How to be safe on the Appalachian Trail
Scott Janz November 26, 2016 4

Avoid Mistakes in the Backcountry

In recent post’s, I’ve posted on some common mistakes new backpackers have made while wandering into the backcountry. While it’s important to make sure you have proper equipment, it’s even more important to let people know where your going, and how long you will be out. I found this web site that has some good common sense tips to avoid mistakes.

Not Having a Plan:

Yes, this I do call a mistake. Having a plan can prevent you from getting lost and go a long way towards ensuring your safe return.

Plotting your route ahead of time on a map, assessing the difficulty and perhaps technical nature of that route, making sure you have all necessary gear given the terrain and weather potential, and estimating the time necessary to complete the route are all part of an effective plan.

This may seem like overkill when it comes to a fairly short hike on a trail you’ve been over umpteen times before, but it’s still a good idea to think things over and make a mental review, not to mention make sure the trail map–or, better yet, the topo map of the area–is in your pack. You never know when you may need to look at what’s near the trail if, for example, a section is impassable and you’re forced to re-route, or if you need to look for a short-cut or alternate path due to weather.

Noone Knows Your Plan

If, on that rare occasion, something goes wrong on your trek, what good would an itinerary be if no one else knows about it?

It’s not uncommon that Search & Rescue teams get called to look for an overdue hiker, climber, skier, etc. and the reporting party has little to no idea of where their friend or loved one went. “He went to hike the Inner Basin Trail from Lockett Meadow to Fremont Saddle and back, starting at about noon” is obviously much more helpful to SAR than “he’s hiking somewhere in Northern Arizona.”

Leaving an itinerary and expected time of return (with a little buffer for that unplanned stop for pizza), can literally make a life or death difference.

Being Unprepared for the Unexpected:

In the mountains, I’ve experienced days that have literally gone from summer to winter in a matter of hours–from t-shirt weather to snow squalls between valleys and summits. Calm sunshine to driving rain and lightning in mere minutes.

A carefree walk in the woods can turn into a long night with a broken ankle, waiting for help.

That log jam you carefully crossed on your way out may actually be gone by the time you come back.

Who knows? Stranger things have happened, believe me. So it’s always nice to be prepared with extra food, clothing, first aid supplies and a little bit of emergency shelter just in case. I also like to bring along about 50 feet of tough but lightweight nylon cord, which has a myriad of uses.

Do I know how to use ALL my equipment? (ALWAYS test your gear)

The thing about maps, compasses and most GPS’s (except maybe for some fancy-shmancy auto types) is that they don’t talk much. So carrying them with you is only one half of the equation; the other is actually knowing what to do with them. Watch our video on the 10 essentials

When I say know how to use your gear, the first things that come to mind are navigational tools.  One common misconception, for example, is that a compass always points north. No, in fact it points wherever you point it. Know  how to use your GPS, if you are even carrying one. One error that many hikers make after buying that pricey new GPS with all the bells and whistles is that they become out-of-the-box users. If nothing else, learn how to set waypoints and do “go to’s” in order to return to your starting point.

Something to keep in mind is that mechanical devices can fail and break. The batteries can run out and maybe you forgot to pack extras. So it’s always a good idea to bring lower-tech backups like that compass and most definitely a map.

Knowing how to use one’s gear would also apply to things like water purification products and tools, ice axes, crampons and snowshoes, backpacking stoves and firestarters, and so forth. If it’s in your pack, know what to do with it.

Leaving the Group

There’s safety in numbers.

And I say, if you go with a group, stay with the group … or at least let someone know if you’re going to stop for a break or step off the trail to see a waterfall or something.

When hiking with a group, I believe in having a prior agreement amongst all members about how to handle different paces and preferences for stopping for breaks, so everyone is on the same page. Keeping at least one group member in sight at all times is the way I prefer to do it.

Backpacking/Hiking can be fun and rewarding, but just make sure that you do your homework. If you are new to backpacking, make sure you sign up for our video series 3 biggest mistakes new backpackers make.

4 Comments

  • Philip Werner

    Good article. I’m going to be leading some very strenuous trips this year a local backpacking club and one of the screening questions I use to determine if someone is fit for the trip is “What the stupidest thing you’ve ever done backpacking?” You need to be on your toes out there, which for me is the whole point of going….to pay attention. I look for people who understand that they’ve done something stupid and have learned from it.

    • 8:24 pm - March 5, 2009

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  • Hiking Lady

    Excellent tips, thanks for sharing. The key thing I do before I leave for a wilderness adventure is to leave my trip plan with family or friends.

    • 1:05 pm - September 15, 2009

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