Six Steps to Safe Hiking

Six Steps to Safe Hiking

With its crisp alpine air, rugged terrain, and unique physical challenges, the great outdoors offers an excellent venue for athletes. Whatever your level of fitness, a hike in the woods may be just the change of pace you need. To fully enjoy day hiking, follow these simple steps.

Step 1: Choose an Appropriate Hike

Make sure you hike trails that suit your physical ability and the abilities of others who are hiking with you. Take the time to research where you are going and the condition of your hiking party. Use detailed descriptions of trails, including distance, altitude, difficulty, and estimated time to complete the hike. Trail guides are among the best resources for hiking information.

Choosing the right trip is only a small part of what you will need when you hit the trail.

Step 2: Fill Your Pack

You will definitely want to carry a lightweight backpack filled with these essentials:

  • Water—Drink plenty of water. The amount of water you need for a longer hike can get heavy. You may be planning to get water from streams along the way, but it might not be safe. A water filter or purifying tablets may be used to reduce the risk of illness from stream water.
  • Food—Choose high-energy goodies that will not disintegrate on the trail: energy bars, granola, bagels, pita bread, candy bars, oranges, apples, nuts, and raisins.
  • Extra clothing—Weather in the mountains can be unpredictable. Be ready for anything—cold, heat, wind, rain, or snow, no matter what the season.
  • First aid kit—In a waterproof container, stash some antibiotic ointment, band aids, moleskin, and an ace bandage.
  • Flashlight, waterproof matches—In case sunset sneaks up on you, you will be prepared.
  • Sunscreen—The thinner air at high elevations offers less protection from the sun's rays, so wear sunscreen year round. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
  • Raingear—Hikers in the west can expect a daily afternoon thundershower in the summer, but all hikers should be prepared.

Cell phones can be great for navigation, but they do not always receive a signal in mountainous areas. Make sure you take along a trail guide, compass, and map. Learn how to use them before heading out. Many outdoor stores offer short courses on using maps and compasses.

Step 3: Dress Appropriately

Like with any sport, the proper equipment is essential. First and foremost, make sure your hiking shoes or boots fit properly and are comfortable. The footwear should match the kind of hiking that you plan on doing. Boots however, are not the only equipment you need to when you hike. Here are some other items you will need to take along:

  • 2 pairs of socks to wear (a lightweight liner made of polypropylene or polyester and a cushioning sock made out of wool) and extras in case they get wet.
  • Warm, waterproof gloves
  • A hat
  • Sunglasses

Mountain weather is generally cooler, cloudier, and windier than the climate in lowland areas, making improper dressing a serious health risk. Layering helps you stay cool when active and warm when at rest. Just add and remove clothes as needed.

  • Inner layer —Wear close-fitting long underwear made from polypropylene or silk, which should dry quickly and pull sweat away from your skin.
  • Middle layer—This layer should be light-weight and breathable—flannel, wool, down, or fleece. You may want extra middle layers in colder climates.
  • Outside layer—To block wind and rain, try Supplex (wind-resistant) or Gore-Tex (great for rain and snow).

Avoid wearing cotton. It will hold moisture on your body and interfere with temperature regulation.

Step 4: Stay on Track

Now that you are ready to head off into the wilderness, be sure to stay on the trail. This is easy to do if you follow the blazes, which are 2-inch by 6-inch marks painted on trees and rocks along the trails. When you get above the tree line you might see small piles of rocks called cairns to mark the trail. If you can't find them, backtrack to the last place you saw one. And always have your trail map handy.

Whenever possible, hike with other people. Allow the slowest person in your group to set the pace, especially if kids have come along. Take frequent breaks for water, snacks, and rest.

Step 5: Stay Healthy

Hiking requires the same cardiovascular fitness that running, cycling, and other endurance sports demand, but relies on different muscle groups, which can leave you aching in unfamiliar places.


Regular workouts can help you stay ready for your next hike. Concentrate on your leg muscles and core during strength training. Keep in mind that you will need to combine that with some cardiovascular training for endurance.


Trekking poles provide extra stability on challenging terrain and take some of the strain off leg muscles, ankles, knees, and hips. To keep your feet comfortable, be aware of sensitive areas and treat them with moleskin before they progress into painful blisters. Also, break in new hiking boots before taking them on a serious trek.

Altitude Sickness

If you plan on hiking in higher elevations over 7,000 feet, remember that the higher you go, the less oxygen there is available. Headache, lightheadedness, and fatigue are all signs of acute mountain sickness. Prevention is your best weapon. Condition your body by taking time in advance to get used to being in a high altitude environment. During your hike, you will want to keep a steady pace and breathe in slow, regular patterns. Deep breathing helps offset the lack of oxygen. You may want to consult your doctor about medications that may help at high altitudes, especially if you will not have time to adjust.


Dehydration can occur as a result of strenuous activity, high altitudes, and not drinking enough water. It can give you a headache and make you feel tired, irritable, and lightheaded. Make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your hike.

Step 6: Be Alert for Critters

Consult your trail guide to learn which animals you may meet along your trek. Check with the local ranger to find out if there are any special rules you need to follow.


If you plan to hike in desert or certain mountain areas, avoid snakes, like venomous rattlesnakes. Hiking boots which go above the ankle are advisable.


In woody areas, you may encounter bears, moose, elk, coyotes, wolves, or even wild cats like mountain lions, pumas, and cougars. It is important to know what to do if you have an unexpected encounter in the wild:

  • Make noise and slowly back away.
  • Do not feed or approach the animal.
  • Do not run away.


Bring along bug spray and insect repellent. And always stay on the marked trail to avoid deer ticks, which can cause Lyme disease. Staying on the trail can also help you avoid poison ivy.

After your hike, you will need to perform a tick check. Start by removing clothing and placing them in a dryer on high heat for at least an hour. Next, shower within 2 hours of coming indoors. This has been shown to reduce your risk of Lyme disease. Lastly, perform a full body check using a mirror. Remove any tick that you find embedded by grasping it with tweezers and pulling it straight out.

Happy Trails

By following these steps, you will be prepared to enjoy your time in the woods. To help preserve the woods for others, follow the rules of low-impact hiking: leave only footprints, take only memories, and kill only time.


American Hiking Society
Leave No Trace Organization



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Last reviewed October 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 12/31/2014

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