Hiking Safety Tips: How to Plan and Prepare

In the blink of an eye, myriad mishaps could turn any hiking trip from memorable to miserable. Read our top tips on how to hike safely to help ensure none of them take place on yours!

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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While the prime objective of any hiking trip is to have fun, staying safe is of even greater importance. There isn’t much fun, after all, in having our hiking experience curtailed by an injury or ailment, or culminating in a trip to the ER.

To help ensure you have an enjoyable, safe hiking trip, we’ve put together a list of 25 safety pointers covering everything from pre-trip planning and clothing choices to animal safety and river crossings. With the know-how you gain below, you’ll be able to enjoy a safe, memorable, and fun hiking trip no matter where your adventures take you.

25 Must-Know Tips for Safe Treks

Before Your Hike

1. Know Before You Go

Before you set off on a hike, do plenty of research to get the lie of the land. Some of the things you want to check for are:

  • Trail distance
  • Elevation gain
  • Sun exposure
  • Exposure to drops
  • Available water sources
  • Wildlife
  • Potential hazards (avalanche, rockfall, river crossings, flash floods)
  • Trail conditions (call ahead of time and bring crampons, snowshoes, or other traction devices if ice is expected)
  • Location of nearest hospital (this could save someone’s life!)
Always do your research before every hike!

2. Choose the Right Trail (and Know Your Limits)

Avoid biting off more than you can chew by realistically assessing how far you can hike in a given time frame. Be sure to factor in elevation gain and other variables like pack weight, altitude, and weather conditions, all of which could slow you down (and tire you out) significantly.

3. Wear the Right Clothing

The “right” clothing for any camping trip will depend on where you are in the world and the conditions on the day of your hike.

However, the weather gods love to add a little “spice” to our outdoor adventures with a spot of meteorological mischief, throwing in storms when the forecasts promise blue-sky days and skin-scalding sun when we’ve anticipated rain. This being so, come prepared for any eventuality and always pack rain gear unless a broad sample of forecasts predicts a cloud-free day.

Hiker hiking uphill with rain jacket on and her hood up
Bringing backup rain gear is a must unless multiple forecasts suggest otherwise.

4. Layer Up!

The layering system is now all but universally regarded as the best clothing strategy for outdoor activities. The reasons for this are simple. Wearing multiple layers allows your body to breathe whilst also keeping it warm and dry, which isn’t the case when wearing a single bulky garment. It also allows you to easily add or shed heat by removing layers as needed throughout your hike. 

The layering system consists of three layers: a base layer, a mid-layer, and a shell. Each layer has its own specific purpose: the baselayer provides moisture management, wicking sweat away from your skin and transporting it to subsequent layers; the mid-layer provides insulation; whilst the shell protects against the elements. 

Simple, right? The components of this three-part system can also be chosen to suit conditions, so it’s applicable at all times and in all weathers. The important thing to note is that all layers must be breathable and high-wicking, otherwise, the system will fail. 

hiker wearing a wool base layer shirt
Layering up means you can adjust your clothing to match any temperamental weather changes.

5. Avoid Cotton Clothing

One fabric that you should avoid wearing at all costs is cotton. While cotton is a super-comfortable and highly breathable fabric, it wicks moisture about as well as your average sponge. It is, in fact, capable of holding up to twenty-five times its own weight in water! 

Wearing soaked garments will be mightily uncomfortable but won’t, in itself, be too much of an issue health-wise when hiking in perfect conditions. In less-than-perfect conditions, however, it could lead to a dangerous lowering of your body’s core temperature, aka hypothermia.

The reason for this is that liquid cools your body at a far faster rate than air. So, a slight drop in temperatures or even stopping to eat lunch or help a stricken hiker could result in your sweat-soaked shirt or pants causing your core temperature to dangerously drop. 

Woman overheating wearing cotton on a hike
Avoid wearing cotton at all costs!

6. Wear the Right Footwear

As with clothing, this will depend on conditions and the type of trail you’re hiking. 

Generally speaking, hiking boots are the best option for more rugged terrain because they provide good ankle support and better protection for your feet. In wet and/or cold weather, they’ll also help to keep your feet dry and warm.

Hiking shoes are a better option on mellower, more well-maintained trails, and in hot conditions.

hiking boots
Boots are the best option for rugged terrain as they provide better support.

7. Pack the Essentials

Wherever and whenever you go hiking, always carry the ten essentials. Depending on the length of your hike and the conditions, you might have to tweak this list a little, but it serves as a great baseline packing list.

For more details, check out our guide to the ten essentials of hiking. For now, here’s a quick, at-a-glance overview:

  • Navigation (map and compass)
  • Hydration (adequate drinking water)
  • Nutrition (the number of calories you think you’ll need for the day plus 15% extra just in case)
  • Shelter (mainly for backpacking)
  • Sun protection (suncream, a sunhat, and UPF 40-50+ clothing)
  • Fire (matches or a lighter)
  • Illumination (flashlight or headlamp)
  • First aid kit (taking a first aid training course is highly recommended!)
  • Toolkit
  • Insulation (clothing)
Hiking and camping gear
Check you have everything you need before you leave!

8. Two is One, One is None

An old army aphorism advises us that “two is one, one is none,” reminding us of the wisdom in bringing spares of essential gear. 

You don’t want to weigh yourself down with too much kit, of course, but the weight penalty for carrying an extra map, compass, socks, waterproof matches, headlamp batteries, power bars/fruit bars, and gloves is negligible. If you’re heading on a multi-day hike, we also recommend carrying an extra day’s supply of food in case you are delayed for any reason.

9. Check the Forecast

Because weather forecasting isn’t an exact science, we always recommend bringing clothing that will keep you warm and dry in temps up to 10 degrees lower and with weather a little wetter than anticipated. It’s also wise to check forecasts from three or four sources – having a broader sample will reduce the risk of inaccuracy.

Finally, there’s no harm in calling the park ranger, forest ranger, or the national park service ahead of time to check on trail closures or any other weather hazards.

hiker in rainy weather
Being ill-prepared for an unexpected rain shower can put a dampener on your hike in more ways than one!

10. Make a Plan

Detailed planning might take some of the sense of adventure and discovery out of your hike, but there’s no harm in establishing a few checkpoints (and check-in times) to ensure you’re on the right track and making good time.

It’s also a good idea to have an emergency plan up your sleeve, identifying escape routes or possible shelters in case a storm sweeps in and you need to abandon your hike and/or take cover. 

11. Leave a Note

Once you’ve made a plan, leave your hiking itinerary with a friend or family member at home, detailing where you’re going, where you’ll park your vehicle, which trail you plan on taking, and when they can expect you back. 

Doing so will allow your contact to alert the relevant authorities if you don’t return and make it much easier to locate you in the event of any misadventures. 

12. Make an Early Start

Hike early to avoid the heat and beat the crowds. You’ll make better progress, have a better time of things, have the views all to yourself, and reduce the risk of not making it “back to base” before dark.

hiking early
Hike early to avoid the heat!

13. Stretch!

A pulled muscle might not sound like the worst injury you might suffer on a hike. In some cases, however, it really could be. 

Just imagine, you’re at the mid-way point on a 20-mile out-and-back hike and a high lunge up a step results in a pulled hamstring. Now the 3 hours you’d anticipated spending on that 10-mile return could easily be anything from 6–9 hours. 

Alternatively, imagine setting off on a long-awaited hike, stoke levels through the roof, only to sprain your calf and have to bail on your adventure just a few minutes in.

To reduce the chance of the above occurring, spend ten minutes at the trailhead doing a few dynamic stretches before you set off. We recommend the downward dog, heel kicks, lunges, hip circles, and hamstring kicks.

hiker stretching
To reduce the likelihood of injury stretch before your hike as well as on the trail.

While You Hike

14. Animal Safety

Bears, mountain lions, snakes, moose, cows, bulls, and scorpions are just a few examples of the dangerous wildlife that you might encounter on a hike – depending, of course, on where you are in the world and where your hiking trails take you. 

Generally speaking, wild animals will scram if they spot or hear approaching hikers. This being so, try to make noise while you hike by chatting loudly, banging your hiking poles together, or using a bear bell. 

If you have to cross a field with cows, make noise, walk quickly, don’t make eye contact with the cows, and give them a wide berth. Reroute if you spot calves or a bull.

If you’re in an area where snakes are present, wear tall boots and never step where you can’t see your feet. If you have trekking poles, tap these on the ground as you hike – many species of snakes have a poor sense of hearing, but they can sense vibrations in the earth and will most likely slither off as you approach.

If you’re hiking in bear country, carry a can of bear spray if permitted, seal scented items in scent-proof bags, make noise to alert bears to your presence, and divert course or turn back if you see a bear in the distance.

Bears are one of the few dangerous animals you may encounter when hiking (especially in bear country).

15. Multi-Purpose Trails

Multi-purpose trails are those shared by hikers, mountain bikers, and horse riders. Horses and fast-moving bikers are things not to be messed with, so here’s what to do to avoid a collision:

If you encounter a horse on the trail, give them a wide berth, avoid making any sudden movements or loud noises that might startle them, and shift onto the low side of the trail to let them pass.

If you encounter bikers, trail etiquette states that you technically have the right of way. However, if the biker is moving at speed, they are likely to lose control if forced to brake suddenly. As such, it only makes sense for the hiker to yield the right of way in most cases.

16. Use Poles

The benefits of using hiking poles are well-documented. Not only do they help improve balance and prevent falls, but they’re also great for powering up steep ascents, particularly useful on wet and icy trails, reduce the impact on your ankle and knee joints, and are a great help when tackling steep descents and river crossings. 

Man using trekking poles-to-walk uphill over rocky terrain
From helping with balance, to powering up steep ascents, trekking poles are highly useful.

17. Hydrate

Our body’s metabolic need for water increases whenever we’re exposed to the elements and doing activities that have us working up a sweat, such as when hiking. If we don’t meet that need, we run the risk of dehydration, which can cause a wide range of symptoms. These include:

  • Thirst
  • Diminished mental capacity
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Headache, fatigue, weakness, irritability, lightheadedness
  • Dark, bright yellow, or smelly urine

Your body will need around 1 liter of water for every two hours you’re hiking, though numerous factors could see this number rise to closer to two liters – extreme heat, lots of ascent, hiking at higher elevations, and personal hydration needs are just a few. 

Here are a few more tips to help you avoid dehydration:

  • Monitor your fluid intake throughout the day 
  • Pack sports drinks that contain electrolytes and/or rehydration salts
  • Bring salty snacks such as trail mix with salty nuts, veggie chips, or edamame
  • Bring a water purification system so you can stock up on water from wild water sources 
  • Research your route to find out if there are any refilling points along the way 
Man drinking from water flask in front of a mountain
Always hydrate!

18. Treat Wild Water

Sourcing drinking water from wild sources like lakes, creeks, or rivers is often necessary on longer hikes. However, drinking that water without first filtering or purifying it could land you with a bad dose of water-borne illnesses such as giardia, cryptosporidium, encephalitis, and even cholera (not an exhaustive list).

The safest way to eliminate pathogens, bacteria, and viruses is to boil water you want to drink, but this takes a lot of time and would entail carrying a stove and pot. The best alternative is to use a water filter or purification tablets, some of which are very nearly as effective as boiling.

19. Cross Carefully

If it’s necessary to cross a stream or river, there are a few steps you can take to make doing so safer:

  • Wear shoes or hiking boots for better grip and stability
  • Use hiking poles or a sturdy stick for balance and support
  • Face upstream
  • Join hands with members of your hiking party
  • Unbuckle the straps on your backpack so you can discard it if necessary
  • Try to cross the river at its shallowest point
  • If the river is swollen by rainfall, wait until the rain stops before crossing
It’s best to have appropriate footwear for crossing rivers!

20. Staying Safe in the Sun

Always carry sunscreen and, on bluebird days, be sure to wear head protection (a sun hat or baseball cap) and a long-sleeved shirt. Ideally, all items of your clothing should have a UPF rating of 40–50+.

If you’re backpacking, try to put in each day’s mileage in the early morning and late afternoon. When the sun is at its fiercest (usually noon to 3 or 4 pm), find shade and rest. This will reduce the risk of heat exhaustion and sunburn.

hiker in a hat
Protect yourself from the sun to avoid heat exhaustion and sunburn.

21. Stay on the Designated Trail

For your own safety and the welfare of the habitat, stick to marked trails only. Veering off-trail isn’t only one of the easiest ways to get lost, it can also cause erosion, damage fragile ecosystems, or disturb wildlife. 

22. Stay Together 

Keep your hiking party together by setting off (from the trailhead and rest points) at the same time and making the slowest member of your group the pacesetter. This may mean taking longer to reach your destination, but it also reduces the risk of someone getting lost and means someone will be there to help if any member of your team sustains an injury. 

Group of hikers traversing rocky ground
There is safety in numbers! Stay together all throughout the hike.

23. Turn Back

If you run into any hazards on the trail, run out of steam, or simply realize you might not make it back to your vehicle before dark or in a reasonable time, don’t be too proud to call it a day and head home. The trail will still be there for another attempt and pushing on regardless could land you in trouble.

As we all know, most trail injuries occur on the way down and when you’re tired and getting home in one piece should always be your number one priority. 

After You Hike

24. Check for Ticks

Ticks’ infamy derives mainly from the ability of the deer tick to spread Lyme’s disease. There are, however, several types of ticks out there that can carry or cause a variety of other nasty illnesses, including alpha-gal, babesia, Ehrlichia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Tularemia. 

After you hike, check your entire body, but especially at the backs of the knees, between the legs, the midriff, under your arms, and around your head and ears. Ticks in the larval or nymph stage can be minuscule, so use a phone light or flashlight and magnifying glass if your eyesight isn’t 20:20. 

To minimize the risk of having to go through the above and the notoriously tricky process of removing ticks, wear long pants, avoid hiking through tall grass or brushy areas, tuck socks into your pants, and spray insect repellent on exposed skin and your clothing.

protection against ticks
Wearing long pants will help protect you from ticks.

25. Inspect Your Gear

Discovering midway through a hike that some vital piece of gear is damaged or out of whack is no fun at all. While you could simply inspect your gear before you set off on your next hike, this will give you less time to repair or replace it. As such, be sure to give all of your kit a once-over the day after your hike.

Hiking Safety Tips: Have a Safe Hike…

…with the above knowledge in your repertoire, we’re sure you will!

Did you enjoy our article? If you did, or you have any questions or other hiking safety tips, drop us a line in the comments box below. And if you’d like to share this post with your friends, please do!

Last update on 2023-05-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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