How to Run or Hike Safely: Essential Gear and Precautions that Could Save Your Life

The other day I went for a run by myself and violated all my rules regarding safety:

I told no one where I was going and left no note. I impulsively took an unfamiliar trail and carried no map. I had no water bottle and no energy gel for calories because I didn’t expect to be out long. I didn’t carry my phone because I only bring it if and when I wear my hydration pack. Worst of all, I left my shoe-tag ID on my other pair of shoes, so if something were to happen and someone found me, I’d be a Jane Doe.

“I’m in Redwood Regional Park,” I told myself to allay my concerns as I picked through branches of a fragrant bay laurel, hoping this cut-through path would in fact connect with the familiar trail. “What could happen?” Then my mind flipped through worst-case scenarios: a trip and fall causes me to hit my head and black out. A violent predator jumps out for an attack (a fear I normally don’t harbor, but a home invasion and sexual assault happened on the edge of this park the prior week). Or my biggest far-fetched fear: a mountain lion pounces.

I rarely get spooked during a run like that, and I blame my lack of preparedness while wandering solo onto an unfamiliar trail for stirring up anxieties. Ever since Morgan and I had a close call on a back road with a pair of Rotweillers on a back road in Argentina, I have been extra vigilant about taking precautions, especially since I’m unwilling to give up the freedom of running by myself.

Therefore, I decided to share these safety reminders, which can be wise for travel and hiking as well as running. A lot the tips and gear seem like common sense. But I’m proof that it’s easy to get lazy and ignore these precautions.

What to bring:

These items may seem like overkill, but if you’re in the wilderness by yourself, it’s better to be safe than sorry—or dead.

  • More water than you think you need. If it’s a long run in an area without water available, take water purification tabs for stream refills. My favorite hydration pack for carrying water and all this stuff: Nathan Hydration Women’s Intensity 2L Race Vest
  • Enough calories. Rule of thumb: Always take one more gel than you think you’ll need. My favorite gel: Gu Roctane
  • Road ID shoe tag or other ID.
  • Basic first aid for cuts, chafing and blister care. I carry BandAids, travel-size Aquaphor and Ibuprofen.
  • Salt or electrolyte tabs if it’s a long run on a warm day. I like Nuunand Saltsticks.
  • Mace Brand Muzzle Dog Repellent Spray: This is a small pepper spray canister I carry in the front pocket of my hydration packet, in case a large animal or person threatens. Thankfully, I haven’t had to use it.
  • Money. I carry two $10 bills. This can come in handy not only if you forget your wallet and want to buy something on the drive home, but also if you come across someone else who needs or demands money.
  • Safety Whistle: The high-pitched blasts carry far and will signal for help if you’re lost or hurt.
  • Paper map. Don’t rely on GPS signals alone.
  • Headlamp if you’re running at dusk. I prefer the Black Diamond Spot Headlamp.
  • Extra layer of clothing for warmth and/or a safety blanket if weather is iffy.
  • Phone. I carry mine only on long solo runs and turn it off—I want to be unplugged while running and don’t want the battery to drain. A lot of places where I run don’t receive a cell signal, but if you’re lost or hurt then the phone might be your savior.

Some of my gear: hydration pack, GU, repellent, whistle, water purification tabs, salt tabs, Advil, blister shields and BandAids, shoe tag ID, money and map.

Finally, don’t forget to leave a note or tell someone where you’re running—and then stick to that route rather than changing plans.

Some runners and hikers have to take unusual precautions; my brother, for example, wears bright orange on hikes in Colorado during hunting season so the elk hunters spot him. What extra steps for safety do you take? Please share your advice below.

Oh yeah, two more things: Don’t forget toilet paper and sunscreen!

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2 Responses to How to Run or Hike Safely: Essential Gear and Precautions that Could Save Your Life

  1. John Rabold June 18, 2011 at 6:46 am #

    Your safety rules are very good, Sarah! You began with your most significant omission: “I told no one where I was going and left no note.” Always leave a note, even if it’s just on the kitchen counter and says only where you’re going in general. Better to add an expected time of return. Will no one see a note that you leave at home? Arrange with a friend in advance that you will send this info in a text message to him or her. Discuss with your friend what to do with your information. When you leave for your run, text. When you return, send a followup text. Research in advance the best emergency number for family or friends to call for each of your common destinations. City park? Regional park? State park? National park? Calling 911 from a mobile phone is often not the best choice. Next, it’s far better to stay on trails that appear on the map! Last weekend I helped search for an elderly hiker in a nearby regional park. She was found, uninjured, at about 11 pm after almost six hours of searching by police, firefighters, search and rescue volunteers, and a helicopter. Why did it take so long? She was off trail. The established trails get searched first. By the way, if it’s dark and you’re lost or injured and you think that helicopter circling overhead might be looking for you, turn on your mobile device and point its display screen at the aircraft. To a pilot wearing night-vision goggles, that dim display looks like a headlight.

    • Sarah June 18, 2011 at 7:47 am #

      Excellent advice! For those who don’t know John, he’s a godsend to trail race directors because he tirelessly volunteers as a ham radio operator and safety marshal.
      Great tip re: pointing your mobile device skyward.
      Also, thanks John for the link to the park district’s safety tips page:

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