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Home » Backpacking Safety: Skills and Disciplines You Need

Backpacking Safety: Skills and Disciplines You Need

It’s easy to understand the unmatched level of connection with nature offered by backpacking. That said, there are a lot of people (like me a few years ago) who excitedly plan a backpacking trip without ever learning how to be safe on one. It’s not just knowing how to spot poison ivy and selecting the backpack that’ll make your friends jealous; there’s a lot that goes into backpacking safety, and all of it is important.

Cover photo for backpacking safety article

This guide to backpacking safety will serve as your introduction to the skills, disciplines, and mindsets you’ll need to avoid calamity or, at least, get yourself back home when calamity can’t be avoided.

Backpacking Safety Tips: it Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

Backpacking safety cover photo

Truth be told, even though I think safety is the most important part of planning, I don’t think about it all that much when I’m packing, traveling, or on the trail. Once you learn how to prepare, safety stops being something you actively think about and more like something that gives you confidence as you hike.

Safety comes down to two different things: preparedness and presence.

  • Preparedness: knowing what you need to know, and bringing what you need to bring.
  • Presence: being aware of yourself, your surroundings, and your hiking buddies.

Safety with Animals You’ll Meet on a Backpacking Trip

Moose in a field

Animals are one of the biggest reasons to go on a backpacking trip, but they can also be one of the biggest hazards. Bears, mountain lions, and moose are just three examples of animals that, while you may be excited to see one, you definitely don’t want to encounter one.

Here are some tips for staying safe around animals when you’re backpacking:

  • Carry bear spray. Bear spray is helpful for more than just bears – it can protect you from mountain lions, moose, and other potentially dangerous critters. You can learn more about the best bear spray here.
  • Be loud. Bears and other animals don’t make encountering humans a habit. Rather, it usually happens by accident. Being loud enough that they can hear you means that they can stay far enough away that danger will never arise. You can even bring a bear horn to make sure any creature within a half mile knows you’re around!
  • Be aware. While most animals will see you before you ever see them, it’s still on you to keep your eyes and ears open for signs of animals. Hungry and desperate mountain lions have been known to stalk and sometimes attack humans; awareness is your greatest defense.
  • Store your food properly. Using a bear canister to store your food, and keeping it at least 200 feet away from your tent, prevents any unwanted animal encounters at night. Furthermore, keep food and scented items out of your tent; the moment you start eating in your tent is the moment you start risking a terrifying 3 AM wakeup call from a curious bear.
  • Know how to respond. Backpacking in bear country requires you to know what to do when you see a bear. Don’t turn and run, and don’t panic. Instead, be loud, assert yourself, and let the bear know that you are neither a threat nor a target. Keep your bear spray handy, and don’t be afraid to throw a rock at a black bear to get it to leave.

Safety in Physical and Medical Emergencies

backpacking man on a trail

Even if you’ve done everything right, some physical and medical emergencies are completely unavoidable. That’s why it pays to be prepared to respond when the unpredictable strikes.

Here’s a few backpacking safety tips for handling injuries and medical events when backpacking:

  • Bring a first aid kit. This one should go without saying, but many campers and backpackers (including myself) can be forgetful, especially when packing. Make sure your backpacking first aid kit is full, and that it’s actually in your pack, and you’re pretty much ready for the most common emergencies.
  • Don’t forget your meds. Again, this one seems obvious, but I’m a very forgetful person and I know I’m not the only one. Forgetting prescriptions when you’re on a regular vacation is one thing; there’s usually a pharmacy nearby and you can get what you need. When backpacking, you need to be 100% sure you have the things you need before you leave.
  • Turn around. If you get sick or hurt to the point where it hurts to continue, it’s usually a good idea to simply call it quits. That sounds lame, but it’s a lot worse to be dead backpacker than a backpacker who came home a couple days early.
  • Clean every wound. Even the tiniest scratch opens you up to contracting all sorts of bacterial illnesses. This is especially true in wet areas; freshwater is a bacteria haven, and even the clearest-looking lakes and streams can make you very, very sick if you get water in an open wound. Treating wounds is a backpacking skill that can go overlooked, so make sure you know how before you go on a trip.
  • Bring a personal locator beacon (PLB). PLBs such as the Garmin inReach Mini let you send a status message to anyone, no matter where you are in the world. These devices connect via satellite and can be used to locate you if you get lost, hurt, or otherwise stuck in the backcountry. If you know you won’t have cell service, and it’s unlikely you’ll see a steady stream of other hikers who could help you, buy or rent one of these

Safety in Weather Emergencies

Two people hiking in a snowstorm

Aside from following weather reports for the area you’ll be backpacking in, there are a few things you can do to keep yourself safe in the event of a sudden storm or freak weather incident. The following tips will help you respond when mother nature decides to give you her worst:

  • Don’t be afraid to turn around. I’ve already mentioned this one, but there is no shame in turning back at any point. It might be hard to convince yourself to go home, but it’s better than risking your life when you’re unprepared.
  • Know the warning signs of lightning. At high elevations, your body can become an appealing conduit for a lightning strike. Strange sounds like buzzing can be a sign that charge is building up near you. If you’re above the tree line, and you think there’s a chance of lightning, get low quickly.
  • Know how to avoid heat stroke. Heatstroke can kill you in under an hour, especially if you don’t see it coming. If you’re hiking in hot weather, wear breathable, long clothing and pack twice as much water as you think you need. If you notice any of the signs of heatstroke, get help immediately.
  • Bring what you need. A 3-season backpacking tent can’t get you through a snowstorm at 8,000 feet. If there’s a chance of heavy rain, snow, or wind, you should bring the right type of shelter to get through it. Sure, you can rough it, but I wouldn’t – the risk/reward just isn’t worth it for me to take a chance with hypothermia, frostbite, or something worse.

Safety in Navigation-Caused Emergencies

Woman holding a map for navigation

Geting lost. It’s something that, while you know can happen to anyone, is still embarrassing when it happens to you. The worst thing about getting lost is that it’s one of the most deadly forms of “something going wrong” when backpacking.

When you can’t find your way, the risks of running out of water and food are extremely high; and, unless somebody finds you or you get lucky enough to find the trail again, you might be done for.

These tips will give you the tools you need to be found:

  • Seriously, bring a paper map and compass. Yeah, it feels like a waste of money (seriously, why are national park maps from NatGeo like $20 at outdoor stores now?), but you can’t rely on technology alone. Broken screens, dead batteries, and lost phones all mean you are much, much safer with a paper map and compass as a backup. If these items aren’t part of your base weight, reconsider!
  • Download a map on your phone. Google Maps lets you download the entirety of a certain region so that you can navigate offline. Apps like AllTrails and The Hiking Project also let you save detailed trail-specific maps for offline use. I download multiple maps before each trip, just to give my anxiety a break!
  • A PLB can save your life. If you get lost, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to find your way back. Even worse, there’s no guarantee anybody will be able to find you. A PLB that lets you send your location and other crucial info about your situation is beyond valuable as a last resort!
  • Don’t wander without experience. If you’re like me (a decently experienced hiker, but not a true woodsman or navigator), don’t wander too far off of the established trail. Not only can you cause huge damage to fauna and flora, you can also get lost way more easily than you’d think. A couple of experiences being lost in the woods as a younger man have taught me not to take unnecessary risks.

What Should Be in Your Backpacking First Aid Kit?

An example of a first aid kit

First aid kits are one of the last things I think about when packing, even though I know how crucial they are. A first aid kit doesn’t feel like essential hiking gear until the moment that you don’t have it. I use a premade first aid kit from REI, which has everything I need to get myself out of most sticky situations:

A small first aid kit designed for backpacking
My first aid kit. As you can see by the red zip tie on the end, I still haven’t even had a reason to open it!

If you’re putting together your own first aid kit, here’s what needs to be in it:

  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Antibacterial and antifungal ointment
  • Bandaids/adhesive bandages
  • Gauze pads (various sizes)
  • Nonstick sterile pads
  • Ibuprofen/acetaminophen
  • Insect sting / anti-itch treatment
  • Antihistamine to treat allergic reactions
  • Antibiotics
  • Sunburn relief gel or spray
  • Diarrhea medication
  • Antacids
  • Medical waste bag (plus box for sharp items)
  • Waterproof container to hold supplies and meds
  • Emergency blanket/space blanket
  • Hand sanitizer

The most important aspect of first aid is simply having it. You don’t need to replicate an entire field hospital; you need just enough to save a life in a pinch.

FAQ

mountains, valley, landscape
Is it safe to backpack alone?

Yes, it is safe to be alone… up until it isn’t. If you’re on your own, you’re on your own – and that can be deadly if something goes wrong! Backpacking alone can be very safe, and thousands do it; it’s just that it’s much harder to respond to emergencies without any backup.

What attracts bears when camping?

The obvious answer is food, but the truth is that any smells unoriginal to the area can potentially arouse a bear’s curiosity. That’s why it’s important to keep food and anything else with a noticeable scent in a bear canister at least 200 feet from your tent.

Is it normal to be scared when backpacking?

Oh yeah. Even though backpacking is statistically one of the safest things you can do, people feel fear all the time. Truthfully, a lot of that fear is healthy – it keeps you from making careless mistakes.

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