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Beginner Skills

Prof. Hike: Catching Hiking's Most Wanted

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

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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

—Jason Stevenson

Jason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Backpacking and Hiking


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