Whether you're about to take your first backpacking trip or you're at the final camp approaching a long-sought peak, safety should always be your first priority when exploring the outdoors. While nature can be beautiful, relaxing, and invigorating, it can also be unpredictable. It is essential to be prepared before you go, and to know how to stay calm and act effectively if something goes wrong.

This is by far the most important aspect of outdoor safety. Before you go anywhere, do your homework to learn about any potential hazards. Note any poisonous or dangerous animals or plants, hazardous aspects of the local climate, and potential risks of physical activities in which you plan to participate.

The buddy system is used by the United States military in any danger situation. It is simple and effective. Applied to the outdoors, it means hiking, swimming, camping, riding or doing anything with a "buddy"—having someone around to help or seek assistance in an emergency can be the difference between life and death. If you must engage in outdoor activities alone, be sure to let someone reliable know where you'll be and for how long, and when you expect to return. As best possible, write a trip plan, and give it to a responsible party. That way, if something happens, someone will know to look for you.

A big part of being prepared is bringing appropriate gear. Always wear properly-sized, broken-in footwear appropriate for the weather conditions. Wear comfortable and durable shoes or boots when hiking, climbing, biking, skiing, or camping. If you're playing sports, wear the right footwear for your sport.

You should always be prepared for the weather to change rapidly. Carry a light poncho, raincoat, and/or hat to keep you dry if the sky opens up. Dressing in layers is the most effective way to stay weather-appropriate without overloading your bag or pack. Many experts recommend a three-layer system: a base layer that is lightweight and wicks moisture away from your body, an insulation layer (often made of fleece) that works to retain body heat, and an outer shell, which protects you from wind and precipitation.

If you have any prescription medication, bring with you what you will need for at least one extra day more than the planned excursion. If you'll be outdoors for a long period of time, you should bring along a first aid kit as well..

Being outdoors means being exposed to the sun and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Sun exposure in the heat can lead to heat exhaustion and UV rays can cause skin cancer, so it's important to avoid extreme temperatures and prolonged exposure to the sun's rays.

Always carry sunscreen and lip balm of adequate sun protection factor (SPF) and apply liberally, even in the wintertime. Wear sunglasses and/or a hat to protect your eyes. During the hot months, take breaks from the sun by finding a shady spot in which to cool down. Try to avoid the sun's peak UV exposure hours, usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Another key aspect of outdoor safety (and directly related to sun safety considerations) is staying adequately hydrated. Most people underestimate their need for fluids, especially when engaging in high levels of outdoor activity, or and in the cold or heat, or at high altitude levels. Fluid requirements vary by body size, sex, and levels of activity, but one general guideline to follow is that your urine is light colored—just not clear. Dark colored urine is almost a sure sign that your kidneys are trying to conserve water and that you need more fluids in your body.

Extreme heat and cold are both serious realities outdoors. Weather is by nature unpredictable, so it is essential to be prepared for drastic shifts. Know what to do if you are in the vicinity of a thunderstorm (lightning), tornado, or wildfire.

Learn more about extreme heat and cold safety.

No matter how well you prepare, there is a good chance that if you spend time outdoors you'll encounter emergency medical situations. In these cases, there are a few things you should know to help mitigate any potential long-term negative health consequences.

The first rule of administering first aid in an emergency situation is to remain calm and rational, so that you can size up the scene and make an educated and decision on the next step to take. This includes making the scene safe for both victims and rescuers.

If you feel comfortable and it is safe to do so, approach and assess the victim. Ask him or her what's wrong and listen carefully. If you have something to write with, record what's wrong, as well as whatever treatment you administer. If you can safely do so, send someone to get help immediately as you begin to administer aid.

It is helpful to remember the fundamental emergency medical principle Primum non nocere, which is Latin for "First, do no harm." In other words, it may be better in some cases to do nothing at all rather than to risk worsening the situation. If you're not sure what to do, don't feel that you have to do something—instead, seek assistance. Never move an unconscious or seriously injured victim unless he or she is in danger from the environment, or needs to be moved to be treated or to be protected. Know the proper way to move victims. It is safest to always assume the worst and to be conservative in your treatments, unless the situation calls for more aggressive measures.

More Resources:

Waking Up After a Head Injury

What's In Your Medical Kit?

Avoiding and Treating Dehydration

Surviving a Wildfire

Treatment for Burns

Naturally Occurring Toxins to Avoid

The Right Hand-washing Technique

How to Prevent Sports Injury

How to Prevent Outdoor Injury