Ultimate Hiking Safety Tips For Beginners: Learning From Tragedy

Black Hawk performing medevac in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking can be a wonderful opportunity to connect with nature and support your well-being while getting physical exercise. As with any time spent in the great outdoors, there are also inherent risks. These hiking safety tips for beginners will help you stay safe and feel more confident while enjoying the great outdoors. Learn from our experiences progressing from complete beginners to hiking over 700 miles each year while traveling and hiking our way through North America.

A Scary Situation for a hiker in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking safety can be easy to dismiss, especially as you get more comfortable and confident in your abilities. Sometimes all it takes is one wake-up call to really put things in perspective.

It started off as a normal day like any other. We were hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and were so excited. The trees were lush and vibrantly green, the wildflowers were in bloom, and the rushing mountain streams were abundant. It had been a long day at work and we figured this would be a typical afternoon hike.

After a couple of miles on the trail, we noticed a helicopter racing back and forth overhead and flying low. We weren’t sure what it meant until we saw a pararescue team of three with large packs hiking past us on foot. They were in a hurry and our hearts sank. Still not sure if the incident was on our trail or not, we continued on, with hiking safety tips top of our minds.

When we arrived at a section of the trail where you hike up a waterfall, it became clear. Hikers we passed described finding a lone hiker face down unconscious and bleeding at the bottom of the falls. The search and rescue team was on-site and a Blackhawk was being called in to evacuate the hiker.

Things were not looking good and there was a somber feeling filling the air. We watched in silence as the hiker was flown through the air, attached to the winch below the helicopter. In disbelief, we reflected on what precautions we take to keep ourselves safe on the trail. At that moment it became evident and real how quickly things can happen out on the trail.

Natural spaces are wild and deserve your full attention and respect. No matter how experienced you are. We want to help you feel prepared and stay safe while challenging yourself and enjoying the beauty this world has to offer.

Hiking Safety Tips for Beginners

Three adult hikers on their way to Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Know your personal hiking limits

We once heard from a member of the search and rescue team at Zion National Park that people often get hurt in National Parks because they treat it like Disney World and get caught in situations they are not prepared for. He gave us some great hiking safety tips, with the main sentiment being to know your limits and take nature seriously.

An important key to staying safe while hiking, especially as a beginner, is to know your limits. This is true when it comes to the difficulty of the trail itself in addition to when dealing with environmental factors. Especially in new places, you can run into situations you aren’t accustomed to, like extreme heat or altitude. Do your research before hitting the trail and know your limits. It is always okay to turn back if you are unsure of your abilities in a given situation.

We turned back after trying to hike up to Mount Peale in Utah when the scree to get around the snowed-in trail was too steep and loose. There are also trails we choose not to do if they require too difficult a class of rock scrambling or specialized equipment like rope or helmets.

Challenging yourself is a good thing. It is also important to be honest with yourself about the level of challenge that is appropriate for you. Want to do a hike but aren’t quite ready for it yet? Add it to your bucket list!

Respect nature; don’t get complacent on the trail

Mistakes or injuries in any environment can happen when complacency sets in. Complacency can come with a lack of attention to detail or concern about potential risks. It is expected to gain confidence through experience, but that doesn’t mean slacking on hiking safety.

At the same time, it is important to remain vigilant of an environment like that in nature that demands respect. It is not about living in fear, but simply doing your best to take on dangerous things, safely. When hiking you can encounter difficult terrain, slippery or steep rocks, narrow ledges, high cliff edges, dangerous wildlife, and rapidly changing weather conditions. Prepare for what you can and be aware of your surroundings.

When we saw the rescue, we couldn’t believe something like this would happen on a trail we were doing. Accidents can happen anywhere at any time. It is important to mitigate risks as much as you can and stay aware of your surroundings at all times.

For example, we carry bear spray on every single hike we do as a form of protection should we have any wildlife encounters that become aggressive or dangerous. We had a bear surprise us on a trail and it was both scary and a nice reminder to always be prepared.

Take a hiking buddy or tag along with other hikers

One of the key things we couldn’t stop thinking about was how this hiker was alone. The people who found them were not sure how long they had been laying in the water. Solo hiking can be an amazing adventure, but it is also helpful to have others around for situations like this.

Hiking with others can be a great way to have someone there if you need help, but if you are going to hike alone it might also be worth making an effort to meet others along the trail. Staying within a distance of others would help so that if tragedy struck, hopefully, it would not be too long before you could receive assistance.

Invest in a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger for hiking

If you plan to hike alone or into more remote areas, investing in a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger might be worthwhile. In this situation, it took multiple hours for fellow hikers to summon search and rescue. Nearly 5 miles into the wilderness of Rocky Mountain National Park, service was pretty much non-existent.

In situations like the one we encountered, every minute counts. Having the ability to summon help in an area without cell service, could mean the difference between life and death for you or someone else on the trail.

Even though we hike together most of the time, this situation persuaded us to invest in this type of device. It could come in handy for us, or be useful in coming to the aid of another hiker. A personal locator beacon (like the Garmin InReach Mini) is a satellite-enabled device that you register and allows you to send an SOS signal to local search and rescue along with your location.

You could also opt for a satellite messenger which allows you to not only send an SOS signal but also have features such as messaging and navigation. This is a great option if you want to be able to alert friends or loved ones to your whereabouts (in case of emergency or just to let them know you are okay). These devices typically work via a subscription-based plan.

REI has a great article comparing these two different types of safety devices.

When you head out for a hike, let someone know where you will be and how long you plan to be gone for

If you are not ready to invest in or are unable to afford a satellite-based safety device, another way to be proactive is to let others know your whereabouts. You might tell a friend or loved one before you leave the trail you are hiking and your expected start and finish time.

Let them know you will most likely not have service, but that they can expect to hear from you by a certain time. This way, if they do not hear from you by the time you gave and cannot get a hold of you, they have the general location where you might be in order to send help. In addition to this practice, we also share our GPS location with family. This is an extra layer of safety when hiking, whether you are a beginner, an expert, or a full-time traveler staying in remote places off-grid.

You deserve to have the adventure of your dreams. Whether hiking alone or hiking with friends, one of the most important hiking safety tips is to have someone know where you are. Whether they are a stranger you meet along the trail or a family member across the country.

We also carry a backup portable charger (the Luxtude Portable Battery Bank) so that we could charge our phones out on the trail if we needed to!

Carry hiking friendly first-aid kit

We are advocates of keeping nature wild. With these wild spaces come risks for big injuries, as well as small ones. To prepare for those situations where search and rescue is not warranted, but where you need medical attention, we recommend investing in a first aid kit. Our first aid kit has come in handy for small scrapes and cuts, blisters, and headaches and comes in a small package that is easy to pack.

This might be one of the greatest hiking safety tips of all, you never know what you might need on the trail and these kits offer great protection in small packages!

Proper food intake & hydration

Another major factor in your ability to stay safe on the trail relates to your water and food intake. Hiking is physical exercise and the amount of food and water you require will change depending on the difficulty of the hike you are doing, the temperature, and the altitude.

When it comes to altitude specifically, it is important to be cognizant of how this can impact dehydration, which can occur 2 times more quickly at a higher elevation, as well as other things like an increased likelihood of sunburn.

We carry 2-liter CamelBaks in our backpacks. We find these easy to carry and easier to drink and stay hydrated with than water bottles. In addition, we carry extra water as needed depending on the hike and temperature.

We also bring snacks that help us to refuel and replenish sodium reserves. Our favorites include trail mix, apples, bananas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and protein bars. We also love hydration tablets, such as those made by Nuun, to further help us replace electrolytes after a long hike.

One helpful product we use for refilling water along the trail is a Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration System

Be prepared for changing weather conditions

It is important to stay informed of weather conditions. This includes checking the weather before getting on the trail, and always knowing what is typical of the environment you are encountering. When we started hiking 14ers, we learned that it is important to hike early to get below the tree line again before the potential storms that tend to roll in in the afternoons.

You can also expect more sun exposure, wind, and cold in the alpine tundra environment so you might want to bring a heavy jacket or gloves. Know what you are getting yourself into and be prepared for rapid changes. It is always better to be over-prepared and okay with turning back than to find yourself in a dangerous situation unprepared.

Hiking Safety: Gear

Female hiker with camelback backpack making her way through a narrow passage in the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park in Moab Utah

To mitigate risk, it is important to have the proper gear. If you are going on a hike that requires traversing through snow or ice, you are going to want crampons for added traction. If there are steep grades, you might consider trekking poles.

We are always amazed at the people we see on trails in the National Parks that seem to be unprepared. For example, wearing sandals or flip-flops and not carrying any water. Protect yourself and invest in a comfortable pair of hiking shoes or boots, and moisture-wicking clothing that is stretchy and flexible.

We love our waterproof hiking shoes, hats, and sunglasses for sun protection, and having lightweight layers for rain or wind protection. We also always carry a headlamp and flashlight with us in case we end up being out longer than expected and always check weather conditions. Regardless of what you might see on social media…you don’t need expensive or fancy gear to safely explore the outdoors. Used gear or off-brand items can be a great way to get into hiking at a lower price point. Zach hiked 700 miles in used hiking shoes he got on sale from REI!

Example Hiking Safety Gear List:

  • Trekking poles for stability
  • First-aid kit
  • Headlamp or quality flashlight
  • Lighter or another fire source
  • Personal water filtration system like the Sawyer Squeeze
  • Bear Spray (if hiking in bear territory)

10 Hiking Safety Rules

  1. Choose a trail that meets your skill level
  2. Check the weather before you leave (also consider checking with Rangers about trail conditions)
  3. Bring a map or download an offline map on one of your devices
  4. Let people know where you will be and when you plan to return
  5. Consider a personal location beacon or satellite device (we have a satellite SOS feature on our iPhone 14)
  6. Bring plenty of water and snacks
  7. Wear comfortable clothing, durable shoes, and bring layers in case of changing weather
  8. Give yourself plenty of daylight to complete the trail
  9. Bring a first-aid kit, bear spray if necessary, and a flashlight or headlamp
  10. Practice Leave No Trace Principles

Hiking Safety Tips For Beginners Overall

After witnessing such a scary experience in Rocky Mountain National Park, we felt it was really important to re-evaluate our own hiking safety measures, use them as a learning experience, and share the takeaways with others. Whether you are a hiking beginner just starting out or are hiking several days a week like us, the wilderness does not discriminate. Giving nature respect does not mean you should live in fear, but instead take the steps necessary to keep yourself safe so that you can continue to stay healthy and enjoy beautiful moments in the wilderness.

The beginner hiking safety tips above are a few of the things to consider as you think about how to keep yourself safe and step into each adventure prepared and aware of what can happen. Listen to your body, share the space with wildlife, and be a respectful custodian of the natural spaces you explore. Preparation is key for setting yourself up for a safe and fun hiking experience!

May all your hikes be full of wonder and amazement. Safe and happy trails, friends!

Panoramic view of mountain peaks from the peak of Mt. Elbert in Colorado

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