It’s wildflower season! And it’s time to lace up your hiking boots and treat yourself to one of the many incredible trails and legendary wilderness destinations in the Roaring Fork Valley. Whether you opt for a low-impact walk around the ghost town of Ashcroft or an all-day, all-out adventure to American Lake, hiking is a heart-healthy exercise that comes complete with 360-degree scenery, peaks, picnics and our crisp Rocky Mountain air. Whether you’re just starting out or have thousands of miles under your belt, it’s always important to keep safety in mind and be prepared. Here are 10 essential safety tips for hikers.
10 Safety Tips to Remember for Your Next Hike
1. How to Plan a Hike
Spend time mapping where you’ll go, consulting your GPS, and chatting with the local gear shop or park ranger. Be as informed as possible about current trail and weather conditions, terrain, distance and elevation gain. Estimate the time it will take and when you need to get started. Even shorter hikes often benefit from an early dawn start to avoid mid-summer heat and more intense sun at elevation. For more detailed information, check out a local hiking guide book (and consider copying the pages relevant to your day’s excursion to stash in your pack or taking pictures of the details with a phone you’ll take with you), and visit (or download) these apps: Aspen Trail Finder, Strava or AllTrails – they are excellent resources for hikes of all difficulty levels.
2. Hiking List Essentials
Even a hike you’ve done tens of times still requires a little forethought and the proper equipment. Before you go, put together an essential hiking gear list. A few things to consider:
- Footwear – Is it a long trek carrying a heavy pack, or a fast-and-light trail run? Make sure to think about traction, support and protection such as water proofing when selecting your shoes or hiking boots. If you plan on encountering water at any point during your hike, such as a small river or creek crossing, make sure to throw in an extra pair of dry socks to help prevent blisters.
- Moisture-wicking layers – For an active day on the trail, it’s best to avoid cotton, which is slow to dry and can retain moisture. Instead, opt for more technical fabrics designed to pull moisture away from the skin, protect from the sun, and help moderate body temperature.
- Sun protection – The higher you go, the more intense the sun’s rays can become. Even on a cloudy day, make sure to pack plenty of sunscreen, sunglasses and a brimmed hat.
- Lightweight backpack – For day hikes, a lightweight backpack with room for your essentials plus plenty of food and water is ideal. It’s best to find one that fits properly to help avoid unnecessary shoulder and hip strain and hot spots.
3. Pack Snacks and Plenty of Water
It’s important to pack enough food and water to get you to your destination and then back to the trailhead. Always hedge on the side of too much on both fronts. Pack a mix of sweet and salty, and plenty of high-protein options. And always, always, always pack sufficient water. If you’re worried about running out, identify water sources along your route and bring a water filter. There’s nothing worse – and potentially more dangerous – than running out of water during a long, strenuous hike. Learn more about how much water you should be drinking daily.
4. Be Weather Wise
Check the forecast before you go, both in the days leading up to your trip, but also in the hours and even minutes just before. An accurate weather forecast helps determine what to bring, such as a rain jacket or extra warm layers, additional sunscreen and extra water. If rain is forecasted, make sure to check trail conditions and closures.
5. Watch Out for Wildlife
The potential wildlife sighting is a large part of the joy of hiking, but it’s still important to be aware and respectful of the animals, for your safety and theirs. If hiking in bear country, make sure to pack bear spray. In later summer months, snakes become more common. Keep dogs close and watch for the occasional rattler sunning himself on the trail. When it comes to wildlife, enjoy the view, but enjoy from a safe and respectful distance.
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6.) Hike During the Day
Up the safety factor by hiking during daylight hours. During the summer months, this isn’t hard to do with plenty of sunlight. However, as fall approaches, make sure you and your hiking partners give yourself plenty of daylight to complete your trip. Just in case something happens or your hike takes longer than expected, make sure to pack a headlamp or light source in your pack.
7.) Hiking Trail Etiquette
Responsible hikers make hiking more enjoyable for all of us. Stay on the trail (trying to shortcut can contribute to erosion, injury and getting lost) and know the right of way, especially if the trail is multi-use and you’re sharing the space with horse riders and mountain bikers. Keep your dog on a leash when noted at the trailhead (and all the time in high traffic areas). As the saying goes, “Leave no trace.” Make sure to pack out everything you pack in, including microtrash such as candy wrappers, tissue and fishing line.
8.) Prevent Altitude Sickness While Hiking
This is particularly important in and around the Roaring Fork Valley where some peaks tower well above 14,000 feet in elevation. One of the most important things to do while hiking at altitude might be the hardest – ascend slowly. When you’re anxious to get up the trail and around that next corner, this can be tough. But ascending too quickly can contribute to the onset of altitude sickness. Along those lines, if you’ve traveled to the area from a lower elevation, spend a day or two relaxing to let your body acclimatize. And of course, drink plenty of water. The more you drink, the better your body will be prepared to tackle the trail. For more tips and information on how altitude can affect the body and symptoms to watch for, check out Dr. Catherine Bernard’s article on Living at Altitude.
9.) Pack a Proper Hiking First Aid Kit
How complete you want your hiking first aid kit is up to you, but there are a few essentials you shouldn’t hike without. These include ways to treat some of the most common hiking injuries, including: bandaids, moleskin, paper tape and other ways to treat small scrapes and blisters. A small splint for more significant twists and sprains is another excellent item. Antibiotic ointment to help keep scrapes and cuts clear of infection is a good choice as well. If the hike is a longer, more demanding one and the terrain more severe, you might want to throw in gloves, a tourniquet, an elastic bandage, and larger bandages or gauze pads.
10.) Tell Someone Before You Go
Perhaps one of the most notable lessons about not telling someone your agenda is that of Aron Ralston, author of 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place. In not doing so, Ralston found himself in grave danger before having to make a near impossible decision to lose his arm in an effort to save his life. While this is an extreme lesson, it does illustrate the importance of providing someone you trust with the following information before you depart:
- Your route
- When you plan to leave and when you’ll be back
- A chosen time for that person to reach out to search and rescue or other authorities if you don’t show up
Hiking is a staple of living the mountain life. We turn to the trails for adventure, fun, escape. We wander to clear our minds and explore what’s just beyond that next ridge. It’s an excellent way to connect with the wild world all around us, and being properly prepared makes it all the more rewarding.