There is nothing worse than going on a hike and having your day ruined by avoidable pitfalls. Being surprised by a pop-up thunderstorm, getting too hot or cold while on the trail or even getting lost – ok maybe not lost but, not on the right trail – can absolutely ruin what otherwise would be a great day in nature.
If you hike enough miles, you will make mistakes, you may make a poor decision, or you might just have bad luck. It is bound to happen, but there are certainly things you can do to avoid these situations. There are way more pitfalls to be encountered than I am writing about here, but these are a few I have made.
I have hiked many miles all over the United States: the Appalachians, the Tetons, the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest and even the plains of the Midwest. Most of my hiking has been done in the Rockies, the San Juans of Colorado to be more specific, and that beautiful part of the country is where most of my pitfalls have happened. I have been caught in earlier morning thunderstorms, I have experienced cold and wind from not having the correct layers and I have made poor decisions based on the weather that was moving in.
The dreaded pop-up thunderstorm. Storms happen in every part of the country. Some areas have more predictable weather patterns than others, but a thunderstorm is a thunderstorm no matter where you are hiking. There are a few ways to avoid getting caught in nasty weather. The first is simple, understand the local weather patterns and check the forecast. If you have a basic understanding of the weather patterns in your area, and you check the local forecast before you leave on your hike, you will most likely be able to avoid the weather by either hiking before or after the storm or by not going altogether.
Another way to avoid thunderstorms is to leave early and be done early. Storms often happen in the afternoon, especially in mountainous terrain. A good rule of thumb is to be off the mountain by noon. Occasionally, you might just have bad luck. I am an extremely cautious hiker – as I most often hike alone – I leave early and am off the mountain early, but I still have been caught in serious unexpected storms.
If you do see weather moving in, my advice to you, turn around and get out of the way of the storm as fast as possible, at least get below tree line. Be safe, the trail will be there for another day. Don’t challenge Mother Nature, thinking you can out last the storm, she will win every time.
If you do get caught in a storm, put on the rain gear and extra layers you might need to keep warm. Getting wet on the trail and not being able to manage your body temperature for the rest of the day can wreak havoc on your level of enjoyment. If you showed up to the trail prepared, temperature management should be easy, no matter the weather. I don’t think it matters which part of the country you hike in either, always, always have layers. Rain gear will keep you dry and if you are hiking in a climate where the temperature fluctuates throughout the day have a light layer and warmer layer in your pack. Being able to peel off some clothes when you get too warm is way better than being too cold and trying to warm yourself up. If you hike in warmer climates, different type of layers may be useful as well. A long sleeve, light layer to keep the sun off your skin can help keep your body cooler.
I think the biggest pitfall I have encountered, in all my years of hiking, happened because of a poor decision I made. On a day in which I left extremely early for my hike because I knew it would be a long one, the afternoon storms came in early, and faster than usual. I decided to take a different, unmarked route back to tree line rather than hike back the way from which I came. This is a mistake I will NEVER make again. I would have been back to the trailhead faster if I had backtracked my route rather than dipping down into the trees and then having to navigate rugged, difficult terrain that I was not familiar with.
Pitfalls will happen and mistakes will be made. With a bit of planning and the willingness to turn around an enjoyable day can still be had.