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… Still, crossing mountains, valleys, and rivers can bring you a number of dangers to cope with. Below is a complete list of the most common hazards you should be aware of.
While there will be times when 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 Lightning strikes and thunderstorms
Lightning and thunderstorms are among the major hazards on the trail. Thousands of fatalities occur from lightning strikes every year worldwide and it is good to know a thing or two about how to avoid them and what to do if you encounter a thunderstorm while hiking.
We already highlighted this in our post about planning a trip but it is especially important to be aware of the specifics of the area including the potentially hazardous weather conditions. To avoid thunderstorms and lightning strikes, the best thing you can do is to check the weather forecast before your hike and reduce exposure, i.e. avoid hiking in areas with a high risk of thunderstorms.
If you are caught in a lightning storm while hiking, remain calm and follow these simple rules to minimize the risk of being struck:
- Seek shelter immediately, preferably within a sturdy building, a car, inside a deep cave or under a large tree. Note that no place is completely safe from a lightning strike.
- Avoid solitary trees, tall objects, shallow caves, water, and open areas because these can attract lightning.
- If no shelter is available nearby, squat low to the ground.
- Stay away from metal objects as they can attract lightning.
- Use the 30-30 rule for lightning safety. In short, if there are less than 30 seconds between thunder and lightning, seek shelter; stay indoors at least 30 minutes after the last thunder before resuming outdoor activities.
If someone is struck by lightning, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. While many lightning victims are only stunned or have their hearts temporarily stopped, some injuries can be severe, and prompt emergency care can be life-saving. Cardiac problems are among the most common results of lightning strikes. However, frequently affected are also: the neurological system, eyes and ears as well as skin. This leads us to the next outdoor hazard – sunburn.
A type of skin damage that occurs as a result of extensive exposure to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, sunburn is one of the most common conditions that affect outdoor lovers around the world. Overexposure to solar radiation can damage the skin leading to inflammation, redness, and pain. Moreover, too much sun increases the risk of developing skin cancer.
Unlike many other conditions, sunburn is easier to prevent than treat. Generally, there are three ways to limit the chance of burning – by avoiding exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m (when the sunlight intensity is increased and thus sensitivity to solar radiation is higher), by covering the exposed body parts with clothing or other protective gear and by using sunscreen with high SPF. Protective clothing with a UPF rating, wearing sunglasses as well as wearing a wide-brimmed hat are probably the most popular measures for preventing sunburn. Most sunscreens with high SPF (the form is not that important – there are lotions, gels, sprays, sticks, etc.) work reasonably well. The brand is rarely an important factor in the effectiveness of such a product.
Treatment of sunburn is no different than the treatment of any other burn – so there are only remedies that can help alleviate the symptoms and reduce the discomfort – cooling and covering the affected skin area, relieving the pain with antibiotic ointment, and staying well-hydrated is paramount.
#12 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.
#13 Getting lost
Getting lost or disoriented while hiking can be dangerous for several reasons. First, it can put you in a potentially dangerous situation if you do not know where you are or how to get back to safety. This can lead to becoming stranded in the wilderness, which can be especially dangerous if you aren’t adequately prepared with the necessary supplies and equipment. Second, getting lost or disoriented can also lead to panic or anxiety, which can further impair your ability to think clearly and make good decisions. Finally, it can also increase the risk of accidents or injuries, such as slipping and falling, getting bitten by a snake, or encountering wild animals. For these reasons, it is important to be prepared and to always have a plan in case you get lost while out on the trail.
#14 Faulty or inadequate hiking gear
Having faulty or inadequate hiking gear is another major danger because it can impair the person’s ability to safely and comfortably complete his/her hike. For example, if the backpack is not the right size or type for the hike, it can cause discomfort or fatigue, which can make it harder to focus and make good decisions. Similarly, if the footwear does not provide enough support or grip, the likelihood to slip and fall increases, which can lead to injuries. Faulty or inadequate gear can also include items like water bottles that leak or break, flashlights that do not provide enough light, or maps that are not accurate or up-to-date. In general, it is important to carefully select and maintain your gear to ensure that it is suitable for your needs and the conditions of the hike.
Photo by Camotrek
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 is 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 or 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.
#16 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.
#17 Hazardous plants
There are several dangers associated with hiking in areas that contain hazardous plants or toxic substances. One of the most significant dangers is the potential for injury or illness if you come into contact with these plants or substances. Some toxic plants can cause irritation or allergic reactions if touched or ingested, while others can be deadly if ingested in large amounts. Additionally, certain plants and substances can be harmful to animals, so it is important to be aware of your surroundings and avoid coming into contact with them.
Here are some examples of toxic plants that can cause irritation or allergic reactions if touched:
- Poison ivy produces a toxic oil called urushiol that can cause severe rash, itching, and swelling.
- Poison oak – similar to poison ivy it also produces urushiol, which can cause a similar reaction if it comes into contact with the skin.
- Poison sumac contains urushiol and can cause severe rash, itching, and swelling.
- Giant hogweed produces a toxic sap that can cause severe skin irritation, blistering, and even permanent scarring.
- Wild parsnip contains toxic sap that can cause painful rashes and blisters.
It is important to avoid coming into contact with these plants and to seek medical attention if you do come into contact with them.
Some plants such as nettle and thistle are not typically considered dangerous but it is important to be cautious around these plants. Nettle has stinging hairs on the leaves and stems that can inject poison into the skin, causing a burning or itching sensation. This reaction is usually not serious and will go away on its own, but it can be uncomfortable. Thistle plants have sharp spines on their leaves and stems that can prick or scratch the skin, causing irritation or even inflicting painful wounds. These reactions are usually not serious and can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications. If you do come into contact with nettles or thistles, you can try washing the affected area with soap and water to help remove the irritants and relieve the symptoms. If the reaction is severe, you should contact a healthcare provider for advice.
Photo by JamesDeMers
There are several plants that can be deadly if ingested in large amounts. They contain poisons that can cause dizziness, severe headaches, stomach pain, vomiting, and even death. Among them:
- Hemlock (contains the chemical compound coniine) – has toxic leaves, seeds, and roots.
- Nightshade (contains solanine) – has toxic berries and leaves.
- Castor bean – has toxic seeds that contain a poison called ricin.
- Foxglove (or digitalis) – has toxic leaves and seeds that are used for medicinal uses but can also be deadly.
It is a good idea to educate yourself about the potentially dangerous plants that are commonly found in the areas where you hike and to take appropriate precautions to avoid them.
#18 Difficult or challenging terrain
Any type of terrain that poses a significant physical or mental challenge to the hiker can be defined as difficult or challenging. This can include steep or rocky trails, dense forests, steep inclines or declines, and other types of terrain that require the hiker to use their physical strength, endurance, and hiking skills to navigate safely. Difficult or challenging terrain can also include areas with unstable ground, such as loose rock, mud, or sand, which can make it harder to maintain balance and stability while hiking. In general, traveling over challenging terrain can be physically demanding and mentally taxing, and it is important for hikers to be prepared and in good physical shape before attempting to hike on this type of terrain.
#19 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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