Tips For a Successful Day-Hike.

During a recent visit to Mesa Verde National Park, I hiked the Spruce Canyon Trail.  It’s a relatively short hike, only 3.0 miles long, starting at about 7000 feet elevation and consisting of a 200 foot decent along a well marked trail into a canyon and then a steep, rugged 200 foot ascent out of the canyon, ending about half a mile from the start point. The trail itself wasn’t particularly remarkable, what was remarkable to me, was that in 2013, a 51 year old man from Texas, hiking the same trail, went missing and has never been found!  The missing hiker’s wife reported that he was an avid hiker but on that hot June day in 2013, he took nothing with him on his hike, no water, no food, no map…only the clothes on his back!


Looking down into Spruce Canyon at the end of the 3.0 mile hike.

I, like many travelers, enjoy hiking!  It’s a great way to decompress after hours behind the wheel, not to mention, some of the most beautiful places on earth are only accessible by foot.  In the US, most people hike the thousands of trails that State and National Parks have to offer and never encounter a problem.  But, becoming a lost hiker in the US is more common than you might think.  One article I read stated that the US National Park Service conducts about 3,300 search and rescue operations annually.  If you doubt me, do a simple “Google” search of a few key words like, “missing hiker” and see the thousand of articles that appear!  Fortunately, most hikers who go missing are found quickly, but unfortunately some are never found.  Many hikers assume that the State and National Parks are “controlled-environments,” kind of like amusement parks.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Much of the US back-country is extremely rugged and can be unforgiving to even experienced hikers and much more so to the uneducated and unprepared.  Even though all hiking comes with some risk, I don’t recommend that everyone stop hiking.  I simply recommend that hikers, even day-hikers, follow a few simple rules when hiking and take a few essential items with them!

By following a few safety rules and taking a few extra pounds of gear when hiking, you might just prevent disaster during your next outdoor adventure!

Rules for Hikers:

Have a Plan.  Do some research about the area you are planning to enter and the trail you plan to hike!  Know what elevations you will be covering during your hike.  Know what the water situation is in the area you plan to hike!  Know the weather forecast for the area you plan to hike!  All of this information is readily available on the internet and can be easily accessed before you step off on your hike.

Tell Someone Your Plan.  Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back!  It can be a friend, family member or even a Park Ranger, the important thing is you tell someone who will notify authorities should you fail to return as planned!  A quick phone call or text message may be sufficient to inform someone of your hike plan!

Be Fit Enough for Your Plan.  I know it may sound obvious but many hikers get in way over their heads!  Always ask yourself, “am I prepared for this hike?”  If you have not walked more than 2 miles in one outing, maybe you shouldn’t be hiking a 10 miler with extreme elevation changes!

Carry a Day Pack with Essential Items.  Never hike without a small backpack with essential survival items!  Never… Period!  I know, you are driving on a beautiful paved road in a National Park and you see a turnoff for “Easy Meadow Trail.”  You read the information board at the trailhead and it states the trail is 1.5 miles long and relatively flat terrain, you think… “that’s easy, let’s go!”  Wrong answer!  Have that Day-Pack ready in the trunk of your car and always take it with you!


Items for a pretty good Day-Hike Backpack, might help you if you get lost!

Suggested Items For Day-Hikers,

Water, Take sufficient water for your hike conditions!  You should super-hydrate hours before the start of your hike.  Don’t start your hike thirsty!  Most healthy people can survive about 3 weeks without food, but only about 3 days without water!

Food, Take at least a few energy bars on your hike.  When we are dehydrated and hungry, we tend to make poor decisions!  In a time of crisis, like getting lost on a hike, you want to be in the best mental state possible!

Fire making items.  Take waterproof matches or a good backwoods lighter on your hike.  Practice making a fire before you go hiking!  Your ability to make a fire could be critical to your survival, should you become lost.  It may prevent hypothermia, allow you to boil water making it safe to drink, cook food or even signal for your rescue.

Whistle, Take a whistle on your hike to signal distress in a time of need!  3 long blasts of a whistle is internationally recognized as “help me.”

Protective clothing, Take rain-gear and insulating-gear on your hike.  You want to stay dry and warm for the environment you are in!

Headlamp, Take a good headlamp or flashlight powerful enough to light-up the ground in front of you.

Pocket knife, Take a sharp and sturdy knife.  You don’t need a Rambo knife, unless you think it looks cool and you don’t mind carrying a 3 pound knife!

Sturdy Footwear, Take appropriate footwear for your hike environment.  You don’t need $250 boots for all environments, unless you want them!  When I was in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge Soldiers I met used sandals made from used automobile tires.  The sandals protected the bottoms of their feet from punctures and allowed them to air-dry in the wet, humid jungle conditions.  Remember, you need footwear appropriate for your environment!

Space Blanket, Take a space blanket or other material that will allow you to build a shelter to keep you dry!  One cheap and simple solution is a large piece of plastic drop-cloth, like the kind painters use.

Map and Compass, Take a map of the area you plan to hike and know basic map reading skills like how to orient your map and compass.

First Aide Items, Take the most important life saving items on your hike.  They are probably any medications you require on a daily basis and something to stop bleeding in case of an emergency, like pressure bandages or a tourniquet.

Cell Phone, Take a cell phone and carry emergency phone numbers for the area you are hiking.  Remember, in many places a cell phone will be outside of coverage, so don’t think you can always call 911 in an emergency!

Section of Para-cord, Take about 20 feet of para-cord or twine with you, it will probably be enough to help you fashion a simple shelter with available tree branches and sticks.

Sunscreen, Take a small bottle of sunscreen, sunburn will add to dehydration.

Insect Repellent, Take a good quality insect repellent, high in DEET, buzzing insects can literally drive you crazy.

Vaseline Lotion, Take a small tube of Vaseline, or hand lotion, it will help prevent and treat chapped lips, chapped butts and chapped crotches… trust me!

Babywipes, Babywipes work wonders when need to go number 2 in the wild!

Sunglasses, Sunglasses are an essential piece of hiking gear, you should always protect your peeps.

Small Metal Cup, Take a small metal cup with handle to procure water from a lake, river or stream and to use to boil water, making it safe to drink.  A common household sponge is also handy to have in the event you need to scrounge water off of rocks or shallow puddles.  A ziplock bag will also help you get water from shallow sources!

Hat, Take a good hiking hat with brim to shield your head, neck and face from the sun, keeping you cooler in hot climates.

I know there are countless other items that you can and may choose to take on a day-hike, like a GPS or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).  Those items are great, as long as you can afford them and know how to use them.

The items I listed above are just suggestions and you should always tailor your Day-Hike-Gear to fit your specific needs!

The Key is you take the gear with you on your next hike and realize that it may make the difference between life and death!  Your LIFE or Death!


The Day-Hike Backpack and Hat… ready for the Colorado Trail!