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8 Survival Tips for Wilderness Hikes

June 03, 2019
9 min read
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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

On May 8, Amanda Eller went for what was supposed to be a 3-mile hike in her home of Maui. She left her phone in her car and ventured into Makawao Forest Reserve. Letting intuition guide her, she found herself unable to get back to the trail head.

A series of wrong turns down trails led her into deep brush, and she eventually realized she was following wild boar trails — not hiking trails. What followed was a harrowing 17-day-long adventure that left her stranded and shoeless in a canyon with a fractured leg, a torn meniscus, and ankles and feet covered in lesions. She had lost 15 pounds.

Incredibly, however, she was still alive, and a rescue crew spotted her and airlifted her to safety. She is well on her way to a full recovery.

The rescue team that found Amanda Eller after 17 days lost in a Maui forest (Photo by JAVIER CANTELLOPS / Contributor / Getty Images )
Amanda Eller and the rescue team that found her after 17 days lost in a Maui forest (Photo by JAVIER CANTELLOPS / Contributor / Getty Images)

Eller's case may be extreme, but her story is an important reminder that even a short hike for an experienced hiker can go horribly wrong. Whether you're going out for a quick stroll on a favorite trail or venturing off on a multiday trek through the backcountry, every traveler should take these precautions before heading out for a hike.

1. Let People Know Your Plans

Even if it's a quick hike, let friends or family members know where you're going, the trail you plan to follow and when you expect to be back. Make sure to include someone who will notice you're gone if you don't return on time, such as a roommate or colleague. Hiking alone is perfectly safe with the proper precautions. It's OK if you want to find yourself. Just make sure others will be able to find you, too.

2. Always Carry Water

Any time you're embarking on a hike, absolutely always carry water. You can survive much longer without food than without water, so make sure you stay hydrated. If you don't like carrying something in your hand, get a small backpack with a water bladder, such as the CamelBak hydration pack I use. The bladders lie flat against your back and the packs are so lightweight, they're barely noticeable, even during a run. A water filtration device could be critical if things go wrong, which is why I'm a big fan of the GRAYL water bottles that have a built-in water filter. These bottles aren't just useful for survival. If you'll be hiking near freshwater, you can purify as you go and can carry less water with you. Travelers should also consider keeping a SteriPEN or a similar device on hand for unexpected situations.

The GRAYL Geopress water bottle has a built-in water purifier. ( Photo courtesy of GRAYL Water Purifiers )
The GRAYL Geopress water bottle has a built-in water purifier. (Photo courtesy of GRAYL Water Purifiers)

3. Bring Your Phone

Even if you want to unplug, detach and connect with nature, you can still carry your phone. A powered-off phone stuffed in a pack is no more disruptive than a phone left in a car. Letting your feelings guide your hike is great, but a GPS is definitely more reliable. Download the app — which has an extensive collection of offline hiking trails — or the handy geolocation app, what3words, which can help orient you if you've strayed too far from the trail. (Just remember, a GPS is no substitute for a current map and compass, neither of which will ever run out of battery.) Plus, if you find yourself unexpectedly out after dark, the light on your phone can both help you see, as well as signal for help.

4. Dress Conservatively

It's not realistic to bring a 50 liter backpack filled with supplies for a three hour hike "just in case." But it's still smart to be cautious with the clothing in your bag (and on your back). You might be fine in regular shoes for a short hike, for example, but wear your hiking shoes or boots instead. Also, wearing a hat and covering your legs and arms can protect against sun, scratches, poisonous plants and mosquitoes. And whether or not you're expecting rain or cold, always bring a layer and rain jacket, just in case. The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite rain jacket I use packs extremely small. And this isn't just a survival tip. It will make your hike much more enjoyable when unexpected weather hits. Any hiker will tell you they've made this mistake more often than they care to admit.

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I was plenty warm on this hike in Oahu until the clouds and rain rolled in, and I was happy I had my rain jacket. (Photo by Brian Biros / The Points Guy)
I was plenty warm on this hike in Oahu until the clouds and rain rolled in, and I was happy I had my rain jacket. (Photo by Brian Biros / The Points Guy)

5. Always Pack Essentials

There are a handful of cheap, lightweight and potentially life-saving supplies you want to always have on you, no matter where in the world you're traveling. These items include a pocket knife, lighter or waterproof matches, a headlamp, sunscreen, sunglasses, a first aid kit, a whistle, a compass and local map. Consider a power bank and charge cable, too, as well as a few nonperishable protein bars. Packing this much for a quick day hike may seem excessive, but they take up minimal space and weight, and you will thank yourself for packing carefully if you ever find yourself in a survival situation.

6. Stay Warm and Dry

If you are losing daylight, you should shift your focus from finding your way or being found to surviving the night. In this situation, warmth and protection from the elements is critical. Even the hottest of days can get very cold at night in the wilderness. If you can find an overhang or natural shelter, set up there, but look out for other wildlife that may be doing the same, such as snakes.Otherwise, a shelter made of full branches will keep you warm and can protect you from rain. Make sure you build a base to sleep on so you're insulated from the cold or wet ground. Building a fire is also critical at this juncture, as it provides warmth and can help keep you dry throughout the night, too.

7. Know the Flora and Fauna

It may be beneficial to learn a bit about the local fauna: specifically, what is edible and what is poisonous. If things get really desperate, you may have to drop your dietary standards significantly. Bugs and leaves may keep you alive. Also, if you've traveled to an unfamiliar destination, research what local wildlife you may encounter and what the best actions are if they may be dangerous. These defenses vary greatly by animal, usually aren't intuitive and never involve panicking. Learning all of this information can take time, but it's especially worth the investment if you'll be doing repeat or extensive hiking in the region.

8. Learn to Signal for Help

Spelling out "HELP" or an "X" with branches or rocks will make you more visible to an overhead search crew. If you see a helicopter or low airplane, use the screen of your cell phone or a compact mirror to reflect light at the aircraft. You want to make yourself as visible as possible, so wave a bright colored article of clothing that rescuers could spot. Smoke from your fire can also catch the attention of rescuers. If you have any rubber with you, burn it for a darker, more noticeable smoke.

Bright colored hiking clothes is more than just a fashion statement. ( Photo by Brian Biros / The Points Guy )
Bright colored hiking clothes are more than just fashion statement. (Photo by Brian Biros / The Points Guy)

Careful preparation is the best way to ensure you never end up in a critical situation like Eller. Whether you're off to explore the incomparable beauty of the Hawaiian rainforest or revisiting a favorite trail near your hometown, always take Eller's advice from the press conference following her rescue: "Be overprepared."

If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to!

Feature photo by Jordan Sanchez on Unsplash.