It’s one of my favorite outdoor activities; lacing up my boots for a bit of hiking; to fully immerse myself in the natural landscapes that range from the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas, to lush mountain gorilla habitat in Rwanda.
While many hiking adventures don’t require a great deal of planning or preparation, there are times when simply lacing up the hiking books and slinging a small backpack over the shoulder doesn’t quite cut it.
Hiking in mountains presents many potential dangers, and although it isn’t nearly as technical as full-on mountain climbing, you definitely have to be conscious of prioritizing your safety.
While basic mountain hiking generally doesn’t require equipment like helmets, ropes, carabiners, crampons, or ice axes, there are definitely still things you need to be aware of, and essential items you should include as part of your gear.
To keep you safe on your next adventure, follow this list of safety tips for hiking in the mountains. From knowing what to pack to what potential dangers you may face, these tips will go a long way to making your next hike much safer.
Click for Quick Navigation
Safety Tips for Hiking in the Mountains
Choose a Hike that Matches your Physical Ability
Before you head off hiking in the mountains, it’s important to do your research and select a trail that is appropriate for your personal fitness level. Mountain hiking isn’t a stroll in the park, and there are a number of factors to be aware of to ensure your safety.
Hiking at high elevations can lead to altitude sickness and the extra strain of climbing uphill can aggravate old injuries or pre-existing medical conditions. You are also more prone to dehydration and sunburn at higher elevations.
It’s always a good idea to not hike alone in the mountains, but when you plan on hiking with a partner or group of people you must stick to trails that everyone in the group can complete.
As a group, you’re only as fast as your slowest member, something that is good to keep in mind when hiking with small children who may not be able to match your speed or endurance.
If you’re very unfamiliar with hiking in the mountains, it may be wise to book a ranger led hike or join a guided tour. Remember to take regular breaks to avoid exhaustion and reduce your pace or descend to lower elevations if you feel you may be getting altitude sickness.
Don’t forget to save enough time and energy for your return journey back to your car or camp. It’s also a good idea to have alternate plans or trails you can try if one proves to be too difficult.
Never be afraid to admit defeat if a trail feels to challenging and be aware of weather that may increase a trail’s difficulty level.
Image credit: Masa Sakano (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
Have Effective Communication
One of the most important things when hiking in remote areas like mountains is to be able to communicate with the outside world in case of emergencies.
Because even the most advanced technology can fail when out in the field, always inform others of your hiking plans before you head out. Provide others with your planned route and when you expect to reach certian locations including your return back home.
Mobile phones can be a great tool, but batteries can easily die and cell coverage may be extremely patchy or nonexistent in mountainous areas. More effective communication methods include distress beacons and two-way radios designed for use in the mountains.
I highly recommend two-way radios if you’re planning a hiking or camping trip with a group. These allow you to have constant and reliable contact with one another. This is especially important if your group plans on splitting up, some maybe tackling more difficult routes while others who may be less fit take easier trails.
Some two-way radios are far more effective, so definitely read reviews of two-way radios before making a purchase. Standout features of good two-way radios include being ultra-portable, having long range, hands-free operation, waterproof, and ones that provide weather alerts.
Distress beacons are important to have for life threatening situations. Sometimes called personal locator beacons, these devices are small and lightweight. When a beacon is activated, it alerts rescue authorities that you’re in danger and aids them in locating you.
Some distress beacons are specially designed for aircraft or watercraft, but the personal locator beacons are the type that is often used by bushwalkers. It is important to note that the beacons work off satellites and these satellites may not always be able to detect beacons in dense forests or very mountainous areas.
Carry the Right Equipment
In addition to carrying the right communication devices, there are a number of other items you should always pack for a mountain hiking adventure. While it’s always good to be prepared for anything, you have to be careful not to over-pack, as this will only make your hike unenjoyable.
So, what are the essentials that should make the cut on your packing list?
You want to make sure you’re covered for the essentials of survival. This means having enough water or the capability to purify water from natural sources, enough food or access to food, and fire for warmth or cooking. Pack a flint or waterproof matches for making fire.
Be sure to carry maps or a GPS, discussed in more detail below. You should also carry a flashlight or headlamp in case you misjudge your hiking time and end up having to hike back in the dark.
You also want to be sure to pack the right clothing (discussed below), all your required medications, a first-aid kit, and biodegradable toilet paper and a small shovel for when nature calls.
If you’re curious about my personal packing habits, click to find out what I packed for my Mount Kilimanjaro hiking adventure.
You want to ensure you remain comfortable throughout your hike, and this means dressing appropriately. Because weather is unpredictable and can change quickly, it’s a good idea to dress in layers.
Most hikers opt for a three-layer dressing system that consists of a base layer, mid layer, and shell or outer layer. Dressing in layers allows you to easily add or remove clothing to keep your body temperature in control depending on your level of exertion and the outside temperature.
Your base layer is meant to wick moisture away from your skin. You want to stick to materials like Merino wool or polyester. Polyester is great when it comes to moisture-wicking and drying quickly, while Merino wool is soft on the skin, naturally odour-resistant, breathable, and has the ability to keep you warm even if it gets wet.
Your mid layer helps insulate you and the best materials to aim for include polyester fleece, Merino wool, and goose down. Your shell layer on the other hand is what protects you from the elements such as wind and rain.
You may know this layer as Gore-Tex or NeoShell. There are a number of materials that have been created for shell layers, and which one you choose will depend on the climate you plan to hike in.
Footwear & Legs
When it comes to covering your legs, long durable pants are recommended to avoid insect bites, stinging plants, and other sticks or debris you may come in contact with.
Make sure your pants aren’t too tight as you want to have good range of motion while you’re climbing over logs or uphill.
Looking at footwear, you want a good sturdy pair of hiking boots with good ankle support that aren’t too heavy. Wearing boots that are too heavy will fatigue your legs quite quickly if you’re not used to wearing them.
Your hiking boots should be waterproof, since getting wet feet can quickly ruin a long hike. If you plan on hiking through dense brush or if venomous snakes may be present, it’s a good idea to look into heavy duty gaiters.
Other essential clothing and accessories include heavy duty socks, gloves and beanie if it’s cold, and a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses to shield you from the sun. The sun’s effects are much greater at high elevations.
Stay Healthy and Learn First Aid Procedures
Anyone planning on remote hiking should learn first aid. First aid training teaches you how to react and deal with a range of different injuries that you or someone in your group may encounter.
You will learn life saving skills including CPR, treating allergic reactions, and basic life support. In addition to learning first aid, you should always carry a first aid kit and make yourself aware of where the closest hospital is located.
Common injuries or ailments that can occur while hiking in the mountains include broken bones and sprains, animal bites, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, dehydration, and allergic reactions.
Here is a list of what a really good first aid kit should include:
Things to include in your first aid kit
- Personal medications
- Range of different bandages
- Sterile gauze pads
- Antiseptic wipes
- Band aids
- Latex gloves
- Eye drops
- Sunburn lotion
- Antibiotic cream
- Diarrhea medication
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Insect/ snake bite kit
- First aid manual
Of course the best plan is to avoid medical issues occurring in the first place. Always take things slow when hiking in the mountains and always be aware of your surroundings.
If you plan on drinking water from natural sources, be sure to treat it by boiling it, using a filtration system, or using purification tablets. The last thing you want is getting a waterborne illness like Giardia.
Avoid alcohol and soda which dehydrates you when hiking and stick to water or sports drinks with electrolytes.
Plan for Weather
You need to always prepare for sudden weather changes, especially when hiking in the mountains where weather can be extremely unpredictable. Many storms often build up later in the afternoon, so tackling a trail early can often help you avoid getting caught out in a lightning storm.
If you do end up getting caught out in a lightning storm, descend below the tree line if possible and find cover immediately. You want to avoid being on summits or anywhere where you are one of the tallest objects around since this will make you a greater target for a lightning strike.
While it may be a glorious day when you start out on your hike, the weather can turn downright dangerous quite quickly in the mountains. Snow can fall out of nowhere nearly any time of the year in many places and winds can pick up to hurricane strength.
This is why it is always a good idea to carry additional heavier clothing in case it’s needed. And always make yourself aware of where trail shelters are.
Shelters are often placed along longer day hikes or multi-day hikes. These shelters may have life saving features such as fireplaces for warmth and emergency phones.
If no shelters are present, it may be a good idea to at least pack a small tarp that can be used to shield you from elements such as wind and rain.
Read Up on Local Wildlife
While spotting wildlife is often one of the main draws of hiking, it’s important to remember that wild animals should never be approached too closely. Run-ins with some animals can of course be deadly.
You need to be aware if venomous snakes, mountain lions, or bears may be present where you’re hiking. Even encounters with smaller or seemingly less fearsome animals like deer, buffalo, spiders, and scorpions can end up being serious.
While attacks by wildlife on humans are quite rare, you should do what you can to minimise dangerous encounters. Make your presence known when hiking through bear country, as bears often become aggressive when snuck up on. You may want to carry bear spray just in case.
Never touch wildlife or approach too closely even if they seem quite tame. Animals can carry a range of different infectious diseases such as rabies.
Insects and arachnids also carry a range of diseases and you should always use repellent when things like ticks or mosquitoes are around. In addition to spreading diseases, insects may also deliver painful bites or stings.
For some hikers who are allergic to insects like bees or certain ants, this can be life threatening. Avoidance is the best medicine, but having medication such as an EpiPen can come to the rescue when allergic reactions do occur.
Be Aware of Current Trail Conditions
Whenever you decide to hike, it’s a good idea to check on the latest trail conditions a day before or even the day of your hike. Contacting a park headquarters or forest ranger will allow you to get the latest trail updates. This information is often listed on national park websites as well.
Checking the trail conditions will make you aware of trail closures due to maintenance or dangerous conditions and possibly when dangerous animals have been spotted in the area.
Some trails may remain open, but may be wet, slippery, or muddy. Other trails may be icy, flooded, be blocked by downed trees or a recent rockfall, or may be in the path of a forest fire.
These are all reasons to check on trail conditions so you don’t find yourself in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation.
Avoid Getting Lost
Most hikers enjoy leaving behind the outside world and getting lost in nature, but you don’t want to literally get lost while hiking in the mountains.
Always stick to marked trails and carry maps. Most marked trails have waymarkers, some of which may even provide you with distances to certian points or landmarks.
If you plan on leaving the marked trails or you inadvertently find yourself having strayed from a trail, having a GPS unit will help you to get back on course. A GPS unit allows you to keep track of where you have hiked and can guide you back to locations you have marked along the way.
There are even great GPS apps available for your smartphone, some which don’t even require the use of data if you have downloaded offline maps. I also highly recommended downloading a free local emergency app for your phone.
In Australia for instance, they offer the Emergency + app which uses a mobile phone’s GPS functionality so callers can provide emergency call-takers with their location information as determined by their smartphone.
You should also pack a compass and know how to use one in case your GPS or phone batteries die. Keep in mind that batteries drain more quickly in colder weather so you may want to take spares.