Top advice on hiking safety from the experts

Several hiking accidents recently have reminded us all to take extra care when it comes to safety. On Oct 2, Wong Tai Kiang, a seasoned Singaporean trail runner in...

Several hiking accidents recently have reminded us all to take extra care when it comes to safety.

On Oct 2, Wong Tai Kiang, a seasoned Singaporean trail runner in his 30s, was found dead in a 150m-deep ravine in Sabah. He was training for this month’s Mount Kinabalu climbathon.

On Oct 3, Goh Chong Teik, a 49-year old Malaysian hiker was killed when he plummeted down a 10m slope while descending Bukit Tabur, a scenic hill with sharp rocks just outside Kuala Lumpur.

And on Oct 15, Nobuhiro Syuki, a 65-year old Japanese man, fell almost 10m from the Bukit Tabur peak, during an early climb to watch the sunrise. He was injured but survived.

What do the experts say about hiking safety?

Leong Dee Lu, director of adventure gear outlet Corezone, said: “As long as people do their homework and prepare for their adventure, hiking can be relaxing and fun.”

“Unfortunately, in Malaysia, if a friend invites us to go hiking, we often say, ‘OK lah!’ without any preparations. But it’s not really OK if we don’t prepare,” said Leong, who has been hiking since she was 13.

“Before the trip, get as much info as you can about the place – terrain/environment, weather conditions, water stops, campsites, local wildlife, nearest village, how large is the jungle, and how far you need to walk to reach safety if you are lost. You can easily read up blogs and social media posts about the place,” she explained.

“On the trip, carry a compass. Know how to read a map. If you don’t, then at least know that the sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. A lot of kids today don’t even know that.”


If you get lost

“If you get lost and you have a mobile phone, you can try to use Google Maps. If there is no reception, go to the highest point and it might help (to see where to go). Stay on well trodden trails. Follow water sources like rivers (downwards) as it will eventually take you somewhere,” explained Leong.

The most important rule in hiking safety is: never go alone, even if you’re experienced.

“There was a experienced hiker who was lost in the hills of Cheras, KL, and never found again,” she recalled. “In Gunung Tahan, a hiker was lost when he accidentally got separated from his group. There were some people ahead, and some behind. He went off the trail because he needed to go to the toilet.

“Thinking he would be OK as there were others behind, including the sweeper, his friend carried on walking, trying to catch up with those in front. But, the group behind and the sweeper passed by him without realising he was there. So, if you need a toilet break, get a friend to wait for you,” she advised.

“If you really have to hike alone, do it only in places you are very familiar with, and only at trails where there are lots of people.”

According to Leong, many hikers make the mistake of not carrying a whistle.

“It’s the most essential tool for hiking safety. Many hikers have been lost or found dead even though they were so close to the trail, yet, they couldn’t find their way out,” she recounted.

“Realistically, if you keep shouting for help, after a few hours, you’d have no voice left. And there are echoes in the mountains so people might not be able to distinguish which direction the sound is coming from, even if they can hear you. A whistle is sharper and louder compared to a voice,” she said. “Make sure you get a pea-less whistle which works well even when wet from rain.”

Prepare properly

Brandon Chee, co-founder and director of the Explorer Outfitter adventure gear shops, said, “Accidents can happen anywhere, in any activities that we do, sometimes, we even fall out of bed as well!”

“You can minimise risks in hiking by preparing yourself and staying alert and focused at all times. Safety always comes first and don’t do anything silly!” he continued.

“Understand your environment and the risk factors. During a recent trip to an area which had seasonal fruit trees, we were attacked by some bees.

“A few of us were stung and suffered allergic reactions. If severe, these can be fatal. But I had brought along antihistamines and epinephrine, so things were under control.” (Note: steroid pills like prednisolone are also helpful).

“A pair of hiking poles is also very useful to help prevent or lower the risk of injury. Not only does it reduce stress on the knees, ankles, hips and spine, it also helps you keep your balance in particularly tricky and slippery areas of a trail,” said Chee, who has been hiking and camping since his teens.

When asked about trail runs, Chee replied, “Trail runners are usually very fit, but because they are running so fast, organisers need to have proper signages along the trails … especially when it comes to certain junctions or blind spots. Just a slight miscalculation can make the difference between tripping and falling, or continuing to run.”

“Personally, I think that marking the trail at eye level is best for any hiking or trail running event. This means having a semi-permanent marking like tape or flag tied to tree branches. Bits of paper markers on the floor of jungle trails can be blown or washed away … and the chances of getting lost or injured will be higher,” he explained.

As for those who want to tackle high altitude hikes in places like Nepal, Chee said this requires good stamina and conditioning to acclimatise your body to the thinner air at high altitudes.

“Prepare by getting regular fitness training, have proper food for several weeks before and get good sleep every night the week before you climb. Don’t climb if you are sick,” he said.

“You also need to understand the signs or symptoms of high altitude or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS),” he went on. “A high carbohydrate diet may decrease AMS signs/symptoms by up to 30%. If you’re above 3000m, ascend not more than 750m to 1,000m within a 24-hour period. My sherpa friends asked me to eat garlic to decrease AMS. And yes, keep drinking to stay well hydrated. There’s no need to hold in your pee!”

Pay attention

MK Rahman, the founder of the Hacam (Hiking And Camping Around Malaysia) group added, “Hash trail runners use paper trails and everyone chases it. But hikers use guides, paid or voluntary, who are supposed to ensure proper procedures so that everyone on the trip is accounted for. Hikers shouldn’t go alone, and they should watch out for each other.”

MK got hooked on hiking over 10 years ago when a friend first introduced him to Bukit Tabur. For hiking safety, it’s important to be attentive to the trail, especially high risk ones like Bukit Tabur.

He is involved with the Mountain Search and Rescue Society (MOSARS), and has helped out in a few SAR Operations.

In the recent case where a hiker fell to his death at Bukit Tabur, two young girls saw what happened it seems.

“According to them, he halted after climbing down a little bit from the top to let those who were climbing up pass,” said MK. “While waiting, he took pictures, and then he slipped and fell from the side of the ridge.”

“It could be that he was not paying attention when taking photos at a risky section of the trail. Or maybe there were too many people and he had to let go of the rope so that those coming up could use it.”

MK Rahman said there are a lot of reasons why accidents happen but with the proper knowledge and experience, they can hopefully be avoided.

“Some hikers who got lost just went off on their own after viewing photos posted by friends,” he explained. “So it’s important to join a hiking group first and learn the basics. Go with a group of trusted and experienced people whom you can count on.”