Before You Go

Backcountry Safety & Etiquette

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 a little extra planning and preparedness might save you a load of trouble.


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 can provide extremely valuable information, and chances are good there's something similar for your area. Knowing what you're heading into can help you prepare for the unexpected.


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 safe and sound.


You're obviously packing a lot of snacks... but don't forget to bring some extra 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.


Even with the best planning and great weather things can go south, so always try carry a few items just in case: 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 reliable communications device.


Many wild places don't have cell reception, and in BC it's 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.


Pretty obvious, but just be sure to watch where you're going, pay attention to trail markers and signs, and keep an eye on the time.


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 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 being defensive and trying to tell you it needs more space. Try to appear non-threatening by remaining still and calm, speak in an appeasing voice, and gradually increase your distance.

But if the bear is approaching quietly be extra aware — 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 we'll often 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 your 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 a bear comes to associate people with food it can lose its natural fear, become aggressive, and might need to be killed. Please don't let that happen.

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


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.


Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you're visiting. Is there a campfire ban? Is there a seasonal closure to minimize impacts on animals? Are you required to carry an approved bear canister or other gear? Visit in small groups when possible, avoid times of high use, and repackage food to minimize waste.


Protect sensitive 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 hiking in a group through a pristine area, try to spread out to prevent the creation of worn-down 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 your footprints too.


One of the most obvious 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.


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 — you don't need to kill wildflowers to enjoy them, just appreciate them as they are. And don't build structures or alter the landscape when making camp — the best campsites are found, not made.


Campfires can cause lasting impacts on the backcountry. Please bring a stove for cooking and a flashlight for light. For most of the summer campfires aren't allowed in BC, but even 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.


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.


And lastly, please respect other visitors and do your best to protect the quality of their experience. Leave your stereo at home and try not to be too loud or make a lot of unwarranted noise. Be courteous and yield to others on the trail, and try to give other hikers and campers some space by taking your breaks and setting up camp away from them. Remember, people are out there to experience nature, not listen to you ;)

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