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You, your hiking buddies, your car, and belongings can all be at risk at trailheads. A few trailhead safety tips will help keep you safe from human negligence, criminal behavior, and wildlife.
Criminal Behavior at Park Trailheads
Park trailheads are safer than most places but they aren’t free of criminal behavior.
You don’t want to come back from your hike to find a missing car, broken car window, loss of belongings, or become a victim of physical assault.
Keep these tips in mind to avoid criminal behavior at park trailheads.
1. Be Aware of Your Surroundings
Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
- Drive through and look around the parking area for safety concerns before getting out of your car.
- Avoid cellphone distractions.
- Have your pack ready before you get to the trailhead. Packing items at the trailhead can distract you from your surroundings.
- Plan for a possible escape. It’s best to leave your car door open and keep your keys on you in case you need to jump in and leave quickly.
- Don’t leave items unattended.
- If you aren’t hiking alone, go to trailhead restrooms with a hiking buddy.
- Hiking buddies can help keep an eye on your surroundings. There’s safety in numbers. It’s best not to hike alone.
2. Follow Your Instincts
Trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable about parking at your first chosen trailhead, consider choosing an alternate trailhead.
Safety concerns to look for at the trailhead:
- Questionable individuals loitering around or sitting in cars. Always avoid anyone that makes you uncomfortable.
- Glass from a broken car window
- Trash especially beer or liquor bottles
I’ve chosen an alternate trailhead after encountering a vagrant selling household items off the hood of his car. After leaving that trailhead and before picking the alternate trailhead, I spoke with a ranger at the visitor center. They confirmed my suspicions. The individual had been causing problems in the park and had been removed multiple times.
3. Insight from Rangers, Local Outfitters, Hiking Clubs, and Facebook
Rangers, local outfitters, area hiking clubs, and Facebook groups may offer insight into the parking safety at various trailheads. Check with them if you have any safety concerns. If there have been incidents at a particular trailhead, avoid parking there.
4. Alternate Parking or Ride to the Trailhead
Sometimes it’s safer to park in town and walk to the trailhead or get an Uber. Or just take an Uber from home. Or maybe a friend or family member can drop you off and pick you up.
If you’re on a longer trek or backpacking adventure, getting a ride to the trailhead is often a better choice, especially if your trek isn’t a loop.
5. Choosing Your Trailhead
Trailheads with greater infrastructure like paved parking, picnic areas, and restrooms can be safer choices. Trailheads at ranger stations or visitor centers are even better.
Pay greater attention when parking…
- At trailheads with dirt or gravel lots with little or no infrastructure.
- At trailheads with low visibility from the main road.
- On a roadside near the trailhead.
- In trailhead lots near urban areas.
6. Theft and Car Damage at Park Trailheads
Most people sitting in their cars at trailheads are probably there to enjoy an outdoor adventure just like you. They are probably just waiting for a hiking buddy to show up. There, however, is the occasional person who’s up to no good. Thieves are known to sit and watch what you do.
Could a thief tell if you’re leaving your purse or wallet behind? It’s highly probable. Could someone see you put your wallet, purse, or other valuables in your trunk, glove box, or another storage spot?
It’s best to…
- Take your wallet with you on your hike instead of hiding it in your car.
- Take your keys instead of hiding them in or someplace on your car. Thieves know the good hiding spots.
- It’s best to leave valuables at home or stow them away before you get to the park.
Targets thieves look for:
- Cars with out-of-state plates
- Rental cars
- Trailhead parking around vacation destinations
- People who change clothes at a trailhead
- Valuables left in view
7. Take an Older Car
If you or a hiking buddy has an older car, consider taking it to the trailhead. Less desirable cars are less likely to be stolen or broken into.
8. Don’t Leave Valuables in View
Don’t leave anything of value in view. Move anything of value where it can’t be seen.
Tips for hiding valuables left at trailheads…
- Put anything of value in the trunk, glove box or another inconspicuous place before you get to the trailhead. You don’t want someone to see you move valuables around at the trailhead.
- Consider tinting your car windows to reduce a person’s ability to see inside.
- Cover valuables with a sheet that matches your car’s interior.
I have tinted windows in my quad cab truck and a black interior. Anything I leave behind is covered in the backseat with a black bedsheet before I get to the trailhead. It’s very hard to see anything back there.
9. Report Criminal Behavior
Despite precautions, bad things can happen. If you see or experience any incident in a park, you should report it immediately to park rangers and local police.
To report criminal behavior, aid in an investigation, or report something suspicious in a national park contact the Investigative Services Branch of the National Park Service (ISB).
To further help others who will visit the park in the future, consider alerting fellow hikers of problems through local outfitters, hiking clubs, and Facebook hiking groups.
Human Negligence at Park Trailheads
People leaving the trail are tired and people heading to the trail are excited. People aren’t always paying the best attention to their surroundings.
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
- Keep your kids safer by keeping them close and in sight at all times.
- Keep your dog close and on its leash.
- Look out for others.
- Look out for cars. They can easily overlook you while you’re walking in the parking lot and could also back into your car.
Wildlife at Park Trailheads
There are a few simple tips that will keep you safe when encountering wildlife at park trailheads.
- Do not approach wildlife at parks. Animals may be cute or interesting, but they can present dangerous situations.
- Do not leave food in your car that bears could smell. Bears have a great sense of smell and have been known to break into cars for a tasty snack.
- Staying in your car or picking a different trailhead may be necessary with certain animals like bears, big cats, wolves, etc.
- Keep your dog under control and do not let your dog engage wildlife at the trailhead or on the trail.
- Look for notices of wildlife activity at trailheads.
- Parks sometimes warn of tick infestations on trails. Consider taking an alternate trail if you come across one of these warning signs, especially if you’re hiking with your dog.
Related Content: What To Do If You Encounter a Skunk On Your Hike
Other Trailhead Safety Tips
- Check in with local park or forest rangers before setting out from your chosen trailhead. The rangers can alert you of trail conditions, wildlife issues, or other concerns.
- Always hike on designated trails.
- Always check the weather one last time at the trailhead before heading out.
Trust your instinct and maintain awareness at trailheads. Your safety is ultimately your responsibility.
It’s much easier to avoid danger than get out of danger.