11 Hiking Tips to Keep You Safe

What happens if you get lost on a hike? Or (gulp) come face-to-face with a bear? Survival-guide author Buck Tilton, an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, in Lander, Wyoming, offers some direction.

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Photo by R. Kikuo Johnson

What should I do before I head out on a trail?
A couple of things. First let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back, and include the name of the trail. Then, when you get to the trail, note which entrance you’re using (the southwest trailhead, for instance) and any identifying information about the parking lot. Some have names or numbers. When you start hiking, turn around and snap a picture. This gives you an image of what the terrain should look like on the return trip. Bring your phone, but turn it off to conserve power in case you need it later.

What should I have in my backpack?
A map of the area, nutrition bars, a couple of quarts of water per person, and a jacket. And, just in case it gets dark before you can make it back, a flashlight and matches to start a fire.

What should I watch out for?
Poison ivy. The basic rule is “Leaves of three, let it be.” But poison ivy, sumac, and oak look different in various parts of the country. Search your region online for photos of each.

Also ticks, right?
Yes. Check your legs and under your socks every four hours. Ticks attach to you when you brush against anything low to the ground.

Do I have to use the trail map?
If you reference it every 10 minutes or so, it will keep you oriented. Highlight the trail in advance to make the map easier to read. While you’re hiking, look for topographical landmarks—peaks, ridges, fire towers—that tell you that you’re still on the right path. Pay attention to trail markers, those signs on trees with arrows or symbols, to guide your way.

What if I notice that the trail marker is suddenly different?
If it changes color, shape, or number, you’ve veered onto another trail. Turn around and walk back. Eventually you’ll find where you were or you’ll hit another trail junction. Never leave the path. Even if you don’t find your trail, stay on a trail and take it to the end.

What if I’ve inadvertently lost the path?
Listen for moving water. Trails tend to follow the contours of waterways. And if you hit a path and you don’t know which way to go, downhill is far more likely to take you to a trailhead than uphill is.

Say I suddenly notice that it’s getting dark.
When the sun has dropped over a ridge, you have a half hour of daylight left to walk. After that, call 911. If there’s no service, you can get more bars if you move to higher ground. Then stay put until a ranger comes. If you let the authorities know the trail you were on before you were lost and where you parked, they’ll have a good chance of locating you.

What should I do if I spot a snake?
If there’s one coiled up or moving along your path, back up and wait for it to slither off. If it’s just hanging out near the trail, it probably hasn’t seen you yet, and snakes that are startled usually strike.

What about other wild animals?
Animals rarely attack. The exception might be a hungry bear. Running is never a good idea. Many animals, even those not typically interested in humans, will see it as a challenge to try to catch something that runs—and they always win. Backing away slowly is the smartest tactic.

So, about that hungry bear?
Raise your hands above your head to look bigger, and talk to the bear in a reassuring voice (“Hey, I don’t mean any harm—just move along”) as you retreat slowly. If you’re with a group, gather everyone close together and do the same. Four people are more intimidating than one. This has always worked for me…so far.

No First-Aid kit? To learn how to treat minor injuries in the great outdoors, see these survival tips.