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When I first started to get into backcountry hiking and backpacking, my family thought I was absolutely crazy. Actually, some of them still do. Each year, there are media reports of unfortunate hikers who run into trouble in the backcountry and are either lost, injured, or tragically perish. I have explained to my family that, while even seasoned and prepared hikers do sometimes have accidents in the backcountry, a majority of the tragic stories you read about concern hikers who enter the backcountry unprepared.
While it is true that no amount of preparation can completely eliminate the risks and dangers of backcountry hiking, the same can be said about virtually everything in life. No matter how vigilant we are, accidents can happen. Even with something as routine as driving a car, taking safety precautions such as wearing a seatbelt, driving the speed limit, and paying attention to the road isn’t always enough to keep us safe. However, like with driving, taking certain safety precautions while hiking in the backcountry can significantly increase the likelihood that you will complete your hike safe and sound.
In this backcountry safety guide, I am going to outline ten easy to follow backpacking safety steps that will significantly increase your chances of staying safe and sound while hiking in the backcountry. Some of these tips I have learned from years of experience hiking in the backcountry or picked up from other hikers along the way. Other tips that I have included are just simple common sense. However, one thing that all of these tips have in common is that they could very well save your life.
Don’t Depend on a Quick Rescue in the Backcountry
If you are banking on being rescued quickly should something go wrong when hiking in the backcountry, you are really setting yourself up for failure before you hit the trail. While search and rescue teams are absolutely incredible at what they do, there are certain areas in the backcountry of the United States and abroad that are just so remote that they are impossible to get to quickly. When you set out to hike in the backcountry, your preparation should not depend on a quick rescue should something go wrong.
When I hike in remote regions, I try and prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Should something happen to me while backcountry hiking, my anticipation is that searches won’t start looking for me until at least 24 hours after I begin hiking (anticipating that it will be late in the day when I am reported missing). If the search starts sooner, all the better. However, I don’t go into a hike expecting that. Then, depending on how remote the region is where I am hiking, I anticipate that it will take between 8-24 hours to get to the location they will start their search. While some backcountry areas are fairly easily accessible, others are so remote that it can take a full day for rescuers to just get there.
That means it could take up to two full days after I started my hike for rescuers to reach the area where I am hiking and begin their search for me. If I am not prepared to shelter for a few nights where I am stranded, and I do not have an adequate supply for food and water to sustain myself, you can see how things could quickly turn ugly. This is especially true if I am injured and not at fully capacity. So it is always important to go thru these backpacking safety steps with this in mind.
1. Make Sure You’re in Physical Shape
I cannot tell you how many times I have been on a difficult backcountry hike and seen people really struggling on the trail because of their conditioning. In a few cases, I was genuinely concerned for their well being. It is not a coincidence that I am listing physical conditioning as the first of my ten backpacking safety steps in this guide. I think it is that important and I think it is often overlooked by hikers who underestimate how difficult the backcountry can be. There are some trails where you can get away with not being in good physical shape, and there are others where a lack of conditioning will be downright deadly.
If you are planning on hiking in the backcountry on a trail or route that is rated as “difficult” or “strenuous”, that should be a clear warning to you that it will require peak physical conditioning. That doesn’t mean you need to be a professional athlete or an Olympian to hike the trail, but you should be able to at least run the distance of the trail without stopping for a break. While you won’t likely be running on your hike, your endurance and stamina will be equally tested by the elevation gain, scrambling, and trail conditions you will encounter.
Start Running to Build Endurance
One of the most important ways to prepare your body for the physical demands of backcountry hiking is to run on a regular basis. Not only will running strengthen your legs, hips, and core muscles that you will rely on when backcountry backpacking, but it will also help increase your stamina and endurance so that you don’t get as fatigued on the trail. Here is the running regimen that I follow when training for backcountry hiking.
|Day of the Week||Distance||Running Pace|
|Monday||Rest Day||Rest Day|
|Friday||Rest Day||Rest Day|
Do Weight Training Designed for Backpacking
Sticking to a workout schedule can be trying. There is a reason why gym memberships skyrocket after New Years only to quickly trail off as the year progresses. To keep myself motivated, I tell myself that it is better to go thru the pain now than while I am on a remote backcountry trail and am dangerously exhausted because I didn’t prepare myself physically. In addition to running regularly, following one of these great workout regimens for backpackers will help make sure you are ready for the strain of backcountry backpacking.
- REI – How to Train for Backpacking
- Backpacker.com – 11 Bodyweight Exercises to Train for Hiking
- Outsideonline.com – How to Build and Maintain Thru-Hiking Fitness
2. Research the Trail
One of the best ways to be prepared for a backcountry backpacking trip is to know exactly what you are getting yourself into on the trail you plan to hike. There are few things worse than running into an unexpected obstacle that you aren’t prepared to overcome while hiking in the backcountry. Whether you are missing gear you didn’t know you would need, find out the trail is longer and harder than you anticipated, or expect to find water in a landscape devoid of it, not understanding the trail you are hiking beforehand can put you in real danger. Here are two backpacking safety steps that you can take to ensure you understand the trail you will be hiking beforehand.
Use the AllTrails App to Review the Trail Map and Stats
One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with a trial before you hike is to check out the trail on the Alltrails app or Alltrails website. This app provides key trail stats and maps that will give you a better understanding of how difficult the trail is and what you might encounter. For example, I have included a screen shot of the Reflection Canyon trail that I took in Utah from the Alltrails app above.
When looking at a trail in Alltrails, pay attention to the key trail stats such as the Trail Type, Distance, and Elevation Gain. Using these stats, you can get a fairly good understanding of how difficult the trail might be. For instance, if the trail gains thousands of feet of elevation in a relatively short distance, you can expect the trail to be steep.
In addition to the trail stats, the topographical map included in Alltrails will give you an idea of what type of terrain you will be traversing. For instance, you can see whether you will be ascending a mountain, following a ridge line, or traversing canyons or washes. This information is especially helpful as it will allow you to better plan what type of gear you will need to bring with you.
Finally, I would encourage you to read the user comments for the hike in Alltrails. The backcountry hiking community is a small, tight-knit community, and hikers leave some really great comments on trails in Alltrails. You can get a better idea of what obstacles you might encounter by reading the experiences that others have had while hiking the trail.
Watch YouTube Videos of Hike to Get Acquainted with the Trail
Another great way to collect invaluable information about the trail that you plan to hike is to do a Youtube search for others who have documented their hike of the trail. Looking at trail information is a great start, but actually seeing what the trail looks like and some of the obstacles that you will have to overcome on the trail can be hugely beneficial. For instance, when I was prepping for my backcountry hike to Reflection Canyon, I found the video linked below to be very helpful to me. It showed me what type of terrain I would be crossing and what type of gear others were bringing with them on the hike.
3. Learn How to Navigate
It is one thing to hike on a marked trail where you always know where you are going, but sometimes in the backcountry you cannot rely on all trails being marked. With unmarked trails, you are lucky if there are footprints from previous hikers to follow. In many cases, there is absolutely nothing for you to go on except for your knowledge of the terrain and your ability to navigate yourself. This is why understanding how to properly navigate is one of the critical backpacking safety steps. Without these skills, you can easily get lost in the backcountry.
Take a Class from REI
For those who are just starting to get into backpacking and have yet to log a lot of miles in the backcountry, one of the easiest ways to begin learning about navigation is thru a class. REI offers an incredible Introduction to Map and Compass Navigation Class that I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in learning the basics of navigation.
Practice Navigating on Easy Trails
Once you have learned the basics of navigation, one of the best ways to sharpen these skills is to practice doing some navigation on easy trails where you know you won’t get lost. This could be a nearby trail that you have hiked many times in the past or a new trail that is well marked so that you know you won’t get lost. As you get better at navigating, you can increase the difficulty of these practice runs until you are certain you are ready for the backcountry.
4. Bring the Right Gear With You
Another one of the critical backpacking safety steps that you can take before hiking in the backcountry is to make sure that you have the correct gear with you for your hike. For instance, if you think you will need to spend a night in the backcountry, you will need to have the necessary gear with you to camp out. This includes things like a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and other essential backpacking camping gear.
I think it is also important to have hiking poles with you in the backcountry, especially if you are planning on hiking a lot of elevation or uneven ground. Hiking poles give you additional points of contact with the ground, which can help to avoid slips and falls. I cannot begin to count how many times having hiking poles with me on a backcountry hike has saved me from issues with my balance.
If you are unsure about what gear you should have with you when you head out on your backpacking trip, I have included a link to my Complete Backpacker’s Packing Guide for you to review below. As you read thru the guide and start to pack for your trip, I would suggest you pay close attention to the weight of your bag. One of the biggest mistakes that beginning backcountry hikers make is carrying a backpack that is too heavy.
|Complete Backpacker’s Packing Guide|
Don’t Carry Too Much Weight
When you start packing for a backpacking trip, the natural instinct is to try and bring everything that you think you will possibly need with you. While that might seem like a good idea, it can actually be dangerous to carry a bag that is too heavy. Some back country trails are extremely remote. For instance, if you need assistance while hiking in the back country of the Maze District in Canyonlands National Park or the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, it can take up to three days for rescuers to reach you.
While it may be helpful to be prepared for everything, carrying a backpack that is too heavy for you can be perilous in many ways. A heavy backpack can significantly effect your balance, which can be treacherous when navigating difficult trails, scrambling over rocks, or climbing. This can lead to a fall or an injury that will require medical attention or evacuation. Even if you aren’t injured because of your bag, a heavy bag can also wear you down and leave you too exhausted to make sound judgements or even continue on. None of these things are good when the nearest help is days away from arriving.
This is why an important backpacking safety step is to ensure your bag weight isn’t too heavy when packing for a back country backpacking trip. As you start to shop for your gear, I would suggest keeping this in mind. As a general rule of thumb, your backpack should weigh no more than 20% of your total body weight. So if you weigh 200 pounds, your bag should weigh no more than 40 pounds or it is too heavy. If you would like some pointers on how to reduce your bag weight, I have included some good ones I have picked up along the way for you to review below.
- Avoid organizing things in bags within your backpack. These bags have a weight and every ounce matters.
- When you are shopping for gear, make sure you shop for gear that is as light as possible while still being functional.
- Divide common gear amongst your group. If you are sharing a tent and one hiker is carrying the tent, the other hiker(s) can carry other gear for that hiker such as water.
- Bring a water purification system with you and purify water along the trail instead of carrying all of your water with you. Make sure you will be able to find water along the trail before deciding to do this.
5. Take Enough Food and Water
Arguably the most important of the backpacking safety steps that I can review with you is to ensure that you have an adequate supply of food and water for your hike. One of the easiest ways to run into trouble on a back country trail is to run out of water. This is especially true if you are planning on hiking in extreme heat or a landscape that doesn’t provide much shelter from the sun. To help you prepare for your back country hike, here are some general rules to follow when it comes to managing the food and water for your hike.
Make Sure You Have Enough Water
The one item that many beginning backpackers tend to underestimate when determining how much they will need to bring is water. There are some backpacking items that are a luxury, others that are a convenience, and some that are a necessity. If you forget to bring the candy bar that you were planning on eating to celebrate a hiking milestone, it’s no big deal. That is a luxury that you can live without. Forgetting to bring your backpacking pots and pans will be an inconvenience on the trail, but you can probably live without. However, failing to bring enough water with you when you hike can be dangerous.
A general rule of thumb is that you should 1-liter of water for every two hours of hiking that you plan to do. That is for each person who will be hiking. So, if your group of two people plan on hiking for ten hours, you will need ten liters of water for your hike. Keep in mind, 1-liter of water weighs around 2.21 pounds, so you will want to plan accordingly when packing your bag. If you plan on going on a longer hike, you can bring a water treatment device with you so that you can make potable water out of water you find along the way. However, you should always scout this ahead of time and never just assume that you will be able to find water as you hike.
Plan Your Food Properly
After water, the food that you bring on your back country hike will be one of the most important things that you pack. When you go on long back country hikes, you are going to burn a ton of calories. If you do not have an adequate supply of food to refuel your body, you are going to get very tired on the trail. Best case scenario is that your hike will be pretty miserable. Worst case scenario is that you will be too weak to make good decisions and have an accident on the trail. These bad decisions can snowball and lead to catastrophe, which is why I believe properly managing the food for a hike is one of the most underappreciated backpacking safety steps that hikers can take.
When packing for a back country hike, you should plan on packing 1.5-2.5-pounds of food per person for each day. This equates to roughly 2,500 to 4,500 daily calories for each person. The food that you pack for your trip should be nutritious, not prone to spoiling, and as light weight as possible. There are tons of great dehydrated meal packs made especially for backpackers on the market, and many of them are quite delicious. Not only are these meals packed with the right calories and nutrients for your hike, but they are also light weight and last a long time because they are dehydrated. Just boil water at your campsites and add them to the pack or a pot and dinner is served.
6. Wear the Right Clothes
In addition to having enough water, one of the most important backpacking safety steps that you will need to pay attention to when preparing for any backcountry hike is having the proper clothing with you. Without the proper clothing, you can leave yourself dangerously exposed to the elements, which can be deadly. Seems like every year, hikers die on trails because they get caught in bad weather and don’t have the proper clothing with them to survive.
For instance, if you are going to be hiking on a trail with a lot of elevation gain, the temperatures during your hike are likely to fluctuate greatly. While you might be just fine in a T-shirt and shorts at the start of your hike, the temperatures at higher elevation might be much colder. To help you be sure that you always have the proper clothing with you for your backcountry hikes, here are some tips that I would keep in mind.
Understand the Weather and Trail Conditions Before Your Hike
Before you are able to start planning the type of clothing that you will need to bring with you on your backcountry hike, you will need to better understand the conditions you will face. Part of this will include understanding the environment you will be hiking thru. You will want to get a better understanding of what type of temperatures you might face, how much precipitation the area gets, how much shade is available on the trail, and other environmental factors that will influence what clothes you will need to bring.
For instance, if the weather is typically very hot and there isn’t a lot of shade along the trail, it will be important to make sure you have breathable clothes to keep you cool and a hat to protect your head from the sun. On the other hand, if you are going to be hiking at elevation or in an area where cold weather is to be expected, then having warm weather gear will be essential. Understanding the conditions you will face along the trail is one of the critically important backpacking safety steps.
When I am planning for a backcountry hike, I will look at the average high and low temperatures for the area, as well as how much precipitation the area gets on average during the month I will be hiking. I will also pay attention to long-range weather forecasts for the area to see if any bad weather is expected. As the day of my hike gets closer, I will continue to check the weather forecast to ensure that I have the right gear with me when I start my hike. If there is a chance of rain, cold, or other incremental weather, I will make sure I am prepared with the proper clothing and gear.
Wear a Moisture Wicking Base Layer
No matter where I am hiking, I always make sure to wear a moisture wicking base layer when I am in the backcountry. If the weather is hot, these base layers are breathable and will help keep me cool. If the weather is cold, the moisture wicking properties of these base layers will prevent me from getting cold by keeping the moisture away from my skin. When possible, I would avoid wearing cotton as your base layer as it is one of the worst insulating fabrics when wet. I would also suggest that you never wear jeans while on any hike, let alone in the backcountry. Not only do wet jeans provide horrible insulation, but they are also extremely uncomfortable to hike in.
Dress in Layers
One of the best ways to address changing weather conditions and ensure that you are prepared with the proper clothing while hiking in the backcountry is to wear layers during your hike. If you keep a lightweight winter jacket and a lightweight rain jacket in your bag, you can put these layers on should the temperature drop or should it start to rain. I also like to keep a pair of lightweight down pants in my backpack when I am in the backcountry as well. Down is very light and these pants keep me warm around camp when I stop for the night. It’s also a good idea to have a lightweight winter hat and some lightweight gloves in your bag as well if you are expecting really cold weather during your hike.
Ensure You Have Dry Clothes to Sleep In
One of the most often overlooked backpacking safety steps that you can take as it relates to the clothing that you wear is to make sure that you always have dry clothes to sleep in at night. Chances are good that you are going to perspire during your backcountry hike. When you perspire, your base layer will get wet. If you have a proper moisture wicking base layer on, it may dry out by the time you go to sleep at night. However, just in case, I like to have a second base layer with me on longer hikes so that I can ensure that I am not going to bed wet and freezing while I sleep.
7. Have the Right Footwear for the Hike
I have spoken a lot about equipment so far in my list of the important backpacking safety steps that you can take when venturing into the backcountry. However, I think one piece of equipment is important enough to warrant its own bullet point on that list. This piece of equipment is the footwear that you decide to bring into the backcountry. When you are hiking in the backcountry, you depend a great deal on your feet to move you along the trail safely. Sometimes, this includes sections of trail that are very steep, rocky, and even slippery. Without the right footwear, even a modestly difficult trail can be dangerous. When planning your backcountry hike, please keep the following advice in mind when choosing the footwear to bring on your hike.
Choose the Right Hiking Shoes
When you go on a back country hike, an injury that leaves you unable to walk can be a major inconvenience or even dangerous. You will want to make sure that you have the proper footwear with you before setting off on any hike, let alone a multi-day hike in the back country. When looking for the right hiking shoes or boots, please keep the following factors in mind:
- The boots should be light-to-mid weight. The last thing you will want to have is heavy boots when you are doing a long back country hike. It is said that each pound of weight on your feet equates to roughly five pounds on your back, so your boot weight really matters. Look for boots that weigh between 2.2lbs (1kg) to 3.3lbs (1.5kg). Anything more than that is too heavy.
- Look for boots that have a rubber sole with deep lugs. This will give you the best traction and ensure that you don’t slip on uneven rocks.
- Look for a mid-to-high height boot to give you good ankle support. You are going to be walking on some uneven surfaces and you don’t want to twist an ankle while on a trail. For added support, look for boots that have speed hooks or D Strings.
- After putting the shoes or boots on, plant your foot down and make sure that your toes don’t touch the front of the inside. This will ensure that you have a comfortable fit and won’t be jamming your toes when doing rocks scrambles or descending hills.
- Make sure the boots you purchase are waterproof. If you get caught in the rain while hiking or have to traverse wet areas, you will want to have the foot protection. Not only is walking in wet boots or shoes miserable, but it can lead to blisters and foot injuries that can be dangerous.
Wear Hiking Socks
In the military, they teach you very quickly the importance of taking care of your feet. If you depend on them to march you for miles a day, an issue with your feet can be disasterous. The same is true for backcountry hiking. Chances are that you are going to have to cover a large amount of miles while hiking in the backcountry. Keeping your feet in good shape is critical to succeeding and keeping yourself safe.
One of the best ways to make sure your feet are in good shape is to make sure you wear the right socks while hiking. Always avoid wearing cotton socks while hiking in the backcountry. Cotton is a horrible insulator and your feet will get cold when they get wet with perspiration or water from the trail. Instead, I would recommend wearing a good pair of wool blend hiking socks. Not only will they keep your feet warm, even when wet, but they are really comfortable to wear while hiking for miles. My favorite brand of hiking socks are the Darn Tough brand. If you’re interested, you can find some of my favorites on my Amazon Storefront page.
Bring Micro Spikes or Crampons if Necessary
While good hiking shoes and boots provide a great deal of added traction when hiking on trails and scrambling over rocks, they aren’t enough to remain safe in every type of landscape you will find in the backcountry. For hikers who expect to encounter steep, snowy or icy slopes on their backcountry trail, you will want to bring added traction with you on your hike.
The best gear that you can use to assist with hiking on icy or snowy trails are micro spikes or crampons. Both micro spikes and crampons fit over your hiking boots and help you with traction while traversing snowy or icy conditions so that you don’t slip. Micro spikes are typically much cheaper and adequate for hiking on snowy or icy trails that aren’t as steep. However, if you plan on climbing in very steep, icy conditions, you may want to consider investing in crampons.
8. Do a Trial Hike to Test Your Gear
When packing for a backcountry hike, I would recommend that you start early for a number of reasons. Not only will it allow you to take your time packing so that you don’t forget anything, but it will also allow you to test your gear before your hike. One of the easiest backpacking safety steps for you to take on my list of safety precautions is to do a trial run with your gear beforehand. Believe me, this can be an eye-opening experience for new backpackers.
When I first started to backpack in the backcountry, I had a tendency to overpack my backpack. This led to some very heavy loads and exhausting hikes. Not only is this dangerous, but it takes a lot of fun out of hiking the incredible trails you want to explore. In addition to helping you determine if your backpack load is too heavy, a trial hike on an easy local trail can also help expose issues with other gear you plan to bring. For instance, breaking in a new pair of hiking boots, testing your clothing layers, and understanding how to attach your micro spikes or crampons before you are in the backcountry are just some of the worthwhile things to test in a dry run beforehand.
9. Tell Someone Where and When You’re Hiking
Without any doubt, the most important of the backpacking safety steps that I am covering with you in this guide is to always (and I mean always) let people know your plans when you go on a hike in the backcountry. If no one knows where you are going, when you are going, and when you plan to be back, then no one will notice when something goes wrong. If you run into trouble in the backcountry, you are going to want to have someone you trust back home to alert the authorities. Believe me, letting someone know your hiking plans can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Before you head out on your backcountry hike, I would strongly suggest you provide an itinerary to one or more people you trust. Let them know where you plan to hike, what route you plan to take, what day and time your hike will start, how often they can expect to receive updates from you, and when they should expect to hear from you after your hike. Also, make sure you provide them with a phone number to call in case you don’t check in when you are supposed to. For instance, when I hiked to Reflection Canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument this autumn, I gave my family the phone number of the ranger station as well as the local emergency number just in case.
10. Bring an Emergency Device
The last of the backpacking safety steps that I want to cover with you today is one that might just save your life someday. If something should happen to you while in the backcountry, chances are that there will be few, if any, people around to assist you. Not only that, but there is likely to be limited, to no, cell phone service for you to use to call for help. In the event of an unfortunate accident, an emergency GPS device such as a Garmin InReach handheld GPS unit can be a life saver.
These devices have a built in emergency button, which allows you to alert the Garmin International Emergency Response Coordination Center that you are in trouble. This will allow them to coordinate a rescue effort for you. All you need is to be able view the sky to send out this signal. Not only that, but the Garmin InReach devices allow your family to track your hiking progress and for you to send pre-formatted and custom messages to contacts from the backcountry. These are just some of the features that make a GPS unit like a Garmin InReach the ultimate backcountry safety device.
Thank you so much for reading! Glad you found them helpful!
Great tips, Josh, especially the one about looking at YouTube videos of the hike. Never thought of that but I might do it before I head to Sedona in the spring, even though those are just day hikes. That Garmin device has piqued my interest. It makes me nervous when the husband goes bike packing in the desert West all by himself. I’m going to look into getting this for him before his next trip. Thanks for the useful post!
Thank you!! I appreciate your perspective!! If you look at Garmins, I would suggest the Garmin mini. That’s what I have. You get all the navigation and messaging features the larger device had, you just use them thru an app on your phone that connects to the device via Bluetooth. It still has the same SOS feature for emergencies the larger devices have. Best part is that it is tiny, so it is really easy to carry. Their plans are also great. You can get the emergency plan that is only $15/month, or more expensive plans based on how much messaging you want to do. And you can sign up for month-to-month, so you only have to pay during the months your in the backcountry. Mine has given me so much peace of mind 😄
This is great info. Thanks.
Great tips, always good to have a reminder on hiking safety. Thanks!
Thank you so much for reading Diana! I agree, safety is important!