Top Tips for Safe Backpacking
Updated: May 17, 2021
We get a lot of questions about our adventures. Some of the most common are about safety. I think a lot of people have the perception that backpacking is a pursuit of the brave or Indiana Jones-like adventurers, not average people.
Is backpacking a safe thing to do?
And by backpacking, I mean hiking in the backcountry with all of your camping gear on your back not shuttling around Europe, using a backpack as a suitcase. Nothing wrong with that but it isn't the type of backpacking I'm going to talk about today.
But as to the question of the safety of backpacking, I get asked this frequently. The short answer is maybe. I've been backpacking for over 30 years and I'm still kicking so there's that. But that is just a data point of one. Due to being connected via the internet, we hear about the tragic tales of trips gone wrong but we don't have the data on the millions of outings each year that end with nothing worse than some bug bites and body odor. In general, backpacking is a safe pursuit as long as you are aware of the risks and plan for them. We can learn from the accidents which sometimes could have been prevented with the right knowledge, gear, and planning.
There are many factors that go into the safety of a backpacking trip, so it's important to understand what are real risks and what needless fears have been overblown. And to give you a clue, carrying a knife because you are afraid of bears is not a good idea. A knife has many uses but fighting bears isn't one of them.
Tips to minimize risk
Research the area, weather, and known risks for the time of year you are planning on
Create a gear checklist so you have the correct items packed and don't forget anything important
Plan a route and itinerary that is at your fitness and experience level.
Make a check-in plan and file with friends or family so they know when to worry and what to do about it. Include phone numbers of first responders for that area and a map of your route.
Get a satellite communicator with an emergency locator beacon. This way you can signal for help when there is no phone service.
If something goes wrong, have a plan. Stay calm and execute the plan.
When we go into the backcountry it stands to reason we might run into animals as that is where they live. By understanding the animals in an area we can plan ahead minimize the risk of an encounter gone wrong. Most animals you may see are no threat to you and are easily spooked. With any animal you encounter, make some noise so they know you are there, give it a wide berth, and don't try to get a selfie with it. Attacks on people are very rare and often could have been prevented.
The three that I get asked about the most are bears, snakes, and ticks. They seem the scariest but with a proper understanding of the risk, it can be easily managed.
My experience has been with black bears as I live in the east. On my trips out west, I haven't run into any grizzly bears so I won't offer any advice on how to manage an encounter.
Research the area ahead of time and find out if there are any issues with bears. Due to interaction with people bears can come to lose their fear of people. Through intentional feeding or getting into people's food, they can come to associate people with food, and while not after us, they can be aggressive trying to get food. Bears in this situation often have to be put down as even if relocated, the behavior can still persist. This is most common in areas that see a lot of traffic but decreases the further into the backcountry you go. If an area has a bear warning, chose another area until the situation has been dealt with.
If you encounter a black bear, make noise so it knows you are there. Often this will send it running. I don't know why but the phrase "Hey Bear" is used by most outdoors people, myself included. Even if you are scared, don't run as it may trigger its prey instinct. If you can give it a wide berth then do so. Most bears I have encountered will either flee or just go about their business often ignoring me as they dig from grubs.
When camping in the backcountry, if you manage your food properly you reduce the risk of a curious bear being drawn into your camp. Cook at least 20 yards away from where you will be sleeping. At night store your food away from your camp. You will need to hang your food or store it in a bear canister.
I personally recommend a bear canister as it is simple, relatively foolproof, and doesn't rely on finding the right tree. A bear canister is heavier than a bag and the cord to hang your food but the tradeoff is worth the peace of mind and ease of use. Additionally, don't keep any snacks or wrappers in your tent or backpack at night as mice and other rodents can be a larger problem chewing through anything to get your snacks.
Rattlesnakes are common in the areas I often head into, whether northern Pennsylvania or southern Nevada, but I've only seen a few over the years. In those cases, they gave me plenty of warning with a loud rattle that I was getting too close. They were aware of me before I was of them. A snake isn't going to attack you for food. They will strike in self-defense so just use some common sense. Look where you are walking and don't reach under old logs or rock piles that may be a snake's home. Walking with trekking poles can be a good defense as the pole is striking the ground ahead of you so it may be the target rather than your leg if you startle a snake.
If you are in the East, ticks may be the scariest threat as ending up with Lyme Disease can be a long-term health issue. In Canada, we have been very slow to acknowledge the spread of ticks so we are behind as far as medical treatment but it is getting better.
Treat all of your hiking clothing with Permethrin spray. Spray down your clothing and let it dry. It will help repel ticks for 4-6 weeks even with washing.
Long pants and gaiters help keep the ticks off your legs and out of your footwear.
Thoroughly inspect yourself and your clothing at the end of each day. If you don't want to have someone else check the spots you can't see, use your cell phone camera to check out your nether bits.
Carry a tick remover in your first aid kit. If you find a tick, follow the instructions to remove it.
If you have been bitten by a tick get to your doctor as soon as you get home to get a preventative round of antibiotics. Not all tick bites will show the bullseye shape rash so it is better to err on the safe side.
The most dangerous animal
Surprisingly the most dangerous animal in North America is the deer. Over 200 people per year are killed by deer but not in the woods. People hitting deer with their car is the biggest cause of fatalities by animals. But on the subject of deer, bucks can get aggressive in the rut season which happens in November. Attacks are rare but if you are going to have a run-in with Bambi, it will probably be then.
With very rare exceptions, everyone you encounter in the backcountry will be pretty cool. Since we are all in the same boat, I've found fellow backpackers to be very kind and helpful. The common criminal isn't likely to target a deep woods trail as the probability of running into anyone is low. But like any population, it's possible for a bad apple or two to pop up.
If you get a bad vibe from anyone, trust your gut and get away from the situation. I've never had a case of being uncomfortable running into other people, even on solo trips. I am a fair-sized guy so it may feel different as a woman.
This can be the most dangerous thing you encounter. Cold, heat, wind, and lightning. These are just a few of the weather factors that can increase the risk. They are also the factors that you can best prepare for. Do some research about the seasonal weather for an area before you go so you can be properly prepared.
Hypothermia is a real threat when it is cold and wet. Do your research and pack the clothing needed to handle whatever the record low for that time of year. The odds of being colder than the record are relatively low so this is a conservative way to plan. Temperature, moisture, and wind all affect how our bodies perceive the temperature. Spring and fall can be the most dangerous time's weather-wise as big temperature swings are more common. In winter you know it is cold so you pack for it and summer in most climates is pretty mild even at night. Mountains are the exception to this as you can get wild temperature changes in just a few hours. When in the mountains, plan the handle much colder than the forecast shows.
Dress in layers as it is easier to adjust your temperature than if you have just one warm layer. Wet from sweating can be just as dangerous as getting wet from the outside.
Dress in synthetic or merino wool clothing as it wicks moisture, will dry quickly, and retain some heat even when wet.
Avoid cotton fabrics because if it gets wet it takes a long time to dry, speeding up the loss of heat.
Even on summer trips bring a beanie toque and gloves. Keeping your hands and head warm goes a long way in increasing your comfort level.
The human body can handle a broad range of temperatures but at a certain point it can't keep up. With hot weather dehydration and heatstroke can be serious concerns but are very easy to avoid. Most heat exhaustion injuries are from people, myself included, ignoring the signals. Trying to push a pace or keep up with faster people at the expense of not listening to what your body is telling you will exact a cost at some point on your adventure. Once you are dehydrated, it is very hard to keep going each day and recover.
Hike in the morning and late afternoon to avoid the hottest part of the day. Take a nap in the shade in the middle of the day to avoid exertion in the heat.
Stay hydrated. Drink lots of water (4+ liters per day) with added electrolytes. When sweating you are losing water and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, etc.) so you want to replace both.
Take regular breaks in the shade.
Wrap a wet bandana around your neck.
Listen to your body. When you feel yourself overheating, find shade, sit in a stream or put a wet camp towel over your head. And keep drinking to maintain fluid levels.
Of course, you could be like Dorothy and be carried away by a tornado but that is unlikely. Wind can be very dangerous camping due to widowmakers. These are dead branches or trees that have fallen but are hung up with by neighboring trees. windy conditions can cause the Widowmaker to fall. When you are choosing a campsite, look up and make sure that there are no loose branches overhead that could blow down on you. As well, make sure the trees around you are alive and not likely to blow down. Having a dead tree crush your tent in the middle of the night is terrifying but easily avoidable.
Being hit by lightning is rare but you increase the risk by being under tall trees or on a high point during a thunderstorm. If a storm is brewing stay off of exposed ridges and stay off of summits until the weather passes. In the mountains, a storm can roll in from seemingly nowhere. When you see this happening keep to lower trails and stay away from tall trees.
Additionally, lightning strikes can also cause forest fires. If you see a forest fire, get out of the area, preferably upwind as they can move very fast. And if you see a forest fire, call it in because the longer it has to grow the harder it will be for to fight.
A flat forest path is pretty safe but where is the fun in that. When you get in more challenging terrain like mountains and canyons you get the epic views but you also take on more risk. Terrain risks can be heights, obstacles, water (fast-moving streams or ice on the trail), loose or slippery trails, avalanches, or landslides. Most accidents that happen because of terrain can be avoided with common sense and attention.
Use hiking poles for extra stability.
Stay away from the edge of deep drops.
Stay out of avalanche territory. If you want to spend time in the mountains in winter, take an avalanche safety course so you can better identify dangerous conditions and know what to do about them.
Be careful crossing fast-moving streams that are deeper than mid-shin. If it isn't safe to cross where the trail meets the stream go up or downstream to find a safer place to cross.
Have the correct footwear or traction devices for the conditions.
Look where you are putting your feet and take it slow if the terrain is rough or loose. Every time I've twisted an ankle is was because I wasn't paying attention to where I put my foot. Additionally getting fitter and stronger between trips will help minimize the chance of injury. A lot of injuries aren't the dramatic fall but overuse. Coming down a rough mountain can beat up your knees and ankles even if you are conditioned for it.
Water is necessary for life but too much will kill you. Water hazards include waterborne illness, lack of water, flash floods, and stream crossings (which we covered above).
Never drink untreated water if you can avoid it. Use a microfilter, water purification tablets, or boiling to process safe drinking water.
Plan water storage for the conditions. If you are going over a mountain pass or in the desert, plan to carry enough water to get to the next water source. In dry climates, research where the water sources are in advance.
Check weather reports before you head down into canyons or other areas prone to flash floods. Rain in the mountains miles away can lead to a flash flood in your location a short time later as it all drains. Check with the rangers or other locals on what the risk is at that time. If you in a canyon and feel a cool damp breeze and/or hear the sudden sound of rushing water from upstream, get to higher ground immediately as flash floods hit quickly. While the rush of water can be dangerous on its own, flash floods carry debris such as trees and boulders that can crush you if you get caught in their path.
Getting lost is probably the most common thing that leads to other risks in the outdoors. If you are backpacking, getting lost won't be immediately dangerous because you have all of your camping gear. If you are lost and it's getting dark, just set up camp, have dinner, and figure it out tomorrow.
If you are going to spend time in the backcountry you want to know how to navigate and get yourself unlost if you do get off track.
Carry a map and compass. Learn how to use it before you are in the backcountry. Learn what bearing, declination, true north, magnetic north, topographic maps, and contours are.
Don't just walk with your head down. Stop and look around including behind you so you know what the area looks like. In rough terrain, it is easy to just look where you are placing your feet and end up having no idea where you are.
As you hike, regularly check where you are and the direction you are going. If you don't know where you are, reverse your course to the last spot you do know.
If you are using your phone or handheld GPS, make sure the maps for the area you are going are loaded before you head out. Google Maps and Garmin Basemap don't have the detail you need to navigate in the wild.
If you are using technology to navigate, make sure you have extra batteries or a way to charge it.
If you truly get lost, know how to signal for rescue. Carry a whistle, signal mirror (this can be the mirror on your compass), fire-making materials, and emergency locator beacon.
We want the experience of self-reliance but in today's world with our current technology, it is irresponsible to not carry a satellite-based locator. If you do get lost or are late checking in, a search will be initiated to find you. This puts others at risk and means they can be helping someone else. With a locator you let them know where you are and speed up getting you out. This minimizes risk to the SAR team and lets them get on to other people much quicker.
The Wrap Up
While not an exhaustive list, the above covers most of the potential risks you might encounter on the trail. With a little planning and knowledge, those risks can be minimized. You might twist an ankle or get cold and wet, but these things don't have to be life-threatening. I've found the challenges of backpacking to be rewarding and while I have had a few mishaps, I've been able to deal with them. Now that you are aware of some of the issues that can come up, start building your knowledge base and get out in the woods
Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard