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How to Be a Happy Camper -- or Hiker

Whether you're a first-time hiker out for an easy walk in the woods or an expert camping in the wilderness, think about safety before you head outdoors.

Have fun, but take the time to be prepared, advises the American Hiking Society (AHS). Every year people run into serious problems that they could have avoided if they had taken a few minutes to plan ahead.

First, always make sure you give somebody your itinerary, no matter how short the hike or how long the camping trip, the AHS says. That itinerary should include how long you plan to be gone, where you're going, the trails you plan to take and where you plan to camp. That's good advice no matter how experienced you are outdoors.

Know what you're getting into, say experts from the U.S. Forest Service. Before you head out on a day hike or camping trip, do your homework. Get maps. Go online to learn more about the area where you plan to go, and check weather conditions. Call the ranger station and ask about trail conditions.

The right clothing

Even if you're just out for a day hike, dress appropriately, the AHS says. Make sure you have that extra layer of warmth just in case. Opt for polypropylene materials instead of cotton: If the cotton gets wet, it wicks the heat from your body.

Include a shirt and hat, especially in midsummer. A shirt and hat will protect you from the sun. And just because it's 80 degrees when you start out doesn't mean it won't be 50 degrees when you're coming back. And you never know when you might end up outdoors overnight.

The American Red Cross (ARC) recommends that every hiker carry a survival pack. The pack, in a small waterproof container, should have a pocketknife, compass, whistle, space blanket, nylon thread, water purification tablets, matches and candle. Don't forget to bring a cell phone, as well.

Whether you plan to be out for hours, days or even weeks, take plenty of food and drinking water. If you're hiking in the mountains and plan to drink from streams or lakes, ask at the ranger station whether giardia or other parasites are an issue. Boiling water for 10 minutes or using a good filter will kill contaminants; chemical tablets aren't as effective.

Drought or flooding concerns in some areas may mean you need special permits for camping or cooking on fires and stoves. Extinguish campfires carefully when you move on.

Campers should use special caution with portable heaters, lanterns and stoves inside tents, cars and recreational vehicles. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says about 30 people die and another 450 are hurt every year as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning while camping. Don't use portable heaters or lanterns while sleeping in enclosed areas, especially at high altitudes.

What if you get lost?

The Forest Service offers some tips:

  • Pay attention to your surroundings and landmarks. Relate them to your location on a map.

  • Stay calm. Try to remember how you got to your location.

  • Trust your map and compass. Don't leave the trail if you're on one.

  • Stay put if it's nightfall, you're injured or you're exhausted.

  • As a last resort, follow drainage or a stream downhill. It often leads to a trail or a road.

Prudent packing

The ARC offers a checklist of what to include in your backpack:

  • Cell phone

  • Clothing (always bring something warm, extra socks and rain gear)

  • First aid kit

  • Food and water (bring extra)

  • Flashlight

  • GPS and extra batteries

  • Hat

  • Insect repellent

  • Map

  • Nylon thread

  • Pocketknife

  • Pocket mirror or foil (to use as a signaling device)

  • Prescription glasses (an extra pair)

  • Prescription medications for ongoing medical conditions

  • Radio with batteries

  • Space blanket or a piece of plastic (to use for warmth or shelter)

  • Sunglasses

  • Sunscreen

  • Trash bag (makes an adequate poncho)

  • Waterproof matches or matches in a waterproof tin (another idea is to carry a Fresnel lens, which can be used to start a fire if you have sunlight to focus through the lens)

  • Water purification tablets

  • Whistle (to scare off animals or to use as a signaling device)