Covid is bringing all kinds of folks out of the woodwork and into the woods; it’s amazing to see people discovering the joys of the outdoors. There are so many benefits to spending time outside: mental clarity, fresh air, connection with nature, and most importantly, a temporary homecoming to that environment for which we were built, both physically and mentally.
We thrive in nature. Yet no matter how many benefits there are to being immersed in it, it can be disheartening to share that space with others who don’t know how to respect it.
A heedless or inconsiderate hiker can often be too easy to spot. And no, it’s not because they’re not wearing expensive outdoor clothing or rocking the latest gear. We stick out like sore thumbs when we’re unprepared for time outside, or when we simply don’t know how to care for nature (which, fortunately, grows with experience).
That being said, even the most hardened hiker can be caught off-guard and get into trouble. Spontaneity and impulsive whims can add a sense of adventure to so many situations in life, but I believe that time in the mountains isn’t really one of them.
Here are several blunders that I’ve learned to (mostly) avoid through experience. With time, we can all learn to be more thoughtfully prepared for our adventures and be more conscientious hikers.
Blunder #1 : Not Doing Your Research
It’s just plain common sense. Doing your research goes a long way toward easing any anxieties you might have and allows you to prepare for most foreseeable situations. As a plus, being well-informed could also allow you to help other hikers in the backcountry.
So what information should you look up? Elevation gains, length and difficulty ratings of the trail (be realistic and honest about your fitness level and technical skills). Parking fees and essential day passes, recent bear activity, potable water sources, possible river crossings. Trail condition reports from the area’s administrative head (such as provincial/state or national parks). For overnight hikes, check for fire bans or campgrounds that need reservations vs a first-come first serve basis.
All of this may seem like a lot, but it takes just 10-15 minutes to acquaint yourself with your next adventure.
Also, research the upcoming weather, then pack for worse weather. More on that in Blunder # 2.
I really enjoy going old school with my favourite hiking guidebooks (Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies), a very thorough and entertaining series written by Cathy and Craig Copeland. I reference their work a lot; I admire their expertise and I respect their opinions tremendously. I cut out relevant pages for the hike I’m doing, then tape them back into the guidebook afterwards. Let’s just say my books look well-loved.
I’m also a fan of paper maps; you can’t always count on GPS-cell reception in the backcountry. The AllTrails app/site is a decent informative start, but for a personal touch and interesting details, I like searching out local blogs. One fun and informative blog about the Canadian Rockies is HikeBikeTravel.
Lastly, there are great digital tools out there, such as GaiaGPS, which allows you to download maps ahead of time and uses satellites to track you and help you navigate your route. You can use either the web app or Smartphone app; here’s a video on how to use GaiaGPS.
Blunder #2: Not Packing / Dressing Appropriately
This is a common blunder for hikers of all levels. We’ve all looked up at the blue sky while stuffing our backpack and forgotten to bring a rain jacket. We’ve all left our house with just a bit of food in our bag because our hike was supposed to be short and easy.
You’d be surprised how often one can get hurt, lost or trapped in bad weather. If you must ever spend an unexpected night on the mountain, be better prepared by packing the bare emergency minimum.
Please wear hike-appropriate gear. Do not wear cotton shirts, pants, or socks; people regularly come down with hypothermia due to improper clothing. Buy shirts that are synthetic (or even better, Merino wool), which wicks away sweat and dries quickly. Wear pants that are water- and wind-resistant. Invest in Merino wool hiking socks. Do not wear your cute Sketchers sneakers or Blundstones; invest in proper hiking boots or aggressive trail runners.
OK. Now that that’s out of the way, here are 9 essentials that I always carry in my backpack. Other lists may vary from mine but in general, these beauties will get you out of most sticky situations.
Water and snacks Always carry more than you think you need. My 2L water bladder is usually full and I carry water purification tablets in my First Aid kit. I’ve had to use water to clean out wounds and have given water away to other parched hikers. On longer trails, I like bringing a small and light LifeStraw.
Headlamp Bring extra batteries in a waterproof bag. Nope, not kidding.
Shelter I like using a 1-2 person emergency space blanket. It’s light and waterproof, and the aluminium lining will keep you warm (and alive) in cold and wet weather.
First Aid kit Blister prevention/treatment plasters, tensor bandage, small knife, pain relievers and water purification tablets. Here’s a full inventory of my First Aid Kits For Hikers.
Bear spray Know how to use it (it is NOT used like bug spray, which is sprayed onto skin and clothing!) and make sure it hasn’t expired. Here’s a short video on how to use bear spray
Sun block (in a small, leak-proof silicone bottle)
Rain-wind-cold protection Long-sleeved shirt, rain jacket (a sturdy poncho also works), tuque/Buff, extra socks, gloves/mitts
Fire starters I bring a bit of dryer lint in a small Ziploc bag (it’s weightless, ignites easily and burns slowly) and waterproof matches.
Navigation Topographical map, compass (but only if you know how to use it) and a personal locator beacon (this is an optional but great addition to your gear).
Not essential but great to have: trekking poles! They can keep you from slipping or falling, and are very useful when crossing a stream. They ease the tension in your knees, especially on descents, and can help you probe the depth of a mud or water puddle. They can even help protect you from wildlife. For a deeper look inside my hiking backpack, read What To Pack For A Day Hike.
The Canmore Rocky Mountain Outlook reported a dramatic increase in mountain rescues in 2020. A significant part of the problem was trekkers wearing «inappropriate footwear» and hikers who «just don’t have background or experience» … « going for big objectives».
Know your limits, leave your ego at home, dress appropriately and be prepared with proper gear. Search and Rescue personnel are largely volunteer-based; they are NOT paid to rescue your ass because you ran out of water or decided to wear tennis shoes.
Blunder #3: Being Unfindable
Hiking alone isn’t something I do very often; when I do choose to head out alone, I pick a trail that will be well-populated. On a recent (and very busy) hike, a mamma grizzly and her two cubs were spotted further up the trail, so I caught up with the people nearest me, struck up a conversation to generate noise and hung around them until the coast was clear. Who knows, you could make a new friend!
Tell at least two people where you’re going and what time you expect to return. Provide them with a local Search and Rescue number to call if you’re not back by a certain time. If your hiking plans or destination changes, update them.
Whether solo or in a group, I often leave a note on my car dashboard, indicating the hike I’m doing and the date I should be returning. (My full name), hiking Pocaterra Ridge on Sat May 15th. If this car is still parked here on Sun May 16th, please call Search and Rescue at 555-555-5555.
Finally, as expensive as they are, personal locator beacons such as Garmin in Reach or SPOT are great investments. They rely on satellites to call for rescue and to communicate with search groups. Personal locator beacons are the ultimate security blanket for any outdoorsy person. They make perfect Xmas gifts from mom and dad, but only if you’ve been REALLY good all year, as they are quite pricey.
Blunder #4 : Leaving Your Trace Behind
This is probably the most obvious give-away that a hiker on the trail is a complete newbie. Leaving trash behind. (Seriously? It’s 2021! ) Tramping off-trail onto grass or flowers. Throwing an apple core into the woods. Walking on obvious trail braids. Picking wildflowers.
Intentional littering is embarrassingly idiotic and something that shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. But sometimes a small wrapping or twist-tie gets left behind accidentally; take a look around you before leaving your lunch spot to make sure you haven’t left anything on the ground. Place your tissues or wrappings in your pocket to keep the wind from sweeping it away.
Do your best to use the outhouses at the trailhead rather than do your business in the woods. If you must, do it at least 200 feet (70 adult steps) from water sources and dig a hole for feces.
Throwing away organic material (apple cores, bits of fruit) into the bush will attract animals to it, who will then learn to associate food with people (bad for humans, bad for animals). Bring a Ziploc from home to carry all your garbage out. If you packed it in, pack it back out.
Picking wildflowers in a National Park can cost you up to a whopping 500 $ (yes, park wardens issue tickets for that and will follow you back to your car to get your ID or license plate number). Take pictures, but leave the flowers alone.
Tramping on moss or wildflowers that struggle to grow a few inches every spring is just plain amateurish; they already have a hard time surviving without our hiking boots squashing them down.
A great website to reference is LeaveNoTrace, a non-profit meant to increase awareness and education about the outdoors.
Don’t Be A Douche; Know Your Stuff !
Here are a few cool websites to check out :
Aventure Smart A very well put-together website for all types of activities, organized within 5 tabs (Land, Water, Winter, Trip Plan and Kids). A wealth of information on how to be well-prepared, regardless of your type of adventure.
WildSafeBC This program grew out of Bear Aware and is chock-full of wild facts, safety advice and conflict reduction strategies.
So there it is, folks! That pretty much sums up what I believe are the most obvious blunders we hikers are guilty of. When you know better, you do better. So let’s all do better.
See you out there on the trails!