By all accounts, Amanda Eller is an avid hiker. The trail she chose the day she disappeared was one she had hiked before. Eller, a Maui resident who went missing for 16 days before being found, is a fit yoga instructor and physical therapist, yet she still found herself in a life-or-death situation on what was supposed to be a pleasant, three-mile hike.
No one sets out to run into trouble, but even experienced hikers can lose their footing, encounter a threatening wild animal or simply get turned around on the trail. Hiking organizations such as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the American Hiking Society have must-follow advice for keeping yourself and your hiking partners safe before and during your outdoor adventure.
The right equipment
From hiking boots to SPF, all hiking experts agree that preparing the right equipment is the most important pre-hike step.
Your mobile phone — “Carrying cellphones into the backcountry was once controversial and now is quite commonplace,” the PCT Association writes. “Be aware that carrying a cellphone does not guarantee your safety and is not an excuse for poor planning.”
Despite that warning, hikers’ lives are saved every year because they were able to call for help with their cellphone. If you’re going on a backcountry hike where you know cell service is limited, consider carrying a beacon.
A backpack with the essentials — Water and a snack are obvious. Other items to keep in your hiking pack at all times: Sunglasses and sunscreen with an SPF over 30; a headlamp, whistle and lighter are crucial for emergencies; a light waterproof jacket or poncho and one of those silly-looking foil blankets to keep you warm; a knife or multi-tool; a first-aid kit with gauze, tape, scissors and iodine.
A map and a compass — You might think you know the trail like the back of your hand, but accidents happen, and it’s possible for anyone to get turned around or lose the path. If you need to start bushwhacking to get back to civilization, a compass is critical. You can’t always rely on cell service to provide mobile-phone directions. With a trail map (and some quick training on how to read a topographic map), you will be able to pick out landmarks that wouldn’t otherwise be labeled on Google: gentle slopes, steep ravines and very large boulders will all be labeled on a low-tech topo map.
Footwear — If you’re setting out for a day hike on a low or medium difficulty trail, regular trail shoes could do the trick. But if you know you’ll encounter steep terrain or other obstacles for which you need better footing, hiking boots with high-tops are recommended by experts to give your ankles extra support and help prevent sprains and breaks.
In short, even on a day hike, equip yourself in case of emergency. You aren’t going to know ahead of time when one will happen.
Know the creatures and plants you’ll encounter
The poisonous stuff — Between ivy, oak and sumac, there’s no escaping the risk of running into an oily, itch-generating plant, whether you realize it or not. Being able to identify the plants goes a long way in alleviating the risk, but you can’t examine every leaf you pass. After your hike, wash your hands and arms with a mineral-spirit based cleaner like Tecnu to remove the oils. When you get home, wash your clothes with regular detergent at a high temperature, and wash them alone to avoid spreading it to other clothes. Shower and wash your extremities with a Tecnu-like product to decrease the risk of a reaction.
Snakes — According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, snake bites are rare and very few people die from bites. Many snakes aren’t even venomous. But if you are bit by a snake that you think is venomous, the conservancy suggests these steps:
- Remain calm
- Call 911 and seek medical treatment as quickly as possible; if you’re in the backcountry, you might need to hike to the trailhead to get cell service, and that will place you at an easier location for emergency personnel when they do arrive
- Wash the wound with soap and water
- Do not apply ice
- Do not apply a tourniquet
- Remove rings or other jewelry that could end up turning into a tourniquet if swelling occurs
- Do not try to suck the venom out of your skin
Bears — Bear attacks are rare, but the National Park Service recommends being prepared and cautious. You should never allow bears to have access to your food, and if you’re camping overnight, the use of bear-proof bins or bags is a must for food storage. Consider including bear spray in your pack.
If you do end up face-to-face with a bear, the NPS suggests these steps:
- Talk (out loud) calmly in low tones so the bear knows you’re a human and not a prey animal. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal. Stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
- Pick up small children immediately.
- Do not drop your pack as it can provide protection for your back and prevent a bear from accessing your food.
- If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also nonthreatening to bears.
- Do not run.
- Do not climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.
- Leave the area or take a detour. If this is impossible, wait until the bear moves away. Always leave the bear an escape route.
- Be especially cautious if you see a female with cubs; never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. The chances of an attack escalate greatly if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.
Mountain lions — If you’re hiking in the West, mountain lions are just as much of a concern as bears, and more so as they tend to be more aggressive. If you spot a mountain lion who hasn’t caught wind of you yet, slowly walk away, keeping an eye on the big cat at all times so you know its position. If you’re in a faceoff, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has this advice:
- Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation. Always give them a way to escape.
- Do not run. Remain calm. Hold your ground or back away slowly.
- Continue facing the mountain lion, and maintain eye contact.
- Do all you can to appear larger; Stand upright, raise your arms, raise your walking stick, open your jacket.
- If you have small children or pets with you, try to pick them up without turning away or bending over.
- Never bend over or crouch down, avoid looking like a four-legged prey animal. Again, do not bend over to pick up a rock or stick off the ground. This action may trigger a pounce response in a mountain lion.
Safety and crime awareness
Crimes against hikers are rare, but they do happen. If you know the risks, you’ll be much less likely to become a victim.
Don’t carry valuables — Valuables make you a target for theft. Leave it behind and you become much less attractive to would-be thieves.
Avoid hitchhiking — This is not to say that every driver offering a ride has ill intent, but hitchhiking should be used sparingly for emergency situations. Making a habit of thumbing for a ride increases your risk.
Don’t carry firearms — Unless you’re going out specifically to hunt in an area where it is lawful to discharge a firearm recreationally, it’s better to leave the gun at home, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
“Although carrying (with proper permits) is now legal on National Park Service lands in states where they are allowed on state parklands, firearms can be turned against you or result in an accidental shooting,” the organization writes on their website, “and they are extra weight most hikers find unnecessary.”