The top of Hawksbill Mountain in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia offers panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. On a clear day, miles of lush forests and valleys can be seen in any direction. It’s the kind of view that begs for a square on Instagram, it’s not terribly hard to reach, and it drives millions to hit the trails.
While the vast majority of hikes end without incident, strenuous physical activity coupled with extreme weather and a lack of preparation have resulted in a spate of recent injuries and fatalities. This month, at least two hikers in the United States were found dead, one near a lake outside Kansas City, Missouri, and another in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. In June, a hypothermic hiker died after being rescued in sub-zero temperatures and high winds near Mount Clay in New Hampshire.
“Sometimes going out without the skills leads to bad circumstances,” said Jennifer Pharr Davis, who has hiked more than 14,000 miles of long trails and owns the Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Kate Van Waes, executive director of the American Hiking Society, added that hikers must learn to find their adventure within the experience they have, which can always grow with experience.
Before you head out, here are some safety tips and reminders, no matter your skill level.
What should I do before the walk?
Have a realistic plan. Hikers should have some knowledge of the route they plan to take, including trail conditions, whether it is steep, rocky, or smooth. Hikers should also assess the weather forecast and how they feel on the day of the hike. “You may be an expert walker, but you have an upset stomach or a headache that day,” said Ms. Van Waes. “Or your knee is failing. Don’t push it.
He also said that failing to alert family or friends to his plan was one of the biggest mistakes made by hikers, whether novice or experienced. “Make sure someone who isn’t on the walk knows when he’s going, where he’s going and when he expects to return,” he said.
What should I pack?
The American Hiking Society has developed a list of 10 essentials every hiker should gather before heading out, including a paper map and compass as a backup for phones and GPS units. Rain gear, a knife and sun protection are also important. National park visitors can download maps for offline use.
Ms. Davis said to pack a first aid kit and prescription medications, if needed on the trail, along with more than enough food and water.
Can I walk alone?
Yes. Ms. Davis says that walking alone allows her instincts to come alive and that she feels safer because she is quicker to listen to her intuition and her fear. “The one thing I caution solo hikers and female hikers is that the closer you are to towns or roads, the more aware you need to be of your surroundings and other people,” she said. “When I go alone, I don’t reveal a lot of information to people I don’t know.”
But share your information with park officials if you can. “Contact the ranger station and let them know, I am a woman walking alone, or I am a person of color walking alone and concerned, or I am trans,” Ms. Van Waes said. “Unfortunately, there are a number of vulnerable identities along the way.”
What if I encounter violence?
Create space as soon as possible. “The best thing you can do is put yourself in a safer situation and get help,” Ms. Davis said. “You want to get yourself and your group, if you’re with a group, to a safe place and then seek help and report the incident as soon as possible.”
What happens if I get lost?
Do not panic. Remember that the mistake isn’t getting lost, but how you respond to drifting off course, Davis said, adding, “Don’t immediately rush in the direction you think the ‘right’ path is.” Instead, take the time to collect your composure and make the best plan possible.
When she finds herself in an unwanted location, Ms. Davis said she follows a brief routine. “I always like to take a deep breath, sit down, have a snack, drink water, and then pull out all the available navigation tools: guidebook, map, compass, GPS, etc,” she said. “I ask myself where and when I remember being on the right track for the last time, and then I use my available resources to make a plan to get back to that place.”
Severe weather has interrupted my hike. Now what?
Be willing to adapt your plans. If there is lightning, avoid standing under a tree. “You want to try to get into a low place, like a ravine somewhere and wait,” Ms Van Waes said, or take shelter under a rock. Heavy rains can wash out trails and cause creeks to flood, she said. Hiking poles can be helpful in those situations.
When extreme heat is forecast, listen to your body. If you’re hiking with a group, Ms. Davis suggests sending someone who feels well and has enough water to go get more. Sit in a nearby stream if you start to feel overheated, she said. “If not, at least sit in the shade until someone can go get help. If you’re hiking alone, bring lots and lots of water.” He recommends carrying a liter of water for every two hours of walking and, in extreme heat, increase that amount to a liter and a half. “We also encourage people to pack some extra salty snacks so their sodium and hydration levels can replenish and stay balanced,” Ms. Davis said.
How should I get away from animals?
Avoid being on the trail at dawn or dusk. “It doesn’t mean you can’t meet animals at other times, but they are more active at those times and you can’t see them either,” said Ms Van Waes.
Having a bell in your backpack and talking among your group or singing out loud, if you are alone, are also useful. “Usually you’re fine as long as you don’t scare them, freak them out or get between a mom and her babies,” she said. “If they know you’re coming, they can get out of your way.”