How to Hike Safe and Sane

posted in: Hiking 101, Mount Rainier | 0
Mount Rainier from Mazama Ridge

Hiking is a great way to explore and enjoy the Great Outdoors. But it’s  also a great way to get hurt. Or worse.

In fact, I’ve seen boatloads of “hikers” who qualify as “Exhibit A” on how NOT to hike. These folks seem to forget or willfully ignore the fact that national parks, my favorite hiking sites, are often wilderness areas. As in, if you break your leg here bub, don’t come running to me!  These peeps could star in any one of the following:

  • How to Become Backcountry Bear Bait in Three Easy Steps
  • Five Sure-Fire Ways to Induce Hypothermia and Not Live to Tell About It
  • What to Wear on the Trail to Ensure Utter Misery and Certain Injury

Some of these folks give more thought to ordering Chinese take-out than they do a six or eight hour hike over terra incognita in uncertain weather, at altitude.

They never fail to renew my faith in a merciful God.

Courting Disaster

Courting disaster in open-toed shoes over loose shale fields, rocky terrain or bramble thickets the size of Montana, “short-cutting” through unknown terrain so treacherous it’d give Sasquatch cause for pause, these people keep mothers everywhere on their knees in fervent prayer.  They also give rangers conniption fits.

To Comet Falls, Mount Rainier National Park

Never, Ever

While we’re on the subject, here’s my Top Tip for dramatically increasing your chances of becoming headline news or an avoidable trail tragedy: Hike alone.  Yep, hiking solo is just about the dumbest thing you can do most anywhere.

There are those towering intellects among us who insist they like the “solitude” and “peace and quiet” of hitting the trail alone.  They may feel differently after twisting an ankle. Having no one else slower behind them when an angry bear charges. Or getting bit by whatever, twenty miles from the nearest valley in a valley that eats cell phone signals for breakfast.

Remember: Lewis had Clark.  The Lone Ranger had Tonto.  Donner had… well.  Let’s not go there.  Even if you have to haul Aunt Matilda away from her pinochle party or Cousin Elmer out of the hoosegow, never, ever, ever hike alone. And never hit the trails without the 10 Essentials.

Hiking safe and sane starts with preparation. There’s a reason the National Park Service calls its list of must-haves for the trail the 10 Essentials.  Not the 10 Suggestions.  Not the 10 Maybes.  It’s the 10 Essentials. Here, according to the NPS, are the 10 Essentials you should take on every trail, every time:

  1. Map of the area
  2. Compass
  3. Extra food and water
  4. Extra clothing (warm) and rain gear
  5. Emergency shelter
  6. First aid kit
  7. Flashlight or headlamp
  8. Sun glasses and sun screen
  9. Pocket knife
  10. Matches (waterproof)

Also, be realistic about your hiking abilities/physical shape. Hike within your ability. If your idea of “exercise” is doing 12 ounce curls of Bud or Pepsi, a first-time hike of 10 miles through mountain goat terrain probably isn’t a great idea. 

Also, let someone know where you’re going and about when you plan to be back. And be prepared to spend the night outdoors if an emergency situation arises.

Also consider:

  • Water: Carry at least one liter per person. Resist the temptation to refill in what looks like benign lakes or streams unless you’ve brought a water purification system or have cast-iron innards.
  • Walking stick/trekking poles. Unless your nickname is Old Iron Knees, consider investing in a stout walking stick or trekking poles to save wear and tear on your knees, especially on the downhill.
  • A hat. I’m not talking chic here.  No one cares how cute you are when you look like a sun-dried prune or a vine-ripened tomato.  Make sure your hat has a 180 degree, broad brim. A lanyard is helpful on windy days.
  • A compass.  Know how to use it.  Techno-gadgetry may be fine for city slickers or amateurs. But don’t count on it in the backwoods.  When it comes to navigation, rely on a good ‘ole fashioned compass and map.
  • Flashlight.  To reduce weight, we carry three or four pen lights.  They’re smaller and lighter, attach to a belt loop, and while not exactly able to light your way to Mars, they’ll still do the trick.
  • Matches (waterproof). Fires aren’t allowed in most wilderness areas except for emergencies.  If you find yourself in an emergency, you’d also be wise to carry a simple “fire-starter” material such as a few cotton balls soaked in Vaseline.  Put these in your standard plastic film canister with a snap-on lid and you’re good to go.
  • First aid kit.  You can purchase a well-stocked, pre-manufactured kit as well as the twenty-mule wagon team needed to haul the item, but why bother?  We make our own.  Use due care and consideration in so doing.  Augment a six by nine-inch “compact size” kit by Johnson & Johnson with tweezers, Q-tips, matches in a waterproof container, antiseptic, bandages, sterile gauze, tape and scissors, StingEze, alcohol pads, Bayer, Blistex, lens towelettes, Kleenex, a deluxe Swiss Army knife, and all the tea in China.

The point is, don’t skimp on your first aid kit. You may also want to include a whistle.  Why a whistle?  This is in case you forgot Items #1 and #2 – a map of the area and compass.  You can blow a whistle a lot louder and longer than you can holler “Help!”

Don’t Forget

Not on the Official 10 Essentials List, but also consider bringing toilet paper and wearing long pants, preferably Gore-Tex, which both breathes and sheds water well.  I know, I know.  It’s a balmy eighty-two degrees and your legs are begging for shorts.  Don’t listen to them puppies.  Reasons more seasoned hikers avoid shorts: sunburn, insect bites, turning into lunch on legs for ticks and chiggers, brambles and scratches and other nasty trail souvenirs. Avoid these by protecting your legs with long pants, even if the weather is a bit toasty.

Repeat After Me

Got ’em?  Good.  Now, raise your right hand and repeat after me:

“I will not be a hiking moron.  I will dress in layers.  I will carry the 10 Essentials. I will thoroughly familiarize myself with trail and weather conditions before I strike out into the wild blue yonder so as not to become yet another sad statistic.”


Also, please don’t hit the trail without sturdy footwear. Please.  Leave the sandals and flip-flops at home.  Nothing screams “novice” or “clueless rookie” like tennis shoes.  If you’re able, invest in a good pair of sturdy hiking boots.  Do not get cheapies.  You may spend more for a pair of high quality, waterproof boots but your feet, ankles, arches, heels, back, hips and joints will thank you.

Of course, the most important items to bring with you on the trail are a level head and common sense.

You may crawl home footsore, exhausted, grimy, reeking of Eau de Deet, with enough dirty laundry to open your own chain of laundromats after a week on the trails. But you’ll also bring home a mother lode of memories that are as priceless as they are eternal.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Last one to the trail head is a rotten chocolate eclair!