If something can go wrong, it will. -- Murphy

Mountain hiking is inherently dangerous... but not excessively so. Nevertheless, it is always worthwhile to try to minimize your chances of problems. Here are the most important rules of thumb, in my humble opinion:

  • Check the weather forecast !! And ask your hosts each night what they expect the weather to be and do over the next couple of days (local knowledge is often more reliable in the short term than national weather forecasts). More people get into trouble in the mountains because of bad weather than for any other reason. If the weather is really bad, or is due to turn really bad during the day, and your hike takes you along a ridge or over a pass, then either take a different route or don't hike. Weather in the mountains can change with astounding speed: one moment sunny and warm, the next driving rain (or hail, or snow), or strong winds, or fog so thick you can't see more than two meters in front of you, or all of the above at the same time.
  • Don't hike off-trail !! More people die in the mountains because of hiking off-trail than for any other reason. If you realize that you have taken the wrong path, don't cut cross-country to get back on track. Instead retrace your steps to where you went wrong, or, if this is not feasible given the time or weather conditions, head for the nearest road and either get to your goal using transportation or find another place to stay the night.
  • Start early !! This makes you safer in two ways:
    • If something goes wrong (injury, getting lost), then you have more hours of daylight to complete your hike or to be rescued.
    • Thunderstorms (common in the Alps in summer) are much more frequent from mid-afternoon until evening. If there is any chance of a thunderstorm in the weather forecast, plan your hike to be done with ridges and/or passes by 2PM.
  • Never hike alone !! There is safety in numbers, both because two (or more) heads are better at avoiding trouble than one, and because if one is injured, another (or even better, two others) can go for help.
  • Always carry a map and compass !! Although the signposting in the Alps is often excellent, it cannot always be relied upon. Keep track of where you are during the day, and know how to use a compass to confirm your position and to help you decide which path to take.
  • Take the right gear !! Whether hiking for a day or a month, you should have with you the following safety-related equipment:
    • Good hiking boots, rain gear, and warm clothing including a ski hat to keep your head warm.
    • Map(s) and compass.
    • More food than you think you need, lots of water.
    • First-aid kit, torch, whistle, fully-charged cell-phone, multi-tool pen-knife.
    • Bivvy sack.
    • For more information, see Packing and Gear.
  • Communicate !! Tell your previous host where you are planning to go and along which trail: they may know something about problems with your planned route. Tell your next host where you are coming from, along which trail, and when you expect to arrive. That way if you don't show up, they might alert the mountain rescue service.
  • Don't hike down closed trails !! If there is a sign saying that a trail is closed, it is there for a reason.
  • Be sensible !! If something feels unsafe, stop and think carefully if there is another option. Sometimes the right decision is to go back.


What to do in an emergency

If despite all of the good advice above, something should go wrong, then this is what you need to know/do so as to maximize your chances of being rescued quickly or getting to safety:

  • Know the standard Alpine emergency number: 112 from a cellphone (except in Italy, where for some reason it is 118). Call the Mountain Rescue team from your cell-phone. When you reach them, tell them:
    • Who you are: name and cellphone number.
    • What has happened including type and severity of injuries and what you have done so far.
    • When the accident occurred.
    • Where you are: GPS coordinates if you have them, trail name and map coordinates otherwise.
    • Afterwards keep your phone turned on but don't make other calls. That way if they need to call back, they can, and also you won't exhaust your batteries.
  • Know how to signal to rescue helicopters and personnel that you need help:
    • If you are spotted, then arms above your head in a Y means you need help (one arm up means you are OK).
    • If you are still undiscovered, then the international mountain signal for distress is six long blasts of a whistle or flashes of a light in a minute, then a minute of silence / dark, then repeat.