What to do When Things Go Badly When Hiking

I’m an avid hiker and have hiked all over the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, South America, Canada, New Zealand, and well, just about everywhere I’ve ever visited. Many things have also gone badly when I’ve been hiking. Too many times to remember I’ve missed a turn and gotten lost, had a bear suddenly approach me (only once, thank goodness), been without water or snacks when I needed them, been without cell phone coverage or a map, had the weather turn suddenly, and these are all things off the top of my head that have happened.

I’ve lived and learned by my own mistakes and I’m writing this post in the hopes that you may also learn from my mistakes. Yes, sometimes things go wrong even when you’ve done everything you could to prepare but as they say, a little preparation goes a long way. Of course you should always try to be prepared well in advance before you even leave for your hike, not when you’re standing at the trail head or arrive at the parking lot. Here are some things you can do to prepare.

This trail in Chile was like an enchanted forest

You should first check the weather forecast to make sure a storm isn’t supposed to blow in or something like that and make sure you’re appropriately dressed for the temperature. If you’ll be hiking up a steep mountain for example, the type where there’s snow at the top even though it’s sunny and warm at the bottom, bring a jacket and even gloves and a hat depending on the circumstances. And please, women, make sure you have appropriate shoes, meaning no sandals (unless they’re Chaco or others meant for hiking), no high heels, and absolutely no flip flops. I hate to single out the ladies but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen women wearing shoes clearly not meant to be worn when hiking.

Bring water and snacks if there’s even a slight chance you’ll be out for more than an hour. I’ve found it’s always better to have it and not eat or drink it than not have it and be dying of thirst or hunger. Other good things to bring include a small first aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray, emergency blanket, and bear spray if there are bears in the area.

The Canary Islands aren’t just known for their beaches- the hiking is incredible there!

Download a map of the area in Google maps so in the likely event you don’t have cell coverage you’ll still have a map of the area. If you can’t do that pick up a paper map of the trails or print one out before you leave. It’s also a good idea to choose which trail(s) you’ll be hiking before you go out. If you’re going to a national park, check out https://www.nps.gov/index.htm or if you’re going to a state park, look that up online to read about the trail lengths and difficulty. Another good source is https://www.alltrails.com/.

What if you’ve done everything you possibly could to prepare in advance and something still goes badly on your hike? Now what? It depends on the circumstance but I’ll give you some examples of what can go wrong and what you can do.

One of the most common things to go wrong on a trail is people get lost. You miss a turn or aren’t paying attention and wander off the trail. This happened to me when I was pregnant and hiking in Arizona (I was in my first trimester and not even showing then). My husband and I missed a turn and the next thing I knew I was looking down a sheer drop. We slowly back-tracked the way we had come and after a while saw where we had gotten off the marked trail. Of course this works best if you’re not wandering off-trail for very long but still, do your best to remember your surroundings and try to back-track the way you came.

Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was exhilarating!

This brings me to another thing you can do to help prevent yourself from getting lost in the first place: pay attention. When you’re hiking, it’s easy to just get lost in your surroundings and before you know it, all the trees look the same. This can be very dangerous, however, if you do get lost and have absolutely no idea how to find your way back. If you know you’re not very observant (or even if you are) you can leave markings along the way so you could potentially follow them if you needed to. Some great ones that don’t harm the environment are chalk marks on trees, rock piles, pinecones, or sticks piled in specific ways set by you that you will remember. You also need to pay attention to the trail markings set by who ever made and maintains the trail. If you start off on a trail marked with blue diamonds, you need to stay on that trail.

If you find yourself taking much longer than you expected and you’re getting dehydrated, if you brought along a LifeStraw or other type of water filter, you can use that to safely drink lake or river water from. Never drink water straight from the source without first filtering it because it could have microorganisms that can make you sick. No one wants to have diarrhea or stomach cramps when they’re hiking. Unless you’re an expert at foraging, I don’t recommend randomly picking wild mushrooms or berries because again, they can make you sick if you don’t know which ones are the edible ones and which ones are poisonous.

Hiking in Grand Teton National Park was almost as much fun as doing standup paddleboarding on the lake there!

Another good thing to bring along is a space blanket. These fold neatly into a little square so they don’t take up much space in a backpack but they can literally save a life. For example, say the person you’re hiking with falls into a river accidentally and the water is freezing. You can whip out the space blanket and wrap it around them to quickly warm them up. It’s also good to have if you find yourself so lost you can’t get back to your car before it gets dark and you have to spend the night on the trail.

My final word of advice is never go hiking alone unless you’re a thoroughly seasoned hiker, know first aid and personal safety, and have a way of contacting others in the event of an emergency. If you fall into that category, I suspect you won’t be reading this blog post, however.

What about you? Have you been on a hike and things went badly? Do you avoid hiking because you’re worried about the dangers?

Happy hiking!


Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

15 thoughts on “What to do When Things Go Badly When Hiking”

  1. I have gotten lost.

    I have gone when the conditions were dangerous but i was not alone. Luckily.

    Once my car got stuck in an ice bank.

    I do not avoid hiking but I try to be safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do hike alone on the way back & forth to my moms, but they’re generally easy hikes.

    I did get off trail & lost this past summer — it was such a weird experience. Hopefully that’s a one & done although I had a general idea of where I was but just couldn’t seem to get myself out from the not at all deep woods. Good thing I had cell service!

    All really good tips, Donna. I need to read up more on my get back to the start feature on my Garmin — I’ve used it once or twice but I should really know how it works, obviously!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that’s a good point about using that feature on Garmin. You can also do that on Google Maps or you can drop a pin where you start. I hadn’t thought of those tips.
      It’s definitely not a good feeling when you realize you’re lost on a hike.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. During my study abroad program in Ecuador, one of my classmates decided to go for a little hike alone. I think we somewhere in the Amazon region for that portion of the program. Since we were supposed to do some bird watching excursion, we had to split up in to three groups (early-early, early morning and regular morning group). *I’ll let you guess which group I was in 😉 *. Anywho, once the three groups reconnected, we were like: Wait, L was not in your group? Long story short, the program had to send a small search party to find her.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t think I ever knew you did a study abroad in Ecuador. That’s so cool! Not so cool the woman in your group got lost. That must have been off the rails to be lost in the Amazon. I assume the search party found her. I hope so anyway. Wow!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yup, during my junior year of college. I wanted to learn Spanish; however, my mother had two conditions 1. I had to graduate on time and 2. the program would not be expensive (ie she wasn’t paying for it). This program was an ecology program so we spent time in Ecuador’s three ecosystems + the Galapagos. While I was a Bio major, many of the ecology credits would be considered electives for the major. Although I received those credits, the 1st semester of my senior year was pretty tough because I had to take a shit ton of courses that would still make me competitive for molecular biology graduate programs.

            Yes, the search party found her. It was crazy because this was before smartphones with GPS apps. In fact, I had drinks with her a few months ago. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  3. That must have been an amazing experience in Ecuador. My teenage daughter would love to do something like that when she’s in college (she’s going to major in environmental science at this point but you know how things often change).
    So cool you still stay in contact with her too!


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