Hopefully, you realize this already, but if not, I’m here to share – hiking and backpacking will never be a truly *safe* activity. There will always be some risk. There will always be hazards and dangers for us out there on the trails.
BUT there are totally things that we do to stay a little safer on each and every hike. It breaks my heart to read about so many preventable hiking accidents year after year. Carry the hiking safety gear listed below and take precautions out there, okay? 😉
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Wildlife Safety For Hikers
Wildlife should always be a concern for hikers but the type of animals you may encounter on the trail will vary by region. So, do your research ahead of time to learn what you might be up against. In most cases, follow these wildlife safety tips below:
Travel in groups
Statistically, you are safer from animals in a group or with a buddy, or worst case, your buddy can either get or provide care for you if you are attacked.
Now, does that mean you should never adventure alone?
Hell no! But for example, if when you’re researching local wildlife for a given trail and there have been multiple mountain lion attacks within the last month (a real thing that happens sometimes in CO) maybe consider bringing a buddy, okay?
Keep dogs on a leash
No matter how friendly your dog is, he’s still an animal, and in the wilderness, he is stepping on the wildlife’s turf. How do you think the resident wildlife will react when your dog comes charging up to them? Whether they’re actually charging or just want to play, that bison, bear, or moose does not want to play with your dog. I promise.
This is commonly how wild animals get provoked into aggressive/protective behavior and will either attack the dog, nearby humans or anything in sight. Wildlife will also get aggressive if you get too close them.
So, just keep yourself, your children and your pets away from wildlife and they’ll have no reason to bother you.
Carry a whistle and/or air horn
The loud sudden sounds of whistles or air horns can be effective in surprising and deterring wild animals.
But whistles, in particular, can also be used in emergency situations like if you get lost or immobilized by an injury. You can easily alert nearby hikers or search and rescue teams to your location with an emergency whistle. The general rule of thumb is to blow 3 blasts in a row to signal you are having an emergency.
Carry bear mace
Statistically, bear mace or bear spray is simply more effective at deterring aggressive bears than anything else – including firearms.
The U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that “persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time while persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time.”
Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reiterates this by stating, “a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.”
You can read more about bear spray vs bullets here.
Wear a bell
Bear bells are just another inexpensive, lightweight, preventative measure you can take to help alert the local wildlife to your whereabouts. Sometimes bears or moose can charge just because they’re startled and think you’re encroaching on their personal space.
Especially if you hike solo, aka silently, the noise from a bear bell can help prevent any unwanted surprises since animals will most likely skidaddle when they hear you coming.
Secure your food
Always, always, always secure your food, trash and all smellables/toiletries at least 200 feet (or 70 adult steps) away from your sleeping area.
Securing your food means hanging a proper PCT style bear hang if the trees, and regulations, allow for it or if you live in lodgepole pine country like I do, using an Ursack or bear canister to keep your food safe.
Emergency Supplies For Hikers
Some of these are things that I hope you don’t have to actually use on the trail, but if shit hits the fan, you’ll be so glad and possibly survive because you have them!
You don’t need to go crazy here, no machete’s necessary! Giant knives, saws, and hatchets are actually just a waste of space and weight (unless you’re doing some sort of trail maintenance, then maybe.)
A small, good quality pocket knife will do the trick. I carry a pocket knife for three main reasons: to possibly use as a weapon or self-defense against 2 or 4-legged critters, to help shave kindling off of larger logs or dead trees to start a fire if no small kindling is available, and to open and cut cheese or summer sausage.
A map and compass
Simply carrying a map and compass is not enough – you also need to know how to use them in case you get lost or off track!
Navigating with a map and compass takes practice and none of us are born with that skill inherently, so don’t feel bad if you know nothing about using a compass at this point.
Eventually, every hiker should be able to read a map and be able to find your approximate location based on surrounding landmarks, your elevation, and/or how far you’ve traveled so far.
You should be able to find a bearing either using your map or get a bearing based on a landmark in your real life surroundings. And then be able to orient your compass, orient yourself and follow your bearing.
Please don’t rely 100% on technology to help you navigate out of a tricky situation – your phone could die, it could fall in a stream, it could be crushed on a rocked and rendered useless. Sometimes GPS units malfunctions, there are errors, it might be ‘stuck’ and unable to find your location, while that’s rare, it could happen.
Your map and compass will virtually never fail you! Practice, practice, practice and learn to love them.
Fire starting material
Always have a way to start a fire, whether you need it for warmth, to cook over, or as a signal fire to help rescuers find you in case you get lost.
I always carry waterproof matches and usually a lighter. It’s not a bad idea to also carry some sort of fire starter, whether it’s homemade or a store bought fire starter.
This is another safety skill that takes practice. Practice starting a fire.
Practice when it’s wet. Practice with different kinds of kindling. Practice when it’s windy. Practice, practice, practice.
Outside matches and a lighter, I don’t typically carry an actual fire starter, but I do practice and challenge myself to start one-match fires throughout the year, even in the snow. (I don’t always get it going with one match, but I do always get it going with natural kindling around me.)
GPS or locator beacon
To reiterate, you should not solely rely on a GPS device for navigation, but I do love and recommend the Garmin InReach Mini for truly emergency situations where you need to reach emergency services and to give yourself and supporters back home peace of mind.
Whenever I’m hiking solo, I send off an “I’m okay” check in message to my husband and mother at the beginning and end of my hike, which also dings them with my location.
Luckily I’ve never had to use it, but I love the peace of mind that comes with having that SOS button if I need help and don’t have cell service. I also highly recommend choosing a device with two-way messaging, the ability to be able to provide rescuers with more details than simply “SOS” is invaluable.
Especially when the days are shorter, a headlamp is essential. You never know when you may end up stuck out on the trial longer than anticipated and have to hike out in the dark.
Hiking Health And Safety
These items will help keep your body as comfortable, healthy and safe as possible so you can ultimately spend more time in the outdoors doing what you love!
First Aid Kit
Again, this is one of those things that I hope you don’t have to use, but if you do need first aid supplies, you’ll be awfully glad you have them!
You don’t even need a giant, expensive first aid kit, as long as you have to basics to help with blisters, wounds and burns, that will work wonders.
Keep your first aid kit stocked with basic medications like allergy meds, pain killers/fever reducers, stomach upset relief, electrolyte tabs and any other personal medications, prescriptions or EpiPens you may need.
Most of the time when I hear of hikers ‘bonking’ on the trail, not feeling well or completely running out of steam, it’s usually either because they didn’t eat enough calories or their electrolytes are off.
Try to choose clean electrolytes like Nuun or Ultima. The sugar and additives in most sports drinks can do your body more harm than good.
I also try to prevent the need for electrolyte tabs or powders by simply taking magnesium, potassium supplements and using pink salt in my diet. But on extra hot or extra hard days, I do like to add Nuun or Ultima to my water.
Food and water + purification
Like I said, our bodies tend to crash if we don’t get enough electrolytes or fuel in the form of food, fats and calories. Always pack enough food to power you through your hike plus a little extra, in case you end up stuck on trail longer than expected or the trail is more demanding than you expected.
Always carry plenty of water to stay hydrated throughout the day. As a rule of thumb, I almost always carry two liters of water on every hike plus a way to treat stream/lake water if I would need to refill while I’m out in the woods.
If I know the hike is particularly long or hard, and may not have water sources along the way, I might pack three liters of water or more. If it’s a very short hike, or I know there will be water sources along the way and I’m worried about pack weight, I might only pack one liter and plan on refilling and treating my water along the way.
For water treatment, I keep Aquamira drops in my pack because they’re lightweight and compact.
No matter what water purification method you choose, always make sure to familiarize yourself with how it works before you leave and bring along the instructions if it’s new to you.
Sunscreen and bug spray
Please for the love of all that is holy – take care of you out there! Using sunscreen and bug spray is one of the ultimate forms of self-care for hikers. On top of the actual risk of sunburn blisters, skin cancer, and tick or mosquito-borne illnesses and disease, I promise you’ll be much more comfortable without a sunburn and being bitten to shit in the wilderness.
The key for me has been a lot of trial and error to narrow down sunscreen and bug spray that I like, that doesn’t make my skin feel so gross. I try to stick to the all natural zinc sunscreen and bug spray with Picaridin as the active ingredient.
Warm layers and rain gear
No matter what the weather forecast says, I live at 9,000 ft in Colorado, so I always pack an extra long sleeve layer like a lightweight fleece and my rain jacket – even in the summer.
Of course, if the forecast is calling for storms or even cooler weather, I may pack warmer layers like a puffy jacket, rain coat and rain pants.
No matter where you live, it’s not a bad idea to throw in an extra lightweight layer and a rain jacket. It will keep you warm and dry if a storm blows in, offer some protection if you get to an exposed spot with lots of wind, and can help insulate you in case you get lost or injured and end up camping out overnight unexpectedly.
As cheesy or cliche as it is, the most important piece of hiking safety equipment is between your ears. On top of carrying the appropriate gear, you also need to know how to use it all!
You need to know how to confidently navigate in the wilderness. You need to know what to do if an unexpected storm rolls in. You need to recognize the signs of dehydration or hypothermia or other issues before they become a full-blown evacuation situation. You need to practice starting fires when it’s wet or snowy outside.
Simply carrying these supplies isn’t enough, and they won’t save you on their own – you have to know what to do with them to be able to take care of yourself out there on the trail.
For more hiking safety tips, check out:
- What To Include In Your Hiking Itinerary
- First Aid Training For Hikers And Backpackers
- How To Build Your Own Hiking First Aid Kit
- Campsite Safety Tips