Hiking Preparation, Safety Advice, and Trail Etiquette

Hiking seems to be more popular than ever and for good reasons. Who doesn't love to get out, breath the fresh air and soak in mountain top views? Sadly, however, with this uptick in hiking, there has also been an increase in the amount of trash on the trails, unprepared hikers, and emergency rescue calls.

Check out this blog to see how you can prepare for a hike, be ready to take action in an emergency situation, and learn proper trail etiquette!

Before any hike, there is a certain amount of research that needs to be done to properly plan your trip. You should always check the weather and familiarize yourself with the trails and the trail conditions.

Check the Weather

Before any hike make sure to check the local weather.

Safety tips for hiking

Mountain Forecast is a great website for checking the weather on mountains all over the world. The thing I love about this website is it shows the forecasts at different elevations. In my experience, it's usually pretty accurate.

I also use weather.com to check the forecast in the general area I'll be in. With these two resources combined I have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Always check the forecast, but be prepared for the worst. Weather is known for changing fast in the mountains. Don’t expect the weather conditions you see at the trailhead to be the same at the summit. What may start out is an 80 degree blue bird day could quickly turn into rain and 60mph winds.

If Lightning Strikes

If thunderstorms are in the forecast you should plan your hike for another day.

But like I said already, weather can change fast in the mountains. It's good to know what to do incase you get caught in a storm.

Always pay attention to the sky while you're hiking. If it looks like a storm is rolling in you should seek shelter or get off the mountain immediately. There is no shame in turning around and not reaching the summit. The mountain will always be there another day so it's not worth risking your life to keep climbing.

If you do get caught in a storm, determine the distance of the lightning. Count the number of seconds between the lightning strike and when you hear the next thunder. If the time is under 30 seconds, you are within striking distance.

Even if you are outside the sticking distance, you should start thinking about finding a place to take shelter or making your way down the mountain.

If you are within (or near) striking distance, you are in a danger zone. You should immediately seek shelter. If you can't find shelter, squat down with your feet close to each other and tuck your head in, trying to make your body as small as possible. Try not to let any of your other body parts come in contact with the ground. Do not stand next to or under any lone object that is the tallest thing around (like a single tree). Do not stand next to a body of water either.

Remove any metal you are wearing. This can include underwire bra, metal zippers, belt buckle, hiking poles, backpack with metal frame etc.

If you're hiking in a group, spread out. Each person should be at least 50 feet apart. This way if lightning does strike it is less likely to hit multiple members of the group. If one person gets injured, others will be able to help. It is safe to touch a person after they have been struck by lightning. If the person is not breathing, begin CPR immediately.

Research the Trail Conditions

Usually you can find local trail conditions by searching on google or using Facebook groups. Here's a few examples:



By doing this research ahead of time, you can find out if the trailhead is open, if there is still snow or ice on the trail, if you should expect a lot of tree blow downs from a recent storm, if the trail is muddy or wet. Once you know the expected conditions, you can prepare for them and bring the proper gear.

Beginners guide to hiking. Trail prep, safety tips and trail etiquette.
Fall Hike on Mount Greylock, MA

Research the Trail

This is different than the trail conditions. Usually you can find blogs or information on the trail(s) you want to hike. This will let you know information such as, if the parking lot fills up early, if the trail is easy to follow, the difficulty level, tough water crossings, elevation gain, and if there are any trail reroutes.

Last summer I was hiking the Cutler Coast Trail and researched it ahead of time. I found that there had been a trail reroute that made the total distance 2 miles longer. Therefore, I prepared for a longer hike. On the hike, towards the end of the day, I came across a women who wasn't expecting a trail reroute and she had already finished her water supply thinking she was almost done. I finished the hike with her to make sure she would finish safely, which she did, but she was really thirsty.

If you are planning a long hike, have a bail out option and research it. For example, when I did the 20 mile Presidential Traverse, I planned multiple bail out routes incase I couldn't make it to my intended destination. I researched the trails that could be used for a bail out to make sure they wouldn't be more difficult or end up adding more miles.

Hiking is an amazing outdoor activity, but it can come with some real risks. Without proper planning and awareness, a fun day hike could quickly turn into disaster. Here are some tips to help you have a safe day in the mountains.

Know Your Limit

You wouldn't enter a marathon on your first run. It's the same with hiking. If you've never hiked before start with something small and work your way up.

Share Your Itinerary

Always tell someone (that is not with you) your hiking plans and what time you expect to return. Make sure to include all the trail names you'll be hiking and what direction you're starting. Check in with them after your hike. Make sure they know who to contact if you do not return.

Know When to Call It Quits

Have a turnaround time. If you haven't reached the summit (or destination) by that time, turn around so you can still make it out before dark.

Be prepared to turn around if conditions turn for the worse. If it's not safe to keep going, know that it is perfectly acceptable to return to the trailhead without reaching the summit. The mountain will always be there for you to attempt it again on another day.

If you hike in unsafe conditions or you are under-prepared, you’re not only putting yourself in danger, but also the lives of the team that will have to rescue you. Search and Rescue (SAR) teams are usually made up of local volunteers and it's not guaranteed that a team will be able to respond. If SAR is called to rescue you and it is determined that you were negligent, you could be liable for paying first responder bills.

Set a Pace That Works for Everyone

Hike as fast as the slowest person in the group. If you plan a hike as a group, you should stay as a group. It can be dangerous to leave a slow hiker behind. If they become injured, lost, or need to turn around, the faster hikers won't be aware of it. If you stop to wait for the slower hikers, make sure they have a chance to rest when they catch up.

Hiking 101 for beginners
Franconia Ridge Loop, White Mountains, NH

Talk to Other Hikers

Not only is this a nice thing to do, but it can also be for your safety. I'm not suggesting having full conversations, but say hi and ask about upcoming trail conditions. They might make you aware of an upcoming obstacle or cool sighting. If something goes amiss, they are more likely to remember you and can provide information on where you were last seen. This is especially important if you're hiking solo.

Be Bear Aware

Know what to do if you encounter a large or dangerous animal such as a bear, moose, rattlesnake, or mountain lion. The protocol can vary depending on region and animal so make sure to research types of animals in the area and what to do if you come across one. If you're hiking where grizzlies or brown bears are present, carry bear spray.

Hiking guide for beginners.
Bear Sighting in Yellowstone National Park

Check For Ticks

Ticks can be very active from spring to fall. After a hike, do a thorough tick check and remove the pesky buggers. Make sure to check between toes, behind joints, and in your hair. You should even check your shoes and clothing.

Satellite GPS Messenger

A lot of times when hiking you can't rely on cell phone reception. I carry a beacon for peace of mind, especially when I'm hiking solo. The beacon uses a GPS satellite system for communication and identifying your location. Most beacons allow you to send messages to a pre-determined contact to check in, say you're ok, or ask for help. During an emergency, you can contact first responders directly. I have the SPOT Gen3, which is a model they no longer make, so I'll recommend the newer version, SPOT Gen4.

Beginners guide to hiking.
Emory Peak, Big Bend National Park, TX

Bring the 10 Essentials

In the 1930's, The Mountaineers created a safety and packing system to aid hikers in preparing for and responding to emergencies and to prepare a hiker to safely spend a night outdoors if the situation arises. This packing system is known as the "10 Essentials." Over the years, the list has evolved, but the core elements remain the same. It is a good habit to bring these ten items on every hike.

  1. Navigation: Such as a map, compass, GPS device, or personal locator beacon (PLB). At a minimum, you should always have a map of the local area you're hiking in. I recommend taking a picture of the map with your phone prior to the hike. This way you can easily pull up the picture when you need to refer to the map. Still carry the map in your backpack incase you get lost and need a larger reference.

  2. Headlamp: You never know when a hike will take longer than expected and you could end up finishing in the dark which is why you should carry a headlamp. It's always a good idea to have extra batteries for it too.

  3. Sun protection: When you're on the trail all day, you can forget how long you've been under the sun's direct rays. Make sure to bring and use sunscreen, SPF lip balm, sunglasses, and a hat for sun protection. You may even want to consider a UV-protective shirt depending on how much sun exposure you'll get. Not only can repeatedly burns lead to skin damage and cancer, but sunburns during a hike can also cause you to become dehydrated faster. Remember you can still get sunburned in the winter.

  4. First aid: You can buy a first aid kit or put together a homemade one like I did. Your kit, at a minimum, should have a variety of band-aids, antibiotic ointment, burn cream, blister treatment, insect repellent, alcohol pads, ibuprofen, medical tape, gauze pad, sterile gloves, small scissors, and tweezers. The contents of your kit should reflect your location and the number of people in your group.

  5. Knife: I find a multi tool knife and a little bit of duct tape to be the most versatile tools on the trail. You should have the means to be able to cut something and repair damaged gear. You can wrap a little bit of duct tape around a water bottle or hiking pole so you don't have to carry the whole roll.

  6. Fire: You should have the means to make a fire incase you end up in a situation where you have to spend a night outside. I recommend carrying either a fire steel or cotton balls soaked in Vaseline to aid in getting the fire started.

  7. Shelter: An emergency bivy, space blanket, or even a heavy duty trash bag will make a good shelter incase you have to spend a night outside or if someone gets injured.

  8. Food: Always make sure to bring enough food to give you the nutrients to keep going plus extra incase the hike ends up taking longer than expected. I always carry something high in protein, carbohydrates, something salty, and something sweet. Check out my favorite hiking snacks and get some new ideas here.

  9. Water: Dehydration can happen fast in the summer and even in the winter. Before you begin your hike, try to drink a liter of water while you're eating breakfast and getting ready. It can be tricky to determine how much water to carry, but the general rule is to drink half a liter for every hour hiking. Bear in mind that heat and difficulty can increase your need for more water. Adding electrolytes to your water will also help you stay hydrated. If you're going to be doing all day hikes, I recommend getting a Steripen or water filter to purify water so you're not caught in a situation where you run out. You can read about my experience with water purification systems in my Gear Guide.

  10. Extra clothes: Remember that the temperature at the summit can be significantly cooler than the temperature at the trailhead. You will want extra layers as you increase in elevation. You should bring enough clothing to keep you warm if you're in a situation where you have to spend a night outside.

Check out my Gear Guide for Day Hiking for more information on essential gear and clothing and what my top picks are.

Hiking Safety Tips and Trail Etiquette
McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe National Park, TX

Now that you know how to prepare for a hike and you're ready to act in an emergency situation, let's talk about the rules of the trails. The trails are shared with a lot of people and everyone has the right to be there and enjoy their time on the mountain. Here's some rules and tips to help you be a responsible and courteous hiker.

Right of Way

Hikers: If you pass a group of hikers coming from the opposite direction, the group going uphill has the right of way. The group going downhill should pull off to the side and let the uphill travelers pass. The reason uphill has the right of way is because going uphill takes more work. If they have momentum going, let them keep it. Of course, if they want to take a break they might pull off to the side and let you proceed down.

Solo hikers should yield to large groups. It is much easier for one person to step aside and let a group pass than for a group to step aside. This also means less people have to step off the trail which minimizes erosion and the risk of trampling wildlife.

If you want to pass a slower hiker ahead of you, it's best to say hi and ask if you can sneak by.

Mountain Bikers: Technically the hiker has the right of way when a mountain biker approaches, however, it is easier for the hiker to move out of the way. Personally, I think mountain bikers move fast and I'm not going to risk it getting hit, so I step off the trail for them.

Horses and Mules: Horses and mules always have the right of way. Horses and mules can spook easily so it's best to give them a wide berth, remain silent, and let them pass. If there is a cliff or drop off on one side of the trail, you should take the inner side and let the horse or mule pass along the cliff side.

Beginners Guide to hiking, safety tips and trail etiquette
Franconia Ridge Loop, White Mountains, NH

When Nature Calls

Chances are, at some point while you're hiking, you're going to have to use the bathroom. This is when it's ok to go off trail. You should do your business at least 200 feet away from any trail or water source. Especially when going #2.

Everybody poops. But what happens when you're miles from a bathroom?

  • Make sure you are 200 feet from any trail, water source, or campsite.

  • Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep.

  • Do your business in the hole and then bury it.

  • Pack out toilet paper. It is best to carry a small trash bag for disposing waste in.

If you are not responsible with your human waste, just remember, it can flow into a water source you drink from or swim in.

Leave No Trace

Leave no trace is a set of principles developed to help people reduce their impact on the outdoors and protect the environment. There are seven principles that you can read about in detail here.

Here's how you can practice the Leave No Trace principles while hiking:

  • Stay On the trail: Hiking off the trail or creating new paths creates erosion and can damage delicate wildlife. You should especially stay on the trail in the alpine zone. The vegetation is fragile and easily damaged. It's ok to go off the trail to use the bathroom which I talked about above.

  • Carry In/Carry Out: Everything that you brought hiking in with you, you must also carry out. Don't leave your trash on the trails. This includes used toilet paper!

  • Leave It Better Than You Found It: If you see trash on the trails, pick it up and pack it out with you.

Leave no trace. take pictures, leave treasures behind.
Pink Lady Slipper
  • Take Pictures, Leave Treasures: Don't pick wildflowers and don't take away natural objects such as colorful rocks, petrified wood or artifacts. It might not seem like a big deal to pick a few flowers or take a couple of rocks, but it could damage the delicate vegetation. Not to mention, if everyone did it, there would be no beauty left for others to discover. It is illegal in National Parks to remove or pick any natural objects or artifacts.

  • Do Not Disturb Wild Animals: Do not feed, startle, or approach wild animals. Even if the animal seems harmless, they could still be carrying diseases. Human food is not good for animals and it can create a whole slue of problems. In most states, it is illegal to feed a bear.

Limit Group Size

While it is always best to hike with at least one other person, you should not have too many people in your group either. Some areas actually have restrictions in place to limit the number of hikers in a group. In the White Mountains (NH) where I most frequently hike, the group size limit is a max of 10 people. Group size limits are put in place to reduce the impact on the land and to limit disruption to wildlife. I also find hiking with a large group to be very slow.

Keep the Peace

You should keep the overall volume of the group down unless you are calling for help. When it comes to playing music, you should not play it out loud. If you absolutely must listen to music, use headphones. I recommend using only one ear piece so you are aware of your surroundings. Being loud or playing music can be annoying to others. More importantly, it disturbs the wildlife. Remember we are coming into their home.

Hiking With Dogs

Everyone loves bringing their dogs on adventures, and most people you come across will love it too. However, if you bring your pup, there are rules and etiquette you should be aware of. Make sure to do some research specific to your location.

Not all trails allow dogs, so make sure you're on a dog friendly trail. Some areas require the dog to be on a leash while others only require the dog to be under voice command. If your pup is still learning or gets overly excited or aggressive around other dogs or people, the polite thing to do is keep your dog on a leash.

If your dog poops on or near the trail, bag it up and bring the bag with you. Please do not leave your poop bag behind even if you intend to pick it up on your way out. It is a very easy thing to forget after a long day and other hikers do not want to pass by it or carry it out for you. Did you know, poop bags can take up to 1000 years to decompose, even biodegradable ones.

Don't Create Cairns

A cairn is a rock pile placed along trails to guide hikers in the right direction. See my picture below for an example. Usually below tree-line, trail markers will be in the form of blazes on a tree or large rock, but above tree-line, where that might not be possible, cairns are used to mark the trail.

It might seem harmless enough to stack a bunch of rocks, but an oncoming hiker might mistake it for a trail maker and it could guide them off the trail. Moving the rocks can also cause damage to delicate vegetation or create unnecessary erosion. It's best to leave rocks where they are.

Beginners guide to hiking, trail etiquette and hiking safety
Mount Washington, White Mountains, NH

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