Fresh air in your lungs, the earth under your feet, and the beauty of nature all around you. If you’re one of the 58.7 million people in the United States who went hiking in 2021, this is no doubt a big part of what drew you to the experience.
Hiking has many health benefits. One fundamental aspect is “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku, as the Japanese call it. This simple act of spending time in nature has been linked to decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and harmful hormones, notes Kaiser Permanente.
And the National Park Service notes that hiking is a great whole-body exercise, helping to build stronger muscles and bones, improve balance, strengthen heart health, and improve certain breathing conditions. It can also help boost mood — whose spirit doesn’t soar upon viewing a majestic peak or sparkling lake? — with time in nature being linked to reductions in anxiety and depression, according to research from Stanford University
But nature is, of course, unpredictable, so there are also some potential pitfalls when you wander into the great outdoors. How do you stay safe and healthy on a hike? These tips can help.
Quench your thirst: essential hydration strategies
Staying hydrated is crucial when you’re hitting the trails. The American Hiking Society recommends drinking water slowly over several hours before you’ll be exercising (the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation recommends at least 4 cups of water), then drinking about one quart an hour during periods of heavy exercise. Clear and copious amounts of urine are a sign of good hydration.
On days when the weather is particularly hot and/or you’re sweating profusely, plain water may not be sufficient, since you’ll be losing salt through your sweat. In this case, eating some salted trail mix or drinking sports drinks with electrolytes can help keep your body salts in balance. Adding a pinch of sugar and salt to your water can provide similar results.
And although it may not always feel that way, staying hydrated can actually be more important in the colder months than the warmer months, says the American Hiking Society. That’s because the cold, dry air removes moisture from the body quicker than humid air. Keeping your water bottle tightly sealed and inside your coat can help prevent it from freezing.
Also, no matter the weather, be sure to avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol. These substances act as diuretics, causing you to lose fluids through urination.
According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of dehydration in adults include extreme thirst, less-frequent urination, dark urine, fatigue, dizziness, and confusion. Be alert for any of these signs and, ideally, prevent dehydration before it occurs by drinking plenty of water throughout your hike.
If you find yourself in the wilderness with a need to purify a natural water source for consumption (to avoid water-borne illnesses such as Giardia), the American Hiking Society outlines some standard methods for ensuring your water is safe. These include:
- Bringing your water to a rolling boil for 1 minute. (A largely foolproof method, but one that requires a lot of fuel and the straining of solid particles from the water.)
- Using iodine solution, tablets, or crystals. (Kills bacteria, viruses, and most protozoa. Lightweight and easy to use, but requires a 20- to 30-minute delay before drinking, is not safe for pregnant women, and can leave a strong aftertaste.)
- Using chlorine drops. (Kills bacteria. Lightweight and cheap, but requires a 20- to 30-minute delay before drinking and necessitates counting of drops as it is potentially poisonous.)
- Using a water filter. (Quality water filters remove protozoa and certain bacteria, and some may additionally remove chemicals and viruses. Doesn’t require a delay before drinking once the process is complete, but requires purchasing and carrying the filter, manual pumping, and maintenance of the filter.)
- Using a UV light device. (Kills protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. Lightweight and easy to use, but batteries can die and solid particles aren’t filtered out.)
Learn more in “How Bear Grylls Makes His Water Safe to Drink.”
Fueling your trek: smart nutrition choices
Getting proper nutrition is also vital for ensuring a smooth and enjoyable hike. According to the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation, 1 to 3 hours before you begin your hike, you should eat a combination of complex carbohydrates and protein. This can include something like Greek yogurt with berries, an apple and peanut butter, or a peanut butter and banana sandwich (Elvis’s favorite!) on whole-wheat bread. Sanford Health notes that avoiding sugary snacks is advisable as they can lead to an energy spike followed by a crash.
For eating during longer hikes, the Pacific Crest Trail Association suggests light, calorie-dense foods that don’t need refrigeration. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends options such as instant oatmeal, cereals that don’t crush easily, tuna or chicken in foil packets, nut butters, pasta, energy bars, and crackers and cheese. (Minimize packaging to avoid creating litter and do not bury leftover food scraps, as they attract animals.)
For after your hike, the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation advises refueling with complex carbohydrates and protein from selections such as an 8-ounce smoothie made with fruit and low-fat milk, turkey on a whole-grain wrap with vegetables, or string cheese with pretzels (plus plenty of water).
Dreaming under the stars: optimizing rest and recovery
Any physical activity requires its fair share of rest time as a counterbalance to allow the body to recover and repair itself. If you’ll be going on an overnight hike, there are several tips to keep in mind to start your next day feeling rejuvenated.
First off, choose a flat site free of sticks, rocks, or other objects that could make for an uncomfortable night, says REI.
According to the Keystone Trail Association, it is important to never sleep on the ground, which will quickly remove heat from your body. Instead, use a foam or inflatable sleeping pad (or, in a pinch, pile up dry leaves or pine boughs to sleep on). Also use a ground cloth, which will protect from moisture on the ground. Choose a sleeping bag sufficient for the temperatures you’ll encounter, and add a windproof, waterproof sleeping bag cover.
In cooler conditions, wear a hat, gloves, and heavyweight socks. If possible, though, the Association recommends avoiding sleeping in coats and pants, since hoods, zippers, and pockets can make for an uncomfortable snooze. Also, consider filling a hot water bottle up and keeping it in your sleeping bag for warmth (and bring a bottle to drink from, as well, for thirst in the middle of the night). And always sleep with your mouth uncovered, since dangerous carbon monoxide will build up in a sealed sleeping bag.
REI recommends packing an eye mask if you’ll be sleeping somewhere with longer hours of light or with ambient light, such as in campgrounds. Hiking with others? Consider bringing earplugs to block out noise from your fellow campers. Also keep a headlamp or light and sandals or shoes handy for when nature calls in the middle of the night.
Before retiring, ensure you’re storing all food and scented toiletries securely outside of your tent (following the rules of the specific area you’re in) to prevent wildlife from being attracted to your location. And remember to use the restroom once or twice before turning in to help prevent trips to the restroom during the night.
Sun smart: strategies for UV protection
No matter where or how long your hike is, sunlight is something that you’ll have to prepare for. Indeed, UV rays can penetrate clouds, rain, and fog, says the Skin Cancer Foundation, meaning you’ll be soaking up rays even on stormy days. And at higher elevations, UV exposure is even higher — something to consider for hikes at altitude.
So, how can you protect yourself from this ever-present force of nature? According to the American Hiking Society, do your best to choose hikes that offer ample shade during the time the sun is strongest, from 10 AM to 4 PM. Apply sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher 30 minutes prior to heading out, and reapply at least every 2 hours. Add a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher, says the Cleveland Clinic.
Wear sun-protective clothing, including a hat with a wide brim. Also wear sunglasses that provide 99% to 100% UVA and UVB protection to help reduce your risk of cataracts and other eye damage. Also keep an eye on the UV Index, which predicts the UV radiation levels, and be prepared to change your plans accordingly if high levels are forecast.
Bite back: preventing and treating bites and stings
Bug bites are not just an itchy nuisance: in some cases, they can spread diseases such as yellow fever, Zika, or Lyme, so avoiding them in the first place is the best approach. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are a variety of steps you can take to keep bug bites at bay:
- Use an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellent with DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone. Put the repellant on after you apply sunscreen.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.
- Treat your clothing and gear with permethrin.
- Sleep under a mosquito net.
- Walk in the center of trails and avoid areas with high grass or leaf litter.
- Examine your clothing, gear, and pets for ticks.
- Shower soon after being outdoors.
- Conduct a full-body check for ticks.
The American Hiking Society also recommends not wearing scented personal products or shiny objects, avoiding walking around in bare feet, and being cautious of touching areas you can’t see, such as under rocks or in logs.
If you are bitten or stung, you should move to a safe spot where you won’t be swarmed, remove any stingers or ticks, and clean the wound using an antiseptic soap, says REI. If available, a cold compress or ice can help keep swelling down. (And needless to say, if you are experiencing an allergic response from any sort of bite or sting, seek emergency medical attention immediately.)
Tread carefully: choosing the right footwear
By its very definition, hiking involves spending a lot of time on your feet, so choosing the right shoes and socks for your adventure is paramount.
To choose appropriate socks, REI recommends considering the following four factors:
- Height: The socks should be high enough to prevent the cuffs of your boots from rubbing and abrading your skin.
- Cushioning: Socks with more cushioning can provide some protection from high-impact activities like running. They are also thicker and, therefore, warmer.
- Fabric. Hiking socks are typically made from a blend of different materials. Wool-based socks are a top recommendation from experts.
- Fit. The socks should be big enough to avoid tightness and pressure points, but tight enough to prevent slippage and blisters.
According to REI, your boots should be a good match for both where and how you hike (e.g., a day hike on a flat trail versus a weeklong backpacking trip on rough and uneven terrain). The following factors should play a role in your selection process:
- Type. Will you be trail running? For an hour? Mountaineering for several days? Use this information to narrow down the type of boots you’re considering.
- Components. Consider the types of material that make up the different parts of the boot, from leather to synthetics to insulation.
- Fit. As with hiking socks, ensuring a good fit is key. Your boots should be snug but not tight and allow room to wiggle your toes.
Safety first: packing a first aid kit
A basic first-aid kit is something no hiker should be without. Commercial kits with the essentials prepacked provide one convenient and portable option. If you’re putting together your own kit, the Washington Trails Association recommends considering the medical conditions of everyone hiking, the length of the trip, and its location.
For some basics, the experts at Outdoors.com recommend including:
- Any prescription medicines you take
- A list of emergency contacts
- Absorbent dressings
- Adhesive bandages
- Medical tape
- Antibiotic ointment
- Antiseptic wipes
- Latex-free gloves
- Medical tape
- Hydrocortisone cream
- A cold compress
- A thermometer
Check your kit frequently to replace any items that may be nearing expiration.
Learn more about key items to include in “How to Build Your Camping First Aid Kit.”
Weathering the trail: tips for weather preparedness
No matter the planned length of your hike, the weather will play a big factor. (National Geographic points out that day hikers are actually the most vulnerable in survival situations, either because they’ve gotten lost or find themselves unprepared for changing weather situations.)
AcuRite, a manufacturer of weather products and devices, recommends checking the weather forecast prior to any planned trip so you know what to expect, since conditions can change rapidly and simply looking out the window isn’t a good gauge of what you’ll encounter hours later on the trail.
Be familiar with seasonal patterns (e.g., that tornadoes are most likely from April to June in the midwest or that late summer to early fall is the most active season for flash floods in desert canyons).
Thunderstorms are a particularly big risk, as they can form quickly and increase the risk of hazards like lightning and flash flooding. Darkening skies, cool gusts of wind, and cumulus clouds (puffy, cottony clouds) that are growing vertically are all signs of an impending thunderstorm. AcuRite notes that insects suddenly disappearing, flowers closing up, and birds flying close to the ground are other possible signs.
If you find yourself caught in the open during a thunderstorm, the CDC recommends getting off high elevations and crouching on the ground (not lying flat) with your head tucked and your hands over your ears. Get away from bodies of water and metal objects, and avoid sheltering under isolated trees. (Shelter near lower trees if you are in a forest.)
Coexisting with nature: avoiding wildlife encounters
Although spotting wildlife is one of the pleasures of any outdoor excursion, you don’t want to get too up close and personal. According to the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, there are a number of steps you can take to make sure you don’t come face-to-face with a wild animal:
- Make noise. Speak with your companions, clap, or wear a bear bell or whistle so animals are aware of your presence and can give you a wide berth.
- Hike with other people. This will make more noise and may also make wildlife less likely to approach.
- Be aware and steer clear. Keep an eye out for fresh scat or footprints and avoid wearing headphones so you can hear animals nearby. Keep your distance if you do spot an animal.
- Consider when and where you hike. Some animals are more active at certain times of day. Be mindful of the wildlife in the area you’re visiting and when they are most likely to be present.
- Avoid intentional encounters. Be sure to avoid actions such as getting close to an animal to feed it or take a photo. This can lead to problems for you or the animal, or for another hiker down the line if the animal gets used to human interactions.
Trail’s end: embracing safe and healthy adventures
When it comes to having a successful and healthy hike, it’s clear that preparation is key. But beyond the practicalities, hiking is about connecting with nature, challenging your body, and refreshing your mind. The trails offer endless adventures, but they also demand our respect and responsibility — not just toward our well-being but also toward the environment we’re privileged to explore.
So, whether you’re a seasoned hiker or lacing up your boots for the first time, carry these tips with you. Stay aware, stay safe, stay healthy, and fully enjoy your connection with the great outdoors.
Happy trails, and safe hiking!
Disclaimer of Medical Advice: This information does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified healthcare professionals to meet your individual needs.