Six Steps to Safe Hiking
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
A hike in the great outdoors can be a nice change of pace from your current fitness plan. Here are some steps to help make the most of it.
Step 1: Choose the Right Hike
Make sure you hike trails that match your ability and the ability of those who are going with you. Take the time to research where you are going. Look for a trail's distance, altitude, difficulty, and estimated hiking time. Trail guides are a great resource for this 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 want to carry a lightweight backpack filled with these items:
Mobile phones can be great for navigation, but they may not always have a signal in the mountains. 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
Wearing the proper clothes is important. Start with hiking shoes or boots that fit well and are comfortable. They should match the kind of hiking that you plan on doing. Be sure to break them in before your first serious hike.
Here are some other items you will need to take along:
Mountain weather is cooler, cloudier, and windier. Layering helps you stay cool when active and warm when at rest. Just add and remove clothes as needed.
Do not wear cotton. It will hold moisture on your body and cause you to get cold.
Step 4: Stay on Track
Be sure to stay on the trail once you head out. This is easy to do if you follow the blazes. These are 2-inch by 6-inch marks painted on trees and rocks along trails. You may also see piles of rocks called cairns when you get above the tree line. They help 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.
You should always try to 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 fitness that running, cycling, and other endurance sports demand. But it uses different muscle groups. This can leave you aching in unfamiliar places.
Regular workouts can help you stay ready for your next hike. Focus 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 give you extra stability on challenging terrain. They also take some of the strain off leg muscles, ankles, knees, and hips. Put moleskin on any sensitive areas before blisters develop.
There will be less oxygen when you hike above 7,000 feet. Headache, lightheadedness, and fatigue are all signs of acute mountain sickness. You will need to prepare your body for a high altitude environment. You will want to keep a steady pace and breathe in slow, regular patterns. Deep breathing helps offset the lack of oxygen. You may also want to talk to your doctor about medicines that may help.
Hiking can lead to dehydration if you don't drink enough water along the way. 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
Talk to a trail guide to learn which animals you may meet along your hike. Check with the local ranger to find out if there are any special rules you need to follow.
You may come across snakes if you plan to hike in the desert or mountains. Hiking boots that go above the ankle can offer you some protection.
Bears, moose, elk, coyotes, wolves, and wild cats are all out there in the woods. Be sure you know what to do if you come across one:
Bring along bug spray and insect repellent. Stay on the marked trail to avoid deer ticks. This can also help you avoid poison ivy.
Be sure to do a tick check after your hike. 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. Lastly, do a full body check using a mirror. Remove any tick that you find embedded by grasping it with tweezers and pulling it straight out.
These steps will prepare you to enjoy your time in the woods. You can preserve the woods for others to enjoy by leaving only footprints, taking only memories, and killing only time.
American Hiking Society
Leave No Trace Organization
Hike smart. National Park Service website. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/articles/hiking-safety.htm. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Lost in the Woods. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed October 8, 2021.
Staying safe. National Park Service website. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/trails/hiking-safety.htm. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Stop ticks to avoid Lyme and other tickborne diseases. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/ncezid/dvbd/media/stopticks.html. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 10/8/2021