23 Mar Stay safe on the trail: tips for new hikers
COVID-19 has quickly and radically changed the world, and the activities we pursue for leisure. With the closing of bars, restaurants and banning of large public gatherings, many are flocking to public lands for hiking and a chance to get outdoors while maintaining social distancing. Wherever you are in the world, please observe the requests of public officials. Check websites and social media before visiting any public lands so you know if they are open, and what facilities are operating. Be safe and be smart.
The mission of Wandering Rose Travels is encouraging others to pursue active travel. Seeing the world from hiking boots or the seat of a bicycle opens up an entire new viewpoint that you miss traveling by car, bus or train. In this era of social distancing, many are considering taking to the trail for the first time, or the first time in many years.
Other Wandering Rose articles you may find useful include:
National park safety tips
Stuff we’ve recently added to our hiking gear
Hiking vacation checklist
Five reasons why you should consider hiking poles
Winter gear for active travel
We hope that hiking becomes an ongoing pursuit for our readers. You can spend your life being a student of the outdoors, always improving your experience. But for starters, we like you to focus on two things: respect for our public lands and adhering to a few basic rules of hiker safety.
In addition to our experience, Wandering Rose sought wisdom from REI and the national park service.
Table of Contents
Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.
We see this outdoor code of conduct violated every time we hike. We have to hope that violators are not aware that their actions have consequences impacting nature and other visitors. Otherwise, these violators are just reckless and rude.
The more time spent outdoors, the more we respect nature and wildlife, and seek to be good stewards of our public lands.
Always carry a bag for packing out trash
This includes food scraps from your picnic or snack. You may be thinking, “my leftover food is from nature, so what is the harm?” Or, “this will be a tasty snack for the animals.”
Cassius Cash is superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the U.S. He sees the detrimental impact of trash and food scraps that park visitors leave behind, and Cash hopes everyone will help “keep the wild in wildlife.”
“You might think leaving an apple peel on the ground is harmless because it is biodegradable and will just go away,” Cash told Wandering Rose Travels. “But bears can become habituated to food that humans eat. Just like the potato chip ad says, you can’t have just one. Once habituated, bears associate the apple peel with humans, poses health and safety risks to other visitors.”
Look, but don’t touch
Enjoy nature with your eyes and camera, but resist the urge to pick wildflowers or gather cool things as souvenirs. As your momma used to say, “look for don’t touch.” Leave things where you found them for others to enjoy. Trails in U.S. public lands are heavily used so the impact of this cannot be overemphasized.
Stay on the designated trails
Staying on designated hiking trails a dual role … protecting nature and preventing hikers from becoming lost. In extreme cases, leaving the trail can have deadly consequences. It seems like every year someone steps off the boardwalk in Yellowstone’s Geyser Basin and perishes by falling through a thin, thermal surface, despite trail warning signs and park literature cautions.
Hundreds of times each year, search and rescue teams deploy to locate hikers who become lost after leaving the designated trails. This puts not just the hiker, but the search team members at risk also.
Spend time online reviewing the basic rules of hiker safety.
Don’t let your failure to plan become someone else’s emergency. You don’t need to fear nature, but you must respect it.
Start with easy trails and don’t exceed your physical ability
Ask your medical provider if hiking is safe for you. Start with easy trails and work your way up. Consult park service staff for advice on trails that meet your objectives and are within your ability. They can assess equipment and experience and get you off to a safe adventure. Park staff will also be aware of any weather conditions that could make hiking unsafe.
Local hiking groups are a good source of trail information. We rely on the websites AllTrails and REI’s Hiking Project for trail information and user ratings.
Trip planning plays a major role in your hiking experience
Cash sees many park visitors come unprepared for their outdoor adventure. “This is not a city park where you get off on a trail and see where it takes you,” Cash said. “If you want to hike, have trail maps, proper shoes and water. Recognize how elevation plays a role in temperature and be prepared for rain. If you don’t have the right gear and understanding, your visit can become dangerous.”
In addition to Cash’s advice for maps, shoes, water and proper clothing, we’d like to request you take a first aid kit, flashlight and compass. Your phone can be your compass, but practice using it before hitting the trail. We do not recommend relying on your phone as a primary light source because the battery life often becomes an issue.
“Hiking accidents happen, Cash continued. “You can’t prevent that. Twisted ankles are a usual case. Most accidents happen because hikers end up where they should not be. Or their hiking gear is improper. People overexert themselves. They may come to the park with a goal of repeating a difficult hike they did years ago and along the trail their body reminds them they are not 21 anymore.”
Let someone know your route and expected return time
Hikers should always let someone know where they are going and when they are expected back. Should you become lost, or injured and unable to hike out, knowing your hiking plan helps rescuers quickly mount a search, and could determine life and death.
If you encounter wildlife, keep a safe distance
We’ve encountered bears and snakes in nature, and in every situation they were only interested in escaping our company. We don’t approach wildlife to get a great selfie because, well, they’re wild. And unpredictable. Attacks do happen, sometimes at no fault of the humans, but often because people make careless mistakes.
Cash offers this advice: “I would remind visitors to keep their distance from our animals. Regulations say park visitors must stay at least 150 feet from wildlife. Some of our visitors have never been in national park and seeing an elk or bear can be a life-changing event. Some people want to become one with nature and lose perspective that these are wild animals. That worries us. I want to get the word out how to have a good time while staying safe and respecting the animals.”
Enjoy the trail. Be smart. Be safe. Send us photos of your next outing!