Staying Safe on the Trail

When it comes to hiking safety, most focus on packing the right gear, having enough water, planning their route and making sure they have an emergency plan. Yet there is cause to be concerned about more than just getting injured or lost. Hiking is generally a very friendly, community-like safe pursuit. Hikers, especially thru-hikers, form tight bonds and are always willing to help each other out, but with the increasing number of hikers on the trail each year (44.9 million hikers in 2017) the greater the potential they all aren’t on the trail for the same reason you are—exercise and to commune with nature.

A warning sign located at the northern trailhead of the 100-Mile Wilderness on the Appalachian Trail—the beginning of longest wilderness section of the trail—warning hikers to have a 10-day supply of food and gear

100-miles warning sign on the Appalachian Trail

Tragically, on May 11, 2019, a hiker that went by the trail name “Sovereign” (real name James L. Jordon) stabbed two other hikers—one to the death—on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.)

Thank goodness these tragedies are very rare. There have only been 12 murders on the A.T. since 1937. Appalachian Trail Conservancy spokesperson Brain King says the chance of being murdered on the AT is about 1 in 20 million. (You have better odds winning the lottery!) However, you should never be too cautious. As a conscientious hiker and backpacker, your personal safety should be just as much as a priority as being well-prepared with the right equipment.

These 18 tips will help keep you safe on the trail.

  1. Hike only during the day.
  2. Carry maps of the trail and a GPS or compass.
  3. Tell someone where you are, where you are going and when to expect you back.
  4. Keep your cell phone charged. Though you might not be in an area with cell service, your phone is still pinging the closest cell tower and that information can be used to locate you.
  5. Develop an emergency plan.
  6. Don’t tell anyone—even fellow hikers you meet on the trail—that you are hiking solo.
  7. Don’t post your location on social media.
  8. Don’t set up camp near the trail or in sight of a road.
  9. Trust your instincts. It is reported that after an encounter with Jordon, a couple chose to leave the trail.
  10. Plan your hike and familiarize yourself with the trail.
  11. Greet and acknowledge other hikers. They will be more likely to remember you if you go missing and can relay the info they have to law enforcement.
  12. Remain situationally aware. Ben Bolek, an A.T. thru-hiker told The New York Times that after he encountered Jordon, he “spent half the night at the campfire awake, making sure he didn’t come back.”
  13. Hike with at least one other person or in groups.
  14. Take a whistle—only use it in an emergency.
  15. Take a self-defense class.
  16. Hike with your dog.
  17. Carry bear spray and/or a stun gun. Bear spray contains the same ingredient as pepper spray but is designed to dispense differently, discouraging a bear to continue its attack.
  18. Get a personal locator beacon which will send out a distress signal even if there is no cell service.
Many hikers carry bear spray for protection against bear attacks. But what do you carry to protect yourself from two-legged attackers?

How to you keep yourself safe on the trail?

Carrying a Firearm

If you choose to carry a sidearm to protect yourself from four- and two-legged predators, make sure you get training and have the right permits to carry it in the states you’re hiking in. As of February 2010, if you are legally allowed to own and carry a firearm, you are allowed by law to carry in National Parks, in accordance with states’ laws. Of course, you must consider weight concerns. Carrying a bunch of ammo adds significant weight to your pack.

Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Ronald S. Sanchez Jr. who was murdered by Jordon. His family released this statement: “There was more to his life than this tragic event. Ronald S. Sanchez Jr., retired Army combat veteran, who was kind, selfless, strong, adventurous and full of life.”

How do you stay safe on the trail? Leave your tips and stories in the comment section.

For more on hiking safety, click here.

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