Summer is unofficially here and as the weather warms up more people are heading outdoors for exercise and recreation. When talking about outdoor activities in San Diego, the beach is often the first thing that comes to mind, but the county is also home to hundreds of miles of hiking and bike trails, fifteen of which are located within the boundaries of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District.

While hiking and biking are fairly safe activities that can be enjoyed by individuals or entire families, accidents can happen. Every year individuals find themselves needing assistance, even rescue, on the trails due to medical conditions, getting lost, or just plain accidents. Whether spending time on trials in the back-country or within the city limits, taking the time plan your excursion and following some basic tips can minimize your chances of experiencing a problem and maximize your enjoyment of the outdoors.

Research the trails ahead of time. Select a trail that is an appropriate level of difficulty for the most inexperienced member of the group and find out approximate trail times. If the trail is a back and forth hike rather than a loop hike make sure you know the round trip time. One of the most common reasons hikers get lost is they underestimate the how long the hike will take and lose their way in the dark.

Know your limitations. Be honest with yourself as to what you are and are not capable of both physically and mentally and plan accordingly.

Always tell someone where you are going. Plan ahead and know which trail or trails you are going to take. If you change your mind, let your contact know. It is also a good idea to let them know what time they can expect you back or to hear from you. You can also leave a note on your car windshield with the same information, which will aid rangers should you not return to your car.

Hike with someone or a group. This is especially true in large parks where trails are less congested and therefore it less likely someone will happen by to assist you should something go wrong. Having someone with you means one can go for help if the other is injured or becomes ill.

Take a cell phone with you. Cell phones do receive a signal in many of our parks and can be a lifeline in case of an emergency. Emergency dispatchers are in direct contact with many of the parks throughout the county, facilitating the park’s ability to send for help in a more immediate manner. It should be noted, however, that cell phones do not always work on the trails, especially those that are more remote, and a back-up plan is advised. Similarly, GPS devices can be a great tool, but they do not always work on the trail and are not always 100% accurate. A back-up method of keeping track of your location, such as a current trail map, is recommended. Whistles are a great alternative to technological devices and a simple tool for attracting attention to oneself with limit effort. Always know where you are on the trail. Take a mental note every time you merge with a different trail or cross a trail marker.

Plan for the weather. A cool day in the city may be warmer out on the trails while a warm summer evening at home might be chilly in the back-country. Additionally, a hike that starts in the heat of the day may not end until the chilly evening. Plan accordingly for any possible changes in temperatures and weather. Sunscreen should also be worn and reapplied as necessary, even on cool or cloudy days.

Bring enough water. Heat-related illness can be a major problem for hikers and leads to many rescues every year. Even on a cool day it is important to take enough water with you on the trails. Two quarts per person for every two hours will you be hiking is recommended.

Make a check list of items to take with you. By making the list ahead of you are less likely to forget potentially life-saving items at home. Your checklist should include, but may not be limited to, the following:

• Trail map

• Cell phone

• Whistle

• Water

• Snacks

• Jacket

• Sunscreen

• Wide-brimmed hat

• First aid kit

• Matches

• Signal mirror

• Emergency thermal blanket

• Repair kit (if biking)

• Means for cleaning up after your dog

Pay attention to all posted signs. Signs are often posted at the beginning and end of each trail stating the rules of the park and highlighting things you should know about the trail you are about to take, such as the trail’s name, difficulty level, distance, etc.

Stay on the marked trails. In addition to harming the natural vegetation, taking “short cuts” does not always lead you to where you want to be and you can find yourself confused, lost on a completely different trail, or worse.

If you are hiking with your dog, additional care should be taken. Bring extra water for them and keep in mind that it is very easy for dogs to get overheated on the trails.

If you are biking, make sure you take the proper tools with you. At minimum, the ability to patch a flat tire is a necessity. Helmets are also strongly recommended if not required.

If you do get lost, stay where you are. It is important to recognize that once you are lost, you are lost. Reassess your situation and start focusing on making it easier for someone to find you rather than finding your own way out. Help may already be on the way. Take note of visible landmarks, such as water towers, power lines, or rock formations. If you have cell service and call for help, your description of said landmarks can help rescuers locate you.

By properly planning ahead and taking these simple precautions, you will help ensure a safe excursion while making it easier for help to find you should the need arise. Now that you’re all set, get out there and enjoy the parks and trails of San Diego County.

The mission of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District is “To protect life, property, and environment through prevention, preparedness, education and emergency response.” Formed in 1946, the Fire District now spans approximately 38-square miles and protects over 31,000 citizens. The Fire District currently operates out of four full-time fire stations and serves the communities within and surrounding Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch, and 4S-Ranch.

Jeff Anderson, Parks Supervisor for Olivenhain Municipal Water District; David Hekel, Senior Park Ranger for San Dieguito River Park; and Sgt. Don Parker, San Diego Sheriff Department Search and Rescue Coordinator contributed to this article.