Hiking in the wilderness means accepting some amount of risk. But with these best practices from folks versed in search and rescue operations and trail advocacy, you can stay safe and enjoy the Pacific Northwest's wild places.
Hiking can be a great way to relax, get away and enjoy the natural beauty around us. But while going on a hike can literally be a walk in the park, there are some inherent risks involved when you head out into the wilderness.
We spoke with Sgt. John Adams with the Search and Rescue unit at Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue, and Kindra Ramos, director of communications at the Washington Trails Association (WTA), to learn some tips that can keep you safe on the trail. “Just like any sport there is inherent risk to hiking, but there’s definitely things you can do to mitigate those risks,” says Ramos.
Here’s what they suggested.
Tell someone where you’re going
Especially if you’re hiking alone, it is important to make sure someone knows exactly where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Snohomish County Search and Rescue, and Everett Mountain Rescue have a handy “Trip Plan” on their websites you can fill out and leave with a friend or family member.
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Adams also suggests leaving information with a friend of family member that includes the make and model of the car you are driving, information on a back-up route or trail that you might take if your original route is compromised, and a date and/or time when someone should alert authorities if you haven’t returned.
Research the trail and check conditions before you go
Before you leave, learn as much as you can about the trail, and check current conditions. WTA provides detailed descriptions of many hiking trails in Washington, including maps and current trip reports on their website, wta.org.
Check trail conditions and weather forecasts before you leave. The weather can be very different even an hour from where you live, and trail conditions can change daily. Also consider things like what time it will begin to get dark, and water levels if there are streams on the trail. In Washington, where many streams are glacier-fed, water levels can rise over the course of the day. For the most up-to-date trail information, call a ranger station. WTA maintains a convenient online list of contact information for several ranger stations at National Forests and Parks.
Pack the essentials
Whether your hike lasts a couple hours or several days, having appropriate gear is crucial. WTA’s list of “Ten Essentials” that every hiker should bring with them includes the following:
1. Navigation: A map and compass, GPS unit, or even a smartphone.
2. Hydration: Staying hydrated is essential. Carry either enough water for yourself for the duration of your hike, or a map of natural water sources along your route and a water filter, purifier, chemical tablets, or means of boiling unfiltered water before drinking it.
3. Nutrition: Bring enough food to tide you over on your hike, plus extra snacks in case you are unexpectedly delayed on your return.
4. Rain gear and insulation: You’ll want moisture-wicking, water-resistant, warm clothing, even on a nice day. Temperatures change and can drop dramatically as night approaches and at higher elevations.
5. Fire-starter: Matches, a lighter, and flint all work just fine. Make sure to keep any fire-starter and kindling dry.
6. First-aid kit: A good first-aid kit will have what you need to deal with major injuries. To make sure you know how to use everything in your kit, take a course or talk to someone experienced in first-aid.
7. Tools: A multi-tool and some duct tape will get you through a great deal of gear repairs and other challenges that may arise.
8. Illumination: Make sure it’s a good source of light. A cell phone will rarely provide the kind of illumination you’ll need in the extreme dark. Instead, carry a flashlight or a headlamp (and extra batteries).
9. Sun protection: Sunglasses (especially if you’re traveling in snow), a hat and sunscreen.
10. Shelter: You don’t need to carry a tent, but a Mylar blanket or tarp can protect you from the elements in an emergency.
Consider bringing more gear
The “Ten Essentials” will likely see you through the most common dangers, but Adams of Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue suggests you also consider bringing along a personal locator beacon and a whistle. He cites several successful Search and Rescue cases in which hikers were found alive and rescued when using locators like the Garmin inReach.
Don’t be afraid to turn back
Ramos says one of the most important safety tips is to remember that the trail will always be there tomorrow. If you are uncomfortable, uncertain or worried about your safety at any time, be honest with yourself. Don’t be afraid to call it a day and turn back.
If you’re new to hiking or backpacking, there are several introductory courses — like REI’s “Map and Compass Navigation Basics” or “Lightweight Backpacking Basics” — that can help you get started. But even seasoned hikers can benefit from skill development courses like The Mountaineers’ “Alpine/Wilderness First Aid” course. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is another great resource for courses.
Adams also recommends joining your local volunteer search and rescue organization and taking advantage of the training they offer.
“It’s really about the knowledge of what to do,” says Ramos. “Your brain is your most important essential all of the time,” she says.
If worse comes to worst
Sometimes, no matter how much research you’ve done and how careful you are, things go wrong anyway. This is where the gear you packed and the preparation you made before hitting the trail just might save your life. But first things first:
Stay calm. Both Adams and Ramos emphasize the importance of staying calm in a crisis. This will allow you to assess the situation and intelligently deploy the gear you need and the skills you’ve developed to keep yourself safe.
Get to a safe place and stay there. If you are already in a safe place, stay there. If you’re lost, wandering is likely to take you further away from the known trail and make you harder to find. If you’re injured, trying to move around may lead to further injury. If you are not in a safe place, find the nearest safe location and stay there.
Remember your gear. Use your gear to stay warm, hydrated, fed and as visible as possible. If you opted for that locator beacon, activate it. If you brought that whistle, use it. The information you left with a friend or family member will make it easier for Search and Rescue to find you.