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Summer Hiking Safety: The 10 Essentials

Make sure you're covered with these ten items on your next family hike.

Photo: David Lee/Flickr


Before you hit any trail, no matter how easy, no matter how short, no matter how close to home, make sure your backpack is loaded with the 10 essentials. When in the backcountry you are responsible for your own safety, and any one of these 10 items may help to save your life. Carry each one and know how to use them.

In addition to these items, know your limits and be sure you leave an itinerary with friends or relatives.

  1. Map. Always carry a detailed map of the area that you are hiking in. The 15' Green Trails maps are great if you're staying on trail. If you're planning on leaving the trail it's best to have 7.5' USGS maps. Both kinds are available at most sporting goods stores. Keep your maps in a plastic bag to protect them from the rain and know how to use them.

  2. Compass. A map is no good without a compass and a compass is no good if you don't know how to use it. It doesn't matter how fancy your compass is, but if it doesn't have a compensation setting for true North, make sure you know how to convert magnetic to true North. In Western Washington magnetic North is 20-22° east of true North. GPS units are great, but they are not substitutes for knowing how to use a map and compass. They're delicate devices and can break, get waterlogged or seize up in cold weather. The GPS can point you in the right direction, but it's the map that tells you if you can go that way.

  3. Water and a way to purify it. It is essential to drink a lot of water while hiking. Without water, your body doesn't perform as well and you could grow more susceptible to heat stroke, hypothermia and altitude sickness. It used to be that you could just dip your bottle into a stream and drink the water. Not today. All water sources can harbor tiny organisms that would make your life unpleasant later. You should purify all water with a water filter or purifier, chemical tablets or boiling before drinking.

  4. Extra food. Always bring extra food when hiking in case an unexpected situation delays your return – be it detour, injury or sickness, difficult terrain, weather, etc. Bring at least one extra day's worth. It should be something that stores for a long time, requires no preparation and is high in energy. Many people choose things they really dislike so they won't be tempted to break into their emergency rations unless they really need them.

  5. Rain gear and extra clothing. Weather can change quickly in the mountains. A sunny, warm day can turn into a cold downpour in a very short period of time. Always tuck rain gear into your backpack and bring along layers of clothes. And avoid cotton clothing in favor of wool or poly blends that wick moisture away from your skin.

  6. Firestarter and matches – Always bring along waterproof matches in a water-tight container and have a dry or waterproof striker. You might also bring a cigarette lighter as a backup. And in the Northwest you can expect to have to deal with wet kindling. A candle, solid chemical fuels or balls of compressed wood chips work well.

  7. First aid kit – Don't just have a first aid kit, have a useful first aid kit. If your kit just has a few bandaids and some aspirin, you won't be able to do much. Make sure you have the supplies to deal with major injuries, and make sure you have the knowledge. You can purchase hiker first aid kits at outdoor stores or put together your own (see WT Magazine). Take a first aid course from the Red Cross or the Mountaineers.

  8. Knife or multipurpose tool – Knives are indispensible in the backcountry. They can help you prepare food, cut Moleskin or bandages, repair gear, and more.

  9. Flashlight and extra batteries – It's dark out there! A light source is vital if you get caught in the woods after dark. Also carry spare batteries and an extra bulb and make sure you test your light before each trip. Batteries have a limited shelf-life, and contacts can become corroded blocking the flow of current.

  10. Sunscreen and sunglasses – Your eyes need protection, especially if you are on snow or above treeline. Sunglasses are a must. And those rays are strong and damaging; sunscreen is important for people of all skin types.

And a few other items you should consider: insect repellent, whistle, watch, emergency blanket, mirror (for signaling), duct tape (great for repairing anything), gloves, extra socks, and an orange vest (during hunting season). To learn more, visit