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Risk and Responsibility: Being Accountable On-Trail

Being a responsible hiker means making smart decisions for yourself, nature, and others in your group.

By Erika Haugen-Goodman

Scenario: It's getting late and the sun is setting behind a craggy row of peaks to the west, bathing the valley in shadow. We've been hiking for six hours so far and our group is tired. After an ascent of 3,000 feet in just over six miles, some of our hiking party is finding it hard to maintain their pace, and minor injuries have slowed us down. We underestimated how hard the hike would be. Still miles from the car and with night quickly approaching, we realize we've put ourselves in a potentially dangerous position with no clear backup plan.

The scenario above is more common than you may think, and in some cases, the situation proves to be worse than stumbling back to the car in the dark with tired feet. When we set foot on a trail as hikers, we accept that we are entering a realm where we are no longer in control of every detail. Nature is dynamic and unpredictable.

That doesn't mean hiking should be scary though, and with the right preparation you can mitigate the risks that come with recreating outdoors.

What is risk?

Risk comes in many forms. Some risks are obvious, like a strong-flowing creek you need to cross that has washed out the trail. Others are harder to identify, like taking an unmarked trail that may lead to unknown hazards. It's how we approach these risks that defines the outcome of the hike. It may not be easy to identify every risk on-trail, but showing up to a hike prepared will help you make smart decisions when you do face them.

If you don't plan ahead and bring enough water with you on a hike, you’re taking a risk that you'll run out and become dehydrated. If it’s getting dark and you decide to keep hiking further, you’re taking a risk that you won't make it back before it gets too dark to see. If you pass a trail closure sign, you’re accepting the risk that there may be hazardous conditions ahead.

Mount Pugh
Plan ahead before tackling a new trail and know the terrain you'll be hiking in. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.

There is risk in our daily lives as well, but we take steps to mitigate that risk, sometimes without even thinking about it. We buckle our seat belts and wear bike helmets, but with hiking we sometimes need to think beyond what is immediately obvious to stay safe. Getting in the habit of recognizing risks while hiking will allow you to avoid them or tackle them safely.

Mitigating risk

Scenario: Temperatures feel like they're in the upper 80's. I set out earlier in the morning when it was cooler with a Nalgene full of water, but I drank the entire bottle before noon. I didn't realize how hot it was going to be, and I'm still miles from the trailhead. I've never been this thirsty in my life and I'm getting a bad headache. Hopefully I run into another hiker with extra water.

When addressing risks, think about all the possibilities that could occur as a result of your actions, decisions and plans. At the end of the day, we’re responsible for ourselves. Only put yourself in situations you know you can get out of, and rely on your knowledge and know-how, not someone else to save you if something goes wrong.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that hiking is just walking in the woods. In part that’s true—hiking is essentially just walking, but it comes with the added responsibility of being in an environment where help isn’t always right around the corner. For urban hikes it may be easier to get help should the need arise, but backcountry trails can be isolated, leaving less room for error.

Like other sports such as soccer or football, the right gear and preparation is required to enjoy a successful outing. Would a football player play a game without pads? Just like the football player, hikers should consider how they prepare to hike in the wild spaces Washington offers. This includes carrying the 10 Essentials with you and being prepared for changing weather conditions and the season you’re hiking in.

Taking responsibility on trail

Scenario: I can't believe it's raining and freezing up here! When I left my house it was totally sunny and 72! A few hours after starting our hike it started to pour down rain and it got really cold. All I wore was a t-shirt and shorts. We're freezing and heading back to the car now, even though we didn't make it to the lake we wanted to see.

When hiking, responsibility goes beyond just keeping yourself safe. It also includes being accountable for your actions that may impact others. This is especially relevant when hiking with children or pets. If you're in a hiking group that is making choices you're not comfortable with, speak up. Groupthink (the desire to conform when in a group despite potentially detrimental outcomes) can be dangerous when it isn't addressed.

It's never a wrong decision to turn around in unsafe conditions.

Responsibility also extends to our treatment of nature. For all hikers to enjoy the trail, it’s essential to practice the 7 Leave No Trace Principles so we preserve these outdoor experiences for both our future selves and generations to come. Set an example for other hikers to follow and become a steward for the incredible trails we love to explore.

Using a Map at Rampart Ridge
Carrying a map can mean the difference between being lost or having an enjoyable hike. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.

Good questions to think about:

  • How long is the hike and how much elevation will I be gaining? The second part of this question is almost more important than the first. While a long mileage hike may take time, it will take much longer to gain those miles going up a steep mountainside. Have a good estimate of how long the hike will take and know when sunrise and sunset are. Good planning is the first step to a successful hike.

  • Do I have enough food and water? This one is particularly important in the summer and when backpacking. Research where you can find water sources, particularly when doing multi-day trips. Always pack enough water to keep yourself and those you are responsible for fully hydrated.

  • Am I bringing the right clothing? Dress appropriately and be prepared for changing conditions. Weather in the Northwest can shift suddenly. Carrying a rain shell year-round is a good habit to have.

  • Do I have the proper gear with me in the event of an emergency? Could you spend the night out safely if you needed to? Carry the 10 Essentials and be prepared for the unknown.

  • Do I understand my impact on the trail and surrounding environment? Small actions add up. Know and practice Leave No Trace ethics to preserve the trail for future hikers.

  • Do I know the trail that I'll be hiking well enough to get back to my car if I get separated from my group or take a wrong turn? Know your route and how to get back if you decide to take a detour by using a map and paying attention to signed trails.

    Being a responsible hiker means making smart decisions for yourself, nature, and others in your group. Hiking should be fun, and avoiding risks or handling them safely will make sure your adventures are enjoyable.

Descending with a headlamp
Bring a headlamp for longer hikes and overnight trips. Photo by Jason Grube.