Warning: this may border on preachy. Being adequately prepared for your outdoor adventures is one of my hot button topics. I’ve written about safety supplies and suitable gear before. This weekend I was irked to hear of yet another series of search and rescue expeditions to retrieve hikers from local mountains. All of these trails were front-country, relatively easy half-day hikes in regular hiking season. The common factor among these rescues: individuals were underprepared for conditions, which included snow at higher elevations. The toughest part for me to swallow is that this will be the first of far too many similar rescues in the early season. There is enough that can go wrong in the outdoors even when you’re prepared, so why take the risk of going out unprepared and uninformed?
So as not to sound all negative, I’ll add that I actually think it’s great that people want enjoy nature, and I encourage people to get into hiking. However, I get quite riled up when I hear stories of hikers heading out with minimal gear, unsuitable clothing and footwear, and with little knowledge of what to expect in terms of trail conditions, including the intensity of the hike relative to one’s fitness level. One of the beautiful things about our information age is that there is a ton of information out there to help you know what to expect on a trail. For the love of God, use it!
If you’re going to hit the trails this Spring season, make sure that you’re prepared for conditions:
1. Read up on trail reports: Early season hiking truly is some of the most risky for casual hikers. Warm temperatures and sunshine in lower elevations do not translate to higher elevations, where snow and ice are likely to linger for a long time. Not only that, the snow becomes less stable, which causes a lot more slipping, sliding and post-holing, all of which can cause sudden and unexpected injuries. Trickier conditions can also cause your casual hike to take way longer than expected, which can mean changing conditions and fading daylight can become risks. These aren’t things we tend to think about when it’s 22 degrees at the base of the mountain and yet we should. Provincial, federal, state and national parks have trail reports that are updated fairly regularly, and there are also a number of hiking websites where comments sections are used to provide recent trail conditions. Google is your friend.
2. Pack your gear: I wrote a whole post on being prepared for shoulder season, so I won’t repeat myself here except to say temperatures drop quickly and suddenly in the mountains. If you get stuck waiting for help because of an injury, or even if it’s just that it takes you way longer than you thought to finish your hike, extra layers may save you from discomfort or even mild hypothermia and a headlamp may help you find your way back to the trailhead safely even in the dark.
3. Know your limits: If you hit snow and you’re not comfortable, or your footwear isn’t giving you enough traction, just turn around. I see people labouring (i.e. slipping and sliding) up and down snow-covered trails in street shoes all the time. My completely obvious pro-tip: if it’s hard for you to get traction going uphill, it will be ten times worse coming back down. It’s not worth it. Just because others are easily navigating the trail does not mean it will be easy for you. If you encounter terrain that makes you uncomfortable, do not proceed just because others have no issue with it. We all have different experience levels with various trail conditions. Other hikers may be well-versed and geared for their snowy journey. If you’re not, don’t go.
4. Make sure you have route descriptions or a screen shot of a trail map: Most trails are really well marked, but in snowy conditions trails that are usually obvious may be less so. If you’re not sure you’re on the right track, don’t just keep going. Backtrack to the last time you had a clear trail marker or visible sign of trail. From there, if you cannot identify the actual route, do not keep going.
5. Hike for your fitness level: Particularly in early season, conditions may cause hikes to take longer than you think as well as make the hike more physically draining. There is a big difference in energy exerted on a dry, dirt path vs. post-holing through snow. If you’ve ever had to post-hole through crappy Spring snow, you know this. To add insult to injury, you’re probably less fit than you were at the end of last hiking season. Hiking time estimates are just that. A two-hour hiking time estimate assumes good conditions and average fitness. That could mean you might take 45 minutes or you might take four hours, depending on your fitness and trail conditions. Keep track of your time and don’t assume it’s always faster descending a trail. Turn around if you think you won’t make it back safely during daylight hours.
Okay, I think this concludes my slightly patronizing rant. Like I said, this is a hot button topic for me. Most search and rescue teams are volunteer-based, which means these individuals are often working day jobs and then getting dispatched in the evenings and overnight, giving up their time and putting themselves at risk when searching for hikers. Let’s not put others into greater risk for no good reason. Accidents absolutely happen on trails and we can’t always prevent them, but we can do everything in our power to be informed and prepared.