Nancy lives and plays in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband, three children, and dog. She is a small animal veterinarian but she is also passionate about her blog, Hope and Feather Travels. She writes extensively about her hiking adventures and outdoor education topics, inspired by her position on her county’s search and rescue team and her commitment to educating hikers with knowledge that will keep them safe in the backcountry.
I am a search and rescue team member in western North Carolina and our team is located in the second busiest county of our state for wilderness missions. We see it all: Lifelong hikers, newbie hikers, incredibly athletic hikers, young, old, etc. And sadly, not everyone our team looks for lives through their ordeal, even in the most popular hiking destinations and shockingly close to trailheads. Thankfully, this is not the norm, but it does happen. As an avid hiker myself, it has opened my own eyes, very widely, to the importance of preparedness.
The universal theme to the vast majority of our missions is unpreparedness. Far and away, the most common things I hear people say when my team finds them, either lost or injured, is that they didn’t realize how quickly things could go wrong and/or how little they had in their backpack to mitigate their situation safely.
Being sufficiently prepared isn’t as difficult or involved as it may sound on the surface. It simply amounts to a list of items that you should always have in your pack or on your body, whether you’re planning a thru hike of several months or simply a day hike, along with a few basic skills you should learn and remember. Ultimately, even if you are hiking in a group, you are responsible for your own safety at all times.
For starters, before you even pack your backpack and head out for the trail make sure to take the following steps:
- Leave an itinerary with someone and the estimated time you think you’ll emerge from the woods. If you don’t live with this person, make sure you let them know you’re off the trail safely. And set a designated time for them to call authorities if they don’t hear from you.
- Check the weather forecast for the day of your hike and a day or two further out. If you’re caught out longer than expected due to an injury or being lost, make sure you bring appropriate clothing to prepare for the upcoming forecast, not just what’s happening the day of your hike.
- Research the area you’ll be hiking in, to make sure there aren’t any trail closures, seasonal obstacles such as high water crossings, etc. Discovering these before you’re on the trail could save countless hours and miles of backtracking or rerouting your trip.
- Put your phone in “airplane mode” or turn it off completely before you start hiking, even if you use a navigational app (these apps will work in airplane mode with most newer phones on the market now).
Appropriate clothing is one of the key elements to both an enjoyable hiking experience and a safe one. In short, there are very few reasons you would ever want cotton on your body during a hike. It will not insulate you if you become wet from sweat or precipitation. Synthetic materials are a much better choice and layering your clothing is the best way to regulate your temperature on the trail. A three-layer system is typically the best approach:
- Layer One should be a moisture-wicking base layer such as a synthetic material or a merino wool blend. Since this layer is closest to your body, it’s the most important to wick moisture.
- Layer Two should focus on insulation. A puffy jacket filled with either down or a synthetic material is a great choice. Fleece is also suitable for many conditions. In extremely cold weather, both a puffy jacket and fleece can be your friend to keep you warm.
- Layer Three is focused on keeping you dry from precipitation as well as blocking wind. A soft shell rain jacket or even a poncho is an excellent choice and usually covers both of these objectives. For your lower body, rain pants are sometimes a good choice, but they can be hot to hike in beyond a short period. Rain kilts are also popular options that provide more ventilation than pants.
If you’re caught out longer than expected and are dealing with inclement weather, nothing will feel more like a safety net than having an emergency shelter. This shelter doesn’t need to be a 4-season, freestanding tent though! It can be as simple as a lightweight emergency bivvy. There are wide variations and price points with these emergency style bivvys, but as long as it will keep you dry from the elements, that should be your primary factor in choosing one.
A tarp is another good option for shelter. Many materials on the market such as silnylon can make carrying a tarp a breeze since they are much lighter and less bulky than the big blue tarps you’d use at home to cover a wood pile!
Finally, a trash bag (preferably a compactor style bag since they are thicker) will make do in a pinch. You can easily convert one into a makeshift poncho, or use it like a bivvy.
Imagine for a moment how much more difficult it would be to find your way safely off a trail at night without some form of light. While night hiking can be a unique and exciting way to hike, not everyone plans on being out on a trail after the sun sets, but it can easily happen if you miscalculate the timing of your hike or are injured and are forced to hike more slowly. While a smart phone’s light source can a great backup, it’s imperative to bring a primary and dedicated source of light. A headlamp is the easiest choice for this purpose, but a small flashlight works just as well. Extra batteries are also a must in your pack.
Speaking of extra batteries, an external battery charger for your phone is a strong recommendation. If you are using a phone app such as Gaia or All Trails, even in airplane mode it will drain your battery more quickly (and most navigation apps work in airplane mode of more current smart phones). Cold weather will do the same, so it’s important to keep your phone as warm as possible.
These days, it’s incredibly easy to navigate on trails thanks to navigational apps, such as All Trails and Gaia, that you can download onto your smart phone. Gaia is my personal choice and I am fortunate enough to be able to extend fellow hikers a 20-50% discounted rate by using this link to purchase your subscription).
While these apps are a wonderful bonus to hikers, they are just that, a bonus. Nothing should replace carrying a topographical map of the area you’re hiking in, along with a compass. Your compass need not be expensive or fancy, and some of the more basic models from reputable brands like Suunto are my favorites.
If you’re smart enough to carry and paper map and compass, make sure you learn how to use them before hitting the trail. Without that knowledge, they won’t be as helpful, especially the compass. Many outdoor retailers such as REI teach basic navigation courses, and local hiking clubs may offer something similar for free. There is no shortage of videos on the internet, on places like YouTube, to teach you the basics as well.
Fire Making Materials
One of my search and rescue team’s most nail-biting missions was looking for two young adults who had lost their way on our trails during an unseasonably warm winter’s day. While it may have been warm enough for the clothes they had on their bodies when they set out, it certainly wasn’t warm enough when an arctic cold front and snow storm blew in less than 24 hours later, while our team was still looking for them. Because they had a lighter with them, their lives were spared. They were able to build a fire and wait for our team to find them, which took nearly 72 hours, in temperatures in the teens, with strong winds.
Having waterproof matches and a lighter is one of the most important things you can take on a hike. I always recommend having one in your pack and one on your body in a pocket, just in case you should become separated from your backpack at some point (losing it in a river crossing, setting it down before you go off trail to use the bathroom and not being able to relocate it, etc.). There are also many forms of lightweight fire starters you can also carry, to expedite and facilitate the process of building your fire, and I recommend carrying one of those as well.
Just as importantly, educate yourself on how to make a fire. While it may seem easy in theory, creating a fire with damp wood or limited resources can be a challenge. There are many videos on the internet to show you various methods in an experiential, hands on learning style.
First Aid Supplies
Your first aid kit can become as elaborate as you’d like, but make sure you have the basics. Here’s what’s always in my pack, at a minimum:
- A small supply of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as Advil,
- Something for GI upset, such as Pepto Bismol tablets
- Benadryl in the case of bee stings or snake bites (and an Epi-Pen if you or someone in your group is allergic),
- Light bandaging materials
- Blister care such as moleskin or leukotape, as well as a small tube of antibiotic ointment
- A short supply of any time-sensitive prescription medications you may be on, in case you’re out longer than anticipated.
- A pair of tweezers
There are many prepackaged first aid kits you can purchase online at outdoor retailers such as REI or even on Amazon. These are often more affordable ways of putting together a supply for the trail, since it eliminates the need to purchase larger quantities of all these items, which you may not necessarily have a need for at home.
Repair Kit and Tools
Along with your first aid supplies, make sure you carry a small stash of materials to use for light gear repairs. A small pocket knife or multitool will suffice just fine as a knife for most people, and one of the most basic Swiss Army Knives is what I carry for most hikes.
Duct tape can be used for many repairs. There’s no need to bring an entire roll though, and you can wrap a small amount around a hiking pole or golf pencil. You can also purchase a product called Tenacious Tape if you’d like a strong and clear tape instead.
A small sewing kit can come in handy for many things. Some hikers carry dental floss as thread, but make sure you carry a needle with an eye large enough to thread floss through.
If you are hiking in an exposed area or where you may encounter snow, sun protection should always be in your pack as well. This should take the form of sunglasses, sunscreen and/or a hat.
Choosing your snacks and meals for the trail can be one of the most exciting parts of your trip planning. Can you imagine eating all your snacks and then getting lost or injured and being out much longer than anticipated without extra food? Neither can I, and that’s why I always have extra food in my pack, just in case. If you were to encounter a situation that kept you waiting for a SAR team to find you, food could easily become one of your greatest creature comforts.
I typically throw in a couple of Pro Bars for this purpose, since they are both lightweight and calorie dense.
It goes without saying how important it is to stay hydrated on the trail. If you’re in an area with limited water resources, make sure to carry enough extra water to see you through an extended period, beyond what you need for your hike.
If you’re fortunate enough to have plentiful water sources along your route, always carry something to filter your water. You may get lucky 99 out of 100 times without filtering water from clear, mountain streams, but that one time you’re not lucky will not be an enjoyable experience, possibly on the trail and certainly in the days following.
Water filtration devices are incredibly inexpensive and easy to carry. The Sawyer Mini Filter is always in my pack for this purpose, as well as Aquamira tablets as a backup method, in case my filter should become clogged.
Aside from these essential items that should always be in your pack, it’s never a bad idea to carry a personal locator beacon such as the ResQLink or a satellite device such as a Garmin InReach Mini. These small and portable devices are invaluable in areas without cell reception, to alert SAR teams that you’re in need of help. There are pros and cons to each type and brand of device on the market. Do your research and choose wisely, according to both your budget and the area you’ll use it in the most. I highly recommend these devices for anyone hiking solo, especially.
Taking the steps to prepare for an enjoyable and safe hike are really quite easy, and you’ll pat yourself on the back for the rest of your life, should you ever need to use your essential gear to stay safe.
Finally, don’t ever discount the importance of a positive mental attitude, if you’re in a compromising situation on a hike. We refer to this in the SAR world as “PMA,” and we’ve seen it enough to know its importance and validity.
One of the most informative and engaging books I’ve ever read, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (Laurence Gonzales) offers this compelling observation about PMA: “….it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement.
Happy trails to you on your hikes! Do your part to stay safe on them, and make sure to always pack your PMA with you too!