By Michael Lanza
We shuffled silently up the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail in the last hour of a 42-mile, over 21,000-foot, one-day rim-to-rim-to-rim run across the canyon and back. Following the beams of our headlamps—night had fallen a few hours earlier—exhausted but knowing we had the gas to reach the South Rim, my friends Pam, Marla, and I trudged upward in the darkness, heads down.
Suddenly, we stopped in our tracks, startled by the unexpected sight of a young couple sitting beside the trail in the dark. Shining my headlamp on the two of them, who had not yet said a word, I asked, “Are you okay? Don’t you have headlamps?”
The guy tapped the tiny light on his forehead, which I hadn’t noticed, and replied, “It died a couple hours ago.”
“Do you want to walk between us in our light beams?” I asked. They nodded and rose shakily to their feet. As we continued slowly uphill—the two of them clearly physically spent, the woman stopping to sit beside the trail repeatedly in the last mile or so before we reached the trailhead, where our ride was waiting—I got their story from the guy.
They had arrived at the park that morning and sought a walk-in permit to backpack overnight but none was available. So around mid-morning, they decided to dayhike down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River and return up the South Kaibab—a 16.5-mile hike with over 9,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss that park management warns hikers against attempting.
While people like Pam, Marla, and I obviously choose to disregard the park’s official warnings against attempting ultra-runs and hikes in the canyon, we trained for it and came prepared to finish. This couple had undertaken a hike for which they didn’t have the fitness, proper gear, or enough food and water, starting it far too late, which exposed them to the day’s wilting heat. And if they had made it to the South Kaibab Trailhead on their own—and I’m not sure they would have—they’d have gotten there hours after the last park shuttle bus departed and found themselves stranded miles from their vehicle, without enough clothes for the cool, windy night. We gave them a ride to their car.
There’s an old saying that “good experience comes from bad experiences.” We learn through mistakes—hopefully. I’ve learned over nearly four decades of backpacking and dayhiking, including 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, that the key to keeping everyone safe—whether it’s a blend of adults and kids, experts and beginners, or even a small party of very fit and experienced people—is to avoid putting ourselves in situations where mistakes become large, with severe consequences.
To fall back on another old pearl of wisdom: “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
Table of Contents
Read “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
We make ourselves safer outdoors through acquiring new skills and experience, and that necessitates trying new things. It’s also fun and rewarding to pursue new challenges. Don’t be afraid to do that. Just remember that the outdoors can be unforgiving.
Whether you are new to hiking, an experienced backpacker looking to visit a new environment (the desert, Alaska, maybe a Third World country like Nepal), trying a new activity like kayaking, climbing, or backcountry skiing, or a parent thinking about taking her family on an adventure that will be new for them in some way, consider the five questions below when deciding whether you are ready for some new adventure.
Most of all: Make conservative decisions. The small regret of abandoning some exciting plans, or postponing until another time, is far preferable to the very large regret of making a decision that goes badly awry.
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1. Have You Done Anything Like This Before?
Is the activity itself, the difficulty level, the environment you will enter, the season and weather conditions you expect, the remoteness, or another factor new to you? Is there anything about the situation you will enter that is unfamiliar?
If so, do your homework. Learn all you can in advance about that activity or that destination. Ask yourself honestly whether your experience base prepares you for any and all new circumstances you will likely face on this trip. Mitigate your risk level by increasing the challenge, difficulty, and degree of unfamiliarity in small increments, or recruiting companions (or a guide) who have the skills and familiarity you lack.
An example: When I wanted to take my family (my kids were age nine and seven) sea kayaking in Glacier Bay, Alaska, my wife and I decided to take a guided trip—even though I was told that beginners often rent kayaks and guide themselves there—because we’d never been there and didn’t know how difficult it would be to navigate or deal with tides, finding campsites, etc. Since that trip, I would now feel comfortable repeating it with a group of families who are ready for it. But I still believe we made the right decision in hiring a guide the first time.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
2. Do You Understand Everything That Can Go Wrong?
What could happen and what are the consequences?
People fall off ledges and cliffs, get swept away by fast-moving water, get hit by rockfall, and suffer frostbite or worse in severe cold not because they’re stupid, but because they did not understand the hazards of the environment they were in. That may be the most common reason behind accidents in the backcountry, and those incidents usually involve people just out for a hike.
If you’re new to an environment, talk to someone who’s more experienced to learn what the hazards are. If you are taking less-experienced adults or kids out, don’t assume they know everything that you have learned over the years: Explain to them about the hazards that they need to be aware of.
On any trip I take, I want to know not just how to do everything right—I also want to know everything that can go wrong.
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3. Is Everyone In Your Group Good With the Plan?
In almost any group, a classic dynamic can easily develop in which the most-experienced person makes the plans and decisions and everyone else follows like sheep, trusting the leader without fully comprehending what they’re getting into. That can be a formula for trouble, for a couple of reasons: The leader is human and capable of flawed judgment; and someone highly experienced who perceives an activity as relatively “easy” may not always appreciate the skill, fitness, and mental-comfort level of everyone else.
As a de facto leader in a group, even of friends or in a family, always talk about your plans with everyone to get their buy-in; at the least, that will be far preferable to hearing everyone grouse later if the trip does not go as they had expected. As a beginner or anyone following a more-experienced person, make sure you understand and are comfortable with the plan. Most of all, don’t hesitate to ask questions or object to anything you are not comfortable with.
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4. Are You All Prepared For Every Possible Scenario?
“Every possible scenario” does not necessarily mean that you have to carry clothing for a snowstorm when the forecast promises summer-like weather, just because snow has fallen in those mountains at that time of year sometime in the past. But “every possible scenario” does include having clothing to handle weather somewhat worse than predicted. It includes everyone being ready physically if you discover that the trail is rougher (and slower) than expected. It includes knowing in advance whether a creek crossing may be too high to be safe for everyone in the party.
Your group will only do as well as the least-able and least-prepared member. So make sure everyone is prepared for whatever you’re doing.
Get the right shell for you. See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking”
and “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking Jackets.”
5. What’s Your Backup Plan?
There are a couple of reasons for having at least one backup or bailout plan and agreeing on it with everyone. First of all, it makes you safer by preparing you to respond to problems that arise.
Secondly—and arguably most importantly—it inserts into everyone’s thinking process that Plan A may not unfold as expected and you may choose to abandon it. Too often, accidents result from people continuing to blindly follow their original plan, despite the warning signs, simply because they are focused on getting through it—their brains are simply not considering alternatives.
When things go wrong, stress and chaos can make it very difficult to think clearly. Knowing in advance what you’ll do in that event will help you choose the smart course.
See all stories with expert outdoors skills tips at The Big Outside.