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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Catching Hiking's Most Wanted

The most dangerous mistakes are the ones you don't recognize.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

On the trail is the last place you want to discover a mistake. (JS)
On the trail is the last place you want to discover a mistake. (JS)

professor hike
Got a Question for the Prof?

Email us directly at
profhike@backpacker.com

The advice on this blog is often about avoiding mistakes. But what defines a mistake? And how do you recognize one? After all, one person’s misstep could be another person’s routine. Lots of drivers, for instance, don’t wear seat belts. And those people do just fine—until they crash.

Before the accident, however, their mistake wasn’t visible to them. If it was, they would have buckled up. Instead, it was a bad habit they didn’t recognize. And because they didn’t see it, they didn’t fix it. Human nature encourages us to pursue the path of least resistance, which often means doing things the same old (and maybe wrong) way until we get caught.

How does this affect people who play outdoors? Hikers practice bad habits just like everyone else. In fact, trail veterans who follow a “that’s the way I’ve always done it…” attitude are some of the worst offenders. Maybe at one time you could light ground fires wherever you wanted, but not anymore. The same goes with feeding wildlife and burning trash.

To become better and safer hikers, we need to recognize which of our outdoor habits are actually mistakes. These are bad decisions we make while planning trips, packing gear, or hiking a trail. And while not wearing a seat belt seems like an obvious mistake, some of the most common outdoor blunders are just as knuckleheaded.

How do you uncover your own bad habits? You’ve got to examine your pre-trip and on-trail routines. Or better yet, ask your friends and hiking partners for feedback and advice. To get started, here are five of hiking’s most wanted mistakes.

>> Wearing cotton clothing (or skivvies) 
Backpacker has warned “Cotton kills!” so many times that you’d think the fluffy white stuff is instantly toxic. But how many hikers do you see wearing Levis and sweatshirts? They’ll be fine during a pleasant day-hike. If the weather turns wet, windy, and cold, they’ll still be OK, but also chilled and miserable. The true meaning of the anti-cotton warning becomes clear, however, when wet and cold hikers get injured or lost.

Maybe you don’t wear cotton pants and shorts, but what about underwear and socks? You can’t stop random hikers from wearing cotton, but you can stop yourself from learning an uncomfortable—and maybe risky—lesson.

>> Forgetting a headlamp
You might be planning an afternoon hike. But the Gilligan’s Island crew expected a three-hour tour, and stuck around for 99 episodes. A thousand unforeseen problems—from a twisted ankle to a broken pack strap—could strand you on the trail after sunset. Remembering to pack a 5-ounce headlamp or flashlight can prevent a freezing overnight in the woods. Because once you’ve had that experience, you won’t forget a headlamp again.

>> Not leaving information with a trusted friend
Could you amputate your arm with a blunt multi-tool? If not, then always tell someone where you’re going, the route you plan to take, and when you expect to be back. And here’s the important part: Do it for every trip, not just the ones you think are dangerous. Like Aron Ralston, you won’t know where the 800-pound, arm-crunching boulder is waiting to intersect your life.

>> Starting too late in the day
Some people (myself included) are always late. If you’re habitually overdue, don’t expect to wake up, get packed, and drive to the trailhead to nail a 6:00 a.m. alpine start. If afternoon thunderstorms are a problem, beginning a summit attempt two hours late could put you in danger. Acknowledging that you are chronically late is crucial, as is identifying tardy hikers in any group. Counter these tendencies by packing bags the day before, car-pooling, camping at the trailhead, and building in extra time to account for missed turns, dirt roads, and your friend’s small bladder.

>> Hiking without a map
The difference between a complacent and a clever hiker is realizing you don’t need a map, but bringing one anyway. When do experienced hikers tend to get lost? Not the first time they hike a new trail with a good map in hand. And not the 20th time, when they know the route well. The danger zone is the second, third or fourth outing, when overconfident hikers convince themselves they don’t need a map, but actually do. Miss a crucial turn or gamble on a short-cut, and an easy trail becomes a maze of doubt. According to a 2010 study that monitored the brain activity of drivers, traveling familiar paths encourages our brains to relax and get careless.

What are your favorite hiker faux pas? Post a comment, or send an email to profhike@backpacker.com.
—Jason Stevenson

 
idiot's guide to backpacking and hikingJason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking







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READERS COMMENTS

Hebrew
Apr 08, 2011

I leave the cotton at home, with one exception: I bring a pair of cotton underwear for sleeping only. I find that that the poly blend underwear causes me to overheat and...er...marinate in an uncomfortable fashion. A pair of cotton skivvies for sleeping is cooler, more comfortable, and ultimately, smells better.

Lou
Mar 21, 2011

A compass (and knowing ahead of time how to use it) is essential. The best way to learn and practice is with a local orienteering club. It is an inexpensive, fun way to learn the skill and meet great people.

Steve C
Mar 15, 2011

I would add 'not paying attention' to the list. It's easy to go along in you thoughts, look up and not know where you are ... or worse, not know how you got there. The remedy? Look up, notice landmarks, take mental 'kodak' moments. Turn around occasionally and see how it should look on your return trip.

Capt, Red Beard
Mar 14, 2011

I would add a Bic lighter in a pocket. They are cheep, light, and easy to get.

One rule I try to stick to is "If I had to spend the night, would I be ok?" It seems to be a good general rule to go by. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

Happy Hiking!

GBPhx
Mar 13, 2011

One thing to remember if you're running late: Don't rush- or let anyone else rush you- getting out of your vehicle and onto the trail.
Go through a check to make sure you've got everything that you want to take. I left my trekking poles behind on a rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike that way. Forgot some trail food on another trip because we were late and wanted to hit the ground running.

Rene
Mar 11, 2011

One thing that I keep reminding myself to do is to refuel regularly. Stopping every hour for water and snacks is important, as well as keeping energy bars, etc handy, not buried away in the pack. Hard candies and jellybeans are a great fuel source that fit into pants or shorts pocket.

Bill Giles
Mar 11, 2011

Mike,

Just because you don't build a campfire doesn't mean that you can't set yourself on fire. If you use any kind of cook stove, particularly one that burns liquid fuel, you can start a fire easily. That is why you aren't supposed to use a stove in a tent. Your tent, sleeping bag, pack and all sorts of stuff are made of plastic fibers and do burn. They also melt and stick to your skin and burn. I'm moving towards the wool clothing to get the flame resistance without the water holding problem of cotton. I'll still use synthetics, but will have a layer of wool.

Helen
Mar 11, 2011

Don't forget underestimating the terrain . We need to always be aware of what we going to endure. Years ago @ the Grand Canyon, I came across a guy who was particularly physically stressed. (and btw I think about 90 percent of hikers were shocked how hard going back up was). He had no food and 1 16 oz water bottle. We stopped with him and literally had to force him to take energy trail mix and water from me. ( he was older and felt bad about taking it from us. ). But you instantly see the difference. I thought he was on the verge of collapsing when I first met him. As a result, I am now very paranoid when I hike. And always bring what is probably too much.

Bill Giles
Mar 11, 2011

I've been anti cotton for a long time, but I still wear jeans and cotton briefs. If I planned to be in the back country for a while, I would probably wear synthetic pants. It's the durability of the denim that keeps me wearing jeans, plus the fire resistant nature of cotton. My work shirts are 60/40 poly/cotton and they smolder, but don't catch fire when I get sparks on them. I suppose that flammability isn't a huge problem backpacking, but synthetic fibers are plastic, they melt and they burn. Most of my socks and flannel shirts are acrylic and of my thermal underwear is polyester or polypropylene. I used to wear wool more than I do now and I'm starting to pick up some wool clothing, but it's expensive. I will probably move towards wool outer wear, but don't see myself giving up my cotton briefs. If worst comes to worst and I'm soaked, I will take them off.

I recently picked up some blaze orange sticky tape and velcro ties to mark small items so I am less likely to lose them in the grass.

Mike
Mar 11, 2011

Instead of cotton socks you'd wear wool or synthetic.
Wool, or wool-blend pants also don't burn easily, and are available as surplus. Since I never use a campfire when backpacking I'm safe from this problem anyway.
I agree that splitting up the group is a mistake. There may be times when the group will fragment into conversation groups but it should, overall, stay together.
When snowshoeing or in cold weather, I always carry a small foam sitting pad. If you have to spend the night out there you'll be very happy that you have one, and they're great for taking breaks on snow or on wet ground.

backpackingZombie
Mar 11, 2011

Do not be overconfident/stupid.

I have some friends that live the ultralight lifestyle, and I'm waiting for the day this bites them in the ankle. One of the worst offenses is on a 3-4 day trip they will only bring a 20oz bottle that they fill at water sources and say "this should last me to the next source" not taking into account that sources dry up.

BrazosSticks
Mar 11, 2011

And take some protection from the elements and from the critters on the trail...a hiking stick. It is an instant tent with your poncho, it handles snakes and if you twist an ankle, it'll help you get back.

Bill Giles
Mar 11, 2011

I've been anti cotton for a long time, but I still wear jeans and cotton briefs. If I planned to be in the back country for a while, I would probably wear synthetic pants. It's the durability of the denim that keeps me wearing jeans, plus the fire resistant nature of cotton. My work shirts are 60/40 poly/cotton and they smolder, but don't catch fire when I get sparks on them. I suppose that flammability isn't a huge problem backpacking, but synthetic fibers are plastic, they melt and they burn. Most of my socks and flannel shirts are acrylic and of my thermal underwear is polyester or polypropylene. I used to wear wool more than I do now and I'm starting to pick up some wool clothing, but it's expensive. I will probably move towards wool outer wear, but don't see myself giving up my cotton briefs. If worst comes to worst and I'm soaked, I will take them off.

I recently picked up some blaze orange sticky tape and velcro ties to mark small items so I am less likely to lose them in the grass.

nogods
Mar 10, 2011

Glad to see you included the zero essential: "leaving information with a trusted friend"

But it should be at the top in case one makes any of the other mistakes.

Another common mistake is allowing one person in a party to turn back and return on their own. People will often not admit the real reason they want to turn back (exhaustion, feeling ill, or developing injury or muscle strain), even more so if they consider themselves an "experienced" hiker.

They'll make some other excuse (I didn't think it would take this long and I have to make a conference call at ....) to cover for their real reason, but the real reason is the very reason they should not be allowed to turn back by themselves. Anyone who admits they are to tired or exhausted to continue the climb, or are starting to develop an injury, should never be allowed to turn back by themselves.

I don't think the entire group needs to turn back. And I even think it is OK for one person to continue on by themselves as long as both those turning back and those going on are fully equipped (for example, if the group brought only one map, then all have to return.)

Neeraj
Mar 10, 2011

Re: cotton. You're not supposed to wear cotton socks? What kind of socks should we be wearing? And what kind of pants and shirts and layers do you recommend?

Katie
Mar 10, 2011

I'm guilty of not bringing enough food or water on occasion. Even on quick day hikes, it's amazing how dehydrated I can get. And I'll see folks on the trail on hot, humid summer Pennsylvania days not carrying anything at all! If they'd gotten lost or underestimated the amount of time the hike was going to take, they'd be in big trouble.

nogods
Mar 10, 2011

Glad to see you included the zero essential: "leaving information with a trusted friend"

But it should be at the top in case one makes any of the other mistakes.

Another common mistake is allowing one person in a party to turn back and return on their own. People will often not admit the real reason they want to turn back (exhaustion, feeling ill, or developing injury or muscle strain), even more so if they consider themselves an "experienced" hiker.

They'll make some other excuse (I didn't think it would take this long and I have to make a conference call at ....) to cover for their real reason, but the real reason is the very reason they should not be allowed to turn back by themselves. Anyone who admits they are to tired or exhausted to continue the climb, or are starting to develop an injury, should never be allowed to turn back by themselves.

I don't think the entire group needs to turn back. And I even think it is OK for one person to continue on by themselves as long as both those turning back and those going on are fully equipped (for example, if the group brought only one map, then all have to return.)

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