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.
RESEARCH AND PREPARATION
Do you know what the trail conditions are like? Do you have the right footwear? Have you checked the weather forecast? Will you have enough daylight? Many of the trails around the PNW can be very challenging and physically demanding, and deep snow can linger on the upper slopes well into July or even August. Resources like Vancouver Trails, AllTrails, BC Parks, and the Washington Trails Association can provide extremely valuable information, and 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 home safe and sound.
PACK YOUR SNACKS
If you're hiking a steep trail on a hot day your body 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. Bring lots of water! And snacks can help keep your energy levels high.
Even with the best planning things can go wrong, so always try carry a few extra items just in case: a flashlight or headlamp (plus spare batteries) and extra clothes in case the weather changes or you're forced to spend the night, a signalling device such as a whistle, a basic first aid kit, and some sort of navigation system (compass or gps) and a reliable satellite communications device, especially if you’re going off trail.
DON'T RELY ON CELLULAR RECEPTION
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.
While there are plenty of bears here in BC it’s pretty rare that you’ll encounter one. Best practice is to avoid them if you can by travelling in groups and making loud noises while you hike and by cooking and securing all food and scented attractants well away from camp either out of reach in a tree or in a bear vault. If a bear learns 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.
But still, if you’re out hiking often enough you’ll eventually see bears. While they're usually shy and more scared of you than you are of them, they may attack when surprised or if they feel threatened. Making noise while you're hiking can help a lot, especially in thick brush with low visibility or near loud creeks. If you do see a bear, stop and assess the situation. Are there cubs nearby, or a food source 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 slowly increase your distance.
But if the bear is approaching quietly be extra aware — it may just be curious, or it might be testing its dominance or even 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’re shockingly strong and unpredictable and we'll often carry some bear spray or other deterrent just in case.
LEAVE NO TRACE
Please respect the places you visit. 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. 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.
CAMP & TRAVEL ON DURABLE SURFACES
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.
DISPOSE OF YOUR WASTE PROPERLY
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.
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 — you really shouldn’t have to pick and kill wildflowers to enjoy them, just appreciate them as they are.
MINIMIZE CAMPFIRE IMPACTS
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.
PLS BE CONSIDERATE OF OTHERS
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 to experience you ;)
For more info and guiding principles about backcountry sustainability, visit Leave No Trace