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How to Stay Safe When Doing Outdoor Activities

woman hiker standing on mountain trail

Outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, and mountain climbing are a lot of fun but come with risks you should understand. Let’s look at the basics of staying safe during outdoor activities, whether you’re going on a casual hill walk, cycling all day, or planning to tackle a local mountain peak.

Know Your Limits (And Your Group’s)

In the outdoors it’s very easy to take on a more significant challenge than you’re ready for. Most of the time, you’ll probably scrape through with a few tense moments and a great story, but the consequences of overestimating yourself can be severe: think death, dismemberment, and costly legal bills.

If you’re traveling in a group, you also need to assess the limits of everyone else. If you’re bringing someone cycling for the first time, don’t underestimate how uncomfortable the saddle can be. Just because you’re capable, doesn’t mean everyone else is.

Snowdon
Me hiking the mountain where my grandfather fell and died. Harry Guinness

There are also different kinds of limits you need to consider. Things like physical limits (are you capable of the physical exertion required) and technical limits (do you have the skills and training to abseil down a cliff) are apparent, but you should also think about mental and emotional limits.

How do people deal with cold and wet? Does everyone in the group like each other? What happens if someone wants to continue and another wants to turn back? These kinds of problems can often lead to worse outcomes than tackling a hike that’s a bit longer than you should.

Check the Weather, Then Check It Again

The weather is one of the biggest things you’ll need to deal with outdoors. We’ll look at preparing for the weather you expect in a moment, but it’s the weather you don’t expect that will give you the most problems.

If the forecast says it’s going to be bucket rain, all you need to do is bring the right waterproof gear and tackle a challenge you know is doable when it’s wet, and you’ll be fine. It’s the surprise thunderstorm on an otherwise sunny day that gets you.

WindGuru
Sport-specific weather apps are essential.

Look up the weather a few days in advance when you’re making your plan. Be sure to use specific sites for the kind of information you need. For example, if you’re planning to go skiing, you should check the snow conditions with a site like SnowForecast. On the other hand, if you’re going sailing, then a site like WindGuru is essential.

If you’re new to the area, also ask locals or check guidebooks to see what the typical weather pattern is. In a lot of mountainous regions, late afternoon storms are a daily occurrence. Things like early morning mist can affect your plans if you’re not aware of them.

Finally, as late as you possibly can—literally before you head off if you can—recheck the weather. Forecasts are at their most accurate over short timescales. Weather that’s unpredictable three days out can be forecast accurately when it’s three hours away. If the weather forecast has changed, then reconsider your plans.

Bring the Right Gear

There’s no such thing as bad weather—only the wrong gear. Some of my favorite walks have been in heavy rain and wind. I just wrapped up in my offshore sailing gear, put on the tunes, and enjoyed myself while most other people huddled indoors. I would never say that hiking or cycling or anything must be done in perfect conditions.

However, when conditions aren’t good, your gear choices become even more critical. A cotton base layer might be a minor annoyance on a great day, but it can get you killed if the weather turns bad and you get stuck out overnight.

hiking
Harry Guinness

Don’t just go into autopilot and wear whatever you have to hand. Consider whether each item you’re bringing is appropriate. In particular, you should think about whether your shoes, clothes, and food supplies are up for what you’re planning to do. Trainers don’t belong on proper mountain trails.

If you’re going anywhere near the backcountry, you should also bring a simple emergency kit. It doesn’t need much—a fully charged cell phone, a flashlight, a whistle, and, possibly, a flare—are all light and can save your life.

Make a Plan, Tell People, and Stick to It

Your chances of being rescued are infinitely higher if people know where to start looking. The single best thing you can do is to make a plan, tell someone who isn’t going with you, and stick to that plan.

This doesn’t have to be much or super detailed. All you need to do is tell someone where you’re going, when you’re leaving, when you’re getting back, and that you’ll check in when you’re done.

If you don’t check in when you say you will, whoever is your emergency contact should call the emergency services and let them know you haven’t shown up. They’ll know exactly where to start looking and, because you’re already overdue, start looking immediately. This is the difference between getting rescued the day you get into trouble versus having to spend a night outdoors because no one notices you’re missing until you don’t show up to work the next day.

Be Prepared to Turn Back

The top of the mountain is the halfway point, not the final destination. Most climbers on Everest die, not on the ascent, but the descent. In every outdoor activity, there are points of no return where you’re committing to a course of action you can’t easily change. This might be reaching the halfway distance of a point-to-point hike, picking your descent route from a mountain, or just before you drop off a ridge when you’re skiing.

Harry Guinness

Any time something changes or you reach a point of no return you should seriously consider what’s next. Be prepared to turn back if something has changed. For example, if you hike to the top of the ridge planning to ski down the far side but find the avalanche risk is higher than you’d like, the right thing to do is turn right back around and go back the way you came. Never be too proud or too invested in a specific goal to turn back.

Don’t Rely on Technology

We love technology here at LifeSavvy but, at least in the outdoors, you shouldn’t rely on it for your safety. It can break or stop working at the very moment you need it. Of course, you should still bring your cellphone (fully charged!) and it might well get you rescued, but you can’t count on it as the only way you can call for help. That’s why the tips above in this article—especially leaving a plan—are so important: even if there’s no cell service, you aren’t stranded.

If you do want to bring some tech gear, more basic, rugged stuff like line-of-site VHF radios, waterproof GPS units, and rescue beacons are much more likely to work in a situation where you need to be rescued.


The outdoors are a wonderful place to spend time and incredibly safe as long as you plan correctly, don’t take silly risks, and let people know what you’re doing.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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