7 Ways to Stay Safe While Hiking
My list of 7 ways to stay safe while hiking was inspired by our Quarry Trail hike. This past weekend, the Hikes With Dogs pack went hiking ‘alone’. By ‘alone’ I mean no humans other than myself. I took the best safety precautions I could: we went on an easy hike in an area I’m familiar with. Both dogs stayed on their leashes. I brought water, extra leashes, and even a meal in case we were gone longer than expected.
What I didn’t expect was the giant tracks we came across in two different locations along the trail.
At first, I assumed they were just really big dog tracks, but they were so unusually large that I had to take a picture of them. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if those were mountain lion tracks?”
Well, apparently they were. Despite being pretty close to town, on a trail frequented by noisy dirt bikes, that piece of forest is apparently home to mountain lions. (If you can ID those tracks as something different, please leave a comment and let me know!)
In the following couple of days, several people expressed deep concern about where I had chosen to hike alone. So I started wondering, just how much danger were we in that day? Most of my knowledge of mountain lions is based on the Lassie TV series that ran from 1954 to 1974. Probably not the most accurate information available.
While Wikipedia lists only 3 fatal attacks in the past 13 years, other sites list over 60 attacks in that time span. You’re still far more likely to be killed by a dog than by a mountain lion, but it’s good to be aware of your surroundings and know how to deal with an unexpected encounter.
Mountain lions shouldn’t be at the top of your list of things to worry about while hiking, however. Twice as many people have died from rattlesnake bites in the past 13 years according to Wikipedia. (I will admit, I’m a bit skeptical of this number, but that’s the information I found) Still, this is a very low number: 6 people, so don’t panic at the first sight of a snake. At least two of those people were intentionally handling the reptiles before being bitten by them. That leads to the first point in my list of…
7 ways to stay safe while hiking.
People are often injured when trying to kill a perceived threat. Many snake bite victims were only close enough to the snake to get bitten because they were trying to kill it. Don’t poke the hornets’ nest. If you’re able to avoid confrontation, do it.
Keeping your dogs on a leash is always smart. Even a well trained dog has a prey drive, and encountering a strange animal could trigger them to chase out of the blue. Trying to hunt down a lost dog in the middle of the woods isn’t safe or fun for anyone.
Know Your Surroundings
What dangers can you expect where you go hiking? This can differ greatly even in a small area. Snakes, for example, may stick to certain microclimates and never venture into your actual path. Take the Quarry Trail, for example. The sunny, rocky Quarry itself is home to many species of reptiles that never appear on the shady trails where it is too cool for them. Simply by staying on the trail, I can avoid them completely.
Where I live, it’s extremely unlikely that I will encounter a venomous snake. However, we do have cougar, coyote, bees, spiders, and possibly even bear.
Another element of knowing your surroundings is environmental dangers. If you’re hiking in the desert, dehydration can become a serious issue. In the mountains, hypothermia could be your biggest danger. Knowing the conditions and weather you can expect will help you stay safe.
Does poison ivy grow in your area? Poison oak? Stinging nettles? Do you know how to identify harmful plants? While you’re not going to die from encountering most plants, they could make your day (or week) miserable.
Know the Danger
You’ve heard the saying “knowledge is power”. Put that into action. If you have venomous snakes in your area, study them and learn to identify the venomous snakes and how they differ from the harmless snakes. Learn what microclimates they like, and how to avoid them. What time of day are you most likely to see them? Do they prefer to hide in the grass? Under rocks? Or are they bold and wander out in the open?
Simply by understanding the creatures you may encounter, you may be able to avoid ever being in the same place at the same time.
Expect the Unexpected
You might not think of these creatures when evaluating the dangers you may encounter, but even the cute and furry critters can be a danger under the wrong circumstances. Deer are a big one that’s often overlooked. They’ll usually run, but if they feel cornered they will attack. Raccoon, beaver, otters, and other creatures can be surprisingly aggressive as well. Even squirrels and rabbits will fight back if cornered. And don’t forget porcupines and skunks.
Most of these creatures are easily avoided by simply keeping your dog on a leash. They’ll want to avoid conflict as much as you do, so don’t let your curious dog start something bad.
Also, while you may have prepared for a cold day, the sun could come out unexpectedly and suddenly heat exhaustion could be your biggest danger. Or maybe you’re going hiking in the mountains and, while it’s warm and sunny at your home, you find ice on the trails. Packing some extra equipment in your car could help avoid hazards you weren’t expecting. You might not need to take everything on the trail, but a last minute switch of the contents of your backpack could be very helpful.
Know How to React
If a large predator attacks, should you play dead, run, or fight back? The answer might surprise you in some cases. Make sure you do your research to know the latest advice given by experts. With bears, for example, the technique differs depending on which species you encounter.
What do you do if you get bitten by a snake? Stung by a scorpion? Having the correct answer to these questions could save your life. The knowledge alone could help stop you from panicking, your heart racing, and thus slowing the venom from reaching vital organs.
Once you know the dangers, you will have a better idea of how to prepare. For example, bears are shy creatures and will move on if they hear you coming. Wearing a bell or talking loudly could prevent an encounter. If you or your dog are allergic to bees, you may want to carry an EpiPen or Benedril. A small first aid kit could be useful in many situations. An extra leash may be all it takes to avoid some hazards.
Keep an eye on your surroundings, the weather, your footing, and of course your dog. All of these things can change quickly, and if he’s anything like mine, your dog is looking for trouble. I have to keep a close watch on Bentley in particular to make sure he isn’t eating things he finds along the trail, including plants, insects, and horse manure. He’s also tried to consume bones and cigarette butts he’s found.
It may seem like a no-brainer, but just by being aware of what’s going on around you, you can avoid a lot of trouble. As a bonus, you’ll take in more of the scenery which makes for a more rewarding experience.
So that concludes my list of 7 ways to stay safe while hiking. Don’t be afraid of hiking, that’s not the point of this article. Hopefully this has given you some new ideas on what to be aware of when you’re out in nature. Have you thought of more than 7 ways to stay safe while hiking? Share your suggestions in the comments below! And stay tuned for follow up articles addressing each of these dangers and explaining what to do if you encounter them!