Before taking to the trail, take some time to educate yourself on wilderness safety. While all the hiking trails profiled on HesperosFlown.com are suited to day hikes, which generally require minimal preparation, the right equipment and outdoor knowledge will ensure you the safest experience. Beyond a few essentials, it’s really about what you need to comfortably and knowledgeably navigate specific outdoor terrain for a period of time, with some extra precautions taken for the unexpected. The information on this site’s “Resources” page under “Safety and Preparation” is a good start. And remember: only you (perhaps with the advice of your physician) can determine your fitness, skill, and preparedness for particular activity or terrain.
The Ten Essentials
Most resources recommend that hikers carry the Ten Essentials:
- Food: Enough to get you through the hike, plus a little extra in case you get lost or delayed.
- Water: Enough to get you through the hike, plus a little extra in case you get lost or delayed. Many hikers each year — even in Western Washington’s temperate climate — unexpectedly experience muscle cramps, nausea, and disorientation merely from dehydration. Don’t rely on natural sources of water to meet your needs — they may not be plentiful (or conveniently placed) and require treatment to prevent illness from naturally borne pathogens to which humans are not immune. Various water purification options are available for those who wish to use outdoor sources.
- Extra Clothes: Mountain weather is notoriously fickle and temperatures can vary significantly between day and night. Pack accordingly.
- Illumination: A flashlight, headlamp, or lantern with fully charged batteries. (Don’t forget to check or replace the batteries from time to time.) Smartphone flashlight apps are generally not bright enough or focused enough to be effective in the inky darkness of a wilderness night — and, they wear down the battery that you may need for communication or navigation.
- Navigation Aids: A GPS device or an old-fashioned map and compass. It can be useful to take a screenshot of the trail map on your smartphone. However, do remember that any tools are on your smartphone are only as good as its battery charge.
- Sun Protection: Remember that alpine, coastal, and desert trails often have lengthy exposed stretches with no shade and that sunlight is much more intense at higher elevation.
- Emergency Shelter: A simple space blanket, small tarp, or small tent that will keep you warm(er) and protect you from the elements if you are unexpectedly caught outdoors overnight or in inclement weather.
- Fire Starter: Matches or a lighter and a bit of tinder to build a fire if you are stuck outdoors overnight or need a beacon to alert rescuers. Do be sure to keep the matches and tinder in a waterproof container.
- First Aid Supplies: The basics to get you through in case of emergency, e.g., bandages to cover that blister you will inevitably get at some point, anti-bacterial ointment to prevent infection if you are cut or scraped, pain reliever, etc.
- Tools: A few basic tools, e.g., a knife, scissors, duct tape, etc. — or, a handy multi-use pocket knife or tool.
Comfortable footwear suitable to the terrain is essential to a safe and pleasant hike. Bear in mind that most Western Washington hiking trails involve at least some clambering over uneven rocks and exposed tree roots, often in wet and steep conditions.
For day hikes, most other gear is a matter of preference, depending on where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, and what makes you comfortable. For example, trekking poles may give you added stability and confidence or you may feel that they are just in the way. After acquiring the essentials, go for some hikes and tailor your collection of gear to what works for you.
Weather, Avalanche, and Wildfire Information
Before taking to the trail, be sure to check the local weather forecast and, where snow is present, the avalanche forecast. Not only is Pacific Northwest mountain weather unpredictable in any season, but many mountainsides that are completely benign in the drought of summer are swept by potentially deadly avalanches in winter and spring. In summer and autumn, check for wildfires in the area you’ll be hiking, as sudden changes in the weather can result in road and trail closures or even blockages behind you.
Be aware of day length and what time the sun sets. Remember that, under the cover of forest, darkness closes in much earlier than sunset in the open, especially when clouds or fog are present. And, as one of your Ten Essentials, carry a light source just in case you get caught out later than you expect.
Tell someone where you’re going — and update them if you change your mind at the last minute. It can seem unnecessary when dashing out for a quick hike, but imagine being lost or injured with no cell service and realizing that no one even knows where to search for you.
Stick to the Trail
Stay on established trails and boot paths. Not only does straying from the trail damage the sometimes fragile soil ecosystem that can take years to recover in harsh alpine, desert, and other harsh environments, but it greatly increases your chance of getting lost, tumbling over an obscured ledge, or experiencing some other unforeseen mishap.
Survey Your Surroundings
Always be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for landmarks that can help you find your way if you’re lost. Even noting that oddly shaped trailside boulder or tree stump can help provide later assurance that you’re on the right path. It can also be helpful to turn and survey the landscape behind you occasionally, especially where the route may be confusing, because you’ll be seeing everything from the opposite direction on the way back. And, glancing behind you occasionally will also alert you to any critters that may be following you.
If you do become disoriented and are uncertain whether that overgrown dirt path is the hiking trail back to your vehicle or just a game trail (animals make and follow paths, too), look for evidence of human activity along the trail, e.g., cut or sawn ends on branches and logs; stones or logs aligned just a little too precisely along or in the trail; boot prints and the telltale pockmarks left by trekking poles, etc. (Hoof and paw prints themselves are not necessarily good indicators of a game trail, as animals also follow human paths and humans often bring four-footed companions with them.)
While encounters with dangerous animals are rare, remember that you have ventured into their habitat and may chance upon them anywhere within their range. Use the information on this site’s “Resources” page under “Safety and Preparation” to familiarize yourself with the wildlife you may encounter and how to respond if you do. Each species has its own psychology and responds to threats or potential prey in its own way. Know a little about their habits and use that information to be more aware of your surroundings. For example, because cats (in Washington, cougars, bobcats, and lynxes) stalk their prey before attacking and instinctively chase little things that run, be wary of places they may lie in wait (e.g., overhanging logs and banks), look around periodically to ensure you are not being followed, and, if you do encounter one, resist the urge to flee, stand tall to make yourself appear bigger, shout, and throw anything in your hand at it. Be on the lookout while crossing meadows and other places where bears may forage for seasonal berries and roots, especially at dawn and dusk, so as not to surprise them into an immediate threat state. If you chance upon one, stand tall and talk (or even sing) in a non-threatening manner to diffuse any perceived danger you may present. While mountain goats may not go out of their way to attack humans, they are obsessively attracted to the scent of salt in human sweat and urine, very stubborn about what they want, and irascible when they don’t get it — give them a wide berth, rather than expecting them to avoid you. Although there are no venomous snakes west of the Cascades, if you go very far east of the Cascade crest (and you should — there’s great hiking there, too!), you’ll be in rattlesnake country and must adjust your awareness accordingly. And, like human mothers, females of most wild animals — even otherwise mild-tempered species such as deer — will zealously protect their young from perceived dangers. Never approach or in any way appear threatening to the young of any species.
If you hike alone or in the backcountry, consider carrying bear spray, which is highly concentrated pepper spray proven to stop large animals in their tracks. From time to time, review how to unstrap it from its holster and disengage its safety lock — in the unlikely event you ever need to use it, you won’t want to waste precious seconds fumbling with it!
Nothing substitutes for common sense in getting you back home safely. Trust your gut. You know yourself and your capabilities better than anyone. If an iffy-looking ledge or snowfield doesn’t feel right to you (regardless of what other hikers are doing), don’t attempt it. Nature will still be there for the next hike – so should you!