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Tips for Safe Hiking and Backpacking

by Karen Ung
The belief that “nothing bad is gonna happen ’cause I’m not going far” is called dayhiker mentality. It is easy to fall under its spell and can affect the best of us when we least expect it. Have you ever forgotten your rain jacket on a sunny day then been caught in a storm? Or rushed home from the park because your kid skinned her knee and you didn’t have a first aid kit? On an urban hike, these situations are minor inconveniences, but in the backcountry, day hiker mentality can kill you. 

Whether you’re dayhiking, or trekking to a backcountry hut, you must always carry adequate gear to overnight it in the wilderness in the event you are lost, injured, or otherwise delayed (think flash flood, snowstorm / no visibility, avalanche, landslide). Take a good, hard look in your pack and let me know if you could survive the night with what’s in there. Could you signal for help if you’re lost or injured? Bandage up owies? Treat water? Keep warm and dry? Some extra food goes a long way to improving morale too. The gear you should carry at all times – for adventures of all sizes – is called The 10 Essential Systems. For more information, please see Wilderness Survival Gear You Must Carry.

Prior to leading group hiking and backpacking trips, I suffered from a mild case of dayhiker mentality. I didn’t carry all of the 10 essentials because I didn’t think I needed them. In a lifetime of hiking, I’d never been in a survival situation, nor had a serious injury. While I carried most of the essentials (9/10), my kit wasn’t the greatest. It wasn’t until I was responsible for other people, leading hikes and backpacking trips, and started learning about wilderness survival (as well as wilderness first aid and avalanche training), that I re-evaluated what was in my pack and made some changes. I now carry a compass, better knife (vs just a Swiss Army knife), bigger first aid kit, more than one type of fire starter, and have upgraded my space blanket to a Siltarp or convertible tarp poncho (the former for family trips, the latter when I’m hiking with friends).

The biggest wake-up call was losing people I know (through a hiking club and social media) to accidents in the mountains. The fatalities did not occur in remote locations as would be expected. In one case, snow and low visibility were the likely cause of a fatal fall. In another, the victim was cross country skiing alone and died of exposure after getting lost in the dark. Local search and rescue pages have several more examples of trips gone wrong. How can such accidents be avoided?

Reducing Risk (Avoiding Dayhiker Mentality)

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While we have no control over the weather, there are several things we can do to reduce the risk of being in a survival situation:

    • Check the forecast, trail reports, and avalanche forecasts for your intended hike/ski before heading out, then bring appropriate gear (rock helmet, ice cleats/microspikes/crampons, ice axe, avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel, etc.).
      • For detailed weather forecasts including snowfall at different elevations, visit www.mountain-forecast.com.
      • In Canada, check avalanche conditions at avalanche.ca.
      • Park trail reports are helpful, but local Facebook pages are also a good source of detailed, current intel that often includes photos.

    • Research the route in advance so you are aware of the safest route and any hazards along the way (icy sections, crux, bridge out, etc.).
    • Don’t go out alone! The ideal minimum group size is 3. If Person 1 is hurt, Person 2 can stay with him/her, and Person 3 can seek help.
    • Leave a detailed itinerary with friends/family so they know where to look in the event you get lost/injured or otherwise delayed. Include trail and parking information, destination, and anticipated return time.
      • e.g. Hiking to Three Isle Lake, Kananaskis from Upper Kananaskis Lake parking lot. Expect to be done the hike by 4 pm and home by 5:30 pm.
    • Carry the 10 Essential Systemswilderness survival gear that will keep you alive until help arrives, on EVERY trip. Every item is critical!
    • Be aware of your surroundings, pay attention to landmarks, and stay on trail/course.
      • Do not travel in unknown areas after dark to avoid getting lost. If this means turning back before you reach the summit, do it.
      • STOP if you think you are lost.
      • Stop if visibility is low and you’re unsure if you’re heading in the right direction (heavy snow, blowing snow, thick fog), especially if you’re in dangerous terrain. Good mountaineers know to make an emergency bivouac and wait out a storm rather than carry on blindly and fall off cliffs or into crevasses.
      • For more tips, see this post: How Not To Get Lost.
    • Look for safe creek crossings. Look for areas where the current is weak, water level isn’t too high, and use a hiking pole/stick for balance. Use extreme caution as rocks can be slippery. A friend of mine recently slipped while fishing and died from a severe head injury.
    • Take a Wilderness First Aid course, as there are some backcountry tricks not covered in standard first aid courses like how to MacGyver a gurney, etc. If you’re more of an independent learner and have taken basic First Aid, you may wish to read NOLS Wilderness First Aid (Amazon Affiliate link).
    • Carry a First Aid Kit and ensure it is the appropriate size for your group. When leading group hikes, I advise each participant to bring a personal first aid kit and carry a larger first aid kit just in case.

    • Take Avalanche Awareness/Skills Training and avoid high risk avalanche terrain/conditions. If you venture into avalanche terrain in winter, please read: Why You Need Avalanche Skills Training then sign up for a course or educate yourself further. The story includes a link to a powerful video that was the most memorable takeaway from my AST1 course. Even someone getting a PhD in Snow Science can make a fatal mistake.
    • Practice wilderness survival skills regularly, so you will know what to do in an emergency:
      • Topographic map reading
      • Taking a compass bearing
      • Rigging a shelter
      • Starting a fire with a flint and striker
      • Treating water
    • Refresh your knowledge on signalling for help. Make sure every person in your group has a whistle and knows how to use it (3 blasts, then wait for a response before making another 3 blasts), then discuss other ways to signal for help with hand signals, distress fires, and a mirror or headlamp.

  • Carry a cell phone, satellite phone, or personal locator beacon (PLB) such as the InReach to contact emergency services. Many hikes in our mountain parks do not have cell phone service. Have a plan for contacting local emergency services when you’re out of range (hint: this is when it’s good to have a buddy to go for help). Carry a battery charger or extra batteries so your device works when you need it to.


A little preparation goes a long way to ensuring a safe and fun trip. While I’ve never been in a survival situation (due to planning, avoiding injury, and not getting too lost), I have used most items in my pack at some point, so I always carry them just in case.

What is the best hiking/backpacking safety tip you’ve ever heard?

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