Plan Ahead

Know your hike and your terrain. Plan for the journey by researching the area on the web. Simply type the park's name into a search engine, and see what you find. Chances are, the park's site will offer loads of online information about their best season, activities, trails, and even numbers for contacting the Park Rangers. Some of these sites will even offer printable trail maps online. Be sure to talk to a local Ranger prior to the hike, and ask for information regarding safety and environmental issues. The Park Ranger knows the area well enough to steer you clear of danger and towards the best sites on the trail.

Know your environment

Whether you are hiking the Everglades, or the back yard, you must know your environment. Any time humans interact with nature, there is a chance of injury. It's best to know which plants and animals in the area should be avoided. It's also important to be very aware of weather. Research the weather patterns in your park before the hike. This way you can avoid the camping nightmare of waking up in a flooded tent. Although swimming may be on the adventure agenda, most hikers find they prefer to do it during the day and with prior planning.

Always start small

The first hike of the season should be a short excursion. Those who are just learning about surviving a night in the wilderness should not be very far from their basecamp (home, car, campsite). Until a hiker completes their first aid training, they should never venture very far from proper medical attention. It's also good precaution to camp close enough to home for a quick sprint away from a rummaging raccoon or a spooky snake, or even a midnight trip to the restroom.

Know your water

We all have visions of drinking from the crystal clear mountain brook babbling over the rocks after a hot hike, but beware of the water! Although it appears safe and clean to drink, most natural water sources have huge amounts of bacteria that can make brave adventurers very sick. Be sure to bring your own water or water filter for drinking. Although it may be fine to wash in the stream, a smart hiker will only drink purified water.

Be smart with food

A backpack dinner of a smashed ham sandwich, chip crumbs, and a half of a granola bar can be compared to fine gourmet cooking when exploring the wilderness. After a hard day's hike, many adventurers thank their lucky stars for a feast from plastic, so good planning should surround the brave backpacker's dinner. Whether hiking in an area known to have bears or sloshing through streams, it's a good idea to keep all food in tightly sealed containers. If animals can smell your rations, they may want to explore further, and a hiker is generally very disappointed to find a fat, happy squirrel in their pack, rather than a salami sandwich.

Have a fire source

In ancient civilizations of hunters and gatherers, one person was appointed the title of fire-bearer, and charged with the extremely important task of creating heat. The fire was central to the camp, keeping everyone warm and cooking a meal, so the fire-bearer's job was an important responsibility assigned only to the most intelligent, cautious, and mature members of the group. We recommend choosing your fire-bearer carefully and wisely to avoid forest fires and injury. Whatever the weather, a hardened hiker will be able to spark a fire. This is a job for either the guide, the guardian, or Mom and Dad.

The fire-bearer should be well-versed in fire safety regulations, should know where they can build fires in the park, and should NEVER leave the fire unattended. To get more information ask your local park ranger for fire-building advice. They will know whether it's the legal season for building fires, they will be able to direct your crew to a campsite with an existing fire ring, and they will probably even be able to tell you which wood you should burn for a cozy campfire.

Learn First Aid and carry a kit

The best medicine for adventurers is that of prevention. By avoiding injury in the wild, everyone has fun and no one ends up in the hospital instead of swimming in the lake. But hikers can't plan for every instance, and sometimes there are accidents.

Know what to do in case of an emergency

By using first aid, a quick-thinking kid can save a friend's life. First aid training teaches ways to overcome stress in an emergency and react with the courage of a hero. It also gives the knowledge of how to deal with specific types of injuries.

Carry field guides

When you step into the alien world of a wilderness environment, you are likely to see plants, insects, and animals you never noticed before. Instead of trying to remember what the creatures looked liked until you get home, take a field guide for nature and look up the information on the spot. Find out if a plant is poisonous, match an animal to it's name, or identify a species you've never seen. Field guides offer the opportunity for great outdoor study, and exceptional advice for mingling with nature.

Be careful what you pack

The most important rule of hiking is be smart about what you pack. A beginning hiker generally becomes exhausted carrying a sack full of trail munchies, games, a portable CD player, three sweaters, and a video camera. Although pictures are nice, consider carrying a disposable camera for a more enjoyable hike.

Think before you step

Complete common sense is sometimes lost in the excitement of the adventure. A mesmerized hiker may be staring at local wildlife, and trip over a tree root causing serious injury. This doesn't mean adventure walkers should stare only at the trail while hiking, but rather that they should be constantly aware of their surroundings.

Keep an eye on the trail well in front of where you are walking, and always consider the path before bounding forward, or you may find yourself lost in the briar patch with Brer Rabbit. Stop moving long enough to take pictures of wildlife or research in a field guide. This allows all members of the group to grab a breath and enjoy the scenery before hitting the trail again.

Always carry out what you carry in

The first rule with interacting with the environment is: Leave it as you found it. This rule applies to the trees, the earth, the animals, the campsite, and even the flowers. The caretakers of the wilderness areas and parks have dedicated their lives to preserving what one careless hand could destroy in a second. Show repect to Mother Nature. Carry out all of the garbage you carry in, don't feed the animals, and leave only footsteps when you go. If everyone works together to preserve parks, wilderness, and other hiking areas, we will all be able to enjoy breathtaking hiking adventures in the future as well.

Know where you can get medical care

Always be aware how far you may be from proper medical attention. Ask your Ranger for this information. They will be able to direct you to the nearest hospital or clinic prior to an accident. Knowing this information in advance could save someone's life.

Never hike alone

NEVER - under any circumstances venture into the woods by yourself. Outdoor adventures are fun for the family, but hiking is only a group sport. The chances of becoming lost, sustaining injury, or losing supplies is much higher when alone, making the sport extemely dangerous. Always go with a group, tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return, and check in at the ranger station so they are aware of your location.

Don't don and doff layers continually

Though it is good to dress in layers, choose which layers, and stick with them for a time. Otherwise, you will exhaust yourself and try the patience of the group you are with. It's generally better to be a little cool than too hot, but don't change unless you are really getting uncomfortable.

Put the slowest hiker in front and pace the group to that person

This works great in a group of differing ages! With the fast hikers in the front, they have a tendency to spread out too much. Then someone small at the back gets exhausted running to keep up. If you do divide into faster and slower groups, the one ahead should never get too far ahead and should stop and let the others catch up on a regular basis.

Take regular breaks

Make sure that kids are drinking water. In very hot areas dehydration is especially dangerous.

Avoid sunburn

Wear a head and arm coverings in sunny or high altitude areas, and use sunblock.

Pace Yourself

Encourage kids not to exhaust themselves early in a hike. Sometimes little ones run at the beginning, run out of energy and have to be carried. Remember: it is not the destination that teaches, but the journey itself!

Although we may never reach the continental divide via granola bars and hiking boots, the time spent traversing nature is special family time. We talk, explore, learn, and exercise as a group. There are interesting people and animals along the way. We even learn to help a friend who is hurt through first aid training. We all work together to achieve the end of the trail as brave and seasoned outdoor adventurers.