Keeping safe outdoors

For most people, taking part in outdoor activities such as hiking is trouble-free, but there are potential risks. Find out how to plan ahead. 

In 2013, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency responded to more than 20,000 incidents

Being active is great for your health, maintaining your fitness and reducing the risk of conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. In a survey by the Ramblers’ Association, 95% of people said walking had benefited their health, and a third said it had helped them combat stress

The experience is trouble-free for most walkers and beach-goers, but it's best to be prepared for the potential risks you can encounter when out in the UK countryside.

Plan your day

"Lack of preparation before setting off is a major problem," says Andy Simpson of Mountain Rescue England and Wales, which also carries out search-and-rescue operations in non-mountain areas, such as moorland.

In 2013, Mountain Rescue was called out to nearly 1,500 incidents involving activities such as walking, climbing and cycling. These included 65 deaths and 711 people injured, as well as those who had become lost or exhausted. The causes of injury included slips, trips and falls. Most of the injuries (228) were fractures, plus 257 injuries to the lower leg and foot. Nearly a quarter or all the incidents were tumbles or falls.

There are many more distress calls around the coast. In 2013, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) responded to more than 20,000 incidents.

However, a few simple precautions before you set out can reduce your risk of an emergency situation.

'You have to go at the pace of the slowest person in the group, however fit the rest of you are' Andy Simpson, Mountain Rescue England and Wales

Don't rely on mobile phones

Tell someone where you're going and when you plan to be back. If something goes wrong and you don't return, it's important that someone knows so they can raise the alarm.

Be aware there might not be mobile phone reception everywhere you go. Make sure your battery is fully charged before you set out. 

Take a whistle and torch (make sure they work).

Be realistic about your fitness

"Make sure you're fit enough to undertake the challenge there and back," says Andy. The majority of accidents happen on the return journey, when people are tired.

Remember that there's no shame in stopping. "If you're finding it too difficult, there's nothing wrong with changing your route or turning back, but make sure you advise the person you left your plans with," Andy says. "You'll still have a day out, it just won't be the route you planned."

Make sure the route and the pace also suit the people you're with. "You have to go by the pace of the slowest person in the group, however fit the rest of you are," adds Andy. Take special care with children.

Get weather wise

Always check the weather forecast before you set off. But whatever it says, take waterproof clothing, windproof clothing and spare clothing for warmth.

"If an accident happens, the whole party stops and everyone is at risk of getting cold," says Andy.

If it's hot, protect yourself from the sun – wear a hat and use sun cream. Symptoms of heat exhaustion, which can lead to heat stroke, include dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

If this happens, sit somewhere cool and shady, take off excess clothing and drink plenty of fluids.

Food and drink

Take enough food and water for the outing, and some extra as emergency provisions. 

"On the day, sandwiches are good energy food, and sweet things like chocolate provide a quick fix of energy if you need it," says Andy.

Don't drink alcohol before an activity. It can slow your reactions and make you more vulnerable to hypothermia.

Know where you are

Always use a map to plan and follow your route, especially when heading for somewhere isolated. "It's imperative you have a map and compass, and know how to use them," says Andy. "Have the map in your hands at all times so you can keep track of where you are."

Make sure you know the tide times at any beaches you come across, so you won't get cut off. Keep back from cliff tops or mountain edges, and remember that edges can overhang and give way underfoot.

The Ramblers Association has ideas for local walks and walking for people with disabilities.

If you need help

If you find yourself in a situation where you need to call for emergency help, dial 999.

If you don't have a phone or any reception, Mountain Rescue England and Wales advises that you stay where you are, and blow six bursts on a whistle and repeat every minute. If it's dark, flash a torch six times instead.

If you do have mobile phone signal and are able to summon help, leave your phone switched on and stay where you are. You may risk losing your signal by moving a few yards.

"If you're in a group but unable to telephone for help and can safely send off one or two people to raise the alarm, then do so," says Andy.

Page last reviewed: 03/07/2014

Next review due: 03/07/2016


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