Every year we read horror stories of snake bites, weather injuries and dramatic rescues as we scan the hiking forums. From the safety of home, it’s all so far away, and a bit hard to feel any of it impacts you. Until you’re out there one day and realize – to your horror – that you’re about to be one of those stories.
We all get complacent from time to time, it’s understandable. But the dangers of the backcountry are very real. That’s not to say that perceived dangers should scare you into staying inside. No!
Instead, all we need to do is be aware of things on the trail that might require preparation and knowledge. With proper education we needn’t be paranoid – simply prepared.
What You'll Learn
- What Hazards Might You Face on the Trail?
- Hunting Safety
- Topography and Knowing the Land
- Toxic Plants and Bugs
- Avoiding Getting Lost or Injured – Preparing
- When Sh*t Happens – What to Do?
- Common Mistakes
What Hazards Might You Face on the Trail?
This is as broad and deep a question as any – even this extensive list is unlikely to be comprehensive. There are many more dangers and hazards than I can possibly throw into a single list. However, let’s take a look at some common hiking and backpacking hazards.
Any book about hiking from the local Barnes & Noble will have a section about weather. I’m not going to try to recreate a full volume of information about weather on the trail.
Weather dangers come in several forms:
- Cold Injuries
- Heat Injuries
- Severe Weather
Cold and heat-related injuries are common! Without going into medical-level detail, careful monitoring of yourself and those in your group will help prevent most of these injuries.
Cold injuries are often less as a result of brutally low temperatures than from simply getting cold after you get wet on the trail.
It’s arguably more dangerous when winds whip up and temperatures drop to that perilous 50-degree range. It seems warm enough but if you get caught in rain and the winds won’t let up, hypothermia may be in your future.
Cold injuries can start as wet, cold feet. Letting body temperature drop as a whole – or in part – of your body is not a good call. Rectify the issue before it becomes an issue or you’ll soon be stumbling, mumbling, fumbling, and grumbling (“the umbles”) your way to a very dangerous situation.
The best advice I can give is to know the area you’ll be hiking. If you’re going somewhere foreign, thoroughly research safety procedures for weather phenomenon in that area.
Lightning can be very dangerous. Avoid tall and exposed peaks when weather threatens. Especially in the mountains, afternoon thunderstorms can appear like clockwork at a certain time each day (plus or minus). It’s best mountaineering practice to make sure your party has begun the descent off the summit by this time.
Ideally, you’ll want to gather this information before you head out to bag that peak!
Severe weather in the mountains can come from nowhere. It may take only a matter of minutes from the first dark cloud to the time lightning is within striking distance. Never underestimate the speed or power of changing weather.
There are many lightning mitigation techniques you can learn:
- If caught in the potential strike zone, use the lightning position. Spread your group out and crouch on top of your sleeping pads or backpacks on the balls of your feet with your arms wrapped around your shins and your head down.
- Don’t stay in high, exposed areas
- Watch out for trees that can fall on you
- Check in advance if thunderstorms are a regular occurrence!
Having been in that situation several times before I can also tell you that it never hurts to start praying to any gods you know of.
Tornadoes, High Winds & Dust Storms
Winds, tornadoes, and dust storms are pretty rare. Tornadoes are almost unheard of in the mountains, but hiking in other areas may sometimes leave you exposed to these dangers.
Unfortunately, you’ll probably not realize that high winds have become tornado weather until it’s too late. When severe hit it’s time to consider your surroundings:
- I’ve been in stands of mature trees that seem to bend dangerously in driving winds and rain as lightning crashes around me.
- Get off exposed areas. If you’re near the top of a hill or mountain, get down the side ASAP.
- Find anything solid and secure to aid in your survival. Rock outcroppings can be of benefit during extreme winds. However, in cases of rampant lightning, an electric impact can often follow exposed rock.
- If both flying debris and lightning simultaneously threaten your survival, you’ll have to make a choice and then make your peace.
- Scan your surroundings for a dip in the ground, a depression or bowl is ideal. These can be a good place to get down as the winds whip the area around you into a danger zone.
WidowMakers – Falling Branches
Watch for widow makers especially during high wind events. These dead trees or tree limbs can be blown down and squish you with ease. Get away from them and remember to never camp near them in case a storm blows up in the night.
I’ve abandoned campsites altogether before on account of dangerous widowmakers overhead or nearby.
If the worst should come to pass, lie down and cover your head with your backpack. This will prove some degree of protection against falling or flying debris.
If dust, sand or debris becomes so thick in the air that it presents a danger, cover your face with a wet cloth or bandana. Hunker down and fully wrap your face and eyes to keep debris out of your respiratory system and out of your eyes.
Anytime you are hiking over 9-10,000ft you risk altitude sickness. What starts out as a minor headache can rapidly turn into full-blown cerebral edema requiring immediate medical attention.
If you are planning a trip to altitude make sure your guide is qualified! You can read more about altitude acclimatization here.
- If you’re traveling into areas where odd weather phenomenon occurs such as full-blown sandstorms, seek professional training.
- Locals will know and understand how to deal with these unusual and very dangerous events.
- Take a guide with you if you don’t fully understand how to safely navigate areas with unique hazards.
When we start talking about this one I bet the first thing you think of is the threat of bears! I think most experienced backpackers would argue that bears are rarely the most hazardous animal on the trail.
In many locations, the presence of chiselers, a cute nickname for rodents such as mice and chipmunks, is the most concerning.
They will eat their way through your backpack, straps, tents, dry bags, and Ziploc bags to get to anything that smells like food.
You’ll be left with ruined gear, contaminated food, and holes in every bag you own if you don’t take care of your food at night.
- Learn to hang your food properly using the PCT method (my favorite). Of course, there are other food protection methods, but the PCT method is probably the most versatile and helpful hang method.
There is no shortage of books out there talking about snakes, bears, cougars, and other big scary animals. I’ve encountered as many as 6 bears in a single morning hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’ve encountered Grizzlies in the Tetons as well. None of them have been a real issue.
Can they be an issue? Yes! But much more likely to be a problem for most hikers are those mundane little critters like chipmunks, mosquitoes, and the occasional lizard or other odd varmint.
By taking a few precautions you’ll avoid the majority of major animal problems. Using the “camp triangle” you’ll hang or store your food at least 100 yards from your campsite, and cook 100 yards downwind of your tent.
This is known by many names but it’s common backcountry safety I call the Camp Triangle. See this excellent article for a diagram to explain more.
- Those in the know say that black bears have short, sharp claws which are good for climbing trees so you’ll probably have to fight them.
- Grizzlies have long, dull claws which make it difficult or impossible for them to climb trees well – you might be able to evade them in the boughs.
- Bear spray doesn’t cost much (compared to hospital bills) and is proven to be more effective than firearms at defense from attack.
I have had a face to face encounter with bull elk from about 10 feet away before. It was a much more dangerous encounter than any other I’ve had on the trail.
I had no idea what to do.
So I stood up and waved my arms and shouted like an idiot. The elk simply slowly turned and sauntered away.
Turns out that’s not really the best call with deer, elk, and moose.
- What you should do is be quiet and back away slowly.
- Avoid making eye contact but keep your peripherals focused on the animal.
Instead of focusing on how to be a safe hunter I’ll go over a couple tips for staying safe around hunters.
As a lifelong hunter myself I can say that other hunters in the woods are scary.
People do dumb stuff with guns and bows in the woods. If you hear shooting nearby and you’re not wearing orange then hit the deck, preferably behind something solid.
Rocks are good, trees are not. Most large hunting rifle bullets will go right through a tree. Start shouting and make your presence known to alert them that there’s someone nearby.
- If you’re going hiking during a major hunting season like deer, bear, elk, or moose then wear orange!
A lightweight mesh vest costs little and weighs nothing. If you don’t want to wear the vest then tie it to the top of your backpack or wear an orange hat. Make sure it’s as visible as possible!
Top Takeaways: Avoid public lands during the first week of any big game season involving firearms. That first week of opening for the season tends to fill the woods with excited, trigger-happy hunters. Just find another time to go hiking or head into an area where hunting is not allowed.
Topography and Knowing the Land
There is a little bit of common sense that comes in here and some things you’ll probably learn the hard way. Topographical hazards aren’t always easy to predict and some of it just comes with knowing how to read maps and what to expect in some areas.
- For instance, hiking down a sandstone canyon can be a fun adventure. However, it quickly becomes dangerous if you descend a section that you don’t have the skill or equipment to re-ascend only to find that 100 yards further there’s a 100-foot drop. Now you’re “ledged up”!
- You might also learn the hard way that while it’s breezy and 50 degrees in the valley, the saddle summit 4,000 feet higher is about to experience driving hail and a precipitous drop in temperature that you don’t have the gear to weather safely.
Often you can backtrack if you find you’ve made a mistake of reading the land. Sometimes, however, it puts you irrevocably into danger.
Top Takeaways: Read up on topography and consider participating in topographic events like adventure races. A true adventure race relies entirely on topographic navigation and will dramatically improve your confidence at interpreting and safely navigating with a topo map.
If you can’t be bothered with all that, go with someone who knows the lay of the land and can make sure you don’t end up hanging off the side of the Grand Canyon with no way off bar a helicopter!
Toxic Plants and Bugs
Wow! As if this topic wasn’t big enough to write an encyclopedia on… Oh wait, it is!
Note: Keep in mind, I have formal training on the toxic and edible plants of North America only.
In general, the vast majority of even highly toxic plants won’t kill you unless you eat an entire bowl of them. That’s not to say you can’t give yourself a nasty gastrointestinal issue by eating smaller quantities.
Hiking and backpacking is not the time to experiment with your edible plant knowledge. If you are trained and experienced with wild edibles feel free to make your own choices. The more remote and dangerous your location, the fewer risks you want to be taking. Experiment with wild edibles close to home.
As for non-edible toxic plants like Giant Hogweed and any of the Toxicodendron plants (poison ivy, poison oak, etc.) you need to learn how to properly identify them. It’s better to spot the poison ivy before you settle down for a sandwich than discover – painfully – afterward.
With the less common plants, just keep an eye out for alerts from the public land service which governs the area you’ll be traveling.
If there are odd invasive toxic plants or other notices, you’ll find them at the rangers’ station or posted on the website.
Top Takeaways: Don’t test your foraging knowledge on the trail. If a tree has some pretty red berries on it, try not to dare each other to eat them!
One of the biggest pests for hikers is the mosquito. Personally, I carry a small bottle of DEET repellent. In buggy areas or seasons I carry a lightweight long sleeve nylon shirt and pants. Bugs have a very tough time biting through nylon. Applying the DEET to the nylon clothing also keeps it off the skin.
Ticks and burrowing bugs are a real threat. Every year hikers get taken down with diseases transmitted by various vectors such as these. For general purposes, you can greatly reduce the number of insects on your skin with a few tricks.
- In heavily infested areas tuck your pants into your socks. Use duct tape to seal the two together if it’s particularly bad!
- You can also tuck long sleeves into thin gloves and tape those as well. Of course, the shirt will need to also be tucked in and wearing a fitting belt should be enough there.
Most ticks get onto you when walking through grass and brush. Therefore sealing your neckline is usually not an issue as they will be very unlikely to be “dropping out of the trees” like kamikaze pilots.
Using “tick checks” to look for bugs each night before bed is important. Ticks and burrowing insects love to find their way into the “dark and warm spots”.
Be sure to check armpits, behind the knees, groin, etc. It’s surprisingly hard to feel a tick biting – they numb the area around themselves – so make sure to sweep your hands over your whole body to feel for them.
If you’ve found a tick that hasn’t burrowed, simply brush or peel them off. Carry a tick remover to pluck out burrowed ticks if they manage to start digging in before you find them. Tick removers weigh almost nothing, so keep one around.
Don’t worry about a tick bite unless you begin to see redness and swelling around the site. If you think you see the telltale “bullseye” swelling of Lyme disease, seek medical help immediately!
If traveling to remote or exotic locations, be sure to check with local authorities to determine which insects are dangerous locally and how best to deal with them.
Top Takeaways: Always carry insect repellent and check yourself daily for tick bites. In malaria areas outside of the US, see your doctor before you leave.
Avoiding Getting Lost or Injured – Preparing
No, I’m not talking about the “prepper” fad which is so common today. I’m talking about substantiated, educated, and measured preparation relative to the activity and area you’ll be in.
Gear on the Trail
This is a big subject that could go in any direction. What it really boils down to, however, is understanding your gear.
In order to be truly prepared and educated you need to know what you’re carrying, why you are carrying it and how it works.
- For example: If you’re carrying a tarp you need to know if it’s silnylon, silpoly, cuben or other. Then you’ll understand its limitations and uses.
- You’ll also want to know a handful of various knots for tensioning and adjusting that tarp.
- Knots like the Trucker’s Hitch, Clove Hitch, and Tautline Hitch are critical as well as variations of several common knots like the Bowline.
Of course, that also means you need to know all the ins and outs of your other gear. The more you carry in your head, the less you have to carry on your back, right?
I used to carry a multi-tool and paracord wrapped around everything I own as well as duct tape on every water bottle.
As my knowledge and skills increased I rapidly found that I didn’t need any of that. Instead, I replaced the extra “what if” gear with the knowledge of how to accomplish the same things with the gear I already had on me.
That said, please don’t leave so much gear at home that you put yourself in danger! Stay within the limits of your knowledge and training.
Specific safety gear that cannot be replaced with knowledge includes:
Obviously, not all of this gear is necessary on every trip.
In fact, you should be very calculated about using some of it.
- For instance, the Personal Locator Beacon is an extremely serious piece of gear to use. It sends a distress signal to the US Coast Guard which will immediately initiate a rescue operation dispatched to the location of the PLB. You can buy these easily but their use should be restricted solely to “life or limb” situations.
Top Takeaways: Learn the why and how of all the gear you are carrying and make sure you are taking the appropriate gear for the specific conditions you are expecting.
Planning Food and Water
The first time I ever went backpacking I took way too much food. I’ve also found myself nearly out of water.
- In general, you need 2 pounds of food per day during 3-season backpacking. More or less can be tailored to your needs and caloric density does play a factor.
- For water, you need to learn to read your next water spot. If you’re on the Appalachian Trail learn to ask other hikers and read your trail guide. Don’t forget to account for seasonally changing conditions!
- Be sure to carry appropriate water filter/sterilizer so you don’t make yourself sick.
In less established areas you’ll have to learn to read your topo map and make sound decisions.
- I carry 3x 1L Platypus bottles.
- Two of them I usually have full,
- the third I fill if I think it will be a long way to the next stop.
- Because they’re lightweight and collapsible I can carry an extra without taking up space.
When in doubt, play it safe! Chug a bunch of water at the source and then top off and ration to your next stop.
Top Takeaways: As a rough measure, 2lbs of food per day for 3-season backpacking. Always have sufficient clean water and ensure you know when your next refill is coming.
Learn to Start Fires
They’re a huge morale booster as well as an emergency survival essential. There are so many ways to start fires it’s not even funny!
My preferences go in order:
- Bic lighter
- Ferrocerium rod / magnesium
- Fire piston
- Bow drill
- Hand drill
Of course, learning and mastering each fire starting technique takes time. Practice in your backyard and then practice in the rain. Once you’re confident will all of these methods you’ll feel right at home in the woods!
The most important part of starting fires is not the method you choose to do it. It is, instead, learning to master the art of the tinder bundle.
- Tinder bundles are the material you transfer the spark, ember, or flame to once you get something hot enough to start your fire.
If you manage to get an ember with a bow drill and your tinder bundle sucks, you’re out of luck!
I highly recommend taking a good survival course for any avid outdoor enthusiasts. The confidence boost is real!
I have held certifications at every wilderness medicine level available from WFA, WFR, EMT, and WEMT. It might be safe to say that I know enough to make some recommendations.
That said, my biggest recommendation is to go get trained!
At the very least you should hold a certification in Wilderness First Aid. However, to properly understand wilderness medicine you should spend the time and money to get trained as a Wilderness First Responder.
One of my biggest pet peeves is hikers who proclaim to know backcountry medical protocol and have only learned it from the side column of the latest Backpacker Magazine. That doesn’t count! That false sense of knowledge and confidence will get you and your hiking partners into trouble eventually.
Top Takeaways: Carry a decent hiking first aid kit and most importantly know how to use it. If you are on a guided trip, make sure your guides are trained in Wilderness Medicine. It’s no good carrying drugs that help with altitude sickness if no one knows how to recognize it in the first place!
Lost in the Woods?
I mean, no one plans to get lost on a backpacking trip, right?
Everything is easy to critique in retrospect or from the comfort of your laptop. However, let’s go over a few tips to try to prevent you from being the next “lost in the wild” article in the Backpacker Magazine.
Learn to Read a Map
- To avoid getting lost you can do one thing to massively improve your odds. Learn to properly use a map and compass like a boss! Seriously, truly mastering a good topo map with an orienteering compass will virtually guarantee you don’t get lost.
Choosing a good handheld GPS makes this task a bit less manual. But don’t fall into the trap of relying so much on your equipment that you are unable to actually read a map should the situation arise.
If you want to up the ante, participate in adventure races and orienteering races. After a few of those, you’ll really have it on lockdown (plus they’re fun!)
Stay on the Trail
- Do not do any off-trail hiking until you’re 100% confident in your orienteering skills. For hikers not comfortable with orienteering, stay on the darn trail. It only goes in two directions!
- Learn to orient your map and keep track of your location on a trail map at all times. Whenever you pass a trail intersection check in with your map and make sure it makes sense with where you think you are. If you’re not sure, sit down and figure it out!
- If you have to go exploring down a side trail to confirm something, leave a mark on the trail you came from. When you return to the intersection you’ll be able to relocate the trail you were on with 100% confidence.
Top Takeaways: Just mastering a map (even if you do like to use a GPS) and learning basic orienteering sprinkled with a little common sense will keep you out of trouble 99% of the time. Keep your cool and play it smart, folks.
Instead of worrying about the “what ifs” like bear attacks and shattered femurs (both unlikely in most hiking situations) let’s focus on the likely:
Learn how to properly treat a blister. Whether or not you decide to lance the blister depends on your training and situation. Make sure you have enough antiseptic, antibiotic ointment, and moleskin – and you’ve got hiking boots that fit!
- Ankle/Foot injuries
If you have pre-existing conditions which make you prone to foot and ankle injuries, talk to your doctor before you go on a trip. You might need a brace or orthotics to stay safe. Address any heel slippage in your boots before you leave home.
If you have no history of weak joints or ankle problems, then don’t worry about rolling your ankle. Can it still happen? Yes. Should you be prepared for it? Yes.
So, how do you prepare for it? A Wilderness First Aid class will help, and carry the right kit. The skills you need include bracing, creating walking splints, and testing range of motion. I can’t teach you those in an article.
Another common injury is hot water burns. Avoid these by setting up a clear kitchen area when cooking. Never step over a stove or allow others to do so. Keep the area clear of gear and people. Make sure your stove and pot are very secure. If they wobble, relocate them.
Read more about Common Hiking Injuries and how to prevent them.
Top Takeaways: When cooking, boiling water, pouring hot water, or lighting stoves do so on the balls of your feet. If you’re sitting cross-legged and the pot tips over you won’t be able to get out of the way before if dumps boiling water on you. From the balls of your feet, you can quickly move away if the stove flashes up or water spills.
When Sh*t Happens – What to Do?
Let’s be real for a second. Even with training and experience we all make a judgment error or have a streak of bad luck eventually. We all roll a natural 1 eventually, my friends. So, what’s to be done when it all goes wrong?
Steps You Can Take
Depending on what has happened there are some general safety tips you can use to follow up on a crappy situation.
- When to stay put
If you’re lost the best solution is generally the “hug a tree” method. When hiking in a group, especially with kids, this is an effective method.
Once you realize you’re lost you simply sit down next to the closest tree and don’t move! Of course, you need to discuss this with your group before you hit the trail.
Because people who are lost tend to get themselves more lost by trying to wander their way back to safety, the “hug a tree” method can often be the most helpful to those looking for you.
So: if you are hiking with a group, make a plan in advance for what to do if someone gets separated. Don’t wait until it happens.
- Personal Locator Beacon
In an absolute emergency where life and limb are on the line, you may choose to activate a Personal Locator Beacon as mentioned earlier. But note that Search & Rescue take a dim view of people activating these just because they are late for their evening beer.
- Be Procedural
If you’re on the trail and you’re not sure where, exactly, you’re at then you need to be very procedural. Mark your current location with tape on a tree branch, tie a bandana on a limb or slice some bark away with a knife to mark your last known position and direction of travel.
Before you go anywhere, consult your map and try to reckon your location based on the last place you knew with 100% certainty. Maybe you crossed a road, creek, or trail intersection last. Hike back to that location and reorient yourself. Once certain, you can proceed.
- Keep track of your position
To prevent getting lost I always recommend keeping tabs on your location at all time via a map. Keep in mind not only where you are but what should be coming next! This is important because you’ll be able to quickly recognize when you’re off course.
If according to the map, you think there should be a stream crossing in about ¼ mile and half an hour later you still haven’t seen the stream then there’s a problem! Or if the topo map shows a downhill walk and you’re going uphill… something might be wrong! Go back and figure it out ASAP.
- Remember to always let someone know where you are going and when you are due back.
An Unexpected Night – DIY Shelter
If, for some reason, you don’t have a shelter you need to make one! To keep it simple the best I can advise you (for temperate forest conditions) is to make a leaf debris shelter.
Literally just pile up the biggest clump of leaves you can scratch and scrape together. Then burrow inside and wait out the night.
Check out this video where Survival Lilly demonstrates how to build a leaf shelter:
- The colder the conditions, the thicker a pile of leaf debris you’ll need.
- Large enough piles become inherently waterproof and you don’t need to bother making fancy lean-tos, A-frames, or other advanced shelters.
- Keep it simple and effective.
This can be improved if you have materials on you:
- Stuff your tent full of leaves if you have to.
- Shove leaves down your jacket for extra insulation. It really works!
- If you have a tarp, you can make a “burrito” inside your leaf debris pile with yourself in the center.
There are many tips, tricks and variations on shelters for different climates, biomes, and situations.
In winter you need to be prepared for the conditions at hand.
- Research the record lows for the area you’re backpacking and have enough gear on hand to survive that temperature. Surviving the “average low” isn’t good enough!
- If you get injured and can’t move, begin building a shelter immediately if the situation warrants it, and you are able. Days are short in many locations during winter, make the most of it.
- Block out the wind and get as much insulation as you can.
- Dig down into the snow to get out of nasty weather.
Again, there are many winter survival shelter styles you can learn. Practice several of them until you find your favorite and then master that type.
Top Takeaways: It’s not necessary to become a perfect survival expert. However, mastering fire-making in poor conditions and practicing a few shelters will greatly improve your overall competency. Having a few “what if” skills will ensure you can cope if the unexpected happens.
Oh, I could go on here endlessly. Where to begin… and where to end?
- Always put your stove on a stable surface!
I have seen hikers dump their entire meals (and mine) into a mud puddle because the stove was on an uneven surface. We ate very gritty pasta that evening.
- Choose your tent site carefully!
When you roll into the camp location for the night and see that perfect tent site – flat as a pancake and clear of debris – it’s rarely a good idea. I see this mistake all the time. These areas are usually clear of debris because they’re the locations that water gathers during rain.
The debris floats to the top of the puddle and then settles around the edges when the rain subsides. If you set up your tent on these convenient areas, you’re likely to wake up in a puddle if it rains. Instead, set up on a very slight incline somewhere nearby so the water can flow past you!
- Don’t Overpack
Overpacking your backpack is another common mistake. Unfortunately, you’ll only figure this out with experimentation as it can be equally detrimental to underpack and leave critical gear or food behind.
There’s also no real rule about how much to carry. 2 lbs of food per person per day during 3-season hiking is a good rule of thumb.
Usually, people will say to carry no more than 20% – 25% of your body weight. This is a very loose guideline, though.
One of the biggest mistakes beginners make that leads to overpacking is taking every “what if” piece of gear. You don’t need a piece of gear for every scary “what if” scenario.
Look at a packing list from an experienced hiker and you’ll get a good sense of what to carry and what to leave behind. Compare packing lists from other hikers you look up to and you’ll have a good baseline!