Slather on the SPF.
Exposure to the sun’s rays not only causes sunburn, but it speeds up heat exhaustion and dehydration, says Marco Johnson, the field staffing director for the National Outdoor Leadership School. He recommends using greasy sunscreen, since it spreads more evenly and doesn’t sweat off as easily as drier kinds. One application in the morning isn’t enough, though. Apply the equivalent of a shot glass every two hours and always wear sunglasses.
Don’t wait until you are thirsty to start replacing fluids and electrolytes. In the heat, you perspire about 1 quart of fluid every hour. By the time you’re parched, you’re already dehydrated. And the more dehydrated you are, the less efficient your body is at cooling itself.
“In most climates, you should drink 3 to 4 liters of water per day when hiking,” says Shawn Forry, a program manager for Outward Bound. “When hiking in deserts or extreme heat, however, consume 6 to 8 liters of water per day.” If you’re planning an extended excursion, bring a filtration method and map out springs and creeks along your route so you can replenish your water supply, he says.
Summer storms can be quick, but furious. Keep an eye on the forecast before you leave for any lightning or thunder storms, says Rich Browne, emergency services coordinator in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and don’t be afraid to postpone your hike.
As you’re hiking, keep an eye on the clouds, too, says Browne. For instance, thunderstorm development is slow in the Rockies, so hikers can see a storm coming. That’s why the Park advises visitors to begin their hike early and reach the summit before 10 a.m., so they’re finished before the afternoon storms roll in. Call ahead to the Park you plan to hike and ask when they recommend you start your hike.
Prepare for injuries.
Fewer people hike in the fall, which means you can escape the crowds and you don’t have to worry about your pace. But if you get injured, that also means passersby are far and few between. Johnson recommends carrying a first-aid kit that contains: athletic tape, several sizes of gauze, an elastic bandage, blister bandages, and antibiotic ointment. And no matter what, always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.
Beware of predators.
Animals are busy preparing for the winter, so they’re out and about. Keep bears from robbing you blind by maintaining a clean campsite, carrying food in bear-proof containers, and putting your food in a bag and stringing it up in a tree. In grizzly country, wear bells, talk loudly to alert them of your presence, and always carry and know how to use bear mace. As for feline predators, the best thing to do is avoid looking like a cougar’s prey. “We encourage trail runners not to run at dusk or dawn, because you look like a deer or an elk to a mountain lion,” says Rocky Mountain National Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson.
Pack for all temperatures.
Autumn is a great time to go hiking. The backcountry is filled with fall color, there’s no humidity, and the bugs are taking a hiatus until next spring. But fall weather is unpredictable. One second it can be sunny and 60 degrees, and the next it’s cold, rainy, and maybe even snowy. Checking current trail conditions before beginning a hike is crucial, Mount Rainier National Park’s chief ranger Chuck Young. Many forest rangers or park service staffers will provide updates on weather and trail statuses like fallen trees, avalanches, and landslides.
Stay dry, stay alive.
If you hike in multiple cotton layers, you’re going to sweat. The problem: Cotton loses its insulating properties when wet, and can quickly lower your body temperature when pressed against your skin. That’s why expert hikers dress in warm, but breathable loose layers of wool or synthetic clothing. This allows them to not only stay warm and dry, layer up or layer down depending on the temperature.
Always prepare for an overnight trip.
The danger of being stranded increases during the winter due to worsening weather conditions. Even if you’re only going on a day excursion, pack all the essentials for an overnight trip just in case, says Browne. You’ll need extra warm clothes, a shovel, probe, and transceiver in case of an avalanche, an insulated sleeping pad, and a bivy sack—an extremely small, lightweight, waterproof shelter, and an alternative to traditional tent systems. And since warmth could mean life or death in the winter landscape, you must be able to start a fire. Learn what your local tinder is and where to locate it before your trip.
Know the symptoms of hypothermia.
Hypothermia can set in within minutes to hours. Some symptoms—like shivering, weak pulse, and cool skin—are obvious. But other symptoms—like slurring words, stumbling, and sudden apathy—can easily be mistaken for fatigue. If a member of your party is exhibiting signs of hypothermia, remove and replace all wet clothing, feed them warm liquids and high-calorie foods, and build a fire if it’s safe to do so.
Find a bridge.
Rivers, streams, and creeks swell from melting snow and spring showers. When crossing water, use a bridge whenever possible, says Young. If there’s no bridge available, find a place to cross downstream that’s not near a log jam or rapids and grab a hiking stick or pole for balance. Unfasten your backpack’s waist and sternum straps before crossing so you can easily ditch it in case you fall.
Mind the herbivores.
Moose, elk, and deer give birth in the spring, and protective mothers can be dangerous. “If you encounter an elk or moose, you could very well be somewhere standing between her and her calf,” says Patterson. Slowly back away from the animal, and wait until it leaves before advancing down the trail.
Know your trail.
Footpaths from the summer and fall are long gone after the winter. Now, they’re masked by remaining snow or overgrown bushes or weed. Stick to trails that you’ve frequented before, and constantly consult a map.
THE MUST-HAVES FOR EVERY SEASON
“Rangers keep an eye on the trails as best as they can, but you are ultimately responsible for your own safety,” says Young. Here are the 10 essentials that experts recommend you bring on every hike, no matter how short or how long. Any of these items may help save your life. Carry them and know how to use them.
1. Topographic map
3. Flashlight (and extra batteries and bulb)
4. Plenty of food and water
5. Extra clothing
6. Sunglasses and sunscreen
7. A pocket knife/multitool
10. First-aid kit