Backpacking Safety

Written by The Healthline Editorial Team | Published on November 6, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on November 6, 2014

Backpacking Safety

Hiking and backpacking can be fantastic outdoor activities for enthusiasts of all ages. There is an abundance of protected land in the United States. Much of it is crisscrossed by hiking trails ranging from easy to intensely difficult, from easily accessible from trailheads in urban park settings to way out in the most remote backcountry.

Hiking is walking around in natural environments. It’s an extremely popular outdoor activity. Backpacking is a combination of hiking and camping. This is when you hike into the wilderness and camp for at least one night. Before hitting the trail, make sure you know how to stay safe.

Dangers of the Trail

Being safe and cautious is essential when backpacking. Many times, you'll be deep in the wilderness, out of range of easy contact with civilization. You may encounter landscapes and environments that could be potentially dangerous like:

  • rocky trails
  • steep mountain faces
  • dangerously hot or cold weather
  • extreme precipitation
  • perilous river crossings

You may come across plants and animals that are dangerous. Plants like poison oak and poison ivy can cause allergic reactions. You may also encounter insects and reptiles with venomous bites and stings, or wild animals that may attack if hungry or provoked. 

Backpackers are also at risk for many illnesses. Many of these occur because people don’t exercise appropriate caution when remote from care. Problems include:

  • diarrhea
  • dehydration
  • hypothermia
  • heat exhaustion
  • altitude sickness
  • physical injury

Illnesses that develop on the trail or in camp are exacerbated by distance from help and supplies. This can be mitigated with proper preparation.

The Right Gear

The right gear is absolutely essential for a safe and successful backpacking trip. When backpacking, you need to carry all your gear for your entire stay with you, usually in a big pack worn on your back. This includes your shelter and sleeping bag, as well as food and water. As for the rest of your gear, many backpackers swear by the "Ten Essentials." These are:

  1. map and compass
  2. sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  3. extra food and water
  4. extra clothes
  5. headlamp/flashlight
  6. first aid kit
  7. matches and/or firestarter
  8. rain gear
  9. knife (a multi-tool like a Leatherman or Swiss Army Knife is often used)
  10. water

Other gear that many backpackers carry include:

  • insect repellent
  • repair kit
  • water treatment devices and supplies
  • plastic tarp and rope for emergency shelter
  • signaling devices (such as a whistle or satellite phone)

Although in many cases not all of these items will be needed, they are good to have in case of emergencies.

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