Hiking is an amazing opportunity for individuals to be completely self-reliant. We live in a world where any question can be searched immediately on Google, and help is on it’s way with a quick phone call or message. We may unknowingly carry this same comfort on to the trail with us, which could turn in to discomfort or even disaster if we suddenly find ourselves without the same luxuries and conveniences. Of course things can and will go wrong sometimes, but it’s much better if you can mitigate your risks and end up with a funny story to tell instead of an emergency situation to deal with.
Planning, education, and preparedness are the best ways to hike happy and hike safely. We have all been duped by the weather before, but here are a few other things that you should not heavily rely on when you’re out adventuring…
A water cache is a supply of water left out for hikers, typically in areas with limited or no water sources. These caches may be maintained by volunteers, set ahead in advance by hikers, or left by good Samaritans.
As thru-hiking rises in popularity, plenty of kind people go out of their way to provide trail magic. A trail angel is someone who does an act of kindness for a hiker, usually something like providing food and drinks. Trail angels will occasionally leave water, snacks, or other things out on the trail with good intentions, but it can unknowingly cause harm in the long run. The Pacific Crest Trail Association website has a wonderful article about the problem of water caches along the trail.
While there are about four places on the PCT where water caches are appropriate, hikers are encouraged to make a water plan that does not rely on a cache. Someone who is heading out and expecting to depend on water that is left out for them could very quickly find themselves in an emergency situation if that water source is not there.
Even out of the desert and off of the PCT, it’s a good idea to have a strong water plan. Make note of potential water sources along the way and back up plans if those sources turn out to be unreliable. Rivers change, ponds dry up, and water caches sometimes go without being refilled.
If you know that a water cache will have to be a part of your hiking plan, talk to parks workers or people who have recently hiked in that area for the most up to date information and consider carrying more water in that usual.
While it is up for debate, hikers are now often discouraged from relying on bear bells as a means of deterring wildlife. Someone who has a bear bell may foster a false sense of security and think that nearby wildlife will be able to hear them, or even become less bear-aware in other ways because they feel like the bell will work alone as a deterrent. In reality, bear bells may not be loud enough to alert nearby wildlife. Talking, shouting, and clapping are all louder and better ways to let animals know that you are in the area. The best interaction you can have with a bear is an avoided one.
You may have heard bear bells jokingly referred to as ‘dinner bells’, assuming that a bear who associates humans with food will not be scared off by the noise, but rather enticed by it. Bears are smart and curious, and their reactions may be different based on the region they’re from and how much contact they have had with humans. (For example, in Colorado parks it is not advised to store your food in your vehicle as the bears have learned how to break in, but in various parks in Canada vehicles are recommended as a safe place to keep food items.)
Bear expert and professor Tom Smith has done research on the effectiveness of bear bells and other noises and plans to continue testing out different sounds and noises.
If you feel best when you carry a bear bell, by all means continue to do so. But always be sure to make plenty of noise, carry bear spray, and store food/smelly items safely when you are in bear country.
Your Fellow Hikers
Now this one might seem a little mean, because as humans we often work together as part of friend or family groups, but in order to be the safest hiker you can be, you should try your best to be as self-reliant as possible. This doesn’t mean you’ll never end up asking for help, it’s just a good idea to build up your own skill set and gear so that you are better equipped to manage any obstacles you may face.
Familiarize yourself with the map, brush up on your navigation skills, and treat the trip as if you’ll be doing it solo even if you’ll actually be with others. It’s a good idea to take a Wilderness First Aid course. Some people tend to gravitate towards the planning and leadership roles while others prefer to listen to directions, but if your group leader is injured or has to leave the trail for any reason, the rest of the group will need to to take on their role.
There is often pieces of gear that are shared among a few members of the group such as tents or stoves, but each hiker should carry their own necessities. For example, if only one person in your group has fire starters/a first aid kit/navigation tools, you could find yourself in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation should those tools no longer be at your disposal. Rivers sweep things away, mice chew through bags, things get forgotten. As my search and rescue manager says, “two is one and one is none”.
Another good way to stay on the same page with your group is to discuss the contents of everyone’s packs before you set out. A gear breakdown before setting out would have saved me a few years ago when I forgot to pack the fuel for our camp stove on an overnight trip. I ended up talking to another group of hikers who kindly let me use some of their fuel, but it sure would have been nice to be prepared in the first place!
Stay safe and happy adventuring!