5 Dangerous Hiking Mistakes

Male hiker resting his hands on knees, exhaustedStanding atop a hill after a long and grueling hike, it's easy to feel invincible. You've pushed yourself to your limits, survived nature's sometimes unpredictable conditions -- what could stop you now? 

Turns out, even the most trail-hardened can be caught unprepared and make simple beginner mistakes. Lisa Hendy, Yosemite National Park emergency services program manager, and Todd Duncan, Sierra Club program safety manager, share some of the most frequent and preventable mistakes hikers make on the trail and give us some tips for staying safe: 

1. Underestimating the trail: This one is more common among beginners, but it can have disastrous consequences for anyone. Be honest with yourself. Think about how often you hit the gym and choose a trail that is realistic for your party's ability level. There's no shame in starting out easy and working your way up to more difficult hikes, but there may be a bit of embarrassment in turning around when you hit a wall on the first hill. So do your research: Many national park websites include handy guides to their trails that provide length, elevation, and difficulty ratings, and there are more hiking handbooks available for all skill levels than can be named in this blog post. 

2. Failing to prepare: Both Hendy and Duncan agree that being unprepared is one of the most common missteps made by hikers of all skill levels. "One mistake can change the face of everything," says Hendy. "For example, this time of year, heading out for a day hike with only a light jacket and a headlamp could be fine, provided everything goes well. However, if you twist your ankle and are out overnight, that could be a miserable mistake." Gather the 10 essentials, anticipate changes in weather or emergencies that might delay your trip, and pack accordingly.

3. Going alone: While a solo hike in itself isn't automatically dangerous, Hendy says the most common mistake made by experienced hikers is taking off alone without notifying anyone. Be sure to tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back. Many experienced hikers recommend investing in or renting a personal locator beacon (PLB), which can help rescuers locate you in an emergency. But remember, just because you're easier to find doesn't necessarily mean you're safer. Hikers carrying PLBs should still trek carefully and tell someone ahead of time where they're going.

4. Traveling off-trail: Even if you've hiked these woods a thousand times, are a licensed cartographer, and were born on this very trail, a hiking trip is one time when it might be best to take the road more traveled. Though many hikers safely practice off-trail hiking, most acknowledge the added dangers that come with it, as well as the specific preparation required to stray from the beaten path. Unless you're prepared to hike off-trail, it can be a pretty reliable way to get lost or injured (or both).

5. Abandoning the plan: While turning back before you reach the end of the trail can be frustrating, it beats having to make camp unexpectedly. Hikers set turnaround times for a reason, and you don't want to be caught unprepared as the sun goes down. Keep an eye on your watch, and determine when you'll need to begin heading back to safely reach your car or campsite.

How can hikers of all skill levels ensure they're taking all of the precautions necessary for their trip? Here are Hendy's hard and fast rules for a safe hike:

1) Plan ahead and tell a friend the plan.

2) Tell your friend who to call if you do not return on time.

3) Plan for something to go wrong and delay you.

4) Always bring a headlamp, an extra small snack, and a layer of clothing that can keep you warm if you are delayed.

— image via iStockPhoto/Jan-Otto

Headshot_Julie_BlogJulie Eng is an editorial intern at Sierra. She studied literature and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and wrote for several publications before joining the Sierra team

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