man hiking with young boy in mountains

Safety Tips for Surviving Summer Fun

By Julie Estlick

A shirtless young man is hiking near the granite dome atop Greyrock Mountain when a thunderstorm blows in and hail pelts his exposed skin. Tom Adams spots the shivering hiker and offers him a poncho and drinking water for the trek back down.

This scene is far from unusual for Adams and his fellow Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, who patrol over 280 miles along a system of 69 trails on foot and horseback to assist the U.S. Forest Service’s Canyon Lakes Ranger District. The area includes Roosevelt National Forest and Pawnee National Grasslands. “People just don’t prepare,” Adams says. “They don’t bring enough snacks or water, and I see so many individuals wearing flip-flops or sandals that don’t cover their whole foot. There are rattlesnakes on these trails and poison ivy grows along the edge. It’s not safe.”

Summertime in northern Colorado means sunshine and lots of daylight, perfect for outdoor exploring and exercise in the fresh air. Proper preparation, though, can be the difference between a successful outing and an uncomfortable, or even downright dangerous one. Staying safe and enjoying some fun in the sun is a breeze if you follow the advice of the experts and keep a few things in mind when planning your summer activities.

Do your research

Whether you’re aiming for a leisurely hike in the foothills, or eager to summit your first 14er, take the time to investigate the areas you want to explore and trace out a route on a map that you’ll carry with you. A printed map in addition to a map app on your phone is ideal in case you lose cellular reception or your phone’s battery dies.

“People do get distracted and miss trail junctions and landmarks,” says Jill Reynolds, education director for Larimer County Search & Rescue (LCSAR). “We’re seeing more and more reliance on cell phones (for directions and help if lost), which is shaky at best and shouldn’t be counted on.”

The nonprofit LCSAR averages 70 calls a year and summertime is particularly busy with the increase in recreational activity and visitors to the region, Reynolds says. You can help visitors avoid altitude sickness by staying at a lower elevation for at least 24 hours before any activity, and go slowly to let their bodies adjust to the thinner air. Headaches and confusion are common signs of altitude sickness, and treatment includes rest, drinking lots of water, and going down to a lower elevation as soon as possible, experts advise.

Other tools for your pack: A geological map that shows an area’s terrain, landmarks, and elevation gain, and a compass are both helpful for any backcountry outing. If biking on local paths is more your speed, carry a map of the bike routes for quick reference, a tire repair kit with an extra inner tube and a pump. There are several bicycle repair stations on trails around the city as well. And don't forget to wear your helmet!

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

green water bottleSpeaking of H2O, dehydration is not a fun way to spend a carefree summer day! Carry at least one full water bottle and know where you can
refill it on your route. If you’re hiking or camping near a lake or stream, be sure to take a water purification device. Lakes, ponds, and streams should be considered suspect because they may contain one or more disease-causing organisms that can sicken you or your pet, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. For example, giardiasis is an intestinal illness caused by a parasite, which can spread through contact with infected people. Water purification tablets will eliminate most water-borne diseases. A person should drink at least 2 liters of water per day (half a gallon), more if exercising strenuously. Children have less fluid in their bodies so dehydration has a bigger effect on them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Don’t forget to pack high-energy snacks like granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, and jerky even for planned short treks. Food breaks are a great incentive for young children who are getting antsy or tired, and if you get lost you’ll need the calories.

Be sun savvy

The sun’s rays are more intense in northern Colorado because of our high altitude. Even on a cloudy day, protect yourself from sunburn and skin damage by putting on sunscreen with SPF30 around 30 minutes before you go into the sun, and bring the bottle to reapply every 2 hours. Wear a hat that covers the back of your neck (or a bandana if you’re wearing a helmet). Protect your peepers with UV protection sunglasses that block out the dangerous rays of the sun.

Loose, breathable clothes are good options to wear against your skin to stay comfortable in the summer heat. Bring a jacket to layer for warmth if the temperature drops and to protect against wind and rain.

Did you know that children are more sensitive to heat than adults? Heat tolerance is directly affected by body size. Children have more skin per pound of body weight, as well as thinner skin, making them less able to tolerate heat or cold stress, according to the CDC. Take frequent breaks in the shade to cool down.

Stay weather-ready

black hat and glovesCheck the weather forecast for your destination before you head out. No rain predicted? Put a poncho or wind/waterproof jacket in your backpack anyway. Afternoon rainstorms occur regularly in the summertime and daily weather changes are  the norm. And if you’re headed to the mountains, pack warm clothes including hats, gloves, and long pants as temperatures are cooler up high even on nice days.

One rule to memorize: If you hear thunder, you get out—lightning isn’t far away, notes Adams. Head back down the mountain or seek shelter. This principle applies whether you’re hiking, biking, swimming, or on the baseball diamond.

If you see lightning and no shelter is available, it’s important to avoid fields and the tops of mountains or hills. If you’re hiking, hike downhill while you can. Stay low so you aren’t the tallest thing around. Get in a ditch or depression, and never stand under a lone, tall tree, or under a tent or pavilion with metallic frames that could spread electricity in a strike. Also, avoid bodies of water which conduct electricity and can send lighting traveling far. Remember: lightning can strike very far from a thunderstorm, even without rain, so if you hear thunder ACT IMMEDIATELY.

The Buddy System

For safety’s sake, it’s good to take a partner on your summertime adventures, and ALWAYS stick together. If you’re recreating with a group of friends, stay with the group and never leave anyone behind. Know your limits and don’t overestimate anyone’s abilities, yours or members of the group.

“Getting too focused on the summit, or a particular end point, can lead to poor decisions,” says Dr. Alison Sheets, group leader and medical director for the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. “Don’t be ashamed to turn around if it’s too hard or too late in the day.”

Volunteers with the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group provide technical mountain search and rescue services in Boulder County but are sometimes called for mutual aid in Rocky Mountain National Park. Sheets, an emergency medicine physician in Boulder, participated in 98 missions with the group last year, often helping those who had suffered leg or foot injuries and couldn’t walk out on their own.

satellite phone in handShare your plans

Emergency responders say the most important thing you can do to ensure your safe return home when enjoying a summer outing is to make a plan—and then share it.

Create a detailed trip plan that includes your route, your destination, when you plan to arrive and return, and the names and contact information of everyone you’re with. Then give the information to a family member or trusted friend who is not on the trip. Also, be sure to leave some sort of identification in your vehicle.

Finally, don't rely on having cell phone service in the mountains. Satellite phones and personal locator beacons are a safer option to communicate an emergency (see breakout box below). While you are busy recreating, conserve battery charge on your cell phone by putting it in "airplane mode" setting so it doesn't get drained searching for a signal. Plus, it eliminates the screen distractions and the temptation to post photos to social media immediately. Instead, breathe in the fresh air, smile at your companions, and savor the sweetness of summertime.

For more information:
Larimer County Search &
Poudre Wilderness Volunteers –
Website includes free maps and information on trails with
descriptions, and directions to the trailheads.
Rocky Mountain Rescue Group –
National Safety Council –
Download free NSC First Aid Quick Reference app.
A few safety items to consider for your backpack depending on your outing:
Topographical maps – free downloads available from the U.S. Geological Survey:
Fort Collins Bike Map
Bike safety classes are also offered.
Personal Locator Beacon – The National Park Service recommends having a PLB if you’ll be in a remote area on land or in a boat. Once activated, these devices transmit a distress signal that is relayed to emergency response agencies along with your location. Rentals are available at local outdoor recreation stores and online.
Satellite Phones – have an SOS button, and also allow you to make and receive phone calls to family or friends in most environments. Satellite phone companies offer rentals.