There are several safety issues associated with hiking. Part of the pleasure of hiking is the opportunity it gives you to explore wild areas and experience the wonders of nature. Even if you're hiking a trail for the second time around, you'll discover many new sights and sounds. But you can prevent some unpleasant surprises by taking a few precautions on the trail.
As a general safety precaution, it's best to walk with a companion, especially on long treks. Before you venture out, it's also wise to let someone at home know where you're going, which trail you intend to follow, and when you intend to return.
When you're on the trail, avoid drinking water directly from springs, streams, or lakes. No matter how clean and clear it looks, the water may be contaminated with a host of parasites and bacteria introduced by people or animals upstream.
Boiling the water for at least one minute may help destroy some of these organisms. Portable water treatment kits are also available to help you purify water in an emergency. However, the best way to avoid illness from contaminated water is to pack and carry your own drinking water.
Poisonous plants are another trailside hazard. To guard against getting rashes from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, wear clothing that covers as much exposed skin as possible, particularly on the feet and legs. Wear long pants, socks, and shoes or boots.
When you return home from a hike, remove your hiking outfit and toss it in the washing machine. Use care when removing your hiking boots or shoes: The plant oil that triggers the rash can easily stick to the bottom or sides of your boot where it has come into contact with one of the offending plants. So try to remove your footwear without handling those areas, or you could inadvertently touch the lingering oil, spread it to your face or other parts of your body, and end up with a nasty rash even after you've left the woods. If you do develop a rash from one of these plants, try applying an over-the-counter remedy, such as calamine lotion, to relieve itching.
Don't panic if you've been bitten by a tick. Not all ticks carry Lyme disease -- a tick-borne illness that can cause chills, fever, headache, and other serious complications. Generally, a tick must remain on the skin for 24 to 48 hours in order to transmit the organism that causes Lyme disease.
If you remove a tick from your skin, save it in a small container of alcohol, so that if a suspicious infection develops, the tick can be analyzed for Lyme disease. There is no need to see a doctor for a tick bite unless you notice any signs of swelling or redness around the bite (a sign of infection), a bull's-eye-shaped rash (often a symptom of Lyme disease), a fever, or a skin rash.
If you're going on an overnight trip in the wilderness, you can protect your food -- and yourself -- from wild animals by stringing your food up at night. Place all food, as well as toothpaste, lotion, and other pleasant-smelling items, in a corded bag or your pack. Then string the bundle up high between two trees.
If you'll be hiking in an area that isn't off-limits to hunters, be sure to wear something bright, especially during hunting season. Orange caps are very popular for this purpose and are available in waterproof and breathable materials.
Finally, before you head out, be sure to do research on how to prevent conditions like heatstroke, frostbite, and dehydration while you're on the trail. Combine that with the information in this article to make your hiking experience pleasant and problem-free.
To learn more about walking, see:
Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant
Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer