Backpacking backpack trips aren't always carefree. Like anything else in life, the most enjoyable times can be met with circumstances beyond out control. Hiking is basically loved by men and women of all ages and physical levels. But let’s face it, you are entering the wilderness of nature, you should be ready for situations that may be threatening. Here are 5 helpful suggestions on how to handle dangerous elements in the great outdoors if they happen to you.
Knowledge eliminates fear, so it makes total sense to get educated to the natural dangers within nature. Lightening is very risky, but knowing the precautions to take will keep you safe. If you familiarize yourself with storm signals and recognizing lightening endangerment, you will not have to be a victim to direct lightening strikes
While it is awesome to view the beauty of a lightening show and thunder echoing throughout the sky, lightening is the most natural deadly phenomena on our planet. Hikers are particularly vulnerable from being outdoors in all kinds of weather. With summer being the most popular hiking season, backpack hikers must be aware that this season is the most active for storms producing lightening.
Always check the current and active weather conditions for the place you will be hiking. Stay on top of sudden storms approaching and unexpected changes in the atmosphere. At the first sign on lightning, head to low ground and look for a low- lying valley or depression. Crouch down with your weight on the balls of the feet, with your feet together and head lowered with ears covered.
Don't lie flat on the ground. Covering your ears will prevent acoustic shock from thunder. If you are hiking with a friend or in a group, separate yourselves 25 feet apart in safe areas as mentioned.
Find shelter in clumps of shrubs or trees that are similar size and height. Be aware that tents, lean-to’s and sheds are not safe places to avoid lightening strikes. Move any metal at least 100 feet from you such as framed backpacks, trekking poles and bear canisters. Remain in your safe terrain for 30 minutes after you observe the last episode of lightening and/or thunder.
For more detailed research information, http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_pls/ploutdoor.htm makes great reading material info from the National Lightning Safety Institute.
Backpacking backpack hiking treks should never be attempted by inexperienced hikers without some level of knowledge and education gained first. The internet is a vast wealth of information, tips and clues on handling many wilderness situations, such as terrain, weather, and shelter from lightening. Don’t head off unprepared. Hikers should never stand under lone large trees, which are many times the target of a lightning strike.
Don’t ignore hearing thunder, even if it’s in the distance and the sky above you is perfectly blue, because you’ll have no idea how fast a storm is moving in your direction, sometimes without notice.
Don’t stay in your tent lying on the ground, especially if you are in an open area. You should be sitting up, crouching on the balls of your feet, with feet together like the image above. IF you decide to stay in your tent. Sleeping bags and mats are not enough insulation from ground charges. Tent poles are often metal, therefore should not be touched.
If lightning strikes your tent, there is a chance the current will be conducted by the wetness of your tent or its poles (if metal). This will make the current go around you instead of thru you to the ground and possibly cause a fire, causing you to evacuate the tent and risk a direct hit outside while seeking other shelter.
Be aware and don’t ignore shifts in weather patterns and approaching storms. Descend from higher elevations, peaks and ridges at first sign of any sign of approaching weather. Thunderstorms with accompanying lightening typically develop in early afternoon, so you may want to plan your hikes earlier in the day.
Don’t be afraid to help a victim of a lightning strike. Eighty percent of lightning strike victims survive the shock. Victims do not retain an electric charge and are therefore safe to handle with immediate CPR if they are not breathing. If you, or another victim experience an electrical burn, use first aid methods typical of any other burn on the skin.
Backpacking backpack excursions can be safe from lightning strikes by simple education and preparedness. Don’t short change yourself by failing to become familiar with how to handle lightning during your hiking experience.
Through experience, speaking to forest rangers and researching questions, if you have confidence in dealing with wildlife exposures, you won’t fear the encounters nearly as much. Fear always stems from the unknown. The best way to conquer that is to arm yourself with answers before you take your hiking backpack trip, especially in regions you are unfamiliar with.
During your hike, be on the lookout for animal tracks and droppings. Experience will teach you how to identify threatening presence of wildlife to avoid. There are many guides online to help you learn, with photos, various scat identification. There's some helpful info here at https://www.discoverwildlife.com/how-to/identify-wildlife/how-to-identify-animal-droppings/
If you approach or see a wild animal from a distance, slowly back away and keep eyes on the animal at all times. Running out of fear signals to the animal that you are fair prey for them to charge after. If your escape causes you to trip and fall, now you could be adding an injury, possibly with blood, that will attract animals all the more.
Your backpacking backpack trek, may have you accidentally come around the trail bend and scare an animal who was not aware of your approach. Most wildlife naturally avoids humans. It’s important to remain calm. One way to avoid this scenario is to make noise to warn the animal of your presence. In most cases they will run away from you, especially if they have cubs. Some hikers attach bear bells to their hiking backpack, but your voice is truly more effective.
While hiking in grizzly bear country, most hikers carry bear spray in the water bottle pocket of their hiking bag, or another easy to get at pocket. It’s not enough to just carry it, you must know how to use it correctly and confidently, not while in a panic situation. It is recommended to use short 1-2 second bursts. The spray can only travel up to 25 feet for a total of 7 seconds.
While hiking, how do you know if it's a grizzly? Look to see if the bear has a visible hump on its neck. If so, it’s a grizzly. If the bear sees and starts to approach you or displays aggressive behavior like slapping the ground with its paw or snorting, get your bear spray out and remove the safety lock to be prepared. Aim the spray just below the head, so when the bear gets lower to charge, it will run through the cloud of bear spray, deterring the bear from the attack. Then continue to slowly retreat as far away as you can without running.
If the bear ends up making contact, your smartest move is to play dead. Use your hands to protect the back of your neck. Lay down on your stomach and spread your legs wide, which will help stop the bear from turning you over onto your back.
Check your hiking locale before your trip because in places like Yosemite National Park, bear spray is illegal, while its acceptable in Canada, Alaska, Montana and Wyoming. Learn proper storage methods of food and hygiene items, and cooking procedures if you are in black bear or grizzly bear country. You should follow proper storage guidelines to reduce the potential for wildlife encounters with bears. Complete information is available here.
To significantly reduce wildlife encounters with bears, follow and participate in the Leave No Trace principles.
Snakes, particularly rattlesnakes are typically seen in the South, Southwest, Rockies and California. Knowing what to do if you encounter a snake could mean the difference between getting bit or not. Keep in mind that a snake can strike a distance of half of their length. If they are coiled, you will not be able to determine their length, so once you see one, stay far back and continue to back away, which will make the snake feel less threatened and allow them to proceed on.
During backpacking backpack hikes, if you hear a rattler, stop immediately and see if you can visually locate the snake. The rattle is your warning to stay away. It helps both of you avoid a bite. Remember to not wear ear buds while hiking because you would not hear that warning rattle in time to get away from the snake.
Among all the wildlife encounters possible, snakes generally are the ones to give a fairly loud warning to unwelcome visitors.
Your first instinct will be to panic. Try not to do that because an elevated heartbeat and movement are not going to get you through this situation. Hopefully you saw the kind of snake that bit you so that it can be reported when you get medical attention. Check to see if the skin is broken.
If you discover the bite on your arm or hand, do not elevate it or apply a tourniquet. Try to immobilize the area and stay stationary. Call for help on your phone or SOS communication device. Studies show even venom kits may fail to work, so they are not totally reliable. It’s best to try and text a ranger station or first responder phone number that you should always carry with you for similar situations while on your trek. They will recommend staying calm and letting your immune system fight for you, while you try and relax. Maybe knowing just because you were bitten, doesn’t mean you were injected with venom. It’s more probable that you did, and treating it as suck is a wiser move.
Trying to “cut” the poison out is most likely too late and you could further damage yourself with a knife. No cutting and sucking the venom, which is outdated protocol. Do not apply ice either, even though it will help pain, you don’t want blood flow to that area compromised. Get help as soon as possible. You can walk if you’re bitten on the hand. Put your arm in a make shift sling to immobilize it better.
Backpacking backpack hikers may encounter mountain lions in the Western United States & Canada. Similar to bear country, noise is your best friend in keeping mountain lions and cougars away. Check for cougar tracks, fresh poop and claw marks on trees. When these things are identified, there’s an indication that a cougar lives in the area. Whenever hiking with pets, keep them on a leash and consider heading back to your car if you see evidence of a mountain lion or cougar in your hiking space. Smaller children should also stay close to their parents.
Cougars and mountain lions are rather elusive and rarely make themselves known to humans. These big cats are similar to bears, so your approach need to be big and noisy, without making the cat feel trapped and has a way to move away from you. Maintaining eye contact with these cats invokes dominance on your part.
If your kids are hiking with you, put them in the middle of your group. If you feel an attack is imminent, act aggressive with noise and throwing large objects like rocks or branches. Aim for the cat’s eyes and head during your fight, all the while keeping eye contact with the animal.
You’ll come across moose in Canada & Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming. They are a huge animal, so you will most likely see them before they spot you.
Backpacking backpack expeditions could find you face to face with a moose. They may not appear all that threatening but hikers can get injured by a moose especially if she has a calf. The average moose weighs well over 1,000 pounds. If you see one, give it plenty of room so they don’t feel trapped or challenged. Keep your distance and make lots of noise so the moose knows your location. Signs of aggression to look out for are the ears back, hair raised, grunting and stomping. If you suspect the moose is getting aggressive, this is the only animal you should run from, quickly! You can then hide behind a tree, a big rock or whatever large stationary object you can put between you and the moose.
Bobcats, sometimes called wildcats, are a nocturnal animal, which are rarely spotted by humans. They tend to roam throughout much of North America and live in forests, swamps, deserts, and even suburban areas. Twice as big as a house cat, they have long legs, very large paws and tufted ears. They are brownish red or all brown with a white underbelly. Their tails are short and black-tipped, hence their name, as in “bobbed” tail. It’s screams in the night can be heard for miles.
Just because you don’t often see them, hikers should be aware that they are a consummate predator. If they are deprived of their natural prey, they will eat livestock and pets for food. Make sure you protect your children and pets. This animal requires backing away slowly, make lots of noise and stay calm. They rarely attack humans, but they could be rabid so you must notify medical staff of any injury you may receive from a bobcat.
A Backpacking backpack trip that starts out sunny and cloudless can turn into a bad storm in a matter of minutes. The biggest mistake a hiker can make is not being prepared. Warm days can become cold and a brief rain storm can swiftly turn into a thunder and lightning episode. Do yourself a favor and ALWAYS be prepared for frequent and sudden changed in weather patterns throughout your hike.
Always check on trail conditions and weather predictions for the day before, day of, and day after your hike. When they say “chance of shower” pack some rain gear. Check with rangers at the trail head for any weather updates. It is beneficial for hikers to learn how to read clouds, not just the type, but how fast they are moving. You’ve most likely heard weather reports that refer to “cumulus” clouds that are white and fluffy like cotton. Anvil clouds signify, not just rain, but also a thunderstorm approaching. They are large with a flat top. Clouds reveal a lot about impending weather, so it is advised to learn about the four major types of clouds and what they signify. https://www.weather.gov/jetstream/corefour can help you learn them.
Bring extra clothing for hotter or colder weather, especially if mountain hiking. Carry a pop up tent in your backpack in case you get stuck on your hike overnight. Pack extra food and water, all-weather matches, a head lamp or flashlight and a whistle (which should always be attached to every backpack.) These safety items should not add much weight to your hiking pack and could be life saving.
Regardless of your hiking goals of reaching a particular summit by sundown or conquering a descent in record time, your life is not worth the kudos. Instead, use good judgment and don’t let your ego put you in a dangerous situation unnecessarily. Consider your fatigue level and changes in trail conditions when thinking you can make it quicker than you will be able to in order to avoid a storm.
Wind is another powerful indicator of changing weather conditions, so you need to pay attention to it. Wind shifts are created when there is a change in the atmosphere. Whenever you notice cumulus clouds that turn vertically and darken, it’s not wise to hike toward summits or open ridge tops. Try to remember that nature is a matter of balance. Regions of excess move toward those of deficit. Whenever warm air rises, air pressure drops. The earth is continually attempting to balance our air pressure with stability plus hot and cold.
In addition to wind and clouds, be aware of a dropping of barometric pressure. This identifies a potential storm brewing. Many hikers carry an altimeter which measure barometric pressure. As altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases. A barometric altimeter is a pretty simple device, and many multi-function sports watches and survival knives have this feature. You’ll find that the altimeter is very useful because it helps to identify your location when used with a topographic map. Be sure to always check the altitude reading to a known altitude printed on a map or trail marking.
Keep in mind that barometric pressure changes with the weather and therefore must be re-calibrated every so often when the altitude is known. Most wilderness areas display the altitude at various trail junctions or atop mountain peaks. F.Y.I, GPS altimeters tend to be less accurate when hiking in areas that have a weak satellite signal, or when you are hiking in areas such as gorges or canyons.
If you don’t own a device to check air pressures, you can turn to nature in the following ways for clues:
When the air begins to thin, you’ll notice that birds will have a tendency to fly much lower to the ground right before rain. You may notice an increased sense of smell with the air in damp areas being more odorous and resembling the smell of compost. This is due to the fact that swamps and plants release gases as air pressure decreases. You may tend to feel rain approaching in your joints or with notable sinus pressure.
If you notice a ring or halo effect around the moon, rain is forthcoming. Favorably, when you can see the dark part of a crescent moon, the next 24-48 hours will be favorable weather. If the moon’s face is red, you can expect rain. It is fascinating to learn that the red color is due to the presence of dust being pushed ahead of a low-pressure front. This will surely bring in moisture.
If you count the number of stars contained within the ring of the moon, you can fairly accurately predict how long away the rain will be. Each brighter star represents 24 hours, while the fainter stars mean 12 hours till rain.
You may have heard the quote “red sky at night, hikers delight; red sky at morning, hikers take warning.” While this information can be a guide, don’t confuse a red sky with a red sun when you awake. The sun can be red and the sky will be blue, which will mean fair weather. A rainbow or white band around the sun indicates a drastic change in the weather within 12-24 hours. If the weather is currently clear, plan on stormy weather, however, if it’s a dreary day, plan on clearer weather.
Other clues are; a rainbow in the morning toward the west will mean approaching rain, and a rainbow at sunset indicates rain is leaving your area and fair weather is on the way. During a campfire, you may notice that the smoke hovers closer to the ground for the same reason.
Thinning of the air will cause insects and birds to fly lower to the ground. Flies, ants and spiders become more active when rain is impending. Most songbirds tend to sing less before a storm, although Robins often get more vocal before rainfall. Frogs, cicadas, and crickets get louder before rain.
Flowers bloom in fair weather and close up when rain is approaching. If you observe dew on the grass in the morning, it’s unlikely it will rain that day. If the morning grass is dry, expect showers that afternoon. Check out pine cones on the ground. During dry weather they will be stiff with their scales opened out. During dampness, the scales absorb moisture and will be flexible enough to bend.
Backpacking backpack trekkers, once again, leave your ego at the trailhead. Don’t pressure yourself to keep going at the risk of illness or injury just to prove something. Make a habit of always being careful to assess your risk before you try to get past it. Making decisions cautiously, with the understanding that you can always return when the conditions are better is the best rule of thumb. Prevention is always better than having to deal with dangerous circumstances to your health.
If you ignore the early signals of a potentially serious condition, such as hypothermia, heat exhaustion, or altitude sickness, chances are things will go downhill for that situation faster than you can descent. Yes, it’s annoying to deal with physical discomfort, but this is not the time to be bad ass and keep going. Recognize the warning signs of outdoor illnesses and stop immediately to administer first aid at the very first sign. Don’t risk ignoring symptoms that could impair your ability to deal safely with any challenges as a result as you hike further.
Taking a class to educate yourself is the absolute best prevention and confidence to handle situations that may arise for many hikers on the trail.Backpacker’s Wilderness offers an inline course to help you learn first aid basics. Click here: This self-paced online class covers assessing illness and injuries, making emergency response plans, and treating a variety of medical issues.
If you experience shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, numbness, and apathy, it can indicate hypothermia. Heavy sweating, flushed skin, a rapid pulse, nausea, and a headache while feeling especially thirsty may indicate heat exhaustion and dehydration. Altitude sickness if you are above 8000 feet, has early signs of headache, appetite loss, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and irritability.
Strains affect muscles while sprains involve ligaments and tendons. These usually affect hikers’ ankles and knees. You will experience expect pain, swelling, or restricted range of motion, often after hearing a snap or pop. Because they require rest to heal, these injuries can be trip-enders. To prevent these occurrences, stretching before and after hikes, exercises to strengthen joints and staying fit will greatly help. Make sure you wear sturdy boots if you’re prone to rolled ankles, use trekking poles for balance and step carefully.
If you happen to sustain an injury, soak the injury in a cold river or lake, ice it with packed snow wrapped in clothing, or apply a cool, damp cloth as needed for short-term pain control.
Wrap in an elastic bandage (loosen if circulation is impaired). Massage and gently stretch muscular injuries. Elevate the limb above the heart during rest (about 20 minutes for a mild case; all night for a serious one).Evacuate if the affected limb is unusable.
You may have stomach upset that you readily chock up to water bacteria (Giardia), but could also be more serious such as a GI infection or kidney stones. It may be hard to pinpoint on the trail. Learn to differentiate common symptoms from more serious clues. Try alleviating abdominal pain by assuming the fetal position to relax abdominal muscles. Drink plenty of fluids and eat bland foods, such as crackers or pita bread. If pain persists more than 12 hours, abort your hike and seek medical attention.
If stomach pain is more than just a crampy feeling, such as gas or period cramps and coincides with blood in the urine, feces, or vomit or a fever of 102°F or higher, get off the trail and head to the nearest ranger station. They can get you medical help. Never try to self diagnose as all symptoms are not classic.
Eliminating bacterial or viral infections from water and food by using hot soapy water to clean dishes, your hands and surfaces you touch at camp. Be super generous with hand sanitizer on dirt-free skin, including under your fingernails. Treat Rest and hydrate (drink when you’re thirsty; don’t skimp on the electrolytes), and wait it out (usually 24 to 48 hours).
If vomiting persists in spite of taking Pepto Bismol tablets (which should always be in your backpack) for more than 6 hours, and you can’t even keep water down, you are now at risk for severe dehydration. Cut your hike short and get back to the trailhead. If you are too weak to walk, use your phone or SOS measures to summons ranger help.
If you take a face first fall, or you get so ravenous you eat fast and hard, a bacterial dental infection can occur. Always check your food for windblown grit or sand before biting down. I’ve had this happen!
If your fall causes you to lose a tooth, bite down on gauze to stop any bleeding, then flush your mouth with fresh water. Cover exposed nerves with a temporary “filling” of ski wax or gum. If you’re close to the trailhead, gently clean your tooth, place it back in its socket, and quickly get back to the trailhead. You only have about an hour to save it.
Whitish waxy skin and tingling feelings are signs of frost nip. Skin that feels hard and numb and dents with pressure, or is frozen solid, indicates frostbite. Most vulnerable areas are your fingers, toes, and face. If you are hiking with a partner, you can help rewarm the affected areas with skin-to-skin contact in your (or a partner’s) armpit or groin.
If you experience full frostbite symptoms, immerse the affected area in water just above 97 degrees until all numbness fades, then apply a bandage. Never rub frozen tissue or use heat from a fire or camp stove for thawing. Burns can easily happen when you can’t feel your own skin.
Burning associated with urination most likely indicates a urinary tract infection which will only be eliminated with antibiotics. However, Female burning and itching in the vaginal area is likely to be a yeast or bacterial infection. If you are prone to either of these types of infections, you can pack Pyridium for UTIs, Monistat or another antifungal for yeast infections. If you don’t have medication with you, don’t allow symptoms to fester for more than a day without treatment, in which case you may have to cut your hike short before your condition worsens. Prevention includes quick dry moisture-wicking undies and wet wipes for post sexual activity.
Fractures are most common in the leg, ankle, or wrist if you take a fall. You may experience severe pain. Sprains and straining a muscle would be less painful. Dislocations usually affect the shoulder. This will cause pain and restricted range of motion. Whenever using trekking poles, exercise caution when scrambling. Leave your hands out of the wrist straps on the poles.
You shouldn’t attempt to pop a dislocation back in place. For a leg injury, place a foam or non-inflated sleeping pad under the leg. Pad the area under the leg with clothing; place a rolled-up item of clothing under the knee to keep it from locking out. Use at least two strips of cloth to secure the pad to your leg; one above and one below the knee. Tie the pad’s extra length around the foot like a bootie, while supporting the ankle.
Inflate the pad, if using a blow-up, being careful not to cut off circulation. If you can walk out, great, but don’t do it if the pain will make you pass out. Call for help if you see bone break through skin or a limb at an odd angle, or if there’s no sensation or pulse below the injury.
Research the area you’ll be hiking and make sure you have experience in that terrain, such as rock scrambling, ice or creek and river crossings. Check with trail rangers to make sure conditions have not changed due to weather or flooding. Make sure your physical level of fitness is adequate enough to avoid falling or easy fatigue, which makes muscles weaker.
Backpacking backpack trips can be safe and void of problems with preventative measures in place. Sometimes unavoidable incidences happen, which the prepared hiker will be able to fix and continue their hike. Isn’t that prevention worth spoiling your great hiking trip? The folks at Nature Trail Backpacks readily accept and welcome your comments and suggestions below for fellow hikers to hike safely. Check us out if you want to read more helpful hiking tips and grab yourself a new quality hiking pack. Happy hiking!