Hikers cannot wait to hit the trail as the weather calms. But before that, they must know the multiple risks out there. So, what are the top hiking risks?
The main hiking risks are linked with the type of terrain. But there can be other reasons too, such as the lack of knowledge or the physical ability. Even in supervised and secure places, the mountains offer potentially dangerous risks, hence the need to be aware and well-prepared.
The top hiking risks include the physiological risks (injuries, altitude sickness, cuts, and wounds), weather-related risks (fog, rain, storm, etc.), cold-related risks (hypothermia, frostbite, etc.), terrain-related risks due to lack (slips and falls), and risks associated with water and animal hazards.
These potential risks in the mountains are all those agents, situations, or factors that may cause injuries and other health issues. But what seems obvious here is not necessarily so for everyone. Although much less dangerous than other mountain sports such as paragliding, mountaineering, or base jumping, hiking presents these risks, leading to multiple accidents and casualties. Therefore, it is imperative to be fully aware and prepared.
Here's a detailed explanation of the top hiking risks to provide you with some useful insights into the subject. We have conducted comprehensive research so that you don't miss out on any potential risks and prepare well the next time you plan to hit the trails.
What are the Top Hiking Risks?
Let's look at the potential hazards that present different risks to hikers.
Objective hazards (related to terrain and mountains) are:
- weather conditions; cold, heat, sun, storms, light, fog, etc.
- animals, insects, plants, etc.
- difficulty and duration of the activity to be carried out
- equipment and clothing
Subjective dangers in mountain activities have to do with:
- lack of knowledge about the trail
- lack of physical ability
- lack of training
- the physical-health condition (if you suffer from any disease that can be aggravated by altitude or intense physical activity)
Injuries or health problems associated with the risks of mountain sports can be:
- overloads and hypoglycemia due to exertion
- sprains, fractures, strains, bruises, and tears from falls, rockfalls, slips, poor footing, fatigue, or visibility problems
- hypothermia, frostbite, heatstroke, sunstroke, and burns due to temperature conditions
- bites, stings, or poisoning by animals, insects, and plants
- worsening of an existing disease due to physical exertion or the altitude
- getting lost on an unsupervised trail or trapped at a steeper place due to orientation errors
1. Risk of Injuries
The nature of the terrain can increase the risk of accidents for hikers. This is the case of rugged routes with technical passages, sometimes aerial, which require experience. Be careful on the rocky paths, where a little clumsiness can lead to serious injuries.
Snow, mud, and rain make the ground wet and therefore particularly slippery. The risk of falling is never far away, especially on grass or smooth rock.
Here are some of the mountain injuries related to specific physiological risks:
Uneven terrain (stepping on a moving stone or poor footing), fatigue from the duration of the activity and/or altitude, visibility, and other factors can increase the risk of ankle sprains, which occur when you bend or twist your ankle excessively or oddly.
Fatigue due to the altitude, the route's difficulty, the weight of the backpack, etc., can increase the risk of a knee sprain caused by bending or twisting the knee when the foot is firmly on the ground. Any landing or locked foot strike can cause excessive twisting of the knee.
The possibility of falls while climbing, mountaineering, or trail running can increase the risk of suffering a wrist sprain, which occurs when landing badly on the one hand and damaging the ligaments of the wrist joint.
Rock and ice climbing falls can increase the risk of an elbow sprain, which occurs when you fall on an outstretched arm or directly hit your elbow with a wall of ice.
Stress or Overload Fractures
Walking or running long distances while hiking with a heavy backpack can increase the risk of stress fractures in the bones of the feet and legs. The best way to avoid this type of fracture is to carry out adequate training for the activity you want to do.
A fall during a climbing activity or falling stones due to rain or landslides can also increase the risk of bone fractures in the head, legs, or arms.
A fall while climbing, mountaineering, or running and jumping at high speed during a steep descent in trail running can increase the risk of shoulder dislocation, which occurs after a severe crash or blow to the shoulder leading to a forced movement of the joint.
Mountain routes in hiking usually have a lot of downhill terrain, which can increase the risk of patellar tendinitis, which occurs when the patellar tendon becomes inflamed, located just where the knee ends, due to the type of muscle contraction that requires walking through the mountains.
Muscle Pain in Shoulders and Legs
Undertaking routes or trips of several days and many kilometers in the mountains with a heavy backpack can increase the risk of suffering muscle pain or strain in the shoulders and legs due to excessive exercise and the absence or lack of warm-up and muscle stretching.
Blisters and Chafing on the Feet
Long walks in the mountains can increase the risk of blisters and chafe on the feet caused by rubbing against shoes and long walks in nature.
Cuts and Wounds
Going through paths with many vegetation and stones and climbing routes near sharp stones can increase the risk of producing cuts and injuries to the body if you do not have sufficient skill or the clothing is inadequate.
Long excursions to the mountains and alpine expeditions can increase the risk of fiber breakage and falls and bumps during mountain activities.
Subjecting the muscles to great effort when tired and dehydration due to prolonged sweating, which generates a loss of elasticity in the muscle, can cause fiber breakage in the leg muscles.
Long hours of hiking can increase the risk of muscle overload, especially in the calves, soleus, hamstrings, quadriceps, and adductors.
Training, diet, and vigilance can prevent these accidents. Good shoes, a well-balanced and not too heavy bag, moderate fatigue, and good hydration increase safety. Favor shoes with practical soles to have good contact with the ground.
2. Lipothymia/Heat Stroke
Walking in the middle of the day in summer through scorching areas can increase the risk of fainting or heat strokes caused by increased body temperature. That begins with dizziness, blurred vision, sweating, and loss of orientation.
To minimize the effect of extreme heat, drink water during the route without waiting until you are thirsty, wear a hat, and wear appropriate clothing for the time of year.
3. Altitude Sickness
High altitude or rapid ascent without proper acclimatization on expeditions to mountains can increase the risk of altitude sickness. It is caused by a lack of oxygen and can lead to dizziness, muscle aches, and nausea in its mildest form, and can cause pulmonary edema or cerebral edema in serious situations. The risk of pulmonary edema is more in people who have coronary disease.
The higher you go, the lower the atmospheric pressure and the lower the oxygen level, which means less oxygenation of the blood and a reduction in physical abilities. Therefore, it is necessary to adapt, the number of days of adaptation being all the more important as the altitude is high.
More than one-third of traumatic accidents are among people with no or little experience in the mountains (studies speak more of tourists or novice hikers doing a hike than a hiker). When the experienced hiker is also the victim of accidents, they are half as affected by severe accidents.
4. Getting Lost Due to Environmental Issues
Going on an unmarked, unplanned path or simply "cutting" by taking a shortcut on the initial route entails the risk of finding oneself lost, blocked, and obviously falling on an exposed part that is not intended for a passage in hiking.
Safety is a variable taken into account more than just the speed of completion of the course. We must not forget that the hiking routes are not prepared to take us from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Hiking experts make them.
In addition, a hiker can easily get lost when the fog rises, or the light drops. Therefore, it is essential to be well informed about meteorology before taking an excursion.
Falls are a major risk, with all the risks of trauma that may ensue. Orientation errors can also lead to steep places where it can be challenging to get out. Not overestimating its possibilities is, therefore, a necessity.
Expedition to icy areas or changes in temperature between day and night on long-distance hiking can increase the risk of hypothermia, which occurs when the body loses heat faster than it produces, leading to a dangerous drop in body temperature.
The higher you climb, the more the temperature decreases and the more the wind at altitude is likely to increase. Therefore, this results in an evaporation effect and a significant cooling effect. Besides hypothermia, it can also lead to risks of frostbite or chilblains.
Routes, excursions, and hiking trips to very sunny and hot places and high-altitude alpine expeditions can increase the risk of sunburn and eye damage if the appropriate protective measures are not taken. It is imperative to apply sun protection and wear a hat and sunglasses.
6. Foot fungus
Excursions that take you through humid areas or where you have to cross rivers and streams can increase the risk of foot fungus caused by spending a long time walking with wet or sweaty feet.
Hiking for hours in the mountains can also increase the risk of purple or black nails caused by the permanent contact of the toes with the footwear.
7. Insect Bites
Hiking in areas with lots of vegetation and insects can increase the risk of insect bites, which in turn can cause itching and skin damage. It is good to apply insect repellent to avoid these inconveniences. Insects are attracted to sweat, so it is good to apply repellent before and during hiking in the mountains.
Watch out for ticks, as they represent a formidable danger for hikers. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease to humans. To avoid bites, wear high shoes and long pants. After each outing, carefully examine your whole body to identify any ticks.
The choice of clothes can be a game-changer. Avoid wearing colors that are too bright as they may attract wasps, bees, and gnats. Worse, it excites them. Protect your eyes and mouth. A specific ointment for insect bites in the first aid kit is a plus.
8. Water Hazards
Drinking water in nature, found during your hike, is not necessarily a good idea. Not always drinkable, it may contain bacteria and other microorganisms invisible to the naked eye and dangerous for humans. Animal or human origin, the sources of pollution are multiple!
Also, be careful when swimming in the river, especially during and after stormy episodes. Runoff water can indeed carry contaminants.
Precautions to Avoid Risks in Hiking
The mountain environment is hostile: altitude, steep slopes, unevenness, snowfields, steep routes, and above all, unstable weather.
You must be aware that the weather conditions change rapidly in the middle and high mountains. The good weather can quickly turn into a storm and trap the hiker. Therefore, it is imperative to take some precautions for safe hiking.
Hiking is a mass activity, easily accessible. When we have little experience and knowledge of the environment, we minimize the risks and avoid everything that can put us in danger. Here’s what you can do:
Prepare Your Route
Prepare your hiking route using an accurate map with the contour lines of the trails to take. Don't be reckless and choose a route that suits your physical and technical abilities in terms of terrain, distance, and duration. Once on the way, respect the markings and the indications. Venturing off the beaten path remains an expression in hiking! Anticipate your return before nightfall.
The extra trick: Use an app to plan your vacations and hikes. Some apps offer maps of hiking circuits.
Equip Yourself Correctly in the Face of the Dangers of Hiking
Being well equipped for hiking is crucial:
- Protect your face and body by wearing appropriate technical clothing to limit the risk of hypothermia, frostbite, and numbness in the event of exposure to cold.
- Apply sunscreen, a cap, and sunglasses to protect yourself against sunburn, sunstroke, and heat-related discomfort.
- Slip a first aid kit into your backpack to treat any injuries.
- Always carry enough food and water with you to avoid dehydration and hypoglycemia.
- Take a topographical map to orient yourself.
- Charge your mobile phone to call for help in the event of an accident.
In addition to appropriate clothing, it is highly advisable to get some accessories, such as a walking stick that offers greater stability, a good backpack (not in size, but in quality and performance), a knife, rope, flashlight, whistle (to call attention in case of emergency), mobile, map, compass, protective cream, sunglasses, insect repellent, waterproof container, binoculars, etc.
About THE AUTHOR
I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.Read More About Peter Brooks