It’s worth spending the time to be adequately prepared for hiking, especially a multi-day hike. Doing so makes a trip a lot less stressful and far more enjoyable. Rather than attempt to comprehensively address safety or risk management for outdoor activities, this article is a compilation based on my personal experience and offers various tips and considerations for pre-trip planning, appropriate clothing and safety gear, plus precautions you can take while out on the trail.
Water is one of the heaviest items that must be carried while hiking, especially in Australia where, with the exception of alpine regions, being able to refill your supplies along the way is unlikely. I calculate the minimum amount of drinking water required for survival over the entire trip. Usually, 1-2 litres/person/day depending on climate and acceptable risk, and then work out how much extra can be comfortably carried for re-hydrating meals and cups of tea. On extended trips where water supply is unreliable, I replace meals that require re-hydration with dry foods such as muesli bars and nuts.
The source and volume of water depend upon the season in which the walk has been planned, and the geography of the area (e.g. desert or mountains). In Australia’s alpine regions, it is often easy to find water from rivers or soaks, even in summer. If water can be obtained from tanks, rivers, or other sources along the way then this reduces the amount that must be carried for meals.
There was very little water to be found on this section of the Heysen Trail in the mid-north, SA.
In Australia, restocking your food supplies is more difficult than in Europe and other countries where towns are regularly passed through along hiking trails. If a long-term hike is planned where there will be many days of remote travel and no opportunity to restock supplies, a food/water drop may have to be organised with a third-party in advance. The food containers should be sturdy, animal-proof and left with a note of your trip details including when you expect to pick up the food.
Even if you’re staying in accommodation or huts, a tent can be useful.
A tent for emergencies
A lightweight tent can be carried to provide emergency shelter in case of sudden changes in weather or if huts are full. However, an emergency tent can add considerable and potentially unnecessary pack weight if sleeping in huts or other accommodation is planned for the majority of the trip. The decision to take a tent will depend upon the weather you are anticipating, the type of terrain and season, plus the health and fitness of the hiking group, as well as the level of risk you are willing to accept.
An orange tarp can be used to cook or sit on, a groundsheet, or as an emergency signal.
Camouflage tents are great for sneaky wild camping, but bright coloured tents stand out from the surrounding landscape and are more identifiable. I also take a bright orange groundsheet that doubles as a tarp and could be made into a temporary shelter or used for a signal to attracting attention if in need of a rescue. The same kind of arrangement can be made from ponchos that open up.
On a trip to Mt Kosciuszko in summer, a group of us were caught on the exposed Main Range with a storm approaching. We decided to bail to a valley and put up our tents in an effort to keep our gear dry for the days ahead. It would have been a miserable few days had we been soaked, as the weather was too cold to properly dry out our clothes.
Have shelter on hand in case the weather changes.
The inaccuracy of long-range forecasts makes it hard to anticipate future weather conditions when planning a hike. Knowledge about the climate of a particular region can be determined by looking at the historic weather observations from nearby weather stations. The Bureau of Meteorology Climate Data Online is a useful tool as is online bushwalking and skiing forums.
Conditions can change suddenly in the mountains. The storm on the right blew across and quickly caused a whiteout near Similaun Hut on the Italian-Austrian border.
Altitude and vertical metres
While on a multi-day hike in the mountains of Austria, rough planning and youthful ignorance left me exhausted at the top of a high alpine pass in fading daylight. I had underestimated the combination of an overweight backpack and climbing 1500m altitude in one day. Ascents are hard on stamina and energy levels, and descents are hard on the knees and legs.
Understanding how much altitude you can comfortably tackle in a day and with what rucksack weight, is very useful. The altitude gain/loss for many walks can be found in guidebooks or online, or roughly estimated using GPS tools or Google Earth (the desktop version of Google Earth is now free).
Things can go wrong when navigating difficult terrain.
It is surprisingly easy to become disoriented or lost without a compass. On one trip hiking through Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges, it was difficult for our group to use the surrounding peaks as landmarks during foggy conditions. We accidentally hiked for an hour in what seemed to be a straight line, before checking the compass and discovering that we were facing the complete opposite direction and must have slowly walked in a 180-degree arc.
Navigating with a handheld GPS or mobile phone is a popular and easy tool for hikes that are well signposted or have clear landmarks. If hiking in an area that is more difficult to navigate, I consider how heavily I am relying on my GPS/phone and how lost I might become if it stops working.
In this case, paper maps are a good back up and it helps to know the basics of navigation using a compass (dead reckoning, triangulation and following a course).
When hiking with a group it’s important to nominate a ‘leader’ or ‘responsible person’.
Scenario decision making
None of us wants to find ourselves in a life-threatening situation and when preparing for a trip, so it can be helpful to run through some hypothetical emergencies.
Clarity around less dramatic scenarios will also be an advantage. What would happen if you or a member of your party experiences mild sickness, or if there’s loss/spillage of food or heavy weather? Should the hike be finished early or do you continue on and risk the situation potentially becoming worse?
Tasmanian conditions, such as this section of the Overland Track near Pelion Hut, are often boggy and slippery.
If hiking with a group, a ‘leader’ or ‘responsible person’ should be nominated before the commencement of the trip and this is the person who will determine final decisions. At least two members of a hiking group should have done a first aid course and be able to apply CPR and other techniques effectively. A first aid kit should be modified to suit the region and conditions expected while hiking. For example, a snake-bite compression bandage for hiking in Australia, or certain medications if travelling overseas.
Other factors to consider include the difficulty of navigating terrain whilst disabled (e.g. broken leg), the number of members in the hiking group, who would stay with an ill person and who would go for help, proximity to roads, access for emergency vehicles, and availability of mobile phone coverage.
Staying sun smart with a hat while hiking at Arkaroola, SA.
Clothing and sun protection
The aim of choosing appropriate clothing for a hike is to stay warm and dry in cold weather, or cool and dry in hot weather, and to not get sunburnt.
Synthetic or wool layers are a better choice over cotton and I take a lightweight, compact raincoat on most hikes. This I keep in the top pocket of my rucksack for quick access which is especially important in the mountains where the weather can change rapidly.
Stay sun-safe with sunnies, sunscreen, long-sleeve clothing and a hat or cap. At higher altitudes and on cloudy days the UV radiation is often forgotten due to the cold air or lack of sunlight, even though it is sometimes just as easy to get sunburnt.
A pack cover can assist in keeping the contents of a rucksack dry, but it’s worth using a dry-sack or double-bagging essentials like sleeping bags and thermals.
The importance of dry clothes
It’s good to keep a set of thermals and your sleeping bag protected in a dry sack or similar, so they stay dry no matter what. If all your other gear gets soaked, this becomes a valuable asset when you have to bunker down in a tent for the night.
Nothing quite matches the displeasure of a beautiful sunny day turning to rain, and then having a soggy night’s sleep because of a forgotten sleeping bag that sat unprotected in the bottom of a rucksack.
Walking poles are very helpful in the snow, and for long descents to take the pressure off your knees.
Personal health and dealing with terrain
Hot spots in shoes should be dealt with using hiker’s wool or duct tape before they turn into blisters.
When hiking in warm climates, taking mineral supplements such as electrolytes and magnesium tablets can combat dehydration and loss of salts in the body due to sweat. If exerting a lot of energy, then gels or powdered drinks like Salvitol or Gatorade can also provide a boost to energy levels.
Walking poles are often useful to maintain stability on slippery surfaces, creek crossings and in the snow, and are especially good for support if you are carrying a heavy backpack.
The SPOT device can struggle when surrounded by mountains. Gemmi Pass, Switzerland
It is possible to find mobile phone coverage in more remote areas now, but this can’t be relied upon for emergency communication purposes. A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is an emergency location device that can be activated in life-threatening situations and results in a search and rescue operation.
An alternative is a SPOT GPS Messenger which in addition to providing an emergency beacon can also send short messages and provide real-time tracking for someone to monitor your location and progress.
Both devices perform differently and have pros and cons which must be considered. Another option is to leave details and an itinerary of your trip with a trusted person, who can then alert authorities if you don’t return or make contact in time.
Filling out the walker’s book at huts and trailheads can also help track you down in case something goes awry.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to safety for outdoor activities, but is provided as general advice gained from the personal experience of the author to promote fun and safe hiking.
Have you ever injured yourself when hiking?
About the writer...
Chris frequently attempts more adventures than he really has time for.