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If you are new to hiking, it can feel like a dangerous experience. And you are not wrong.
But if you know what to look out for before you head out on the trail and how to combat the common risks, you will enjoy your hike so much more.
Hiking and being in nature is supposed to be an enjoyable time and a mentally recharging experience!
Is Hiking Dangerous?
The short answer is not really. But there are things that you should be aware of that make hiking even less dangerous.
Every year, there are hikers who die while on a hike or backpacking.
National Parks see around 250-300 deaths per year. While not all are hiking-related, it does show how being unprepared can lead to a bad outcome.
These are not meant to discourage anyone from hiking, rather, it is to ensure that you are aware that bad outcomes do happen. Knowing that car accidents happen doesn’t discourage you from driving, but it is important to acknowledge the possibility.
The bottom line is that tens of millions of people hike every year, there are some bad outcomes, but 99%+ of those who hike do so without incident.
Things That Can Make Hiking Dangerous
Depending on how specific you get, there could be 100+ threats out on the trail.
In my experience, the major threats are:
Trying to do too much
Medical related issues
To me, this is the biggest danger many hikers run into.
Whether it is not taking enough water, not being ready for adverse conditions, or simply thinking, “I’ll be fine without that.”
Always take your essential hiking items and know the trail and weather conditions to see if you need to bring more gear.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution. I got caught in a flash hail storm a few years back and was near some hikers who were in shorts and t-shirts with no additional protection. I had a jacket I was able to use to cover myself for the 5-10 minutes it hailed. Those are the dangers of hiking in high-altitude exposed areas.
Trying To Do Too Much
We have all overestimated our own abilities at times. Right?
Thinking you can finish a 20+ mile off-trail hike over multiple high peaks within a day? Probably not.
Every year, I see folks who overestimate what they can do, and they end up paying for it with a less than enjoyable hike.
Make sure you are in adequate shape before setting out for your hike. And make sure you know your route and feel comfortable that you can complete it in a reasonable time.
You can always add on a little bit extra distance at the end of your hike if you feel inclined.
This is one that can sneak up on people.
Always check the forecast before heading out for your hike. Especially if you are in high-altitude areas or somewhere that weather can change quickly.
You don’t want to be the guy at the top of a mountain without rain gear as dark clouds rapidly roll in.
If you aren’t used to spending a few hours outside in direct sunlight, that can zap your energy, leave you with a sunburn, or even cause heat stroke.
It is not always just the heat that can lead to these issues; hiking up mountains in 70-degree weather in direct sun is enough to deplete you more than you anticipate.
Depending on where you are hiking, you may have a chance of encountering things like blowdowns or washouts.
Blowdowns are when storms or high winds knock over trees. This can lead to sections of a trail being blocked and/or damaged; causing a hiker to detour around the fallen trees or turn back.
The safest course of action is to turn back and return to your car or hike a different trail. Though, if this adds considerable distance to your hike (on a loop, for example), use caution when maneuvering off-trail. Be cautious of loose dirt exposed by the trees being uprooted; listen to your intuition and never try to traverse a section that you do not feel comfortable on.
Washouts are caused by erosion, commonly after heavy rains. I experienced this last summer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains when there were multiple days in a row of heavy rain, causing some significant washouts on the trail.
Like with blowdowns, be very cautious if you hike through areas that have been recently eroded. There can be a lot of loose ground, and you can easily fall or slide down a hillside if you are not careful.
Whether it be blowdowns, washouts, or any other trail deterioration, use common sense when considering whether to turn back or find a way around it. Even experienced hikers can find themselves in a bad spot if they test their luck against mother nature.
Be aware of the dangerous animals in the area of your hike. Bears, mountain lions, and snakes are common fears when hiking. These animals can be extremely dangerous in certain circumstances, but attacks are rarer than you may think.
Last year I spent a few weeks in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and never once saw a bear. That said, take the appropriate precautions (I.e., bear spray in grizzly territory) and be prepared in the event you do encounter a wild animal.
Solo hiking means you need to feel confident in your ability to combat any issue that comes up.
More seasoned hikers can still easily make a critical mistake when they hike solo. Every year there are instances of an experienced hiker on a solo hike who ends up injured or worse because they overestimated their ability or underestimated nature.
I enjoy solo hiking as I can go at my own pace, and I can experience a full immersion into the wilderness. Though, when I am hiking alone, I take extra precautions and make sure multiple people are aware of where I am hiking and when I plan to be finished.
I recommend new hikers to have a hiking partner or multiple fellow hikers when they head out, particularly if in a remote area or on new trails.
Medical Related Issue
Dehydration, altitude sickness, and heat-related issues are common enough on trails that everyone should take them seriously.
I cannot emphasize enough how important taking adequate water and electrolytes are, especially on hikes in hotter conditions or on routes that are exposed heavily to the sun. And during winter, taking enough warm layers is crucial as well.
Altitude sickness is one that can be tricky because not everyone reacts the same to altitude. For example, I have been fortunate to have backpacked in mountain ranges, spending days above 10,000 feet, and have not been impacted much at all. Others start experiencing symptoms at lower elevations.
I recommend not going from a lower elevation, say 3,000 feet, and driving up to a high-elevation trailhead, say 9,000 feet, and heading out on a strenuous hike. Ease your way into higher elevation hikes. I would suggest heading to that higher-elevation trailhead and just spending a couple of hours there or doing a short, easy hike at first. Then head back down the mountain and assessing how your body reacts.
I would also suggest drinking a lot of water while you are at higher elevations because you become dehydrated quicker at high elevations.
Is Hiking Alone Dangerous?
It is inherently more dangerous than hiking with other hikers. Solo hiking requires a higher confidence level in your abilities and for you to be completely self-reliant.
Even if you are a more experienced hiker, take stock of your physical condition and the trail conditions because it is easy to become overconfident. It is easy to develop the mindset of “I’ve done this many times before, so nothing bad can happen to me.”
Always have your hiking essentials, check weather forecasts and current trail conditions, and let others know where you will be and when you will be back.
Will I Encounter a Wild Animal?
You will probably see some wildlife, but an animal attack is extremely rare.
Seeing deer, rodents, birds, etc., is common, whereas, something like a mountain lion is quite rare.
Be aware of the wildlife that you could encounter, and stay alert if there are large predators in the region.
Do I Need To Take a First Aid Kit?
Yes. A first aid kit should be part of your hiking essentials that you take on every hike.
The biggest thing is to be sure that you know how to use what you bring. Having an entire hospital’s worth of supplies may sound great, but if you don’t know how or when to use something, it does you no good.
Does Hiking Get Safer When You Get More Experienced?
Yes and no. With experience, you develop a better sense of what to look out for and how to combat common risks. The flip side is that you can start to get a little more lax about being prepared.
You can develop the “I’ve done this a hundred times before and nothing bad ever happens” mindset. And this is when it can become more dangerous.
As you gain more experience, it is critical to continue taking preparations and precautions seriously.
How To Make Sure Your Next Hiking Trip Is Safe
Pack all the essential hiking gear
Check current weather and trail conditions
Inform someone or multiple people of your hike and estimated time of completion
Stay alert on the trail and err on the side of caution if faced with a predicament
Hike your own hike and enjoy it!
Hiking should be a fun, enjoyable activity!
There are factors that can make it dangerous, and you need to take them seriously, no matter how experienced you consider yourself.
If you take the proper precautions and prepare yourself before you step out onto the trail, you are putting yourself in the best situation possible to minimize risk.
My thinking is that if I plan and prepare properly before the trip, I can maximize my enjoyment of the experience while I am out in nature!