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Hiking safety tips for mountain landscapes

Hiking safety tips for mountain landscapes

Learning about hiking safety tips for mountain trails might feel a bit like having to listen to airline stewards when they give out the emergency instructions on a plane. We think we know them all, and just put on our headphones and zone out. But being aware of the precautions and processes needed to hike safely in the mountains involves a lot more than knowing where the emergency exits are. Here are our top tips for mitigating against unfortunate incidents, and acting to assist in the event of an issue. From understanding what to do if you need to call a rescue helicopter, to imprinting it on your brain to always carry a phone, battery pack and tell someone where you are going. Please note that these are short tips. We have much more detailed information on our help page

You don’t want to ever say the words ‘I’m on 1%’ if you’re in need of help in the mountains.

It’s too darn hot

Most of us know that it’s vital to keep hydrated while hiking, but not so many of us are aware of the impacts of heat, and the ways in which it can affect us. No sweat, just keep reading. 

Heat cramps 

The early warning signs of overheating come in the form of heat cramps, and if this happens you need to rest, massage and stretch gently. You then need to increase your intake of fluids and electrolytes and eat some salty snacks. If it hasn’t eased after an hour, seek medical attention. If you ignore this, you risk hitting the next stage – heat exhaustion. 

Heat exhaustion

One of the first big signs of heat exhaustion is not being able to pee anymore. In addition, if you get headaches, nausea or dizziness you need to act. In addition to the tips for cramps, find shade, remove layers and put water on your head and face. Wet a cloth or t-shirt and put it around your neck and under your armpits. Get back to base and rest for 24-48 hours. 

Heat stroke

The next stage is the most serious of all, and that’s heat stroke, which requires urgent medical attention. The main symptoms are increased heart rate and rapid pulse, dehydration, reddened but dry skin, confusion and erratic behaviour. It’s worth noting that this is not sunstroke. It’s when the body has overheated internally, and you need to act swiftly to call for emergency help, get shade, immerse yourself gently into water, breathing deeply to avoid cold water shock, or apply cool clothes or bottles to neck, armpit and groin. 

Top hiking safety tips: Drink plenty of water before you leave on your hike, as well as little and often during it. Wear suitable cooling clothing, nothing dark, a wide-brimmed hat, and take electrolytes. Carry a filtering water bottle so that you can use local streams to top up water supplies if necessary. Never hike if there’s an extreme heat warning. 

Water bladders come in different sizes, from 1L to 3L generally. For remote mountain hikes, go for the larger ones.

Hypothermia isn’t just a winter thing

At the other extreme, you need to be wary of symptoms of hypothermia and, like heat issues, it hits you hard or mildly. Hypothermia can also creep in after rain in the mountains at any time of year. Or if there is a sudden cold wind, so you need to be wary in all seasons. The first signs of mild hypothermia are shivering, pale skin and increased heart rate. Slurred speech and uncontrollable shivering means it’s gone to the next stage, and when you stop shivering or have dilated pupils and weak pulse rate, this is severe hypothermia. Even in the early stages, remove wet clothing, drink warm fluids, and insulate yourself as much as possible, applying warm pads to the neck, chest or groin. If symptoms are even moderate, call for emergency help. 

Top hiking safety tips: Avoid wearing cotton clothing as it takes too long to dry, and always carry rain gear and a backpack cover when hiking in the mountains. If you are going on a long trek you should, ideally, have a change of clothing. Also, put your rain gear on sooner rather than later, before a shower turns severe. 

Calling injury time 

It’s common sense to keep a watchful eye on the terrain, and wear gear that protects you as best you can, especially when it comes to hiking boots. However, falls do happen and they are actually the most common cause of injury whilst hiking. In many cases, they do not result in an emergency, but some falls can be serious or life-threatening. Often they are caused by fatigue or overheating, so always take breaks when you are feeling your system slow down. As well as carrying a first aid kit for minor injuries, it’s good to be aware of first aid actions you can take if injuries are more severe, and know how to use the items in the kit. 

With larger cuts, for example, use firm hand pressure and gauze (or clean clothes) to stop the bleeding. Clean and dress the wound. Larger cuts might need a tourniquet to control bleeding. Use a belt or spare clothing tied tightly above the wound. Lift the wounded area above heart level if possible and seek medical attention as soon as possible. 

With fractures or broken bones, don’t move the injured person unless they are in immediate danger. If you’re hiking solo, try to stabilise the injury after you’ve called for help. Splint the affected area if possible, and apply something cold such as a water bottle. Manage the pain with medication from your first aid kit, and elevate the affected injury. Contact the emergency services and assess the injured person’s condition, using the DR.ABC technique. 

Top hiking safety tips: Always carry a first aid kit, with painkillers included. A whistle is just a small thing, but it has a vital roar when needed. On our self-guided hikes, we give you detailed directions and routes, and we always advise you to stick to the given path and not wander off it. Always have an emergency number with you, which we provide in all our trip notes. 

It’s important to carry a first aid kit in the mountains, but also to know how to use it.

Know the emergency signal

It’s always good to know that the international distress signal is six blasts on a whistle (and flashes with a torch after dark) evenly spaced for one minute, followed by a minute’s pause. Repeat for as long as necessary. The response is three signals per minute, followed by a minute’s pause.

The reality around rescues

If you are walking in wild, inaccessible places, which is what so many of us seek of course, the reality is that emergency services won’t be there in a heartbeat. So, as with all the points above, you need to be prepared. Mountain Rescue (112 in Europe) is the service that will come to your assistance, and it’s vital that you have this included in your travel insurance. First aid kit, medical awareness of how to deal with some of the issues listed above are also key. Having an emergency foil blanket, which folds up to the size of a credit card, can mean the difference between life and death. And that’s just one example of things you can squeeze into a small first aid kit. The other key thing, and this might seem obvious but it’s distressing how many people overlook it, is having a fully charged phone and battery pack.

Top hiking safety tips: Have your phone fully charged and a battery pack. And always tell someone where you are going. And get mountain rescue included in your travel insurance. 

Get to grips with GPS before going hiking in the mountains.

Location, location, location

While navigating with your phone may be your first port of call, technology can fail, and so it’s important to be able to navigate trails confidently the old fashioned way. So, a map and compass are fundamental additions to your daypack, and do incorporate some navigational skills into your training hikes. 

In the worst case scenario, if you do have to be rescued, mountain rescue will want to know where you are exactly, and the GPS on your phone might not always be accurate in wild places. In the UK, location is given to rescue services using a six figure grid reference, which you can get from the free OS Locate app. It’s good to practise finding this while out on walks before you head off on your holiday in a wilder place. GPS devices will also serve this function. In addition, particularly with winter walking holidays, using a Recco reflector can be a lifesaver in an emergency situation, or at least have a head torch, with spare batteries.

Top hiking safety tips: iPhone models 14 or later are able to send texts via satellite in case of emergency in an area with no phone signal. However, this feature may not work if you haven’t updated your phone to the latest iOS. 

Helping helicopters do their thing

In the event of having to be rescued by helicopter, there are a few key things to remember. Don’t shine your torch directly at the helicopter, but throw the light to ground level instead. Move into an open area if possible, tuck in all loose clothing, and always follow the crew’s directions. So, for example, don’t move towards the helicopter or winchman until you are told to do so. 

Top hiking safety tips: Get an app that can give your precise location to emergency services, stay warm and hydrated. Don’t ever think that first aid kits aren’t worth the money. 

Always follow helicopter crew’s instructions in the rare event of a mountain rescue.

Enlighten yourself on lightning 

While hiking in the mountains, weather can change from one minute to the next, and one valley to the next. Thunder and lightning is relatively common and hikers are at a greater risk of lighting exposure. The top hiking safety tip is to always check a detailed weather map before heading out into wild, mountain landscapes. Starting your trek early is also a good tip, as thunderstorms are more common later in the day, when the heat builds up. Then keep your eye out all around and listen for thunder if you see changeable weather. If you do, descend to lower ground and away from open ridges, plateaus, trees, caves, rocky overhangs or bodies of water. You can gauge your distance by measuring the time between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder. Divide the length of this interval in seconds by three to get your rough distance from the storm in kilometres. Also note that even if the thunder stops, lightning can still happen afterwards, so wait at least 30mins before heading back out again. If it’s too late to walk away from a lightning storm, take off your backpack, discard walking poles, and curl up as small as you can. And although it may seem counterintuitive, don’t huddle together. 

Top hiking safety tips: Always carry rain gear in the mountains and never ignore severe weather warnings. 

When not to go with the flow

Our trails are all well mapped and checked, and won’t lead you across any dangerous streams or rivers. However, weather conditions can change and water levels rise, in which case you have to be very vigilant. In short, when a stream is fast flowing, you shouldn’t be crossing it. Sometimes deeper, slow moving water is safer to cross than shallow, speedy waters. If you do cross, keep your shoes on for stability. Undo your backpack so you can release it quickly if you fall in, and use your walking poles for stability too. Always put one foot on the river bed slowly, only placing the next foot down when you’re sure you have a good foothold. And don’t cross on logs as they can have dangerous currents flowing underneath them. If in doubt, always turn back and call our local support on the ground. For more information, see Mountaineering Scotland’s article

Always take care crossing rivers, even if they look tame.

Keep your distance from wildlife

While hiking in mountain landscapes, you are more likely to come across wildlife wandering around their habitats. Such as bears in Romania or Finland, seals off the South West Coast Path in Cornwall, or chamois in the Alps or Pyrenees. Sometimes the temptation is to get a photo, however you should never go near wildlife in order to get the perfect shot. Especially if they have young ones with them and will do anything to protect them if they feel threatened. 

Don’t tempt any wild animal with food in order to encourage it to come closer and don’t use flash photography. If you are trekking through bear terrain, make some noise so that bears know you are about, talking loudly, singing or clapping your hands from time to time. Or wear a bear bell on your backpack. And always avoid having a teddy bear’s picnic in remote, densely forested locations. If you are approached by a wild animal, never provoke it. Back away slowly and avoid looking the animal in the eyes. If you are bitten by a snake, follow the appropriate field management outlined by our travel insurance partner

Top hiking safety tips: Remember to leave all wildlife in peace and never feed them. 

A bear bell to attach to your backpack. Who knew?

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

AMS is most common when above altitudes of 2,500m, and our trekking tours that take you higher than this are all fully guided by expert mountain guides. This includes treks to Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, Pakistan’s Karakorams and Nepal’s Himalayas. One of the most important things is to trust the experts if you start to feel unwell. Acclimatisation days are built into our very high trekking holidays so that you can get used to the altitude, but sometimes you just get unlucky. AMS affects everyone differently, irrespective of age, gender or fitness level so there is no shame in not being able to continue, or taking a long break. Mountain leaders recognise the signs quickly and it’s vital that you let them know if you have headaches, dizziness or a shortening of breath so that they can assess the situation and act accordingly. 

Top hiking safety tips: Always take a day’s break if you are feeling the impacts of higher elevation. And never be embarrassed to discuss this with your guide. 

Tips on ticks 

Ticks can be a problem in many UK and European hiking destinations, so you do need to take precautions. Wear long sleeves and trousers, and tuck your trousers into hiking socks when possible. Lyme disease and Tick-Borne Encephalitis (TBE) are both tick-borne, so always check yourself fully after hiking and carry a tick remover with you too, so that you can catch them quickly. Symptoms include fever, headache, joint pains and body aches, often with a red rash. 

We appreciate that this is a lot to take in, and we figure that a lot of it is also common sense. One of these tips may save a life, however, and knowing them in advance makes you an attentive and responsible hiker. We have much more detailed information on our help page. Keep safe and keep adventuring.