Wilderness Safety

Wilderness by its very nature, has inherent risks.
Safety is your responsibility.

A few tips to remember when planning your wilderness trip, as well as some things to keep in mind while on your hike:

  1. Always leave an itinerary of your hike with family or friends, and stick to it.
  2. Before your trip, learn about the hazards you may encounter and take adequate precautions. Select appropriate clothing and equipment. It is safer to hike with a companion and choose a trail that matches the skill level of your party.
  3. Know your own limitations, and the abilities and weaknesses of your hiking companions. Plan your route and rate of travel around the weakest member. Make sure that each member of your party knows what gear the others have packed.
  4. Track your location using map and compass. If you encounter trouble, do not be afraid to turn back.
  5. During bad weather like rain, snow and fog, you may be safer if you stay put rather than attempt to travel.
river crossing

Stream Crossings

Most major stream crossings are bridged, but not all. High water or bridge damage can also mean encountering unexpected or difficult stream crossings. Scout for the best crossing. Look for wider, shallower areas with safe downstream conditions. Cross in the morning before snowmelt swells the water level. Unbuckle your pack straps, wear secure footwear, and angle your travel across the current. Never tie yourself in while you cross. Never attempt an unsafe crossing—if in doubt, turn back or wait for help.


Snow Travel

With a few exceptions, most trails typically follow valley bottoms to high passes, as the terrain is usually too steep to follow high ridges. Trails over alpine passes tend to be quite steep, so plan your daily mileage estimates with this in mind. If you are looking for alpine views, remember to factor in potential snow cover in the highcountry as late as July or even August some years. Travel over steep snow requires sturdy boots, an ice axe, and knowledge of how to self-arrest on steep slopes. There are no trail markers or blazes, so snow cover can make route-finding a challenge. If you do not have the appropriate skills and equipment to travel over steep snow, ask a ranger for alternative ideas for your hike.


Weather Dangers

Prevent hypothermia by wearing wool or synthetic layers (NOT cotton!), a cap and rain gear. Hypothermia (depressed body temperature) is the number one killer in the outdoors. It can occur quickly or more slowly from long exposure to cold, rain and wind. You can even get hypothermia in temperatures as high as 50 degrees F! Early signs of the condition are hard to detect, so when it is wet and cold, watch for these symptoms in your party: poor judgment, lethargy, shivering, clumsiness.

Avoid exposure to the wind, especially when wet or sweaty. Wear adequate rain gear and wool or polypropylene clothing layers, not cotton. Nearly half of body heat is lost through the head, so always wear a stocking cap when weather dictates. Eat high-energy foods. Treatment of hypothermia can be complex, but the key is to prevent further heat loss, and to re-warm and re-hydrate the victim.

Before heading out anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, learn more about hypothermia, its symptoms and treatment.

Dehydration can occur no matter what the weather, so always drink plenty of water. Heat exhaustion can be brought on by warm weather, exertion and dehydration. Symptoms are hot, red, moist skin and fatigue, frequently accompanied by a headache. When the weather is warm, take frequent short breaks in the shade, and drink plenty of water. If your urine is dark yellow, you need to drink more water. Failure to observe and treat the signs of heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, an extremely serious condition.



Know what to do in case you become injured or lost in the wilderness.

Provide whatever treatment you can. If possible, do not leave the injured party alone. If you must leave, make the person comfortable with warm clothing, shelter and food.

Send for help with the following information:

  • Nature of the emergency: date and time it occurred, details of incident and injuries.
  • Patient condition: airway, breathing and circulation—normal or on the extreme? Has first aid been given? Is CPR in progress?
  • Location: the closest known location, or approximate distance or walking time from a known location. Mark it on your topo map as best you can.
  • Resources: number of people (adult/juvenile) and equipment left at the scene.
  • Patient information: name, address, phone, age, weight, who to notify.
  • Color of injured party's belongings: tent, pack, clothing.

If you become lost, turn to your Ten Essentials. Stay calm and think through the situation. Stay put—you will be found sooner. Stay warm and dry. If you are tempted to follow a river or creek, remember that these are often the most dangerous routes in the Olympics. Create a signal visible from the air. Lay out brightly-colored clothing in a forest clearing. Use a signal mirror.

To report emergencies, (such as overdue hikers or injuries) dial 911.


Cell Phones

Do not depend on a cell phone to get help in an emergency.

Cell phone coverage is very patchy throughout most of the park. Route-finding and safety skills are paramount in the wilderness. There may be a chance to reach a cell site by climbing to a ridge top. From the backcountry, report only serious emergencies by calling 911.

Remember that you may be hitting a cell site located in Seattle, Portland or Canada. Make sure to state who you are, your specific location and the other information outlined under “Emergencies" above. Knowledge of one's location is vital to the success of any rescue. Also, provide your cell phone number so you can be called back; don't move if they are planning to return a call. Sometimes just a foot or two makes a difference in getting a call through to a cell phone in the wilderness.



For information on cougars, bears, mountain goats, bats, and other animals, please visit this page on Wildlife Safety.

Last updated: April 8, 2024

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