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Tips & Tools for Backpacking Safety

In case you needed a reminder, venturing into the backcountry comes with some inherent risks. From extreme heat to sudden thunderstorms, we’ve all seen enough episodes of Alone or I Shouldn’t Be Alive to know that Mother Nature isn’t exactly someone you want to exhibit hubris or naivety with.

The good news is that statistically speaking, severe accidents in the backcountry are rare. According to the National Park Service, there are an estimated 4,000-5,000 injuries related to hiking each year in the U.S. But that’s nothing compared to the whopping 60 million people who go hiking each year or the 10 million backpackers. It’s like shark attacks or airline flights—you have a higher chance of getting injured from an everyday activity, such as a car ride, than venturing into the wilderness.

Another slice of silver lining? Most of these injuries are preventable. Lack of preparation is one of the leading causes of backcountry mishaps. So with that, here are a few tips and tools to ensure you’re prepared for a backcountry backpacking trip.

Two people standing in backpacking gear on a backcountry trail, with a Garmin inReach Mini, looking in the distance

Share Your Plans

Remember in 127 Hours when James Franco (playing Aron Ralston) didn’t tell anyone where he was going, and then got stuck in a slot canyon and had to amputate his arm? Let’s try to avoid that. Before you depart, it's crucial to inform a trusted friend or family member about your travel itinerary. Provide them with information about your intended route, the make and model of your car, possible backup trails, and when they should alert authorities if you fail to return.

Know Your Trail

Detailed knowledge of your intended trail is crucial. This involves more than just knowing the starting point and the destination; it's about understanding the terrain, its specific features, its challenges, and how it changes with different weather conditions. Use guidebooks, websites, and apps like Gaia GPS(Se abre en una ventana nueva) to get a sense of the trail’s length, elevation gain, and difficulty level. Look at photos and read reviews from other hikers to gain insight into the trail's unique features and potential challenges. Check Trail Conditions and weather forecasts. Understand the Topography. Plan for water availability and possible wildlife encounters. Remember, knowledge is power. The more you know about the trail, the better prepared you'll be to handle any challenges that come your way.

Equip Yourself With The Ten Essentials

A man walking along a backpacking trail in the backcountry in full gear, and an orange jacket

Regardless of your trip's duration, packing the right equipment is paramount. Here are The Ten Essentials(Se abre en una ventana nueva), according to the National Park Service, that every backpacker should include in their pack(Se abre en una ventana nueva):

  1. Navigation: These can range from traditional compasses and maps to modern solutions like GPS devices(Se abre en una ventana nueva) and smartphones.
  2. Hydration: Either carry sufficient water or ensure you have a map detailing natural water sources along your route and the means to purify water, such as a filter, purifier, or chemical tablets.
  3. Nutrition: Pack enough sustenance to last throughout your trip, including some extra snacks in case of unexpected delays.
  4. Rain Gear & Insulation: Opt for clothing that resists moisture and provides insulation. Even on a seemingly perfect day, be aware that temperatures can fluctuate drastically, especially at night or at higher altitudes.
  5. Fire-Starting Equipment: Carry reliable fire-starters such as matches, a lighter, or flint, and remember to keep them and your tinder dry.
  6. First-Aid Supplies: A comprehensive first-aid kit is a must-have. To make sure you can effectively utilize all its contents, consider taking a first-aid course or consult with someone well-versed in first-aid procedures.
  7. Tools: Keep a multi-tool and some duct tape in your kit. These items can be incredibly helpful for a variety of gear repairs or unexpected situations.
  8. Light Sources: It's important to have a dependable light source. Carry a flashlight or a headlamp, and don't forget extra batteries.
  9. Sun Protection: Sun protection is essential regardless of the season. Pack sunglasses (particularly when venturing into snowy environments), a hat, and sunscreen.
  10. Emergency Shelter: An emergency shelter like a Mylar blanket or tarp can provide crucial protection against the elements if needed.

Pack a Satellite Communication Device

A close up of a Garmin inReach mini attached to the strap of an Osprey backpacking pack

Getting lost on the trail is no one’s idea of a good day. Satellite devices, like the Garmin inReach Mini(Se abre en una ventana nueva), are useful communication tools that allows you to be in contact with civilization when your cell phone has no service. You can check maps, weather, and send text messages through the Iridium network of satellites above with an active subscription. In the event of an emergency, you can contact the appropriate authorities or even hit the SOS button, which will direct all resources and personnel directly to the location of the device.

Know When to Turn Back

You’ll often hear stories from savvy backpackers about times they’ve had to cut a short trip even just a few hundred yards short of a summit or final destination. The reason you’re hearing their stories is because they knew when to throw in the towel. If at any point you feel uncomfortable or sense potential danger, don't hesitate to turn back. Remember, the trail will always be there another day.

Stay Educated and Prepared

Two backpackers walking along trail in the backcountry in full backpacking gear

Even seasoned hikers can benefit from re-upping their outdoor knowledge. Take courses like REI’s “Map and Compass Navigation Basics.” Get your wilderness first aid certification. Join local hiking communities. Hone your situational awareness; the moment complacency sets in is often precisely when accidents can happen. By constantly observing the surroundings and noting changes, you can augment decision-making capabilities. Look at every rock and root. Observe cloud patterns for afternoon thunderstorm developments. Keep an eye on horizon lines for wildlife. One of backpacking’s biggest boons is that nature very naturally lends itself to observation. Getting in touch with your surroundings is kind of what it’s all about. Lean into that. Harness it. Remember, your brain is your most important tool. Keep it sharp with knowledge and preparation, and you'll be well-equipped for safe and memorable wilderness adventures in the backcountry.