How to Avoid Becoming the Wrong Kind of Hiking Statistic

Hope to Never See a Social Media Post Asking if I’ve Seen You

We have all seen posts on social media about someone’s relative or friend that went hiking or camping and hasn’t come back when they were supposed to. Or seen the news story about the rescue of some hapless hiker or camper. I never want to see those posts about anyone. I want to see posts of you on a hike having a good time. I’d like to see a news story about how Search and Rescue have to downsize due to lack of work.


Enjoy nature and use the most powerful, effective, and ultra-light tool you carry into nature: your knowledge.


Where Are You Going?

Do your research and find out what other hikers and backpackers have written about where you’re going. This will help you determine the gear, clothing, food, etc., that you will need to bring.


Print out a copy of the trail write-up and a map. Then print another. One copy for you. The other is for your spouse, roomie, friend, whoever. If you don’t return on time, they’ll know where to start looking for you. Make sure to write when you expect to be back on their printout.


Bring the Right Gear

10 essentials for every hike. One mile through the woods behind your house? 10 essentials. Through hiking from Mexico to Canada? 10 essentials. The 10 essentials are specifically selected to first prevent getting into a survival situation, and secondly getting through a survival situation.

  1. Navigation: Map, compass, GPS system, app on your phone, whatever you use, make sure you have it and most importantly, know how to use it. Practice in the local park or some location where if you do get lost, you’re not really lost. Have a backup to your navigation system. I carry a map, compass and have Gaia on my cellphone. Note: start tracking your hike before you start and then turn on airplane mode to save battery.

  2. Sun Protection: Sun burns and blinding sunlight aren’t just annoying; they can contribute to dehydration and disorientation. Sunblock, sunglasses and a hat that protects your eyes, ears and neck are required.

  3. Insulation: Depending on the time of the year, weather conditions, elevation, etc., you want to layer your clothing to match. Even if there’s no rain predicted, bring one of those little folded up ponchos. Temperature is supposed to be 70 degrees all day? Bring a thin but insulating jacket anyway. Especially if hiking in the mountains where the weather can change rapidly.

  4. Seeing in the Dark: Headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries. Keep in mind that in a forest and in the mountains, darkness comes on faster and there is a lot less light reaching the trail. A hike that began late can quickly become a blundering, stumbling, “where am I?”, experience in the dark. This has happened to me but I had a headlamp and a flashlight.

  5. First Aid – For day hikes, a small single person kit you can get at just about any department store or outdoor outfitter shop will do. For longer hikes or backpacking adventures into more rugged and isolated areas, a kit with more equipment is needed. Your First Aid kit is there to do two things.

a. Take care of little issues like bug bites, blisters, headaches, small cuts.

b. Prevent a bad injury from becoming worse until you get to medical professionals.

If you get the chance to take a Wilderness First Aid course, do it. You may never use the lessons learned, but if you have to, you’ll be really glad you took the course.


6. Fire: Fire starter rod and striker, lighter, waterproof matches. Carry all three. I do. Practice making a fire with those tools. If you do find yourself lost in the wilderness with night falling and the temperature dropping, a fire is going to do several very important things for you:

a. Keep you warm

b. Create a really bright light for an IR equipped search helicopter to find

c. Provide light and save on your batteries

d. Sterilize water

e. Keep curious and carnivorous animals away


7. Repair Kit and Knife: And by ‘repair kit’ I mean duct tape. Duct tape can repair boots, shoes, coats, tarps, backpacks, straps, glasses, you name it. Wrap your lighter with it a few times. Wrap some around each of your hiking poles. Your knife doesn’t have to be a K-bar but it shouldn’t be a little folding knife either. I recommend a 3-4-inch blade with a locking mechanism. A folding knife without a lock is an unscheduled first aid session waiting to happen. Your knife is the tool you will use to scrape the ferrous rod to start a fire, (the scrapers they come with rarely work well), cut branches and sticks to make a shelter, whittle sticks to make tinder and kindling, etc. I recommend finding a knife with a handle that if wet, won’t slip in your grip.


8. Food: Bring along the food for your planned meals and a little extra for unplanned situations. I will take a couple of extra snack bars even on day hikes and for anything longer, 5-6 extra snack bars. If you are lost in the woods, with the temperature dropping, a sugary and protein rich snack will help fend of hypothermia and give you strength.


9. Water: Two liters, minimum. If you’re going on a long hike or backpack trip that doesn’t have guaranteed access to water, you should have four liters. If you will have access to water, bring along a water filtration kit. Dehydration can happen quickly and easily, it’s also very easy and quickly prevented. Just bring water and drink it.


10. Emergency Shelter: You can buy an emergency bivy or thin reflective blanket at any outdoor outfitters. They are about the size of a fist, light and can mean the difference between freezing to death and just being cold. Even in desert environments, the night time temperature can drop enough to become a serious risk.

Except for the water and a jacket, all of these items can be carried in a small bag. My 10 essentials bag measures 10’ x 5’ and weighs a lot less than a liter of water. That includes a couple of things specific to being an amputee. Yours might include a couple of things that are specific to your needs.


Wear Bright Colours

Speaking of the right gear, let's talk about clothing colour. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to layers and raingear.) When I first started hiking again, I really got into camo, “tactical” blacks and clothing and gear that would be great for a sniper. After I lost a few items I realized that using reflective paracord and bright, reflective tape just about eliminated that problem. Going one step further, I started buying lime green shirts, bright blue jackets, red, white and blue hats, etc. I figured if I fall down a ravine and my clothes stand out; I’ve made it easier for the Search and Rescue team.


If your injured or lost, you want to be found. So I recommend wearing brightly coloured jackets, shirts, hats, etc.


Wear the Right Clothing

Cotton kills. Cotton is rotten. Repeat that to yourself over and over every time you buy clothing for hiking and backpacking adventures. Cotton will hold moisture really well and if the temperature drops, that wet cotton will lower your body temperature with it. Hypothermia is just a cotton t-shirt away. When you start to lose core body temperature the brain starts failing at its job of thinking clearly. Bad decisions are made, confusion sets in, and co-ordination decreases. Note: the only exception I allow for is a cotton bandana.


Wear moisture-wicking non-cotton clothes during summer. In the fall, winter and spring, wool is your best friend. Wool can get wet and still insulate you from the cold, just ask the Scottish.


You’ve heard of layering? It’s a very simple principle, layers of non-cotton clothing make it easy to regulate your body temperature. One moisture-wicking t-shirt and one really warm jacket means you have the choice between being either too hot or too cold. Three or even four layers allow you to control your body temperature so it’s just right. And yes, that outer most layer will be waterproof. Not water-resistant, nor water-repellent, you want waterproof. There’s a big difference between those three.


Understand the Weather and Location

A lot depends on the weather, but you can’t look at just the weather. You have to think about the weather and the location you’ll experience the weather. Rainfall on an easy trail near your home is a very different experience from rainfall at 4,500 feet on switchbacks in the mountains. A 90-degree day hiking 12 miles in the forest is going to hit you differently than 12 miles in a high desert with few trees.


Review the weather predictions for the trail and think about what the weather means for you, the trail, streams you’ll be crossing, the temperature at the start of the day, middle of the day and at night, etc.


Stay on the Trail

This is how I and many other people have really messed up. Going off the trail will cause erosion, damage the flora and disturb the fauna. Most importantly, it’s going off the trail that results in accidents and getting lost.


We all have a desire to get that great shot from a better vantage point, take a shortcut to save time, find an easier route, or blaze our own path. Resist that desire! With the exception of a short trip off the trail to relieve bowels or bladder, going off trail is an easy way to become another lost or injured hiker news story.


I nearly became one when I went off trail coming back down from Beckler Peak, (you can see the video here). The trail was buried under several feet of snow and although my Gaia app showed me the trail, I thought I could cut across a switchback and save some hiking time. Things were going OK for a while until my feet slipped out from under me. I slide about 50 yards down the snow until I fell through the snow into a little creek. Pulling myself out I found my knee hurt like hell and I had cuts all over my arms and hands. The hike back to the trailhead was slow and painful. I was lucky and just needed physical therapy. It could have been a lot worse.