that your shoes are fitted properly. First, size your foot using a foot measuring device located anywhere that shoes are sold. Pick out a lightwight shoe or a boot that’s at least a half size, or a full size larger than your foot.
Then you’ll want to lace up the shoe or boot. If you’re wearing a boot, leave the top two notches unlaced. Then, tilt your knee forward about ten degrees, so that you can fix your index finger into the gap between the back of your ankle and the boot, then finish lacing up the boot in that position.
This will allow you to move your ankle freely while walking without grinding your Achilles Tendon on the heel cap and will keep you from developing Achilles tendinitis.
There are a few more foot injuries that you can sustain while out on the trail that we’re not going to get into here such as blackened or lost toenails, blisters, trench foot, and bone spurs.
Please check out our other guides about how to prevent those foot injuries since they can be rather dangerous if left untreated and become infected. Specifically, you’re looking for the sections in Backpacking and Hiking Footwear: Choosing Hiking Boots and Shoes labeled, “Shoe Fitting Guide: How to Size Your Hiking Boots,” and the section, “How to Break In Hiking Boots,” about halfway down the page.
Also, when it comes to treating any of the foot injuries listed above once you have them, A Guide to Healthy Hiking Feet: Hiking Foot Injuries and Foot Care, will provide you with the necessary information to take care of your feet, or teach you about when it’s time to contact a medical professional.
Other Hiking Injuries: Head, Leg, and Arm Injuries
Head, leg and arm injuries are often the result of poor foot placement while walking on the trail, and can lead to life threatening situations if you’re alone, and become disabled off the beaten path with no way to reach out for help.
This may seem like common sense, but if you’re hiking or backpacking and you have two options to either; step up onto a bunch of rocks and continue on the trail on the fast route, or take the slow and more time consuming gradual walk on a well-maintained path, you should always choose the safe and slow option.
The more gentle route is often the safest and taking risky shortcuts to save time is where the danger is involved in hiking and backpacking. Take the slow and steady option all the time, especially if you’re carrying a heavy pack.
If you don’t heed this warning, then there’s a high chance you can slip and fall and break your leg in between rocks, trip and fall on a tree root and break your arm, or fall and hit your head on a rock.
Even if you “only” break your arm, there’s actually a condition where bone marrow can leak into your blood stream and can cause you to have seizures, hallucinations, and lung problems, so you need to take your travel route very seriously, and take the least risky route as possible.
Now, if you were injured with a group of friends they could carry you back to civilization as a team, but if you’re alone, your only hope would be a personal locator beacon, or other emergency signaling device such as a deafeningly loud whistle, or horn.
Also, one important note to mention, that not a lot of people remember while they’re hiking until it’s too late and they learn the hard way, is to look up every once in a while and make sure you’re not about to walk your skull into a tree branch.
It’s really common while hiking to stare at your feet for an exceptionally long time, so you’ll need to remember to have some awareness of branches or you can really hurt yourself.
Plus, there’s also a chance you can poke your eye with a tree branch if you’re not wearing sunglasses for protection. Regardless though, you don’t want to get a concussion, or poke your eye out, and be forced to take a zero mile day or quit your trip because of such a silly and easily avoidable injury.
Hiking Hydration: Combating Dehydration on the Trail
If you’ve hiked any amount of time you’ll know that being thirsty on the trail is a constant battle. A lot of people use squeeze filters on water bottles, or fill their hydration packs with gravity filters for hiking. Hydration packs are nice since they can be placed into a backpack with a tube running out allowing you to drink by biting the end of the tube.
No matter what way you’re carrying or filtering it though, water is heavy! One gallon, or about 3.8 liters of water, weighs a little over 8 lbs! (3.5kg) So, you’re going to want a combination of ways to get water without carrying a backbreaking amount.
First, you should be drinking about 24 fluid ounces, or about 0.7 liters of water per hour on average. So, if you’re carrying a gallon of water, that’s only going to last you about 5-6 hours and then you’ll need to resupply.
Considering you only want to be carrying about 20% of your body weight in your backpack at the absolute very most, and you only need a couple of pounds of food per day, the majority of your pack weight is going to be your sleeping supplies, such as your tent or hammock, and water.
The best way to cut down on water weight is to plan your hiking route based on available water sources, bring a water filter of some kind, and possibly bring a chemical treatment method as well if the water is particularly rancid.
If you’re looking for a direct drink method then we suggest using the LifeStraw Water Bottle which provides a two stage filtering system that removes 99.999999% of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses, including Giardia and Cryptosporidium, as well as dissolved organic chemicals and chlorine contained within the water.
In addition, for every LifeStraw product purchased, the company provides drinking water to a child in need through their community building and outreach campaigns across the world.
While the bottles are a bit pricey, certainly more expensive than the next option, and the bottle’s kind of heavy, it will solve a lot of your problems when it comes to needing water since you can double filter from any water source.
There’s also the widely popular Sawyer PointOne Squeeze Water Filter System, that a lot of thru-hikers use, which is an excellent lightweight option that can even attach to the top of a bottle of Smart Water, and allow you to squeeze out fresh water into your mouth.
Also, if you’re planning on a sunny desert adventure you’re definitely going to want to bring along a reflective uv umbrella, or a wide brimmed hat for portable shade. The reason for this is because carrying an umbrella actually cuts down on your water needs in the desert since you sweat much less under shade.
In fact, to help you find an awesome reflective umbrella, we’ve created a guide on The Best Personal and Portable Hiking Umbrellas for Shade and Rain, which catalogs our top picks for umbrellas to use for hiking.
Crime: Cases of Theft, Assault and Murder on the Trail
Now, we get to the most serious section of this article. Before we begin, we want you to understand that the majority of people that go out into the wilderness for a day hike, or a thru-hike encounter no problems except the ones listed above in the other sections.
More often times than not people leave on a hike and come back more healthy and happy than they ever were before. However, even though the majority of people go out into the wilderness and have a great time, some people are not so fortunate.
Cases of horrible tragedies befalling victims are rare and the majority of people you meet out on the trail are absolutely wonderful people that can easily turn into lifelong friends, but sometimes there are shady people preying on hikers.
Theft is one of the most common crimes on the trail, and some people have figured out ways to steal from hikers and escape quickly by waiting near trail entry points with parking lots carrying no gear and then robbing hikers at knife or gunpoint.
There are also cases of people being shot at, stabbed, suffocated, raped and kidnapped on trails all across the world, including here in the United States, but again these cases are extraordinarily rare. You definitely have a higher chance of being struck by lightning.
One way to identify suspicious people though is to keep something in mind. If someone’s out deep out on the trail, and they don’t have any gear on, they might be dangerous since they plan on carrying your gear out soon. Be cautious of people without any gear on the trail.
Your first line of defense should be pepper spray. Bottles of pepper spray can shoot up to twelve feet and will disable an attacker for at least twenty minutes to an hour, if not longer.
There is one drawback though in that it is almost impossible to use pepper spray without some blowing back and coming into contact with you, and some people are immune to OC pepper spray.
Thanks to the insight of a former law enforcement officer who was kind enough to comment and provide information, five percent of the population is immune to OC pepper sprays which means if you spray it at someone who is immune, you’re simply handicapping yourself due to spray blowback.
Regardless though, it’s a great tool to have in an emergency, and you’re going to want a spray that has a holster, so that you can attach it to your pack for easy access. You can follow this link to see an example of a pepper spray that we recommend.
If you missed, or the attacker is still running at you and doesn’t seem to care that their eyes and face are burning off, then what we suggest next is wearing a simple knife necklace to protect yourself. They’re small, weigh almost nothing, are easy to access, and will do the job if you’re in a close quarters encounter with an attacker.
Most importantly, you’re going to want a personal locator beacon in case you end up getting injured and are in need medical attention. These are important to carry not just for your survival, but in case you encounter someone else that’s severely injured.
Hopefully, you’ll never need to use a personal locator beacon, but it’s better to have one, and not need it, than the other way around.
Another really useful tool in calling for help is a whistle. Just hang it around your neck on a piece of paracord, or string and then you’ll have it available for easy access.
They’re outrageously loud, inexpensive, small, super lightweight and can sometimes cause an attacker to change their mind and run off. If you do decide to purchase this whistle be careful testing it. Never blow the whistle with maximum force unless you’re in a life and death emergency situation since you can damage your hearing.
Lastly, and it depends a lot on where you’re hiking and how much protection you really think you’ll need, but some people decide that they want to carry a firearm while out on the trail.
Understand though that if you’re thru-hiking and traveling through multiple states then you’re definitely going to be violating state law carrying a firearm. Please look up firearm laws for the states that you’ll be traveling through as some states honor concealed carry permits, and others don’t.
Also, if you’re going to concealed carry, don’t tell anyone you have the weapon, keep it hidden, and it should go without saying, but obviously only use it if your life is in absolute mortal danger.
Ticks on the Trail: Combating Lyme Disease and How to Avoid Ticks While Hiking
Another section that we’ve broken off into its own article is our comprehensive guide on Ticks. These horrendous creatures of pestilence need to be taken very seriously which is the reason we’ve dedicated an entire article to them to educate people on how dangerous ticks really are.
Please follow the link below to read about ticks and never underestimate their destructive power because of their size. Ticks can inflict an immense amount of ailments upon a person, and can literally ruin your life, if they’re left alone. Click below to learn more.
There’s a great many experiences that you can encounter when you’re out hiking and the majority of them are wonderful. From seeing soaring peaks and beautiful countrysides, to enjoying the sight of roaming wildlife, hiking is a great time, but there really are true dangers out there for the unprepared.
Understanding how to be prepared, and keep yourself safe from potential dangers such as dehydration, animal attacks, injured feet, swarms of mosquitoes, black flies, ticks, bears or even criminal assailants, will allow you to enjoy your adventure without fear of the unknown since you’ll have a solution for every situation.
If we missed any information in this article, and you believe we should expand it in any way, please leave a message down below with your question, comment, concern or suggestion. We’d love to hear your feedback!
As always though, thank you so much for being here, have an absolutely wonderful day, and of course, Happy Paragon Trails!
If a person is going to carry pepper spray (OC-10), there are a few considerations. First, you need to understand that it’s almost impossible to deploy it without getting it on yourself. Ideally, you would take wind direction & speed prior to deploying it, but in a stressful situation that’s very difficult for your brain to do, and it may not make a difference regardless. You can reduce the impact the spray will have on you by holding your other hand up to your face so that it covers your mouth, seals your nostrils with your thumb & forefinger, and covers your dominant eye with your fingertips. (Like everything else, you’d need to practice doing this ahead of time.)
Second, 5% of the human population is immune to OC-10. If you deploy it & get it on yourself and the assailant is immune, you’ve handicapped yourself in the fight. It’s a great tool, but it cannot be your only tool.
If at all possible, do an intentional exposure in a controlled environment. When I worked for a law enforcement agency, we were required to do an indirect exposure, and we had the option of a direct exposure. I went for the direct exposure. OMG it’s horrible. I had my eyes closed when I was sprayed, and it still took ten minutes of standing under a cold shower & rubbing baby shampoo in my eyes before I could open them. (The troopers had to go through a series of steps that required opening their eyes. I can’t imagine that.) The advantage of an intentional exposure in a controlled environment is that if you get exposed in the field, your brain will know that you will survive. As in all situations, your brain is your best weapon. and you need it functioning properly if you’re in danger.
As to the foot issues, most human beings can get by without special insoles. Take good care of your feet. As much as possible, where shoes with less cushioning & actively seek to strengthen your feet & lower leg muscles. There’s a reason so many thru hikers have switched to hiking in trail running shoes, and there’s a reason Altras are so popular with thru hikers.
Astounding comment! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!
I was not aware that a certain percentage of the population is immune to pepper spray, and I don’t think a lot of people know that!
I’ll make sure to integrate some of the information you provided into the article, so that people can see it, just in case they dont find their way down here to the comments.
Again though, thank you so much, I hope to hear from you again, and as always, Happy Trails!