Hiking can be very exciting and rewarding, making memories for life; however, you should never forget that nature sometimes can be particularly cruel if you aren’t prepared to meet some challenges related to this activity and be caught off guard. There are always details and dangers you should know that are specific to the environment you are hiking in. So, make your research, plan carefully, get a pair of nice hiking shoes suitable for the environment you will be hiking in, and try to be as prepared as possible.
A common misunderstanding is that backcountry hiking is unsafe because of various natural hazards. In reality, your worst enemy is your own poor decision making. Injuries and deaths on the trail are primarily due to poor decision making by the backpackers themselves. The key is to make good decisions to keep the level of risk under control so that you can return home safely.
Hazard and safe are relative terms because even staying at home can be hazardous. Imagine that you slip and fall while taking a shower. Some of the most common injuries include sprains, fractures, and torn ligaments. You probably think that this happens very rarely. In reality, millions of people are injured in slip and fall accidents each and every year. Having said that, there are some hiking hazards you should be prepared for.
While there will be times where you cannot help being in the midst of an avalanche, there are tools and forecasts that will help you to stay updated on the conditions for the day. Interestingly, nearly all avalanches that involve people are triggered either by the victims themselves or by a member of their party. According to some experts, about 85 percent of avalanche victims trigger their own slide.
The best thing to do to avoid an avalanche disaster is to steer clear of any snow-covered mountains since increased time in avalanche terrain equals more risk of involvement in an avalanche. Keep in mind that you must think ahead about what you would do in the event of an avalanche because, after one starts, there is no time.
If you happen to be in the path of a sudden oncoming avalanche, try to move uphill and to the side, in order to avoid the pile-up. You will not be able to outrun it, so don’t try. Just get to the side as quickly as you can to avoid the center, where the snow will be at its deepest. If you’re getting closed in on, drop your equipment and move fast. If there are trees around, try to grab onto one. Although not easy, this will possibly save your life if you can manage to scramble up into a branch quickly enough.
If you’re getting buried, close your mouth to avoid being suffocated by snow and try to relax your body and your breathing to conserve energy and oxygen. The more you strain, the deeper you’ll sink. As soon as you’re under, dig a small pocket with your hand or a shovel and this will provide extra oxygen for you to breathe while waiting for rescuers to find you (once the snow closes around you, it will become impossible to move).
Avalanche hazard is not always obvious, but it isn’t a mysterious phenomenon either. Avalanche education can help hikers make better decisions about safe snow travel and minimize risk.
#2 Blizzard or Snowstorm
Struggling on into the teeth of a blizzard when you don’t have to is foolish and risky. It even may be necessary to sit out bad weather for a day or more. A spare pair of gloves and socks to keep on your person is always good to have, along with some food. If you’re camping in the winter, for example, and your site starts to experience heavy snowfall, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve got enough preserved food to hold you through a few days of rough weather.
Staying hydrated is perhaps the most important thing. A lack of proper hydration will significantly increase your chances of catching hypothermia and frostbite. The easiest way to get some drinkable water is by melting snow with a gas/oil stove like Primus. Once it’s melted, you can drink it without worry. If you’re stuck outside and completely alone during a blizzard, do your best to find some form of shelter.
Many tourists have died while posing for pictures by scrambling around or just walking too close to a canyon rim. Backcountry hikers have slipped or fallen descending friable rock and talus. Stay focused, use common sense, extreme care, and good shoes or don’t do it. Step back or turn around and stay safe.
Floods are most likely to occur in early spring when temperatures rise and snow melts. Most floods happen slowly, over a period of days, but when particular floods come on suddenly (the so-called “flash floods”), they can be fatal.
The first and most important thing to do is to try to get to higher ground. You won’t want to be in the path of the flood. Also, remember that this water isn’t drinkable because it consists of water, mud, clay, and other materials swept away by the flood.
If you need to cross floodwaters, and you’re alone, find a pole or a long, sturdy stick to help you while crossing. If you get caught in rushing waters, try to grab a hold of a grounded structure, such as a tree. Being caught in the middle of a natural disaster is terrifying because it is completely uncontrollable. There is nothing to do but wait it out and try to stay alive during the worst of it.
#5 Flash floods
During flash floods, the water level increases almost instantly. If you hear an increasing roar of water, you will only have a few moments to get to high ground. So, do it immediately! That may be your only chance to survive and you should act as fast as possible to try to get out of the flash flood’s way. Remember the best way to survive a flash flood is just to not put yourself in that situation.
Flash floods are a natural force impossible to reckon with unless you’re standing on high ground out of harm’s way. Sudden and unpredictable, they continue to devastate everything in their paths with little warning, not just hikers, but the local people and their community, homes, farms, and livestock.
#6 River crossings
Unbridged rivers and streams can present major hazards. Water is more powerful than many people think, and hikers are drowned every year fording what may look like relatively placid streams. Crossings can consume huge amounts of time and energy and can also be very dangerous. If you don’t think you can cross safely, don’t try. In the end, only experience can tell you whether it’s possible to cross. It’s much more useful to try to get a distant view of the river and scope out crossing possibilities than to look for them when already at the riverbank.
If you decide fording is feasible, study your crossing point carefully before plunging in. If the water is fast flowing and starts to boil up much above your knees, turn back. It could easily knock you over, and being swept down a boulder-littered stream is not good for your health. If it is necessary to wade across, find the widest part of the river. The reason for this is that the narrows may be the shortest way, but they are also the deepest, swiftest, and most dangerous. Try to keep your clothing and gear dry when wading. For example, you often won’t need boots so just put them in your pack. In tougher conditions, wear your boots, but put your socks and insoles in the pack to keep them dry. Loose clothing increases the drag from the water so consider removing your pants and/or other clothes before deep crossings.
Seasoned hikers commonly cross slow water without incident. But this is a serious, personal safety issue you should strongly consider before embarking on a rim-to-rim hike. Sometimes river crossings can be made as easy as swimming, boulder hopping (make steady progress over stones and use your trekking poles for additional balance) or paddling driftwood logs or small rafts at low water when river temperatures are sufficiently high. However, for example, mountain water is very cold, and you’ll often reach the far side feeling shivery. Remember that safety should be your top priority when you head out on the trail. Know that water can be dangerous so it is important to take your time at water crossings and be especially mindful of the environment.
Head and spine injuries are potentially life-threatening. Such injuries are often caused by falling rock, ice, etc. If your route goes through avalanche and rockfall territory, travel at night or very early morning and move quickly. Watch for changing weather conditions and avoid these areas in heavy rain.
In most places, rockfall is a rare event, caused often by flash floods, winter storms or earthquakes. Stay out of the fall line and wild rumbling creek and debris flows. When hiking switchbacks or cross-country, make sure you stay out of the fall line of hikers and mules that can accidentally dislodge a rock from above.
Storms, erosion, and hikers are constantly changing the conditions of most trails and routes. Make sure your physical condition and trekking shoes can meet the demands of rugged terrain and sharp rocks and that they provide you with adequate cushioning and ankle support.
Should you sprain your ankle, you’d better follow the RICE procedure. It’s used as a first-aid treatment of soft tissue injuries. The acronym RICE stands for the following:
- Resting your injured ankle prevents further damage
- Ice, snow or cold water reduces swelling and pain
- Compression reduces swelling and provides support (preferably an elastic bandage; if you don’t have one, you can use a spare t-shirt)
- Elevation of the injured leg above the heart can also reduce swelling
Most outdoor hazards are caused by the weather (especially wilderness travel in winter conditions can be physically and emotionally demanding). Wind, rain, snow, thunderstorms, freezing temperatures, thaws, and heat waves all introduce difficulties or dangers. For any given trip, knowing in general what weather to expect should be part of your trip planning. Get a reliable weather report for your area before you leave. If you’re going to an unfamiliar area, checking weather patterns for some time in advance can give you an idea of what to expect. For a specific day, check the internet, radio, television, and newspaper forecasts if you can. But remember that even the most detailed recent forecast can be wrong. Mountains are particularly notorious for creating their own weather while the weather has less impact on travel over low-level and below-timberline routes.
#10 Poor decisions
Poor decision making is the overwhelming reason for injuries on the trail. Many studies show that safety depends mainly on human behavior and not so much on the existence of natural hazards. Staying alert, heeding warnings, and good decision making are not only recommended, but they can be crucial to your safety in the backcountry. Ignorance, casualness, and distraction are among the main reasons for making poor decisions. Reasons for being ignorant include lack of experience, training, or information about potential hazards you might face. Novice hikers are often ignorant because they do not realize the seriousness of a route’s hazards. Without some experience, they don’t know their limits or all the ways that things can go wrong. Casualness is not typical for most experienced backpackers but sometimes they develop it together with other dangerous habits such as complacency and overconfidence.
Remember that hiking accidents usually result from a series of problems or errors as one poor decision or a mild problem leads to another to put the hiker/party in peril.
One of the biggest mistakes of many backpackers is not drinking enough water and other fluids. It leads to dehydration and makes you more susceptible to hypothermia. The human body needs a regular minimum quantity of water and the deprivation of a regular water intake leads to lethargy and inefficiency. To operate efficiently, you need to hydrate yourself regularly. This way, you’ll maintain appropriate hydration and electrolyte balance. Thus, you have to drink enough water as the required quantity depends on the environment, humidity, and the intensity of the physical activity. In hot (or cold) and dry environments where you lose a lot of bodily fluids rapidly through respiration and perspiration you need more water. Higher elevations also require higher water intake to replace normal fluid loss. As a rule of thumb, drink small amounts of water often to reduce the risk of dehydration, cramping or water intoxication.
Finding and collecting water when it is in short supply can be a challenge. It’s extremely valuable to know the drinkable water sources as well as how to make sure you spend less effort and fuel (when necessary) to obtain potable water. It’s also important to know how to conserve the water in your body. How you do that depends on the temperatures. Generally, you should:
- Wet your clothes to reduce sweating in hot weather.
- Avoid energetic work/movement to reduce sweating.
- Cover exposed skin.
- If you don’t have water, eat a little or don’t eat at all.
- Drink in small sips.
Dehydration is bad but drinking contaminated water is no better as water-borne pathogens can cause vomiting, diarrhea, severe illnesses, and even death. The water needs to be clean from mud, leaves, micro-bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other protozoa. Keep in mind that you should never assume water in the wild safe for consumption unless you make it potable. Always drink only treated water. You have a few options – boiling the water, disinfecting it by using chemicals (in the form of purification tablets) such as chlorine or iodine, using a portable water filter or UV light. Always have a reliable water container, preferably with a screw cap, where you could keep enough drinking water in reserve.
#12 Wild animals
The presence of wildlife on or near the trail can be a boon and a bane. Your hiking trip can be a chance to discover a variety of creatures and a great opportunity to see wildlife. Watching wildlife can be a very exciting activity with the potential to make lifelong memories. Don’t make the mistake to assume that having a great camera is all you need to take some great shots and enjoy your trip. You should also research the potential wildlife to make sure that you are well aware of potentially dangerous animals. Actually, the job of many wildlife experts, professional photographers, and adventurers is to get close to wild animals capable of killing humans. However, unlike these thrill-seekers, most hikers and backpackers might want to avoid some dangerous wild animals such as predators, large omnivores and herbivores as well as animals that may sting or bite.
Photo by Hans Veth
Bears, mountain lions, wolves, wild boars, moose, venomous snakes, scorpions, bees, wasps, and hornets are among the animals to avoid. For example, hiking and backpacking in bear country has its specifics. Bears like most other predators are active late in the evening and early in the morning. Beware of bears if you choose to hike around dawn, dusk or at night. Get prepared for a bear encounter by having a bear spray handy. If possible, don’t travel alone (traveling in groups of four or more reduces the chance of bear encounters significantly), stay on the trail, and make some noise to make sure you signal your presence to predators. Keep in mind that walking through dense vegetation and thick bushes can make you an easy target for animal attacks.
To avoid snakes, watch where you step. Wear proper boots and avoid shorts, especially when backpacking at night. If given the opportunity, most snakes will normally flee unless you surprise them and/or they feel threatened.
#13 High altitude
There are various dangers related to being at high altitudes such as altitude sickness (associated with travel to elevations above 2000-2500m), heat and UV radiation conditions (such as heat exhaustion, heatstroke, sunburn, and snow blindness), and cold-related conditions (like hypothermia, frostbite, and immersion foot). Just know the dangers, be both physically and mentally prepared to face the challenges that await you at elevation, and you’ll be fine. See some tips for high altitude hiking on our blog.
Wildfires are highly dangerous and most of them are started by humans, though unintentionally. Dry grasses and trees, a gust of strong wind, and a heat source as small as a half-smoked cigarette or the dying embers of a campfire can cause huge fires. Even a bolt of lightning or heat from the sun can cause a wildfire.
Fires can move quickly, especially in windy, hot conditions. Always have an escape route planned in the event a fire starts near you. Finding hikes far from known fire locations is best to avoid any potential issues. However, if you turn out to be near a wildfire, you better know where the nearest water source is, and how far you are from it.
The ideal form of protection would be to get in the water. Outrunning wildfires are very hard to do and you’ll spend all of your needed energy passing up on possible places to wait out the blaze. If you are on a mountain or a hillside, get to the back. You want the flames to travel over you, rather than toward you. Seek shelter under a cliff or a large rock. If possible, put a face mask (if you don’t have one, try to improvise by using a wet shirt or some other part of your clothing) so that the smoke does not choke you.
Good decision making can help you avoid most of the hazards on the trail. It’s important to do your research carefully and know what to expect from the environment you will be hiking in. Don’t be ignorant, casual or complacent and don’t underestimate nature. Remember that underestimating nature and natural forces can not only be a costly mistake but your last one. “Pray for the best; prepare for the worst” as the old saying goes. It is your preparedness and quick reaction that might make the difference between life and death when you need to handle an emergency situation. So, be prepared.
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