Hiking is a wonderful hobby for individuals and families, but before hitting the trail you should be aware of the risks of hiking. Most hiking risks are increased by the mistakes hikers make.
Whether you are a beginner or experienced hiker it is important to be educated and aware. Some risks are inevitable whether you just started hiking or have been on the trails for years. Beginners may be more likely to experience some of these risks of hiking, but sometimes seasoned hikers are over confident and complacent and therefore guilty of hiking mistakes you would assume only a rookie would make.
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Dangers of Hiking Out of Our Control
The dangers of hiking that are out of our control usually fall under three categories: weather, wildlife, and environment/topography. Just because these are out of our control doesn’t mean that we can’t lessen some of the risks they present.
Bad Weather on the Trail
We all know we can’t control the weather, but we can be prepared and informed. Before heading out, check the forecast. If a storm is brewing, it is better to reschedule your hike than find yourself in a dangerous situation.
A little rain never hurt anyone, as long as you are prepared with the proper rain gear. Getting caught in a severe thunderstorm is another story. Just because it is sunny when you leave the house doesn’t mean it will stay that way.
The forecast calling for a snowstorm? Maybe you should reconsider your plans. Hiking in some snow flurries may be fun, but heavy snow fall and blizzard conditions – not so much – even if you are prepared for winter hiking.
The average annual snowfall in north Georgia is 1 to 3 inches and brings communities to a halt, so I don’t have much experience hiking in the snow!
It is important to be prepared for varying temperatures on your hike. Remember, if you will be gaining elevation, it will be cooler the higher you go and usually windy. Dress in layers and take a jacket, hat, gloves – whatever you need to stay warm if the temperature drops.
Tip: Wear wool, polyester or similar fabrics. Cotton (jeans, t-shirt etc.) takes forever to dry and is heavy when wet. It is difficult to get warm and dry, which can lead to hypothermia, even if it isn’t that cold out.
Hiker Mistake: Not checking the forecast and not being prepared with the proper gear and clothes.
Wildlife Encounters on the Trail
Taking to the trails usually means you are entering the home of wild animals and creatures of all sorts. One of the first fears that pop in the mind of beginner hikers is a wildlife encounter gone bad.
Hikers may be eager to see wildlife but fearful of an attack. Keep in mind bear and wild cat ( cougar, mountain lion etc) attacks are rare.
For example, according to the National Park Service you have a 1 in 25 million chance/visits of being attacked by a grizzly bear if you are in developed areas of Yellowstone National Park.
That statistic increases to a 1 in 1.4 million chance/overnight stays if you are in the backcountry at Yellowstone. Of course, those numbers can vary depending on what part of the country you are in. You are at greater risk of dying from an allergic reaction to a bee sting.
Even though statistically you are pretty safe from wildlife attacks, you still need to practice wildlife safety hiking.
Never approach wildlife and keep your distance. That close up photo is not worth the risk.
If possible, hike in groups. Wildlife are less likely to attack groups of people than a lone hiker, so if you are hiking solo, be aware of your surroundings.
Bear spray is recommended in grizzly country. Be sure that you know its proper use and keep it where you can access it in a hurry. It will do you no good in your pack……
In my neck of the woods, you are more likely to encounter snakes on the trail, though black bears are sometimes seen on the trails and campgrounds not far from my home.
I will never forgot the Watch for Snakes sign I came upon on a short trail in Arizona. Even though I am not usually worried about snake encounters, that sign did make me more cautious! Although we often see snakes in north Georgia, I have never seen a sign warning of their presence.
Watch your step, especially if you are stepping over logs and around rocks where snakes may be hidden. If you are hiking with children, keep them on the trail and educate them.
If you do come upon a snake, keep your distance and go around it. Don’t attempt to kill it or move it from the trail.
Hike smart and aware, but don’t let the fear of wildlife encounters keep you from the trails.
Hiker mistakes: Not being aware of your surroundings and not practicing safe hiking.
Environment and Topography
The only thing you can control about this category is choosing where you will be hiking. The environment, climate, and lay of the land can make or break your hike.
Going to the desert? Plan for the varying, often extreme, temps, scare water sources and sandy trails with little to no shade.
If you are heading to the mountains, be prepared for the climb. A short hike with a big elevation gain can be tougher than a long, flat hike. It is not always about the distance.
Gaining elevation can cause altitude sickness which can range from a terrible nuisance to death if you develop HAPE or HACE (fluid on the lungs/brain).
Extremely fit individuals can suffer from altitude sickness. Being in good physical condition may lessen the symptoms, but it is not a guarantee. If you are huffing and puffing on regular hikes, it will be worse at high altitudes!
Rivers and even creeks can present their own set of challenges when crossing them, especially after heavy rainfall. Never under estimate the power of moving water.
Tip: Trekking poles can make ascending and descending steep hills easier and provide stability crossing creeks.
Hiking on rocky trails and near steep cliffs can lead to injuries like twisted ankles or falls with more serious consequences. Be extremely cautious around waterfalls. Wet rocks are very slippery and it is easier to fall.
Hiker mistake: Not properly researching the terrain and environment and not being prepared physically and mentally.
Dangers of Hiking Made Worse by Mistakes
Hikers themselves compound many of the risks associated with hiking. Whether it is due to lack of knowledge, poor decisions, or over confidence, mistakes can be disastrous. Sad to say, many rescues are due to hiker negligence.
No Hike Itinerary
Not leaving a hike/trip itinerary can be the difference in life or death if you run into problems on the trail. Precious time is lost if your friends and family don’t know where to look if you don’t return from a hike.
This is important for solo hikers and for groups as well. Let someone know where you are going and leave enough specifics so someone that isn’t familiar with the area will know how to find you or who to contact for help. Written information left at home or with someone is best.
A hike itinerary is especially important if a hiker makes any of these other mistakes.
Get your FREE Hiking Trip Itinerary Guide!
Not Enough Water on Your Hike
Water is crucial for survival on the trail. Neglecting to bring enough water and not knowing the availability of water sources (streams, creeks, rivers etc ) is one of those life threatening, hiker mistakes.
A minimum of 2 liters of water a day is recommended, and that amount can change depending on the weather conditions you are hiking in. Keep in mind water weighs about 2 pounds a liter.
Some hikers carry water bottles and others prefer a hydration bladder like one of these. Some carry both. If, after researching your hiking destination, you determine there is a reliable water source on your hike, you may decide to carry less water. If you plan on using a water source, it is important you filter the water before drinking. We love these affordable, easy filters.
Just because you are only going on a short day hike, doesn’t mean that you don’t need to bring water. That quick hike may turn into a long ordeal…
Getting Lost on Your Hike
Type “lost hiker” in your online search engine and scores of articles come up. You were worried about a bear attack? More hikers get lost than attacked by wild animals.
What mistakes lead to getting lost on a hike and what can you do to be sure you will return home?
Research the hike before you go. Although not all online trail reports are accurate, you can often find some pretty detailed information by just searching the name of the trail.
Obtain a map of the area and trail you’ll be hiking on. Depending on where you are going, maps are available at park offices, gift shops, ranger stations and can sometimes be purchased online. Some sites offer online maps that you can print. Do you know how to read a topo map?
Bring a compass and know how to use it. Learning how to navigate with a map and compass is an important skill to develop.
Although never meant to be a total replacement for “old school” navigation, more hikers are using GPS. Don’t count on your phone GPS either. Even though the technology in a smartphone GPS is advanced, it does not provide the same advantages of a GPS unit like these that are dedicated to the outdoors.
Never venture off the trail. Well, I know that sometimes “nature calls” and you gotta go, but pay attention. Yes, people have got lost just stepping away from the trail to use the bathroom.
Sometimes the trail is hard to distinguish and you find yourself all turned around. If you do get lost – STOP.
- Stop: Don’t keep blazing on in the wrong direction. Calm yourself, don’t panic. If you left a hike itinerary, eventually someone will look for you.
- Think: How did you get to where you are? When did you first realize you were lost?
- Observe. Look at your surroundings. Look for the trail if you stepped off it. Get out your map and compass and see if you can reassess your direction.
- Plan: What is your best course of action? Are you able to retrace your steps (mark your trail with stones etc)? Do you have phone signal or a satellite communicator device you can use? Should you prepare to spend the night?
Tip: Do you or your family want some extra security? Invest in a satellite device like these to connect with family and rescuers if you get lost or injured. Some of these are even capable of GPS navigation.
Overestimating Your Hiking Ability
I believe in being confident and that it is amazing what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it (or when you have no choice!), but don’t set yourself up for failure by overestimating what you are capable of right now.
The internet and social media can make certain hikes seem like a “walk in the park”. It is easy to be an arm chair adventurer! Just because it seems like anybody can hike it, doesn’t mean you can yet.
Trail ratings aren’t always a good indicator about trail difficulty either. What is easy to one may be hard for another. As I mentioned earlier, don’t be deceived by a short hike that gains elevation.
Don’t sell yourself short, but be honest with yourself. The more you hike, the more you will know what you are capable of. Sometimes we do underestimate ourselves, but overestimating your hiking abilities can lead to injury on the trail.
Going on your first hike? Check out this post to get ready.
Hiking Injuries on the Trail
Accidents happen and no one intentionally gets hurt on the trail, but there are actions and choices that increase your chance of injury.
Overestimating your ability can lead to exhaustion and injury. If you are tired, you are more likely to stumble and fall.
Thrill seekers can find themselves injured if they attempt dangerous hikes, especially if they are not conditioned for it. I know I am scared of heights, so I carefully consider hikes that would put me in a precarious position. Even if I can physically complete some scrambles, I know it would be a mental challenge for me!
Common sense decisions like wearing the proper footwear can prevent injuries. I am always surprised at the number of people I see wearing flip flops on trails when I’ve hiked at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
New shoes can cause sore feet and blisters, bringing your hike to a crawl. If you fail to break in your hiking shoes or don’t treat those hot spots before they become blisters, every step can be agony.
Tip: Always carry a first aid kit. You can put one together yourself or grab one like this.
Lately there has been several incidents of injuries and deaths due to individuals taking selfies on their outdoor adventures. One wrong step because you are concentrating on taking the pic is all it takes to fall. Don’t let a desire for a perfect picture or social proof over rule your safety.
These risks and hiker mistakes seem pretty basic to me. I didn’t want to rehash the obvious – like take water. Then I thought about the park ranger books I’ve read, the Facebook posts I have shook my head at, and the news stories I’ve heard. I knew someone could benefit from this post. This may be new information to beginners or a reminder for the experienced, but the goal is a safe, fun hike for everyone.
With some knowledge and common sense you are probably safer on the trail than getting to the trailhead! I know there are other hiking risks and mistakes. What have you learned or encountered on the trail?
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