The summit on Hawksbill Mountain in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia provides sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. On a clear day, miles of lush forest and valleys can be seen in any direction. It’s the kind of vista that begs for a square on Instagram, isn’t terribly difficult to reach and drives millions to hit the trails.
While a vast majority of hikes end without incident, strenuous physical activity coupled with extreme weather and the lack of preparedness has resulted in a wave of recent injuries and deaths. This month, at least two hikers in the United States have been found dead, one near a lake outside Kansas City, Mo., and another in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. In June, a hiker with hypothermia died after being rescued in freezing temperatures and high winds near Mount Clay in New Hampshire.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans flocked to the outdoors in greater numbers. In 2020, more than 68.5 million Americans participated in overnight backpacking and day hiking, a 13.6 percent increase over the year before, according to a report from the Outdoor Foundation. That surge has also accompanied an increase in the number of hiking-related injuries observed by park and rescue officials.
“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 is the owner of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Kate Van Waes, the executive director of the American Hiking Society, added that hikers should learn to find their adventure within the expertise 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 hike?
Have a realistic plan. Hikers should have some knowledge of the route they plan to take, including the condition of the trail — whether it’s steep, rocky or smooth. Hikers should also take stock of the weather forecast and how they’re feeling on the day of the hike. “You might be an expert hiker, but your stomach is bothering you that day or you’ve got a headache,” Ms. Van Waes said. “Or your knee is acting up. Don’t push through it.”
She also said that failing to alert family or friends of your plan was one of the biggest mistakes made by hikers, whether they’re newbies or experienced. “Make sure someone who is not on the hike knows when you’re going, where you’re going and when you expect to be back,” she said.
What should I pack?
The American Hiking Society has developed a list of 10 essentials that every hiker should assemble before heading out, including a paper map and a compass as backups to phones and GPS units. Rain gear, a knife and sun protection are also important. Visitors to national parks can download maps to use offline.
Ms. Davis said a first-aid kit and prescription medicines, if needed on the trail, should be packed, along with more than enough food and water.
Can I hike alone?
Yes. Ms. Davis says hiking alone allows her instincts to come alive and that she feels safer because she’s quicker to listen to her intuition and fear. “The one thing I do caution to solo hikers and solo female hikers, the closer you are to towns or roads, the more aware you have to be of your surroundings and other people,” she said. “When I go solo, I don’t disclose a lot of information to people I don’t know.”
But do share your information with park officials, if you can. “Check in with the ranger station and let them know, I’m a woman out hiking solo, or I’m a person of color hiking solo and I’m worried about it, or I’m trans,” Ms. Van Waes said. “Unfortunately, there are a number of vulnerable identities on the trail.”
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 reach out for help and report the incident as soon as possible.”
What if I get lost?
Don’t panic. Remember the mistake isn’t getting lost, but how you respond to being off course, Ms. Davis said, adding, “Do not immediately rush in the direction where you think the ‘right’ trail is.” Instead, take time to regain your composure and make the best plan possible.
When finding herself in an unintended location, Ms. Davis said she follows a short routine. “I always like to take a deep breath, sit down, eat a snack, drink water, and then pull out all of my available navigation tools: guidebook, map, compass, GPS, etc.,” she said. “I ask myself where and when I last remember being on the right trail, and then I use my available resources to make a plan to backtrack to that location.”
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 spot, like a gully somewhere and wait it out,” Ms. Van Waes said, or take shelter under a rock. Heavy rain may wash out trails and cause streams to flood, she said. Hiking poles can be useful in those situations.
When extreme heat is predicted, listen to your body. If hiking with a group, Ms. Davis suggests sending someone who is feeling OK 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.” She recommends carrying one liter of water per two hours of hiking and, in extreme heat, increasing that amount to one and a half liters. “We also encourage people to pack a few extra salty snacks so that their sodium and hydration levels can be replenished and stay balanced,” Ms. Davis said.
How should I steer clear of animals?
Avoid being on the trail at dawn or dusk. “It doesn’t mean you can’t encounter animals at some other time, but they are most active at those times and you can’t see them as well,” Ms. Van Waes said.
Having a bell on your backpack and talking among your group or singing aloud, if you’re alone, are also useful. “Usually you are fine as long as you haven’t scared them, startled them or come between a momma and her babies,” she said. “If they know you’re coming, they can kind of get out of your way.”