The Complete Backpacking Safety Guide
Backpacking is a fun and exciting pastime that provides challenging exercise, endless opportunities to explore new places, and the ability to become one with nature. Unfortunately, it’s not for everyone — some people don’t enjoy “roughing it” in the elements. They would prefer a posh hotel room to a camping hammock any day. But, for those who look forward to the thought of trekking through deep woods, drinking from a fresh mountain stream, and sleeping under the stars, there’s nothing else quite like it.
If you’re in the process of planning your first backpacking trip, or you’re relatively new to backpacking, it’s essential to take the time to learn how to backpack safely. Although you may be tempted to just throw on your backpack and see where the trail takes you, this is not only dangerous, it's a surefire way to have a miserable backpacking experience.
The following is a complete guide to backpacking safety brought to you by the outdoor lovers at Hennessy Hammocks. It contains important tips to help you stay safe and comfortable no matter where your adventures take you.
Planning for a backpacking trip isn’t just about picking out a general area and throwing a few things in your pack — it requires careful thought and planning. The longer the trip, the longer you should spend planning. If this is your first backpacking trip, or if you’ve only taken one or two short overnight trips, planning is essential, because you may not have all of the things you need and you’ll need time to make a checklist.
The first step in planning is to decide where you’ll be going and which trail you’ll be taking. You’ll want to choose one that is a good match for your experience and fitness level. Even if you’re used to hiking many miles in a day, a day trip is much different than a backpacking trip that requires you to spend one or more nights out in the wilderness. Because of this, and the fact that you’ll be carrying more weight than you’re used to, it’s a good idea to choose a shorter or less challenging trail if you’re just starting out.
When choosing the right trail, you’ll not only want to consider things like length, terrain, and elevation gain, you’ll also want to look at the available water sources along the way. Carrying all of the water you’ll need to stay properly hydrated just isn’t feasible, so you’ll want to make sure that rivers, lakes, and streams are close to your route. Also, consider the weather conditions in the area where you’ll be going. Is it normally hot and humid there this time of the year, or is there potential for snow well into the late spring and even summer months? You’ll want to plan for the extremes in temperature — because being too hot or too cold can put you at serious risk.
As you confirm the details of your trip and start to plan for what you’ll need to bring with you, it’s a good idea to make a checklist. Just talking about bringing a waterproof jacket isn't good enough — you want to make sure it actually makes it into your pack. Even the most seasoned backpackers can forget things from time to time and the last thing you want to have happen is to spend 12 hours on the trail and then realize you forgot your matches, camping hammock, or water purifier.
Many experienced backpackers will create a master list on a spreadsheet and keep it electronically so they can easily modify it depending on the type or length of the trip. For those looking to make their packs ultralight, they can also include the weight of every piece of clothing and equipment on the spreadsheet so the total weight can be calculated.
Depending on how long and strenuous your backpacking trip will be will determine how far in advance you need to plan. An overnight trip isn’t going to take much, but preparing for a trip that spans days, weeks, or even months is a serious undertaking. If you haven’t been doing so already, you’ll want to make sure that you’re exercising regularly, making sure to strengthen your legs and cardiovascular system so you can go the distance while carrying a heavy pack. If you’re going to be hiking in an area that’s at a much higher altitude, you’ll also want to consider training for several weeks beforehand at progressively higher altitudes, if possible, to help your body acclimate before your big trip.
Once you have a well-formed plan for where you are going, you’ll want to write down all of the details and share it with someone at home. For multi-day trips, you should have a good idea of how far you’ll get each day and where you’ll be setting up camp each night. If possible, share as many specifics as possible with those staying behind. It could make all the difference if you get in trouble and someone needs to come looking for you.
Although you don’t want to expect the worst, it’s the best to plan for in order to ensure the best outcome. When you’re in the wild, conditions can change unexpectedly, you could get hurt, lost, or any other number of things. The best way to make sure that you make it back safely is to share your detailed backpacking plan with others.
Not everyone wants to bring along a partner — after all, one of the biggest reasons why people go backpacking is to find peace and solitude in nature. And, it can be hard to find peace and solitude when you have another person at your side the entire time. However, hiking with a partner is a good idea and it’s essential if you’re relatively new to backpacking. An experienced hiker can show you how to pack, how to avoid potential dangers on the trail, and if one of you gets hurt the other can go for help. There are some things that you just have to learn by experience — it’s not realistic to be able to plan for every scenario you’ll encounter on the trail. The most important lessons are often learned by doing, and having an experienced backpacker with you can make learning them less difficult.
If you do plan on traveling solo or are going with someone to a very remote location, you might also consider carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) with satellite messaging so you can send a signal for help if something serious happens. You can also use it to send a message back home each day to let a friend or family member know that you’re okay.
When it comes to packing, it can be easy to overpack and bring the things you don’t really need while forgetting some of the essentials that you should always have with you. They’re called “essentials” because they are things that you’ll need to ensure your safety. It’s important to understand the difference between comfort and safety. Knowing the difference means you’ll choose to bring a headlamp and a first aid kit instead of saving that extra room for a book and a flask of your favorite beverage.
Did you know that there is a formal list of essentials that you should always carry with you, and this list dates back to the 1930s? Although the list has been added to and modified over the years, the “Mountaineers’ Ten Essentials” are recognized by hiking and backpacking organizations as the most important things you should always bring with you — every time you head out, regardless of the length of your trip.
Whether you’re hiking in the mountains, forest, along the coast, or even in the desert, the weather can be extremely unpredictable. That’s why one of the most important things to remember as you pack for your trip is to prepare for bad weather. Being caught in an unexpected wind, rain, or snowstorm can be very dangerous. Research the area you’ll be hiking in, find out what the average high and low temperatures are, as well as the general weather conditions for that time of year. It’s also a good idea to speak to a park ranger, if possible, to get more specific information on the current weather and trail conditions.
Another basic skill that every hiker should have is being able to use a map and compass. If you were thinking that today’s technology has made using a map and compass a thing of the past, you’d be mistaken. Your fancy GPS or trail map on your phone won’t do you much good if you lose power. The batteries in electronic devices drain quickly during just one night of cold temperatures and you shouldn’t rely on those new solar-powered chargers because you never know if you’re going to have enough sun. Plus, even if you bring two dozen extra batteries, there’s always a chance that your phone or GPS could slip out of your hand and go careening down a mountainside. The only sure way to avoid getting lost is to rely on a tried and true method of navigation — map and compass.
Sure, they may look friendly and even downright cute and cuddly — but that doesn’t mean that the animals you encounter out in the wild won’t cause serious harm if you get too close. You may be tempted to share some of your trail mix with the birds and small furry critters along the way, but resist the urge to share. For one, you need that trail mix to fuel your body. For two, those innocent-looking creatures can harbor bacteria and disease, plus eating human food just isn’t good for them.
Taking pictures of your adventures is part of the fun, but taking a selfie with a moose, bear, or another wild animal could put your life in serious danger. Learn about the most common wild animals found in the area where you’ll be backpacking, and then learn what to do if you encounter one. For some animals, it’s best to stay quiet and not move, whereas for others it's better to stand tall, be loud, and make as much noise as possible.
For smaller, yet still potentially dangerous critters such as snakes, spiders, scorpions, or insects, find out if there are any poisonous species where you’re going. Then, learn how to identify them, how to avoid them, and what to do if you encounter or get bitten or stung by one.
No matter how determined you are to get to your destination or log the 15 miles per day you planned on doing when you were back at home sitting on the couch, one of the most important things you can do for your safety is to know when to say when — meaning, know when to call it a day or turn around and come back home. People run into trouble when they choose to keep going despite facing adverse weather conditions, being exhausted, or being too hot/cold, or wet.
If an unexpected blizzard pops up on the weather report the day you’re scheduled to head out, don’t forge ahead just because you spent all of that time planning, make the wise decision to sit this one out and reschedule your trip for a time when the weather's going to cooperate. Likewise, if you’re already out on the trail, be wise about knowing when to stop or turn around and head back.
Backpacking is strenuous on your body, so give yourself a break if your intuition is telling you that it’s just too much. Even if you’ve only gone a few miles, stop early for the night, get a good night’s sleep, and try it again tomorrow. If you’re feeling exhausted, lightheaded, are experiencing numbness in your extremities, are having trouble breathing or anything else that is a sign of serious health danger, call for help or make it back to your vehicle as soon as possible if you are safely able to do so. If you are facing imminent danger from overheating or frostbite, take immediate action to get your body temperature back into a safe zone.
Whether you’re heading out for a quick overnight trip or you’re planning a month-long expedition, your comfort and safety rely on packing the right gear. You can’t just head to the nearest mega-mart and buy whatever is on sale and expect it to perform. High-quality camping gear is worth searching out. Consider its construction, weight, durability, and size. Some gear can be used to serve multiple purposes — meaning you’ll have less to pack and carry. A Hennessy camping hammock, for instance, is lightweight, has been tested in all kinds of extreme conditions, and is extremely versatile compared to a tent. It also packs quickly and easily and best of all it provides a much more comfortable place to sleep — especially compared to sleeping on the cold, hard ground.
At Hennessy Hammock, we’re dedicated to making sure you are sleeping in comfort wherever your path leads you — and we’ve been doing so for over 20 years. We’ve created a community of outdoor lovers and adventurists who are passionate about sharing their stories, knowledge, and love of a better way to camp. If you’re interested in learning more about how to camp, backpack, and hike safely, or want to find inspiration for your next trip, visit our website. You can also browse our wide variety of camping hammocks that are built as much for durability as they are for comfort. See why so many people have made Hennessy their choice for shelter in the great outdoors — shop today!