Hikers and hiking safety

Posted on 28 September 2020

The diversity of beautiful scenery across South Africa contributes significantly to sports tourism. Whether it is mountain biking, trail running or hiking many enjoy the great outdoors with friends, family and colleagues.

Hiking brings people closer together, promote physical fitness, and encourage everyone to enjoy nature. It does, however, come with physical demands and all hikers need to be aware and prepared for the hazards they may encounter.

Here is some advice on how to be safe while on the hiking trail.

What are the Risks and Hazards of the Hiking Trail?

The Arrive Alive website too often receive reports from emergency services on the need for an evacuation from hiking trails. But why would an evacuation be required and what are the most common emergencies?

  • Hikers getting lost.
  • Medical incidents such as strokes, heart attacks and illnesses.
  • Fatigue, hypothermia, dehydration and heat exhaustion.
  • Injuries from slips and falls on the trail.
  • Injuries caused by animals, snakes and insects on the trail.
  • Hikers getting trapped or injured by forces of nature such as flooding, veld fires and lightning.
  • Injuries brought about by criminal attacks, assaults and robberies.

Preparedness and Planning

  • Safety starts long before the hiker’s heads onto the trail! With effective pre-planning and research, many of the hazards can be avoided!
  • Hikers should be well informed of the hiking trail and take advantage of their common sense and awareness of limitations.
  • Before you leave, plan and do some research on the trail.
  • Check regional hiking information for potential animal life, poisonous plants, local hunting areas/seasons, hiking alerts.
  • Know the regulations and what is allowed and not allowed on the trail! Do you need permits and are there opening and closing times on the trail?
  • Do not attempt to hike if the trail is closed.
  • Equip yourself with info on route-finding such as maps, guidebooks or a GPS file of the route.
  • Check websites and online forums and communicate with others who have been there and hiked the trail.
  • Don’t rely solely on GPS technology, especially with limited service and unreliable battery power.
  • If you are not sure how to read a map take some time to learn beforehand. Make copies for others in your group.
  • Find information on the times of sunrise, sunset and tides (especially important when hiking along the coast)
  • Ask others what the hazards are and what their advice would be on safety.
  • Choose the hiking trail according to the ability, fitness and experience of the group.
  • Ask questions such as
  • How long is the route?
  • How challenging is the route?
  • What is their hiking experience? What is their pace (23 km per day average)?
  • How much time does it take for the average hiker?
  • Is water available on the trail?
  • Note that cellular service is limited in many areas including the mountains.
  • Investigate technology such as apps and wearable panic buttons that might work even when no cellular signal is available.
  • Make a gear list before heading out to make sure you have everything you might need.
  • Tell someone exactly what your plans are, what time you’re starting and what time you’re expecting to finish. Give that person a map as well!
  • If you drive to the trail, leave a message with your name, size of group, route, expected the time of return and a contact person clearly visible in your car.
  • Don’t deviate from the path and make sure you save emergency numbers in at least 2 people’s phones.
  • Remain on marked trails to reduce the chances of getting lost.
  • Avoid hiking at night unless in a very large and professional hiking group. The area where you’re hiking may be home to a variety of wild animals that come out at night.
  • It is best to stick to times where you’re likely to see other people, such as early in the morning or in the late afternoon.
  • To avoid being stuck out in the dark set turnaround time. Regardless of how far you hike, you should stick to your predetermined time to ensure you finish hiking before the sun goes down.
  • Plan to hike together – Never ever hike alone.

Strength in Numbers on the Hiking Trail

  • Like trail running and mountain biking there is a strength to be found in numbers.
  • Never hike alone – four and more is an ideal size for a hiking group.
  • There are always the risk thieves may be hanging around and you don’t want to be caught in small numbers.
  • Four people are also advisable because if someone falls and is unable to walk, spreading the load between three is possible.
  • Invite a companion who knows the way or carry a guidebook, map or route description from someone who knows the route.
  • Don’t attempt routes you’re not familiar with on your own or even in a group.
  • Choose someone to be the leader of the group.
  • Enquire and know about the fitness levels and medical conditions of group members.
  • The slowest person determines the pace of the hike (never leave anyone behind – it is the group’s responsibility to bring the slowest hikers to a safe place)
  • The group should keep together. Do not split up and go in different directions.
  • If lost or forced to stop because of severe weather, stay together and remain in one place.
  • Rather try to retrace your steps. Remember that climbing down is more difficult than climbing up. Find the closest shelter from wind and rain.

Keeping An Eye on the Weather

  • Keep a close eye on the weather forecasts and conditions while planning your hike.
  • Changing weather patterns can quickly change a comfortable hike to an extremely challenging hike!
  • It may cause the hike to take longer than expected or make the route no longer easy to follow.
  • Keep in mind that weather can change very quickly with high altitude in the mountains.
  • Getting stuck in the mountains during an intense storm may be dangerous but using weather forecasts and packing the correct equipment can help prevent this or help in a volatile situation.
  • It may be good advice to call the reserve or national park before leaving home.
  • Hiking trails may be closed in the event of dangerous weather.
  • If weather conditions are not favourable rather delay the hike.
  • Adverse weather may contribute to hypothermia, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
  • Be aware that if skies darken, the wind increases or lightning flashes, it’s likely an electrical storm is approaching.
  • When on the trail turn back in case of threatening severe weather or find the nearest hut as quickly as possible. Do not attempt to complete the trail.
  • If lost or forced to stop because of bad weather, stay together and remain in one place.
  • Find the closest shelter from wind and rain.

Hiking Gear, Clothing and Safety Equipment

What should a hiker be wearing for safety on the trail?

  • Always go prepared for severe weather, i.e. take proper weatherproof clothing even on a sunny day (wind and rainproof).
  • Wear a hat and sunblock and possibly sunglasses.
  • In wintry weather wear a warm cap/beanie to prevent heat loss.
  • Moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics that keep your skin dry and help regulate your body temperature in both cold and warm weather. Avoid cotton which holds moisture.
  • When hiking in cool weather, always dress in layers. You can always take clothing off if you get too hot.
  • Wear an outer layer of clothing that is water-resistant. This will prevent you from getting chilled should it start to rain.
  • Avoid unpleasant and unnecessary falls by purchasing the correct hiking shoes and trekking poles.
  • Waterproof, sturdy, and comfortable shoes or boots.
  • A good pair of trail trainers or hiking shoes with traction and nonslip soles to protect the ankles.
  • Avoid brand new shoes Break them in well before you wear them on the trails. Having to brand new shoes on when hiking can cause sore feet and blisters at the end of the day.
  • Avoid borrowing hiking boots from someone else as you will never know if they are broken in or too worn when getting them this way.
  • Breathable socks [pack an extra pair]
  • A watch or other timekeeping device.

What should a hiker be packing for safety on the trail?

  • A quality durable backpack or rucksack to carry everything and to leave your arms and hands-free.
  • Don’t skimp on essentials but don’t pack more than you will need. You will have to carry it all!
  • Prescription medications for ongoing medical conditions.
  • Take a cell phone with airtime and emergency numbers.
  • Consider taking a power bank/battery pack.
  • A map, compass, flashlight/torchlight, knife with many different tools, matches in a waterproof container, and sunscreen.
  • First aid kit (Epipen if allergic to bee stings) and insect repellent.
  • Spare batteries and globes.
  • Food: High energy nutritious snacks like bananas, nuts and dried fruit.
  • Raisins, cheese and chocolates are lightweight, nutritious and provide energy.
  • Enough drinking water. Take 2 litres per person.
  • Leave stream, river and lake water for the park wildlife. Although it looks clean and refreshing, mountain stream water can make you ill.
  • Water filtration system or purification tablets.
  • A whistle to scare off animals or to use as a signalling device.
  • Firestarter kit: matches in a waterproof container and cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly.
  • Garbage bag to carry out garbage or use as shelter.
  • Space blanket.
  • Safety vest or brightly coloured clothing.
  • Decant toiletries into smaller bottles.
  • Ziploc bags are hiking’s best-kept secret. They make sure that all your equipment stays dry in the case of an unavoidable downpour.
  • Ziploc bags also help you to find what you need in your pack, without having to pull everything out. Pack your day’s clothing into a single Ziploc bag and make getting dressed a breeze.
  • Ziploc bags will help you to save space by “vacuum packing” each bag before you seal it.

Physical Fitness and Medical Conditions of Hikers

  • Hikers need to question themselves about their fitness and never underestimate the mountain or trail.
  • Be alert and pay attention to negative body signs of members of the group.
  • Keep monitoring your health and that of group members.
  • Different members of a group will have different physical abilities when it comes to hiking long distances.
  • The distance, environment, elevation, and weather are a few factors that should be tolerable for the group.
  • Discuss with others on your trip how you are feeling. You don’t want to continue into a situation where you will overexert yourself or do something you cannot handle.
  • Walk at a comfortable pace allowing for breaks and rest as you feel the need to.
  • Remember that young and inexperienced hikers will have greater problems with fatigue or dehydration, so a hiking group may have to stop an excursion entirely instead of a struggle to finish it.
  • Hikers who have become injured should not take their pain lightly and should obtain proper medical help.
  • Hikers who are just sore should take the time to relax or massage their uncomfortable areas.

Safety while Hiking

  • When you have planned well for the hike – stick to the plan!
  • Follow the map along with permitted areas and pay attention to the warnings on the map.
  • Keep to the straightforward routes on well-used paths. Follow the same route down, or one you know well.
  • Don’t walk off-trail.
  • Heed signs advising of danger and do not take short cuts or go down unknown ravines.
  • Trails are generally uneven, rocky and can be dangerous, so make sure you are paying attention, especially to how you land your feet, you don’t want to twist an ankle!
  • Stay with your party; don’t split up and take different trails.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and landmarks and pace yourself.
  • Stay well hydrated.
  • Do not risk going onto ledges to get the ‘perfect’ selfie.
  • Be watchful for snakes and other hazards.
  • Turn off cellular phones or switch to “aeroplane mode” to conserve the battery.
  • Do not use your cell phone as a light source, which will drain its batteries. Use the flashlight you packed instead.

Safety from Crime on the Hiking Trail

  • Exercise the same common sense and security precautions that you would anywhere else in the world.
  • At the trailhead or parking lot conceal valuables and lock your vehicle.
  • Do not attract unwanted attention by openly displaying cash, cameras or other valuables.
  • Don’t carry valuables or substantial amounts of money on you.
  • Leave behind all valuable belongings like your passport, expensive jewellery or cash.
  • You may consider taking pepper spray as a means of protection.
  • When confronted by a criminal, don’t resist. Rather hand over your goods as resistance might incite a mugger to violence.
  • Program emergency numbers in your cell phone before your hike.

In case of Emergency on the Hiking Trail

When getting lost or trapped on the trail

  • When you get lost Don’t panic. If you told someone where you were going and when you were returning, a rescue team will come looking for you.
  • Stay where you are or move a short distance to open space where you can be spotted more easily.
  • If you don’t have cell service, move to a location close by where you are visible to searchers on the ground or in the air. If you have something brightly coloured, wear it or place it in a conspicuous location.
  • Never descend via unknown kloofs or slopes. Waterfalls, loose stones and hidden cliffs can be deadly.
  • Keep the group together.
  • Light and weather permitting, retrace your steps until reaching a known route. Otherwise, a camp where you are until rescued.
  • Use bright items to reveal your position to search for teams. Blow a whistle to attract attention.
  • By day: mark out SOS using rocks, sticks, logs and vegetation. Create smoke with a small fire. If you hear or see an aircraft, make big movements to catch attention.
  • By night: create light with a controllable fire, torch, phone light, etc.
  • If unable to continue due to injury or collapse, or if weather conditions become too severe – seek shelter, dress warmly and stay in your sleeping bag when cold.
  • If trapped, seek shelter. It is important to get out of the wind, but don’t hide so well that you become impossible to find.
  • If it appears that you will need to spend the night clear an area of debris to build a campfire to provide heat, light and comfort. A fire will help searchers locate you. [Be cautious though of not starting a veld fire!]
  • Using items from your pack, build a shelter that will serve as a “cocoon” to keep you warm and sheltered from the weather. You can also use dead branches, conifer boughs and leave litter to insulate the shelter.

What to do if you are with someone who is injured while hiking on the mountain:

Response to the Scene

  • In case of injury, try to stay calm and take time to assess the situation.
  • Do not rush off immediately and report an accident.
  • Fifteen minutes or so spent observing reactions and making the person comfortable is time well spent.
  • Ascertain to the best of your ability exactly what the injuries are and attend to them, where possible.
  • Approach the patient, if safe to do so.
  • Apply first aid.
  • Check responsiveness, then ABC:
  • Check Airway
  • Check Breathing
  • Check Circulation and stop any bleeding.
    • If there is any possibility of spinal damage (especially to the neck) do not move the person unless it is necessary to do so for safety reasons.
    • Protect the casualty/is against further injury.
    • Ensure that the rest of the group is safe.

Seeing medical assistance

  • Seek medical assistance from elsewhere where you have no signal at the scene of the emergency to call for help.
  • Leave someone with the patient if possible. It is imperative that they remain with them until the rescuers arrive.
  • If there isn’t anyone to stay behind, make sure the injured person has shelter and supplies before leaving to seek help.
  • Send two people for help and let the third remain with the injured person. If possible, mark the position on a map and send it with those going for help.
  • Do not run if it is unsafe: you are of no help if you do not make it to a phone!
  • Those going to seek assistance should identify landmarks so that they are able to describe the exact location of the accident or to guide a rescue party to the scene.
  • Accidents should be reported to the nearest emergency services, Police station or relevant authority responsible for the area in which the accident occurred.

Information to provide to emergency services:

When calling for emergency medical assistance you need to provide

  • Your cellular phone numbers.
  • Where you are.
  • Full names and age of the casualty.
  • The location where the accident occurred.
  • What happened. Events leading to the Injury.
  • The nature and severity of the injuries.
  • Details of the rest of the group.

Stay on the phone. The mountain rescue leader will contact you for further details. If necessary, send someone else back to help.

Remain available for questioning by the rescue leader so you can give full details of the accident.

Sharing the Hiking Trail Safely and Responsibly

  • Always share the trail with kindness and consideration to other users.
  • During breaks, step off the trail so others can pass.
  • Let wildlife be and don’t seek confrontation.
  • Occasional shouting will warn wildlife that you are in the area. This is especially important near noisy creeks and in a dense forest.
  • Shouts are more effective than a bell, whistle or horn.
  • Don’t feed, touch or harm any of the animals or birds.
  • Snakes are shy creatures If you do come across a snake give it a wide berth and let it be.
  • Do not try to corner snakes. Take a walking stick/trekking pole with you to shoo it off if this becomes necessary.

Respecting the Environment

  • Leave nature in the condition you find it and allow others to enjoy it as well!
  • Stick to paths and walk in single file to avoid soil erosion.
  • Leave trail huts in good condition.
  • Take only memories and pictures, leave only footprints and do not damage or destroy our natural heritage.
  • Do not interfere with plants or animals or deface rocks.
  • Take all litter home with you. Do not pollute rivers and streams with soap, shampoo or any chemical substances.
  • Take a small spade and bury toilet matter. Defecate in a cathole (catholes should be 1520 centimetres deep and 50 metres from trails and water sources). Bury your waste and then replace the topsoil.
  • Outdoor fires may be strictly prohibited on your hiking trail.
  • Never discard cigarette butts – they cause veld fires and are unsightly.
  • When hiking, urinate at least 50 metres from trails and water sources.

After the hike

  • On your return tell whoever is expecting you that you are back.
  • Sign trail registers again and indicates the time of return.
  • Return trail guides.
  • Dispose of litter properly.
  • Be helpful in sharing information with other hikers!

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