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Safety Tips Even Experienced Hikers Forget

 

Walter Scheib was a talent much appreciated by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush: He served under them as the head chef for the White House. Sadly, Scheib was found dead earlier this week in New Mexico, nine days after he left for a short day hike. While details about his death are still emerging, it appears the seasoned outdoorsman made a fatal mistake: heading out alone without communicating his plan, reminding us of the importance of trail safety for novice and veteran hikers alike.

In fact, the first rule of hiking is to always leave an itinerary, says Craig Romano, wilderness expert and author of the Day Hiking seriers. "It's as simple as leaving a note saying where you're going and when you expect to be back. That way people know when and where to start looking for you if you don't return. It takes one minute and could save your life."

What else do you need to know before heading out? For one: "Running four miles on a trail is not the same as running four miles in the city," Romano says. "The best thing you can do is listen to your body. Women have great intuition so if something doesn't feel right, just turn around. The mountain will still be there tomorrow." And if you do head out, follow these five expert-backed rules.

1. Have a method of communication. Your cell phone on you isn't going to cut it either, says Jeff Alt, hiking expert and author of several books full of life lessons from the trail. Wilderness areas, even those near major cities, aren't known for great cell service—and when your phone battery dies you're in real trouble. Instead, Alt recommends using a GPS tracker. You can buy a GPS SPOT tracker, like the Trace ($100; REI.com), or he says many GPS watches have this location-tracking feature built in (check your owner's manual). Everyone should also learn how to use a map and compass for navigation.

2. Never underestimate the weather. "I'll see a storm rolling in and while I'm turning around, going down the trail, I still see people starting up. That's a huge mistake," Romano says. He advises checking the weather forecast right before you leave and continuing to check it periodically using the weather app on your phone if you have service. Or do a quick scan of the skies. Conditions can change quickly, so if you see clouds rolling in, turn around. Caught in a sudden storm? Get below the tree line and seek shelter.

3. Dress the part. "Your own sweat, soaked into your clothes, can create hypothermia even in warmer conditions," Alt says, adding that mountains that are a blistering 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime can drop rapidly to the 40's at night, catching many people unprepared. "Never wear cotton—it absorbs water and keeps it close to your body. And pack extra clothing, like a hat and a waterproof jacket, he says, adding that no one who's out for a quick day hike plans on getting lost and having to spend the night, but that it happens all the time. (And don't forget that dressing appropriately extends to your feet! Trail running shoes or hiking boots are best; leave your street shoes or sandals in the car.)

4. Water, water, water. You should always bring a pack—and the first thing in it should be plenty of H20. "Dehydration is the biggest risk for people outdoors," Alt says. "You can only go two days without water—less if it's hot." He recommends bringing more fluids than you think you'll need. While water recommendations vary based on terrain, weather, and personal preference, a good rule of thumb is to drink 1 cup per hour. Alt adds you should pack something to purify stream or lake water in case you end up short. A UV wand is easy to carry and use—we like the SteriPen ($100; REI.com) or the Katadyn Micropur tablets ($13; REI.com), in case of emergency.

5. Don't forget the essentials. In addition to packing water and clothing, both experts recommend bringing extra food (energy bars make a great option because they're calorically dense, compact, and last a long time), a simple first aid kit, a lighter, a headlamp, sunscreen, and a bug screen. For a more detailed list, check out the Washington Trail Association's list of 10 essentials for hikers. (Or, check out The Best Hiking Gear for Women.)

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