Hiking is a fantastic way to relax or push yourself when you need to burn off stress and enjoy the immense beauty of nature around us. Going on a hike can range from literally a walk in the park to straight-up nearly uncharted wilderness for days depending on what you like and love to do.

There are inherent risks to consider when tackling a hike in the mostly uninhabited wilderness before strapping on your pack and heading in. If you're a beginner at hiking, here are some tips for staying safe on a wilderness hike, and if you're an expert already, it never hurts to refresh yourself with the basics!

Before You Go
  1. Tell someone where you are going and how long you think you will be there. Make sure someone, a friend, family member, acquaintance, knows where you are going and when you expect to return. Consider leaving additional information such as the make and model of the car you'll be driving and any info on a backup route or trail that you might take if your original path has been compromised. This means that if something goes wrong and you don't return on time, someone will be able to alert Search and Rescue.
  2. Research. Research the trail you'll go on, research the trail conditions and make sure you've researched the weather conditions before you leave. Consider also knowing roughly what time it usually gets dark and water levels if you encounter streams on the trail.
Know Your Limits

There are numerous hiking trails in parks and in the wilderness all over America that can accommodate all levels of hiking skills and capabilities. Whether you choose the easiest, a beginner, or one of the more challenging—you won't miss out on what beautiful vistas nature can offer you, whichever you choose. There's no shame in not overestimating your abilities. Pick the trail right for you by knowing your body's limits. Ask yourself before you pick a trail:

  • What is my experience level with hiking?
  • How much equipment, food, and water weight can I comfortably carry in a backpack for long periods of time?
  • Am I in the right physical fitness for the hiking trail I would like to do?
  • Have I hiked in an environment like this previously?
  • Can my body handle higher elevation challenges? More effort is required to hike at high elevations due to the reduced oxygen available in the air.
  • Am I hiking alone, or will I be with friends, or am I bringing a friend?
Pack Essentials

Whether hiking for a few hours or several days, it is crucial to have the right gear.

  • Map and compass, GPS unit, or smartphone.
  • Hydration for the duration of the hike. Make sure you are carrying enough water for yourself for the period of the entire hike. If you are hiking for several days, have a map or know where there are sources of natural water for you along your hike, and make sure you pack either a water filter, purifier, chemical tablets, or some portable stove capable of boiling unfiltered water before drinking it.
  • Nutrition to tide your over for the hike, plus extra snacks.
  • Rain gear and insulation. Moisture-wicking, water-resistant and warm clothing even on a nice day. Temperatures change and drop dramatically during the night and at higher elevations.
  • Fire starters. Matches, a lighter, or a flint will work well as long as they are kept dry.
  • First-aid kit. A good first-aid kit will have enough supplies to treat small and extensive injuries.
  • A multi-tool, or multi-tools. A multi-tool paired with some duct tape can surprisingly help you out of a lot of situations, as well as on-the-spot gear repair.
  • A good source of light. Unfortunately, your cell phone is not a great source of light, not to mention how quickly using the flashlight mode on a cell will drain the battery—which you may want to carry battery backups for or use any charge you have for GPS and emergencies. A flashlight, a headlamp, or a portable camping light (and extra power sources) will give you the needed and much better illumination you need at night.
  • Sun protection. Sunglasses, especially for hiking in the snow. Sunscreen for your skin and a hat to keep the worst from your face and neck.
  • Shelter, such as a mylar blanket, tarp, or a tent if you can carry one.

At the bare minimum, your hiking first aid kit should have within it:

  • Shears
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Butterfly closures
  • Adhesive bandages assortment
  • Cotton Gauze swabs
  • Rolled Gauze
  • Hemostatic gauze
  • Emergency blanket
  • Eye pads
  • Crepe bandage
  • Medical tape
  • Nitrile gloves
  • PBT conforming bandage
  • Safety pins
  • Splinter probes
  • Strip wound closures
  • Sting relief wraps
  • First aid guide
  • Tweezer
  • Ibruprofen / other pain relief medication
  • Waterproof container to hold supplies

The above list is a paired-down essential must-have for hiking and best suited for lightweight packs for a day or two. If at all possible, however, if you can pack more helpful gear, do so. Being overprepared for possible situations is far better than being underprepared.

Other Crucial Items you Should Carry if You Can
  • Make sure your footwear can handle the terrain you'll be encountering. Whether it's hiking shoes or boots, if you know you'll be facing slippery or damp terrain, match your shoe or boot tread to the landscape. Multipurpose soles generally tend to work best on easier trails than very rocky ones. Medium lugs work well for digging into mud, snow, or loose rock. Wider lugs work for providing more surface area and friction against flat rocks for a better grip. For steep and slippery terrain, look for aggressive traction with deep lugs, heel brakes, and steeply angular treads. For steep hikes up hills or mountains, you'll find that deep chevron-shapes that go in opposite directions give you the best uphill and downhill traction.
  • Insect Spray
  • Thick wool or synthetic socks that are moisture-wicking for longer hikes and an extra pair
  • Moleskin for blister treatments

If staying overnight or several days: make sure your backpack has good support and room for a tent and sleeping bag. If you have room in your gear, pack a sleeping pad for extra comfort and keep a layer between you and the cold ground.

As winter approaches, make sure you take the time to consider how the clothing you wear, the gear you carry, and the tent and sleeping bag you might use will all change in order to withstand the unique challenges that winter hiking has to offer too.

Following these steps can seem like a lot as a beginner, but when it comes to your health, happiness on the trail, and safety, you might find yourself grateful for all you did to prepare ahead of time. Stay safe out there!