Two recent deaths on Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, have stirred conversation about hiking safety, raising questions like: “What kind of safety gear should you carry besides water, snacks and a headlamp?”
First of all, accidents happen, and sometimes they’re entirely out of our hands. On occasion, the most prepared hiker can become injured or worse. But there are many ways you can reduce risks while hiking.
Hiking safety is important to think about year round, but some aspects of it become even more important in the fall and winter in Maine, when days are shorter and the weather conditions are much harsher.
Here are a few easy ways you can improve your safety while exploring trails.
Research your hike ahead of time
Before you hit the road — let alone the trail — learn as much as you can about your future hike. Study the trail map and read descriptions of the hike. Check the weather report, as well as the time of sunrise and sunset. Make sure you’re prepared for the weather conditions with the right gear and skills. And if you start to feel unsure about the hike for whatever reason, choose another adventure.
Leave a hiking plan behind
Before you embark on a hike, leave detailed information about where you’re going and when you plan to return with a responsible person. Plan to check in with that person when you return. That way, if you become injured or lost, your absence will be noted and rescue teams will know exactly where to search.
This simple safety measure is especially important for solo hikers because they will likely be alone on the trail in the event of an emergency. It’s also important because cell phone reception is spotty in Maine, therefore, if you get lost or injured, you might have no way of contacting anyone.
Hike with a companion
While many people enjoy solo hiking — including me — it is often safer to hike with a companion, and the reason is simple. If you become injured, your companion can help you or immediately find help. Per proper hiking companion etiquette, stick together and don’t push each other past your abilities. Watch each other closely for signs of fatigue, dehydration or hypothermia. And work together to make good decisions.
Carry lots of water
Water is one of the necessities of hiking — and life. Dehydration can cause a hiker to become confused and sloppy with their movements, which can quickly lead to injuries. And from my experience, hikers often run out of water because they unintentionally pack less than they need.
If on the move, hikers should drink anywhere from ½ liter to 1 liter of water per hour. You can also carry the means to purify water for safe drinking such as a water filter, a UV purifying system or iodine tablets (which are really more for emergencies).
Pack a light
It’s easy to underestimate how long it will take to complete a hike. Also, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. You might lose the trail or slow down due to an injury. And this could leave you hiking in the dark — which in some cases is impossible.
Carrying a headlamp or flashlight will enable you to keep going even if the sun sets. And if you’re injured and waiting for rescue, a flashlight can keep you company and serve as a beacon for rescuers.
Make sure everyone in your hiking group has a light. When hiking in the dark, it isn’t fun to share. I know from experience. Also consider carrying extra batteries. And don’t rely on your cell phone light, since you may need to save your cell phone power for communication.
Set a turnaround time
One way to avoid getting caught on the trail after dark is by setting a firm turnaround time, which is the time you’ll start heading back toward the trailhead. To choose a turnaround time, you’ll need to take into consideration the length of the trail you’re hiking and the time of sunset. Leave yourself plenty of time to return to the trailhead safely.
Wear proper footwear
Trips, slips and falls are one of the most common causes of hiking injuries, and sometimes these missteps can be prevented by wearing a good pair of hiking shoes. Opinions vary widely about footwear. Do some research and experiment to see what shoes work best for you. I personally prefer high-topped hiking boots with stiff soles because my ankles need extra support or they’ll turn. I also prefer boots with an aggressive tread, including a right-angle heel that easily catches roots and rocks if I’m sliding downhill. And if there’s ice or snow on the trail, I wear ice cleats or snowshoes.
Carry high-calorie snacks
It’s important to eat frequently on the trail so you don’t run out of energy. For this reason, many hikers carry quick, high-calorie snacks such as granola bars, GORP (good ol’ raisins and peanuts), candy bars and dried fruit. Be sure to carry a few extra snacks, just in case you have to spend a night or two in the woods.
Wear synthetic or wool clothing
There’s a popular saying among outdoor athletes: “Cotton kills.” And while that may sound a little dramatic, it could very well be the truth in certain survival scenarios. When wet (say with sweat), cotton holds onto moisture, which can contribute to a person developing hypothermia. On the other hand, athletic clothing that’s made of certain synthetic fabrics or wool dry much more quickly and will actually wick moisture away from your skin. This helps you retain body heat longer and contributes to your overall comfort. Keep this in mind when selecting your hiking wardrobe, from your socks to your jacket. Always pack extra layers for fluctuating temperatures and conditions, and during Maine’s fall hunting seasons, wear blaze orange to increase your visibility.
Carry a map and navigational tools
There’s nothing more empowering than carrying a trail map. Even if the trail you’re hiking is simple, a map can help you determine where you are on the trail or — if you become lost — where you are off the trail. A compass and GPS device can also help you gain your bearings, if you know how to use them.
Consider a personal locator beacon
Many avid hikers carry a personal locator beacon or a satellite messenger, which are electronic devices that use satellites to send information about where you’re located. These work even when you have no cell phone reception, which happens a lot in the Maine woods. Usually these devices are for emergency purposes, but they’re also used by long-distance hikers to stay in touch with family and friends while in remote areas.
Watch your step
While it may seem obvious, watching your step is key to prevent falls while hiking — and it’s not as easy as it sounds. Some hikes last for hours, and during that time, it can be mentally challenging to stay present and always watch where you’re stepping. Take plenty of breaks during your hike to recharge and refocus.
Carry some first aid
Some of the most common injuries in hiking can be easily tended to with a few first aid items. Several companies create pre-assembled first aid kits in multiple sizes, and that’s a great place to start, but make sure the kit contains all of the things you think you’ll need. Bandages, gauze, alcohol wipes and athletic tape are all useful in treating small scrapes and blisters. Benadryl is a good idea for treating allergic reactions. And make sure you pack a supply of any important personal medications just in case you remain outdoors longer than you expect.
Carry some survival gear
When deciding how much survival and safety gear to pack for a day hike, I was once told, “Pack enough to spend the night in the woods,” followed by the caveat, “It doesn’t need to be a comfortable night.” For example, very few people will lug a sleeping bag or tent on a day hike, but they might carry an emergency blanket and matches to start a fire, a whistle to signal for help and some duct tape or paracord to repair gear and help build a shelter.
An emergency thermal blanket — also known as space blankets or medical blankets — is a light-weight, low-cost, low-bulk sheet made out of a material that traps in heat, offering a temporary shelter if you unexpectedly have to spend the night in the wilderness. It folds down into a small square that’s easy to fit into a pocket of your backpack, and it will give you peace of mind.
Every outdoor activity comes with some degree of risk, but with a little knowledge it’s easy to increase your safety while hiking, whether you’re tackling a big mountain or exploring an easy trail close to home.