Safety Guide for Backpacking – Some Hiking Safety Tips

Safety Guide for Backpacking – Some Hiking Safety Tips

Backpacking and Hiking Safety Tips

This section of the website contains a Safety Guide for Backpacking. Backpacking is fun and challenging, but it is also potentially dangerous. Injuries are common on the trail, though luckily most of these are minor. You can minimize your risk by planning ahead. Having a backpacking guide or plan, a well-stocked first aid kit, and knowledge of what to do in emergency situations can potentially save your life.

I am not being facetious here; people have died out there in the backcountry. How many news reports have you heard of missing hikers who later turn out to be dead? Although some of these can be chalked to pure rotten luck, many of them could have been prevented with better preparation—or just plain not being stupid. For instance, while climbing Horsetail Falls in Desolation Wilderness, we actually watched a person being airlifted off the trail. Coming across a ranger the next day, we found out that that person had died. Now the trail along the falls is steep and rocky; it is not quite rock-climbing, but it’s pretty close. Many people choose not to follow the trail and hike closer to the waterfall for the thrill of it. It was one of these people that was being taken out that day. Usually Horsetail Falls claims one or two lives a year, and I would probably be correct in guessing it is people like these, who made the bad decision to act recklessly. Don’t be one of these people.

Before you leave, make sure you know where you are going and how long you will be gone. Provide this information to a friend or relative, along with the contact information of the closest ranger station. Bring a cell phone, and tell them you will contact them as soon as you get off the trail. If they do not hear from you within a couple days of your expected exit date, have them contact the ranger station. If you are lost or stuck somewhere out there on the trail, the rangers will come looking for you.

It is essential to always bring a first aid kit. You can buy one at a camping store that is already stocked, or make your own. Remember, though, that even the pre-stocked ones will eventually require restocking, or don’t always include everything you may need. Keep in mind that you are trying to go as lightweight as possible, so opt for travel sizes when available. Here are some ideas of what should be inside as part of Safety Guide for Backpacking:

Pain killer: Tylenol, Advil, or whatever works for you. Ibuprofen also reduces fever and inflammation, so if you choose to bring another painkiller, tote this along also. If you can, find the individual packets.

Allergy medicine: If you have seasonal allergies, bring what works for you. Something that is non-drowsy is best. If not, still bring along some individually packed Benadryl. You never know when you are going to stumble across something that will give you an allergic reaction.

Neosporin: A small tube. I am notoriously clumsy, and have used this one a lot for the various scratches I have collected.
Hydrocortisone cream: Mosquito bites can lose you a night of sleep without this.
Tums or Pepto Bismol tablets

Moleskin: This is something that a pre-bought kit may not already have. If so, get some and put it in there. We but a large roll and cut off a few small section to put in the kit each time we hike.

Bandages: Have a few various sizes.

Alcohol prep pads: Have at least a few of these for cleaning wounds prior to putting on bandages.
Gauze pads: A few of these as well.

  • Roll of first aid tape
  • ACE bandage: At least one.
  • Small medical scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Hand sanitizer: A small bottle.

Snakebite kit: This is another thing that may not be included in a store-bought kit that would be a good idea to bring along, especially if you know the area where you will be hiking is inhabited by snakes.

First aid guide: Many of the pre-made kits come with this. If you are making your own kit, try to find a small one to bring along. This gives general guidelines for how to treat many injuries. Really, how many off us know offhand how to treat scorpion bites or to splint a broken thumb?

Any prescription medication that you need to take regularly
Whistle: This can help people find you if you get lost

Knowledge is just as important as a well-stocked kit. A basic first aid training course is never a bad idea. It is also wise to familiarize yourself with the dangerous plants and animals you may encounter while on the trail. Knowing how to identify poison oak from manzanita or a brown recluse spider from something more benign can help you avoid injury altogether. As they say, prevention is the best form of treatment. If you don’t know whether something is dangerous or not, stay away. This is especially true if you encounter things like spiders, snakes or scorpions. Actually, don’t approach any wild animals or attempt to feed them. Many of them are afraid of you, and even that squirrel might attack if it feels threatened. If you come across something cool like a family of deer wading across a stream, keep quiet and admire from a distance.

You also need a good knowledge of your own body, and what it can handle. If you have medical conditions that may impede you on the trail, bring what you need to treat the condition, and make modifications to your trip when necessary. If, for instance, you have bad back or knees, you may need to slow things down and reduce the number of miles you put in each day. I made one trip on the tail end of physical therapy treatment for a knee condition. One of the ways I was supposed to minimize aggravation of my knee was to use a specialized tape to hold my kneecap in place while exercising. For whatever idiotic reason, I neglected to bring the tape on this particular trip, and of course, by the end of the trip, my knee was acting up. I ended up using medical tape from the first aid kit, but as it was not as sticky as my specialized tape, and so to keep the kneecap in place I had to wrap it so tightly around my legs that the backs of my knees were bruised by the end of the day. At one point, I also stripped down to my underwear and sat in a very cold stream to try to get the inflammation down. Better preparation could have saved me a lot of pain and hassle. We all try to pretend we are Superman, thinking we are invincible and can handle everything, but most of the time we fail miserably. So if you need to have your fellow hikers carry a larger share of the weight, don’t be ashamed. Everyone has different capabilities.

Know ahead of time that you are going to be sore most of your trip. You are making your muscles work a lot harder then they are used to, and they are going to complain about it. This is normal, and can be minimized by frequent stretching. At the very least, try to stretch well in the morning before hitting the trail, and before retiring for the evening. Stopping to stretch throughout the day is not a bad idea either. If you get a major muscle strain, you may have to slow your pace or carry less weight. If it is bad enough, you may even have to consider heading back or shortening your trip.

Minor injuries are usually a part of every trip. Clean and cover any scratches with a bandage to prevent dirt getting in the open wound. Cover blisters with moleskin to prevent rubbing. Bruises you pretty much just have to deal with. Apply plenty of sunblock and insect repellent throughout the day. Pay attention if you get a headache. This may be a symptom of dehydration or altitude sickness.

If I get a headache on the trail, the first thing I do is think back to when I last drank water. Most people are not used to drinking the amount of water that you need for such sustained activity, and tend not to drink enough. If the headache is accompanied by dizziness, fatigue (other than just being tired because you are working hard), sudden visual snow, dark or decreased urine, and/or thirst, dehydration may be the culprit. Stop and immediately drink some water. If you have powdered Gatorade, add that to the water; the electrolytes will help hydrate your body faster. Usually dehydration is a minor ailment, but treat it immediately, as it can become a serious condition.

That headache could also be caused by altitude sickness. This is common if you are hiking 8,000 feet or more above sea level. If you get a sudden headache while in high elevations that is accompanied by dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness/fatigue, nausea, a feeling of “pins and needles,” and/or malaise (a general feeling of uneasiness or “out of sorts”), you may be experiencing altitude sickness. The best thing to do is to descend to a lower elevation as quickly as possible; usually the symptoms will subside in a few hours after doing so. Altitude sickness can lead to serious complications if you stay too long at an elevation your body can’t handle. If your trail is in the high country, you can avoid making yourself ill by acclimating yourself to the change in air pressure. Whenever possible, hike the higher elevation portions of your trail during the day, and camp for the night in lower elevation areas. Or you can gradually increase the altitude where you camp by no more than 1,000 feet on successive nights. Don’t let altitude sickness scare you away from exploring the high mountains, though: it is from up there that you get the best panoramic views.

You also need to take temperature into consideration. If the nights are cold, if you are swimming in very cold water (or sitting in your underwear in snowmelt), or you are camping on snow, hypothermia may be a concern. This can be avoided with the proper clothing: make sure you have plenty of it, and wear wool or synthetic fabrics instead of cotton, as cotton retains moisture against the skin. Early symptoms include shivering, numbness in the hands, shallow breathing, and goose bumps. A warm sensation following these can be a sign of the body’s temperature decreasing, and if treatment has not already begun, it needs to be started right away. Keep the person dry and warm, and give them warm liquids until their body temperature returns to normal. On the other end of the spectrum, when hiking in warm areas, you need to be careful of heat exhaustion, which can lead to full-blown heat stroke (hyperthermia). Prevent your body from overheating by keeping well-hydrated and wearing loose-fitting clothing. Along with signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion causes heavy sweating, tiredness/weakness, nausea, paleness, and muscle cramps. Treat this by resting in the shade for awhile, and drinking plenty of water or Gatorade if it is available. If either of these conditions are severe or are not subsiding, you may need to cut your trip short and bring the person to the hospital.

Such emergencies are rare, but they do happen. If you are hiking in a group, and one person has a serious injury, somebody else may need to hike in for help. Do not try to force the injured person to hike, or try to transport them if it is avoidable. If you have more than two people, split up so that at least one person can remain with the injured person. Leave as much gear as possible with those who are staying put; speed is of the essence for whoever is hiking out for help, so they should bring only what they need. They should hike out until they can get a cell signal and dial 911, or can reach the closet ranger station. If you are alone and incapable of hiking, you will have no choice but to stay where you are. Activate your PLB if you have one, or shoot of flares if you have those. If you have neither, use your whistle. Three sound or flashes is the distress signal. Often there are other hikers in the area, if they hear or see you signaling, usually they will come to help. Otherwise, you will have to wait to be found. You did remember to give your friend your itinerary and call the ranger station if you didn’t return, didn’t you?

The same is true if you become utterly, hopelessly lost. It is not uncommon to loose your trail and have to backtrack, but if you get yourself in a situation where you cannot find your trail at all, it is usually best to stay put. Use your PLB or try signaling other hikers as above; they may be able to help get you back on track. If no one comes right away, stay where you are and do not spilt up the party. If one person is scouting around, they should not get outside earshot, or you may just end up with a group that is lost in two different places. In general, it is easier for you to be found if you stay in one place and wait.

Happy Trails!

Hopefully, this introductory website will help make your first backpacking experiences as fun and hassle-free as possible. Always expect the unexpected, but careful and thorough planning will minimize your risks so you can relax and enjoy yourself. Start off easy: even a short trip can be quite challenging! Later on, you can try more difficult excursions, and this is a hobby that will always give you more opportunities to push yourself to the limit. You can try longer trips, a more difficult trail, or hiking in extreme areas such as in a desert or on snow. You can pick the prettiest trail you can find and lug along a ton of camera gear and try to be the next Ansel Adams. Or you can just take it easy, sitting back at your base camp, relaxing and enjoying the peace and solitude of the wilderness. You can re-visit your favorite trails again and again, or explore something totally new each time. Remember, each and every trip is your trip, and only you can decide what would make it the perfect trip for you. Happy hiking!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *