Hiking and backpacking: safety considerations

Senderismo y trekking: consideraciones de seguridad


*Physical Education Teacher

Southwestern Community College (U.S.A.)

**Physical Education PhD Student


Eliane Ramos*


Diogo Cunha dos Reis**







          Outdoor pursuits such as hiking and backpacking are one of the most popular and fastest growing outdoor leisure activities in the United States. However, the wilderness recreational environment involves a degree of risk that is difficult to remove, in which individuals are exposed to illness and injury. Dangers arises from two sources in the backcountry: from within the environment and from within individuals using the environment. Yet, equipment hazard is a part of human and environment factor from where dangers can arise. The environment hazards may include terrain, location and weather, the equipment hazards may include the equipment and food, and human hazards may consist of participants’ abilities, medical conditions and emotional state. Therefore, this is a quick review to assess some of the problems encountered by hikers and backpackers and by this means, contribute to explore aspects associated with danger situations that so many people come across while performing recreational activities such as hiking in the wilderness areas.

          Keywords: Hiking. Backpacking. Hazards. Safety.


EFDeportes.com, Revista Digital. Buenos Aires, Año 15, Nº 152, Enero de 2011. http://www.efdeportes.com/

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    Hiking and backpacking became a recreational activity around 19th century, when people seek in the nature a place to escape the stress of urban environments; previously, these activities where just a matter of transportation. Walking in unpaved surfaces, natural trails with uneven terrain, rocks and roots, hiking is a quite simple activity that provides great opportunity to explore a variety of natural environments (GOLDENBERG; MARTIN, 2007). Hiking and backpacking are one of the most popular and fastest growing outdoor leisure activities in the United States (BOULWARE et al., 2003).

    This activities can take people into the backcountry, into the remaining wild places, venturing into the woods for enjoyment, spiritual enrichment, physical and emotional challenges; however, is important to ensure that people experience the positives in nature, (GOLDENBERG; MARTIN, 2007), since there are many potential hazards in outdoor pursuits and these hazards are often well understood: for example, the danger of falls, common potentially lethal "trip and slip" variety, or tumbling from a height while walking up hill or climbing.

    The purpose of the present study was to review the literature on some of the problems encountered by hikers and backpackers and therefore contribute to explore aspects associated with danger situations that so many people come across while performing recreational activities such as hiking in the wilderness areas.

An approach to some wilderness hazards

    The wilderness recreational environment entails a degree of risk that is difficult to remove, in which individuals are exposed to illness and injury. Therefore, as more people participate in wilderness activities in more severe and remote areas, it is inevitable that the number of accidents, injuries and illness will increase (HEGGIE et al., 2004).

    Curtis (2005) states on his book, The backpacker’s field manual, that “backcountry travel means recognizing that there are factors that cannot be controlled, and these factors impose potential risk.” Take an effort to experience challenges it means leaving the comfort zone and seeking for unknown, which can lead to dangers situations if not performed with competence. The research shows that when there are organized activities the actual risks decrease remarkably (FULBROOK, 2005). As Miles and Priest (1999) stated, “An adventurer uses competence; a combination of skill, attitude, knowledge, behavior, confidence and experience.” One should be able to do a self assessment, “know what you know and know what you don’t know” (PETZOLDT, 1984).

    Dangers arises from two sources in the backcountry: from within the environment and from within individuals using the environment (GOLDENBERG; MARTIN, 2007). Yet, equipment hazard is a part of human and environment factor from where dangers can arise.

    According to Boulware et al. (2003), the most common reasons hikers do not reach the end of their destination are limitations imposed by injury, psychosocial reasons and time, but disease is considered the least common.

    The environment hazards may include terrain, location and weather, the equipment hazards may include the equipment and food, and human hazards may consist of participants abilities, medical conditions and emotional state (CURTIS, 2005).

    Regarding to environment, one may encounter common hazards such as rocky trails and exposed ledges that may lead to falls (CURTIS, 2005). In a study of injury related to hiking with a pack during National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) courses, Hamonko et al. (2009) found that the majority of injuries were to the ankles and the knees, and the most common mechanism of injury was a fall.

    According to Smith (2006), common injuries during the approach to a climb which usually involves travel over rough and varied terrain while carrying a backpack, includes a wide range of orthopedic problems that affect backpackers. Paresthesia in the upper and lower extremities has been associated with wearing a backpack during extended periods. Proper backpack fitting is important to avoid unnecessary pressure on the brachial plexus and thoracic outlet region.

    The same author states that as with any ambulatory activity, lower extremity injuries are fairly common. Estimating from data obtained in long-distance hikers, injuries including blisters and acute joint pain, appear to be quite frequent. For Jacobson et al. (2000), the use of hiking poles has gained popularity in recent years. Although not apparently leading to an absolute increase in hiking efficiency, the use of hiking poles has been shown to decrease subjective work effort. Using poles seems to distribute workload from the lower extremities during uphill and downhill walking with a load or pack. Adequately fitted boots and crampons are important for blister prevention and for preventing ankle injury. Hiking or trekking poles may be useful for those with ankle or knee instability or for those carrying a heavy pack.

    In outdoor activities, individuals are exposed to a significant risk of contracting Toxicodendron dermatitis caused by poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), very common in North America, it grows as weeds (along roads, trails and streams) or shrub-like and it also climbs as a woody vine, poison ivy could irritate skin and cause allergic reactions, with consequent lost-time injuries and treatment cost. The oleoresin which causes the allergy reaction, found in poison ivy, can be significantly removed from skin using water if it is washed off as soon as the exposure to the toxicodendron is acknowledged (FROBERG et al., 2007).

    Bees and wasps stings can cause local or generalized systemic reaction (Anaphylaxis). The importance of the sting reaction can be over- or underestimated. Symptoms sometimes are exaggerated by fear, panic, exercise, heat, alcohol, or underlying cardio–respiratory disease. Therefore, objective documentation of the physical findings during the reaction should be sought (measurements of blood pressure or reduced air flow, observed urticaria). The throat or chest discomfort, dyspnea, lightheadedness, nausea, and other constitutional symptoms can be caused by anxiety/panic disorder or simple fear. Most insect-allergic patients should be advised to keep an epinephrine injector at the ready when stung, but may not need to use it if the reaction does not occur or remains limited to mild symptoms. Some patients have had rapid onset of severe reactions and (until immunized) should potentially use epinephrine immediately after being stung (GOLDEN, 2007).

    Depending on the weather conditions, cold temperatures could cause hypothermia for example, due to wind, rain, improper clothes and equipment, wetness, dehydration, sunburn, fatigue, exhaustion, poor food intake, alcohol intake - causes vasodilatation which can lead to increased heat loss. Also, no knowledge of the symptoms can be a risk factor, victims may fail to recognize the problem (CURTIS, 2010).

    Early stages of hypothermia are characterized by shivering, apathy, mumbling, and stumbling. If the person stops shivering but is still cold, severe hypothermia is taking place, other symptoms may include slowed pulse and respiration rates, reduced mental alertness or confusion, lethargy, and unconsciousness, which could be life-threatening and evacuation is crucial since advanced medical care is needed. When in early stages, provide warm fluids and high-energy foods, and get the hiker moving to help the body generate warmth (GOLDENBERG; MARTIN, 2007).

    The risk of hypothermia can be minimized by eating well, staying hydrated, and staying warm, or dry through the use of proper clothing and equipment. Water takes heat away from the body through convection at 25 times the rate of air. Having proper rain gear in addition to insulating layers will help to stay warm in an emergency situation. According to Curtis (2010), the optimum temperature for chemical reactions to occur in the body is 98.6 °F (37 °C). Below 98.6 °F chemical reactions slow down with various complications that can lead to death. In an Adventure Program Risk Management Report, Liddle and Storck (1995) stated a case of dehydration:

    “On a winter camping trip, a participant did not drink enough liquids despite the group being informed of the danger of dehydration, the student reported severe shivering and a black out during the night with headaches the next morning. Drinking lots of water solved the headache problem. Program analysis: as a result of this incident, staff discussed the need not just to inform students about these kinds of issues but to monitor their actions.”

    Evaluating the results of this incident one can see that it was a predictable situation, and the leader’s lack of judgment led to such an incident. However, Petzoldt (1984) affirm that is not just the leader’s problem, “if we can all learn how to avoid crises, we will be prepared for the unforeseen emergency.” Solve the small issue will avoid a potential survival situation.

    Yet, hot weather can be as harmful as cold weather. Hiking can be a very exhaustive activity depending on the weather conditions as individuals are subjected to an environment that cannot be controlled. Therefore it is crucial to take precautions in hot weather.

    Exercising in hot environments can lead to illness in previously physically fit, healthy people. The majority of people who experience acute collapse or symptoms associated with exercise in the heat may be suffering from heat exhaustion, a syndrome which limits the ability to sustain exercise but is easily treated and resolves without farther complications. The recognized cause of heat exhaustion is loss of fluid and electrolytes, a condition that may be associated with moderate hyperthermia (BACKER et al., 1999). Exceeding 105 °F (40.5 °C) several body enzymes would become denatured and chemical reactions would not occur, which can be lethal (CURTIS, 2010). An early sign of heat exhaustion is heat cramps, which may occur first in the muscles of the leg and abdomen (LOGUE, 2004).

    Also, symptoms of heat exhaustion are sweating, feeling of weakness, nausea and headache, which when untreated, can develop into heatstroke, caused by the failure of the brain in regulating the heat mechanism of the body, and characterized by cessation of sweating (cooling), dry skin, flushed and burning and sweating stops, person appears feverish, with lack of coordination, nausea and vomiting, restlessness headache and mental confusion, this symptoms may lead to respiration and pulse rate rise and body temperature can be between 105 and 110 °F (40.5 and 43.3 °C) (TAWRELL, 2006).

    Another very common environmental hazard is contaminated water. Giardiasis is known as a syndrome of diarrhea (CURTIS, 2005), which is one of the most common illnesses experienced by people in wilderness areas, including the pristine wilderness, surface waters of lakes and streams may be contaminated where Giardia is the most prevalent parasite, Cryptosporidium is also frequent, with cysts present in 65% to 97% of surface waters (BOULWARE et al., 2003).

    The same authors state that a consistent water disinfection, principally of surface water sources; routine cleaning of cookware; and routine hand washing with soap and water can decreased incidence of diarrhea, preventing gastrointestinal illness. Also, filtration is used more consistently than iodine or chlorine. The inconsistent use of iodine or chlorine may be accounted for by their unpleasant taste, the extended treatment time, or the treatment complexity based on water temperature and turbidity.

    The equipment and food are very important factor that could lead to a survival situation. Having the correct equipment and checking the conditions prior the trip as well as knowing how to use it, will help to avoid survival situations. The common equipment hazards are improper clothing, broken stove, and broken and or missing gear (CURTIS, 2005). Also plan for the trip considering type of food and quantity, and water supply is necessary to provide energy to fuel one’s physical activities and body homeostasis.

    The incidents are also led by human factor, and are often subjective matters such as knowledge, judgment, and emotional state. Lack of previous experience will affect the quality of judgment and lead to situations where one may “take the wrong step forward”, since there was no prior knowledge of similar situations. Knowing one’s physical and medical condition will help to set the right pace and the appropriate trip choice, avoiding fatigue and possible illness.

    There is a lot of reasons to ensure people’s emotional conditions, since could affect participant’s behaviors such as; poor communication skills, not interest in being on the trip, and not willing to follow instructions. Participant may decide to run way and end up being lost, or start fighting, and someone could get hurt.

    Hiking and backpacking can be a great or terrible experience. One must self evaluate the degree of ability to travel safely in the backcountry. Some of the guidelines to avoid survival situations are very simple, but if not taking seriously, can lead to complicate circumstances. A hot spot on one’s foot for example, can turn to a blister, and could cause an infection if not taking appropriate care of the wound (GOLDENBERG; MARTIN, 2007).

    If going for a day hike or a multiday hiking trip (backpacking), there is a lot of steps to be taken prior the trip, such as making a trip itinerary, research on weather conditions, have a topographical map, plan meals carrying necessary food and water, have the right gear according with environmental conditions, inform someone outside the group about the trip providing copy of itinerary and information about the location of the trip (DRURY et al., 2005). In case of emergency have an evacuation plan and know the basic life support procedures (EFFRON, 2005).

Final considerations

    Avoiding danger situations when possible will depend of competence and good judgment. As Petzoldt (1984) stated, “Avoidance of survival situations is more important than learning how to get out of a survival situation.” This author also mentions that are many questions out there that one should ask oneself before taking off for the wilds.

    One believes that hiking or backpacking in the backcountry can be a fascinated experience if performed in a safe manner, and can provide a better understanding of the nature, as well as an opportunity to appreciate the natural gifts of this planet, consequently, also may change a human way of thinking and way of living. As Muir (2007) once said: "...in every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks."

    Regarding to this area of knowledge, there is a lot of more aspects to be considered and concerned about, when venturing into the wild. This review is just a small approach to a vast literature that is out there.

    Finally, the information provided here is designed for educational use only and is not a substitute for specific training or experience. The authors assume no liability for any individual's use of or reliance upon any material contained or referenced herein.


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EFDeportes.com, Revista Digital · Año 15 · N° 152 | Buenos Aires, Enero de 2011
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