Spending the time to be adequately prepared for hiking usually makes the trip a lot more enjoyable and less stressful. This blog on safety tips covers aspects to consider for pre-trip planning, taking the appropriate clothing and safety gear, and how to stay safe while on the trail.
The source and amount of water depends on which season the walk has been planned for, 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.
Water is one of the heaviest items that must be carried. At the start of a trip, I take enough drinking water for survival requirements over the entire trip and then work out how much extra can be comfortably carried for re-hydrating meals and cups of tea.
If water can be obtained from tanks, rivers, or other sources along the way then this reduces the amount that must be taken for meals.
There was very little water to be found on this section of the Heysen Trail in the mid-north, SA.
In Australia, this is harder than in Europe and other countries where towns are encountered regularly. If a longer-term hike is well away from civilisation with no opportunity to buy food, then a food/water drop can be organised in advance.
The food containers should be sturdy, animal-proof, and possibly left with a note of trip details and 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
Even if planning to sleep overnight in huts or other accommodation, a lightweight tent can be carried to provide emergency shelter in case of sudden changes in weather or if huts are full.
On a recent 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 weather forecasts means it’s difficult to anticipate conditions for a particular period of time. However, a fairly good idea about the climate of a region can usually be determined using past weather observations and reports from other walkers who have done similar trips.
Tasmanian conditions, such as this section of the Overland Track near Pelion Hut, are often boggy and slippery.
Altitude and vertical metres
While on a short 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 a heavy backpack and trying to climb 1500m altitude in one day. Ascents are hard on stamina and energy levels, and descents are hard on the knees and legs.
Developing an idea of how much altitude you can comfortably tackle in a day, and under what rucksack weight, is very useful for trip planning. The altitude gain/loss for many popular walks can be found in guidebooks or online.
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.
Navigating with a handheld GPS or mobile phone is easy and popular these days and is fine for hikes that are well signposted or have clear landmarks. If hiking in an area which is more difficult to navigate, I consider how heavily I am relying on my GPS/phone and how lost I might be 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).
Things can go wrong when negotiating difficult terrain.
What if it all goes wrong?
What would happen in situations such as a snake bite, bushfire, a broken leg, or if a water supply runs out? Non-life-threatening scenarios like mild illness might require more deliberation, as the consequences of action are less clear than in obviously life-threatening emergencies. For example, with a mild fever, should the hike be finished early, or continued with the potential for the fever to develop into something more serious?
Factors to consider include the difficulty of negotiating 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.
If hiking with a group, it should be made clear before setting off under what circumstances 000 emergencies should be called or an emergency beacon be activated.
Sometimes tracks may be closed or signage may have changed. This is when having a map helps to discern which path to take.
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 sunburned.
Synthetic or wool layers are the best option. Cotton does not work well in cold conditions, as it is easily soaked through with rain or sweat, and then you become chilly. By the same mechanism, in warm weather, a cotton shirt stays cool and allows a breeze to pass through.
I take a lightweight, compact raincoat on most hikes, which I keep in the top pocket of a rucksack for quick access. This is especially important in the mountains as the weather can change rapidly.
Staying sun smart with a hat while hiking at Arkaroola, SA.
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 sunburned.
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. This is important as a last resort if all your other gear gets soaked and 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.
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.
1. First aid kit
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.
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.
It is surprisingly easy to become disoriented or lost without a compass. On one trip hiking through Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges in foggy conditions, it was difficult for our group to use the surrounding peaks as landmarks. 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 completely opposite direction and must have slowly walked in a 180-degree arc.
An orange tarp can be used to cook or sit on, a groundsheet, or as an emergency signal.
3. Colour of tents and groundsheets
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 to cook on and could be made into a (very) temporary shelter or pack cover, or for attracting attention for a rescue.
This came in handy for me while camping in a state forest in France when some recreational shooters were nearby, and I wanted to make sure my tent was immediately obvious to avoid any mishaps!
The SPOT device can struggle when surrounded by mountains. Gemmi Pass, Switzerland
4. Emergency communication
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 walkers’ book at huts and trailheads can also help track you down in case something goes awry.
When hiking in warm conditions, combat dehydration with mineral supplements.
Tips for personal health and dealing with terrain
Hot spots in shoes should be dealt with using hikers’ wool or duct tape before they turn into blisters.
When hiking in warm climates, taking mineral supplements such as Hydralyte and magnesium tablets can combat dehydration and loss of salts in the body due to sweat. If exerting lots of energy, then powdered drinks like Salvital or Gatorade can also provide a boost to energy levels.
Walking poles are very helpful in the snow, and for long descents to take pressure off your knees.
Walking poles are often useful to maintain stability on slippery surfaces, creek crossings and in the snow, and especially good for support if you are carrying a heavy backpack.
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...