Safety is the First Step of Any Hike

June 28, 2016 Phillip Cecchini, MD


Paths that meander alongside creeks and shady groves of trees, open space bursting with flowering plants and inhabited by deer, birds and other wildlife--the outdoors is calling you right now. It's a perfect time to take a day hike--not only does Orange County have a wealth of trails to explore the natural beauty of the region, but hiking is a great form of exercise. "An hour-long hike can burn 468 calories for a 160-pound person, and walking can help guard against many chronic health problems such as obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes," says Phillip Cecchini, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group. "But a healthy hike is a safe hike, and many of those safety precautions should begin before you even set foot outdoors."

Here are the planning steps Dr. Cecchini recommends:

Know where you are going. Get a trail map and find a path that fits your level of expertise. "If you are a novice, don't try a long, uphill climb with rocky terrain," Dr. Cecchini says. "Most trail maps will tell you if a path is easy or tough, how long it is, if the trail is paved or not and more. Often, you can find these maps online for advance planning, but make sure you pick up a hard copy of the trail map at your destination so you can carry it with you on the hike." Once you know where you are going, make sure someone not on the hike knows where you'll be and the estimated time of your return, in case of emergency.

Put your best foot forward. "Cross-training sneakers or trail shoes are good for light hikes; longer treks with hills or dirt paths may be better suited for hiking boots," Dr. Cecchini says. "Make sure they are broken in properly before wearing them on a hike, as new or ill-fitting shoes could cause blisters."

Be prepared. You'll want to have some supplies on hand for your hike. They include sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat or other sun protection; water (at least two quarts); some snacks, such as dried fruit, trail mix or granola bars; a compass; a first-aid kit with basics such as bandages, gauze, tweezers, antiseptic ointment, hydrocortisone cream and any prescription medications; and a comfortable backpack to carry it all in. "If it's a long hike or you're in unfamiliar territory, bring some extra food and water as a precaution," Dr. Cecchini says. "Other safety items include a flashlight in case you are stuck on the trail after dark, a water purification tool and a whistle to call for help; a mobile phone is handy to have in case of emergencies, or to let your contact at home know you've safely finished your hike, but you can't always count on cell reception in remote areas."

Predict the weather. Loose layers are good, especially if the clothing is made of moisture-wicking fabric to prevent it from getting damp. "A jacket is a good idea if there's even a chance of rain. You can always peel off the jacket or your top layer of clothing and put it in your pack or tie it around your waist if it gets warm," Dr. Cecchini says. " If your hiking day promises to be a hot one, aim for an early start before temps rise. "As the day goes on, find shady spots where you can walk or rest to stay out of the sun," Dr. Cecchini says. "And definitely stop and rest for at least 30 minutes and drink water if you feel nauseous, have a headache or are cramping--these are signs of possible heat exhaustion."

Once you've hit the trail, there are some other safety measures to keep in mind:

Stay on the trail. "Going off the marked path makes it that much easier to get lost, and it can cause environmental damage to the plants and animal habitats in the area," Dr. Cecchini says.

Keep an eye out for animals. It may be fun to spot a baby deer roaming in the distance, but not as much fun to see a rattlesnake near your path. "Before the hike, stop at the ranger's office and find out what animals live in the area," Dr. Cecchini says. "If you see a snake, mountain lion or other creature, don't run in a panic or go near it--back up slowly until you are safely away from it."

Don't touch unfamiliar plants. Again, a talk with the ranger can give you information on poisonous plants along the trail. If you do touch poison oak or a similar plant, wash it with soap and water as soon as possible and pat dry, applying hydrocortisone cream from your first-aid kit.

Prevent injury with a healthy stride. "Relax your neck and shoulders, and keep your head up and back straight," Dr. Cecchini says. "You can also tuck in your stomach muscles as you walk in a smooth gait, taking each step from heel to toe. And don't feel the need to rush--it's important to take the time to enjoy your beautiful surroundings."

Want to take a hike? Here are some local trails to visit.

Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park
28373 Alicia Parkway, Laguna Niguel
(949) 923-2200

There are more than 30 miles of trails, both easy and difficult, spread among the 4,500-acre park. Hikers share many of the trails with mountain bikers and riders on horses; some trails are also dog friendly. It's a designated wildlife sanctuary and the site of rare and endangered plants.

Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park
33401 Ortega Highway
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
(949) 923-2210 or (949) 923-2207

The 8,000 acres are filled with wildlife and wildflowers, as well oak and sycamore trees. Trails are open to bikes and horses as well as hikers, and are also used by campers staying on the park's grounds. Trails are ranked easy, moderate and difficult.

Oso Creek Trail
Trailheads at

  • 25552 Marguerite Parkway
  • 27301 La Paz Road
  • 24051 Pavion

Mission Viejo, CA 92691
(949) 470-3000

The city of Mission Viejo calls this 5.5-mile trail system a "walking garden" for the variety of drought-tolerant native plants in the area. There's also plenty of public art to enjoy during a hike, such as the mosaic history walls.

Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park
Two parking lots:

Borrego Parking Lot
26701 Portola Parkway, Foothill Ranch, CA 92610

Glenn Ranch Road Parking Lot
27901 Glenn Ranch Road, Trabuco Canyon, CA 92679
(949) 923-2245

The 23 trails wind through about 2,500 acres of canyon open space, with intermittent streams and several rock formations, such as Red Rock Canyon. The trails also connect to others in the county's regional trail system. Like other county-run parks, Whiting Ranch offers guided and group hikes; you can find more information at each park's website. 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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