Hiking and Backpacking Safety Tips

How to stay safe on hiking trails and in the wilderness

Three women hike through mountain meadow
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Hiking is a great way to add a little variety to your exercise routine and some simple safety precautions will ensure an enjoyable trip. In addition to being prepared physically, you will want to select the right trail, pack the right gear, and know how to take care of yourself in an emergency.

At Home Planning

Before you set out for a hike:

  • Select a trail that matches your conditioning, the amount of time you have and the type of terrain you enjoy. Get a topographic map or a hiking guidebook. And always check the weather forecast before you head out.
  • Be in shape. Work on conditioning and balance. Make sure the trail you select matches your ability. In the early season, you should start with moderate hikes and build up your endurance over the season.
  • Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
  • Line up a hiking partner if possible. While it is best to avoid hiking alone, if you must go by yourself, it is wise to pick more popular trails so that if you run into trouble, it's likely that someone will be on the same trail to offer assistance.

On the Trail

During the hike, protect yourself:

  • Dress in layers and always bring rain gear to prepare for changing weather. Avoid cotton clothing, which insulates poorly when wet and dries very slowly.
  • Make sure your hiking boots fit properly. To avoid blisters and sore spots, never wear a new pair of boots on a long hike. Break them in slowly by testing them on shorter hikes or walking around your neighborhood a bit first.
  • Carry a compass and a topographic map of the area and know how to use both.
  • Pay attention to landmarks on the trail, and check your map often, even on an obvious trail. You should also turn around occasionally to see how the trail looks when you are heading the other direction. This will make finding your way back much easier.
  • Don’t get separated from your partner or group. Always keep within eyesight of your group and stop and re-group at any trail junctions.
  • Carry a whistle within easy reach. Three blasts of a whistle is the universal signal for help.
  • Drink often to avoid dehydration.
  • Don't drink water from ponds or streams unless you have treated it first by boiling, filtering, or using purification tablets.

Ten Essentials for Hiking

A Seattle-based hiking organization called the Mountaineers recommends all hikers carry the following 10 essential items:

  1. Map or compass. A map not only tells you where you are and how far you have to go, but it can also help you find campsites, water, and an emergency exit route in case of an accident. A compass can help you find your way through unfamiliar terrain—especially in bad weather where you can't see landmarks.
  2. Water and a way to purify it. Without staying hydrated, you will suffer on the trail because you are more susceptible to hypothermia and altitude sickness.
  3. Extra food. You never know if you will be out longer than expected, so be prepared.
  4. Rain gear and extra clothing. Weather is unpredictable, especially above treeline, so bring along extra layers. Remember to avoid cotton (it keeps moisture close to your skin), and bring a hat and gloves.
  5. Firestarter and matches. If you are lost or need to spend the night outside, a fire can help prevent an encounter with hypothermia—and signal for help.
  6. First-aid kit. Take a basic first-aid class to know how to treat potential injuries on the trail.
  7. Knife or multi-purpose tool. For emergency repairs of all kinds, you will want a knife.
  8. Flashlight or headlamp. If you are caught on the trail after dark, a flashlight can help you find your way. Be sure to pack extra batteries.
  9. Sunscreen/sunglasses. Especially above treeline when there is a skin-scorching combination of sun and snow, you'll need sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, and sunscreen to prevent sunburn.
  10. Shelter. In case you don't make it back before sunset, pack a lightweight emergency bivvy so you have a place to sleep for the night.

In an Emergency

If you feel lost, stop, count to 10, drink some water, eat a snack, and assess your situation. Ask the following questions: Can you determine where you were last certain of your location? If so, try to navigate back to that point. Can you return to a known trail or location? If not, stay put. It's easier for rescuers to find you near your original path if you stay put. Here are some more tips:

  • If you become lost, keep calm, stay dry, keep warm, and stay put.
  • If you need to spend the night, a campfire can provide heat, light, and comfort. A campfire can also help others find you.
  • If you feel you can try and find your way out of the woods, remember that following streams downhill will almost always lead you back to signs of habitation.
  • In case of an accident, at least one person should remain with the injured person. Know and use basic first aid techniques. Others in the group should carefully note the location and contact the local Forest Service.

Hiking is a great way to get outdoors and improve your endurance and overall well-being. Just make sure you plan ahead, so your trip is enjoyable.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Linsell JD, Pelham EC, Hondula DM, Wardenaar FC. Hiking Time Trial Performance in the Heat with Real-Time Observation of Heat Strain, Hydration Status and Fluid Intake Behavior. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(11):4086. doi:10.3390/ijerph17114086

  3. The Mountaineers. What Are the Ten Essentials?

  4. Gladwell VF, Brown DK, Wood C, Sandercock GR, Barton JL. The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extrem Physiol Med. 2013;2(1):3. doi:10.1186/2046-7648-2-3

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.