Exploring nature and the mountains surrounding Boulder is why many people choose to live and visit here. But as beautiful as Colorado’s wilderness is, it can also be dangerous. Sometimes even deadly. For example, more than 30 people have died in the Elk Mountains region of Colorado since 2000.
Rocky Mountain Rescue is the main search-and-rescue team in the Boulder County region. It gets about 170 emergency calls every year. Rescues range from hikers with a twisted ankle to avalanches and serious problems. The bulk of rescue calls (45 percent) are to help hikers. In addition, nearly 20 percent of calls were to help rock climbers, particularly unroped climbing.
Before heading out on a hike, make sure you are educated and prepared. You can learn about safety in nature on Rocky Mountain Rescue’s webpage.
According to the nonprofit, the four main points are to ask yourself the following:
- Do I have the right skills and experience?
- Am I drinking and eating enough?
- Do I have the right clothes and gear?
- And should I change my plans due to the weather, time or my pace?
We want to keep you safe in Boulder County’s mountains. Here’s a deeper look at how to hike safely, so you can enjoy the beauty and challenges of nature while minimizing the risks.
Stay the Path.
While it might seem tempting to venture off the trail, it’s one of the most dangerous things you can do. It’s easy to get lost when you lose the path, and you might not be able to find your way back. Some trails can be harder to follow than others (sometimes the trail isn’t as clearly marked or forged), and other routes may end up more challenging than you expected.
Stick to popular and less complicated routes unless you are seasoned and very familiar with the area (and even then, proceed with caution), always do your research, talk to the rangers (and your friends) before you leave and make sure they know where you’re going (and when you expect to be back), have a map and GPS or go with a guided tour with a leader. Some experts recommend telling someone back home what gear you are bringing and even what kind of hiking boots you are wearing, details that can help a search-and-rescue team find you.
Pack smart, with enough water, food, supplies, proper navigation tools, maps, layers of clothing, sunscreen, a first aid kit and more, depending on where you are hiking.
Watch the Sky.
Don’t go hiking during a thunderstorm or when it looks like one might be brewing. Check the forecast, look at the sky, pay attention to dark clouds and wind and listen for thunder. Lightning can kill you. Before you think it won’t happen to you, Colorado ranks third in the nation for lightning deaths. So, if you hear thunder, reschedule your hike.
If you do find yourself outside during a storm and you can’t get off the mountain, minimize the chance of being struck by lightning by moving to a safe place, preferably out of an open field, away from water and far away from metal. The best bet is to find a group of bushes or trees of a similar height, and then crouch down with your hands over your ears. You don’t want to be the tallest thing in the field because lightning is drawn to that. Don’t lie down on the ground and keep your hands off the ground.
Beware of Wildlife.
Boulder is bear country, and the nearby foothills are home to mountain lions, snakes and other potentially dangerous wildlife. When hiking around here, the city of Boulder recommends paying attention to warning signs; avoiding berry patches that can attract bears; and make noise to reduce the possibility of surprising a bear. If you hike with a dog, keep it on a leash, especially near water, where a bear may be cooling off or drinking.
If you do run into a bear, slowly and calmly move away. Make yourself appear as big as possible and back away so the bear can leave and does not feel threatened, but also does not see you as easy prey. Never run away because that can cause the bear to chase you, and you’re not going to win that race. Don’t be stupid and try to get close to a bear or its cubs to get a cool Instagram video. (Hello, Darwin.) If a bear does attack you, fight back.
For more information on how to keep yourself safe around wildlife, check out “What To Do If You See a Mountain Lion.”
Beware of Poisonous Plants.
Wild animals are not the only things in nature to be aware of while hiking. Poison ivy also grows in these areas. Make sure you know what it looks like and avoid it. Around here, you can find big and small patches, and the leaves tend to be a dark green in the summertime, rather than red. The city of Boulder recommends remembering this simple phrase: “Leaves of three, leave it be.” This refers to the way poison ivy looks, with one stem and three leaves off the top.
Also keep your dogs away from poison ivy because its oil can be transferred to your skin via your dog’s hair.
Watch Out For the Little Critters.
Some of the most dangerous threats aren’t the big bears, but the little insects.
Ticks: Colorado is home to 29 types of ticks, and they can transmit disease. The most common is the Rocky Mountain wood tick. Beware of ticks in woody and grassy spots and brush in spring and early summer. Spray your clothes with DEET and protect ankles by tucking your pants into your socks; make sure you check for ticks frequently. Remove a tick with blunt tweezers.
Mosquitoes: Mosquitoes in the Boulder area have been found to carry West Nile Virus, which can be serious or even deadly for certain people. Reduce the chance of getting bit by using insect repellant. Avoid hiking at dusk and dawn. If you must be outside during these times, make sure you wear long pants and sleeves and steer clear of standing water. The good news is most of the types of mosquitoes in the Boulder area do not carry West Nile and are just annoying, but you can’t identify the difference between the types by just looking at them, so it’s best to minimize exposure to bites to begin with.
Spiders: The only poisonous spider in Boulder County is the black widow, which you’ll recognize by the red hourglass coloration on its belly. They tend to hang out near piles of wood and abandoned rodent holes.
Beware of the Altitude.
Many hiking trails in Boulder are high enough to cause altitude sickness, especially if you aren’t acclimated to being a mile high. Learn more about altitude sickness and how to reduce its effect on your hiking here.
Watch the Temps.
You can catch hypothermia even in the summer in Boulder County, especially at high altitudes, when the temps can get cold. Get caught in high altitude in a rainstorm and you could be in danger. Dress in layers, check the weather forecast before you leave and know the signs of hypothermia, as well as how to treat it. A big warning sign is when someone’s motor skills seem impaired.
Also, be careful of too much sun. Beyond sunburn, too much sun can raise your temperature and dehydrate you. It can lead to heatstroke, heat exhaustion and heat cramps. It’s wise to hike with electrolyte fluids (like Gatorade) and lightly salted snacks to help keep dehydration away when you may be sweating a lot. Heat stroke can be deadly. It happens when you can’t sweat enough to drop the body temp.
Start your hike early, especially if you’re headed up a tall peak, like a fourteener (mountains taller than 14,000 feet above sea level). At a certain altitude, you can expect big rainstorms nearly every afternoon, year round. Beyond risk of lightning and hypothermia, rain can also make trails slippery and muddy.
Stick With Your Crew.
Hiking with a group is safer than hiking alone. Just make sure you don’t get separated or leave someone behind. This is a common issue among search-and-rescue calls. Don’t let your buddy stop and rest alone or head back early. If one person stops, everyone stops.