Before You Go: a few notes on backcountry safety and etiquette

Backcountry safety

We've all seen beautiful photos of rugged places and wanted to get out there and see them for ourselves. But some of the prettiest places are harder to get to than you may realize, and being in the backcountry has inherent risks. Every year hundreds of unprepared hikers end up missing, injured, or worse — sometimes even putting the lives of search and rescue volunteers at risk. It's extremely important that we follow a few simple safety guidelines when we're in the backcountry — accidents, while unlikely, can happen to anyone at any time, and being prepared and responsible might save your life.

Research and preparation

Do you know what the trail conditions are like? Do you have the right footwear? Have you checked the weather forecast? Are you physically fit enough for the trail? Will you have enough daylight? Many of the trails around BC can be very challenging and physically demanding, and deep snow can linger on the upper slopes well into July. Resources like Vancouver Trails, AllTrails, BC Parks, and the Washington Trails Association are extremely valuable, and chances are good there's something similar for your area. Knowing what you're heading into can help you prepare for the unexpected.

Tell someone where you're going

Leave a note with a friend explaining where you're going, the route you're taking, who is with you, and your expected return time. In the unlikely event that you get lost or injured the police and SAR will know where to start looking for you, decreasing your exposure time and increasing the likelihood that you'll make it out alive.

Bring food and water

I mean, obviously you're bringing a ton of treats and snacks... but don't forget to bring a lot of water too. If you're hiking a steep trail on a hot day you can lose several litres of water easy, and being dehydrated when you're miles from anywhere isn't the best way to spend an afternoon.

The 10 Essentials

Even with the best planning and great weather things can go south, so carry a few items with you in case of an emergency: a flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries (trails can often take longer than expected and most rescues are just hikers who get caught out after dark), a signalling device such as a whistle, extra clothes in case the weather changes or you're forced to spend the night, a pocketknife and firestarter, a lightweight emergency shelter (or even a large plastic bag), extra water and food, a basic first aid kit, some sort of navigation system (compass or gps), and a communications device.

Don't rely on cellular reception

Most of BC doesn't have cell reception, and its extremely likely that your hike won't either. Many of the mountain valleys are narrow, and sometimes you won't get cell service even on short hikes near the city. Bring your phone, but plan on being out of reach.

Stay Alert

Watch where you're going, note trail markers, blazes, and signs, and keep an eye on the time.

Bear Encounters

There are a lot of bears here in BC, and we've come across many while on the trail. While they're usually exceedingly shy (most times you're near a bear you won't even know it) and more scared of you than you are of them, they can attack when surprised or if they feel threatened. If you can, travel in groups and make noise while you're hiking, especially in thick brush with low visibility or near loud creeks that might obscure your noise. If you do see a bear, stop and assess the situation. Are there cubs nearby, or a cache of carrion it might want to protect? If the bear hasn't noticed you, consider slowly backing away the way you came, or if you must continue make some noise and give it a very wide berth. If the bear has seen you and is making a lot of noise huffing and snorting and stamping and bluff charging, chances are it's just trying to tell you it needs more space. Try to appear non-threatening by remaining still and calm, speak in an appeasing voice, and increase your distance. But if the bear is approaching quietly there might be a problem — it may just be curious, but it might also be testing its dominance or see you as prey. Talk firmly, get out of its path, and if it continues to follow you shout at it, make yourself look large, and prepare to stand your ground and fight for your life. Bear attacks are rare, and they are less aggressive than dogs or spiders or snakes, but they are strong and unpredictable and it's often a good idea to carry some bear spray or other deterrent just in case.

Another issue is storing all food, garbage, and other attractants securely and out of reach. If you're camping, store food and do all cooking and cleaning at least 200ft from where you'll be sleeping. Keep all food, garbage, pots and utensils, toothpaste and other fragrant toiletries in a bear-proof canister or hang it from a tree 10ft off the ground and 6ft from the trunk (instructions here). If bears come to associate people with food they can lose their natural fear and become aggressive and dangerous and might have to be killed. Please don't let that happen.

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For more information on staying safe in the backcountry, check out the AdventureSmart, North Shore Search & Rescue, Coquitlam Search & Rescue, and Get Bear Smart websites

Leave No Trace

Please respect the places you find on Field & Forest. Always practice Leave No Trace principles, know local regulations, and don't damage these amazing places for a photograph. Let's keep our wild places pristine, so they can continue inspiring people for generations and remain a healthy habitat for plants and animals to thrive in.

Plan ahead and prepare

Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you're visiting. Visit in small groups when possible, avoid times of high use, and repackage food to minimize waste.

Travel and camp on durable surfaces

Protect sensitive riparian areas by camping at least 200ft from lakes and streams, and try to stay on durable surfaces like existing trails or campsites, rock, gravel, dry grass, or snow. Stay on trails, don't cut corners on switchbacks, and don't widen a muddy trail by walking on the sides. Keep your campsite small and focus on areas where vegetation is absent. Or if you're in a pristine area, try to spread out to prevent the creation of campsites and trails, and avoid areas where impacts are just beginning. The old adage of "take only photos, leave only footprints" is a good start... but if possible, try to minimize even your footprints.

Dispose of your waste properly!

One of the most obvious and important points is to pack out everything you brought in. Don't leave your trash! This includes toilet paper and other hygiene products — there's nothing more disgusting than hiking up to a scenic viewpoint and finding used toilet paper all over the place. Bring a ziploc bag and pack all that stuff out. Deposit solid human waste in cat-holes dug 6–8" deep, at least 200 feet from all water, trails, or camp — or get the Parks Service biowaste bags and pack that out too. If you use soap to wash, carry your wash water 200ft away from all water sources, use small amounts of biodegradeable soap, and scatter your used washwater.

Leave places the way you found them

Preserve both natural and historic environments: examine but do not touch cultural or historic structures or artifacts. Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects as you found them, and do not build structures or alter the landscape. The best campsites are found, not made.

Minimize campfire impacts

Campfires can cause lasting impacts on the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking, and a flashlight or candle for light. If fires are permitted, use established fire rings and keep fires small, only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand, burn all wood to ash, put the fire out completely, then scatter the cool ashes.

Respect wildlife

Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow, approach, or feed animals. Feeding wildlife can damage their health, alter natural behaviour, and expose them to predators and other dangers. Protect wildlife (and your food) by storing all your food and garbage securely and out of reach. And try to avoid wildlife altogether during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or in winter.

Be considerate of others

It's important to respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience. Be courteous and yield to others on the trail, and if you can, try to give other hikers and campers some space by taking your breaks and setting up your camp away from other people. Have fun and enjoy yourself, but leave your stereo at home and try not to be too loud or make a lot of noise. Remember, people are out there to experience nature, not listen to you ;)

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For more info and guiding principles about backcountry sustainability, visit Leave No Trace

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