More trail safety tips

As a follow-up to my last post recommending that trail runners carry first aid kids, here are a few more tips for staying safe when running or hiking on trails.

1. Bring water

You should always carry water if you’re planning to be out for more than an hour or if it’s particularly hot out. Heat stroke is scary and can sneak up on you.

2. Bring your phone

Your phone is a table stakes piece of safety equipment. With the obvious caveat that its usefulness deteriorates if you’re going outside of cell service.

A phone helps you know where you are and allows you to call for help.

With a good mapping app, you can track your progress along your planned route and avoid getting lost. Google/Apple Maps have decent coverage of urban trails, but you may want to graduate to a more trail-specific app like Gaia GPS or AllTrails if you’re going off the beaten path. I use Gaia GPS and love it.

Most importantly, if you get into trouble, you need to be able to call for help. For instance, when I fell and gashed my knee against a retaining wall a few months ago, I was able to text my wife and ask her to pick me up at the nearest trailhead. This saved me from having to hobble all the way back to our house with an open wound1.

In addition to these basic safety features, a phone can help you

  • identify plants and animals
  • write notes on ideas inspired by your time outdoors
  • play music/podcasts2

Maybe we’ll get to a world where a watch can cover all of these bases (Apple Watch Ultra?). But for now, don’t leave your phone in your car when you head out at a trailhead.

3. Bring a whistle

On the same theme of being able to call for help, carrying a whistle is an easy way to help people find you if you get lost. They’re compact and can be heard from far away. So if you stumble down a hillside or find yourself way off the trail, you can make a bunch of noise with the whistle to alert other trail users in the area that you need help.

Bonus points if you learn the basic distress signals. For the SOS signal in particular, here’s a handy visual mnemonic for remembering whether the short or long triplet comes first:

As for what whistle to get, I have one of these on my keychain. It’s really slim, so doesn’t bulk up my keys. Alternatively, you could get a more traditional coach’s whistle like this.

4. Bring your ID and insurance card

This one’s a little grim, but if you get seriously injured and can’t identify yourself, having an ID on your person helps emergency services personnel know who you are. Similarly, having an insurance card can help streamline your way through the healthcare system.

You might also throw in a laminated card listing your emergency contacts. I don’t currently do this, but probably should add it to my kit.

I slip these in a zippered pocket of my running shorts whenever I head out, which has the side benefit of letting me leave the rest of my wallet at home when driving to a trailhead.

You can always throw in a credit card if you’re planning to hit a cafe or convenience store on your route (or else rely on Apple/Google Pay, since #1 above convinced you to bring your phone!).

There’s often a fine line between preparedness and paranoia, but basic safety precautions like these are painless and help prevent the worst outcomes if you run into trouble in the wilderness.

Stay safe out there!

  1. In that particular case, I would've survived, but it would have sucked and increased the risk of a much longer recovery time.
  2. Using headphones! Don't be the person blasting music nobody wants to hear in the wilderness.