Having made my share of mistakes in the wilderness over the years, I have compiled a list of gotcha's and lessons learned that can be applied to any outdoor adventure. I urge you to print this out and store with your outdoor gear. Hiking can be a most rewarding distraction from the daily grind, but safety should NEVER be taken for granted!
1) Plan your hike
You are more likely to have a safe and happy hike if you "plan your hike, and hike your plan". To rush out on a big hike w/o proper planning is asking for trouble! ALWAYS notify someone close to you where you will be and how long you will be gone. Make sure you know your limits and capabilities and plan accordingly. Don't plan to hike 20 miles to reach your campsite unless you are sure you an make that distance. Also, be aware of water sources and approved campsite locations along the trail. Many trails, such as the Appalachian Trail, only allow camping in designated locations.
2) Know your terrain
Use every resource available to get to know your hiking trail before you set out. This will prepare you for the walking conditions. Are there streams to cross? Elevation changes? Is terrain rocky or smooth? Just some of the questions that can be answered BEFORE you set out.
3) Know your climate
In colder climates, hypothermia is real, dangerous, and misunderstood. Hypothermia plain and simple is a rapid cooling of the body, and can even strike in relatively warm environments. This can be caused by cold, wet or a combination of both. Hypothermia can easily be prevented with proper preparation. Also be aware of its counterpart, hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature (overheating). Hiking is strenuous, and on hot sunny days your body can overheat. Be mindful that climate can change in mountainous regions as your elevation changes. Dress in layers and be prepared.
In The Pack Essentials
1) Potable water
Always have fresh water available, on any excursion. It is also a good idea to bring along purification tablets and/or a filtration device. Having the ability to produce drinking water can be just as important as the water you pack in. On longer hikes, it is essential. Consider the water you will need to drink as well as to cook and clean.
2) First Aid Kit
Although an obvious choice, it is surprising how many folks go in the wilderness without one. Items as simple as pain relief tablets can be a welcome addition when you are far from civilization. Other items are bandages, tweezers, moleskin, antiseptic, needle and thread (for repairs). Consider being prepared for simple cuts and bruises as well as more severe injuries such as a gash, burn or sprain.
3) Fire and light source
Matches and a lighter are essentials. You may want to pack along a small piece of commercial starter stick for quick fires in moist environments. Don't forget a small conventional flashlight or headlamp and an LED light, as well.
It is always wise to pack some extra layers if you expect conditions to vary. The weight of these items will be dictated by the environment, err to the side of caution, as temps can fluctuate greatly, especially in mountainous environments. An extra pair of socks can be life savers.
Packing along a compass and trail map, and be sure you know how to use them. Electronic GPS devices work well, but if you run out of power or can't get a signal they won't be of much help.
6) Other Items
A cell phone can be used for emergencies, even though you may not get reception in some places, in a pinch, you may be able to get a call out. Bring along some protein snacks to keep your energy level up.
7) And most importantly . . . .
The single most important item to pack on your next hike is common sense. Making sound decisions while on the trail will keep you out of most troubled situations. If you hike with your family members, especially children or seniors, remember that they may not have the stamina handle the same level hike as you, and you ultimately must make the right decision.
Hike smart . . . and enjoy The Great Outdoors.