Recently I wrote about watching too many murder mysteries. Well, in an effort to diversify my viewing habits, I unwittingly surfaced an even scarier breed of entertainment: outdoor survival movies. It shouldn’t be surprising for me. After all, watching 127 Hours and Into the Wild weren’t just cautionary tales for me, they were horror stories pure and simple. As it turns out, as much as I am afraid of murderers and rapists like the vast majority of the population, my biggest fear is actually dying alone in nature. It may seem irrational, but given how much time I used to spend in the great outdoors, it is actually far more statistically probable than my being murdered.
This weekend, we watched a little-known Canadian movie called Backcountry. Years ago I watched a really bad made-for-tv horror movie about an insane predatory bear in the woods, so bad in fact that even a thorough Google search didn’t surface its name, and I expected Backcountry to be similarly kitschy, unrealistic and full of over-the-top bad special effects. Well, Backcountry was kitschy for sure, but it was also more terrifying than I expected. Long story short, a couple gets hopelessly lost in the Northern Ontario wilderness and then gets attacked by a really unusually pissed off black bear. I’ll spare you the spoilers but suffice it to say that there were many, many a scene that I actually couldn’t watch because it was too graphically awful and horrifying. And when someone wasn’t in the midst of a vicious bear attack, I was experiencing deeply unsettling discomfort at the thought of being so very lost in such a vast wilderness.
Perhaps the fear of being lost in nature comes naturally to me, care of many of my own near-getting-lost experiences, one of which actually occurred in Ontario’s wilderness. That was the near-getting-lost event that sticks with me the most because in the depths of Ontario’s forests there are no directional markers. Out West, I would be more likely to identify mountain ranges that would give me a sense of direction and, because the West is so mountainous, it always feels at least a relatively safe bet to just walk downhill. In Ontario, however, there are no peaks and valleys and I can personally attest to the fact that every “viewpoint” from escarpments in the forest looks identical, to the point that even within a two hour hike I convinced myself that my brother and I were walking in an endless circle, destined to die from hypothermia on an unseasonably cold day in October.
Alas, we clearly survived, but that experience has stuck with me. What made Backcountry even more terrifying was the added element of bear attack. I can think of nothing worse than being near death from a bear attack and also having no idea if you are heading towards safety or further into danger. To say watching this film was a bad way to spend a Saturday night is an understatement. Not only was I left emotionally scarred, albeit temporarily, but it also made me solemnly vow that:
I will never hike in Ontario again. Ever. Apparently, bears be crazy out there.
I will never go deep into any nature by myself again.*
I am done with outdoor survival films as a genre. My naturally anxious self does not need reminders of human vulnerability to the elements…and sadistic wildlife.
*I reserve the right to revoke this second statement at such time that the shock value from watching this film wears off, which is not quite yet, but hopefully soon.
Does anyone else watch Dateline and 48 Hours Mysteries and Criminal Minds? Does anyone out there have a backlog of 26 episodes of those shows (combined, not each….as if that’s somehow better)? No? Just me? Well, let me tell you, don’t get started. If you do, you will turn an utterly innocent event into the most terrifying moment of your life. You will be convinced that you and your boyfriend and his parents are about to be viciously bludgeoned to death in a peaceful campground in Washington State. In fact, as the event is happening, you will hear Lester Holt narrating the tragic story of your death, his measured and slightly lilting voice commenting on the irony of such a horrific event happening in a place meant to be a relaxing respite from the daily grind. It’s not pretty and it’s not worth it.
As you can tell, I had a bit of a scare last weekend, a moment in which I experienced legitimate terror even though there was actually zero threat to our safety. We were down at the campground enjoying the great outdoors, chilling around the propane fire pit (fire bans are in effect everywhere here). It was around 10 pm when my boyfriend’s mother decided to go to bed. My boyfriend wanted to go for a walk to see if any stars were visible since it was supposed to be epic meteor shower season, never mind that it was almost completely cloudy. At any rate, we left the fire pit behind, and his father putting away the last couple of things in the shed. All was good, one might even say idyllic.
When we returned, my boyfriend’s father was no longer outside, so we turned off all the lights around the trailer and settled inside to get ready for bed. We’d been in bed for maybe 20 minutes or so when I heard a shuffling noise outside that got progressively louder. At first, I tried to tell myself it was just a wild animal. But then there was a very clear sound of someone pushing something heavy on the deck. I poked my boyfriend “Hey, do you hear that?”. He mumbled and then fell back asleep. Then, even in the total darkness outside, I saw a figure move past the window.
My heart jumped ten feet outside of my chest. Someone was outside. At best, he had robbery on his mind. At worst, it was murder. The possibilities escalated quickly in the dark corners of my mind. I poked my boyfriend harder and said “there’s someone out there!!!!” He jumped up, I turned on a light inside, he yelled “HEY!” and it sounded as though the person outside was heading away from the trailer. For a brief second I felt relief that whoever it was was fleeing on foot, but still terrified that my perfect weekend getaway destination might be a hotbed for crime.
Then things got even scarier. My boyfriend headed for the door as if he was going to go outside to check things out. I watch enough murder shows: you do not go investigate the situation. You do not poke the bear. I was in the midst of telling him that he was not going out there when I saw the door handle wiggle. Someone was trying to get in our trailer!!!!! That was it, I was in full-blown “we are about to get murdered” mode. I held onto that door handle like there was no tomorrow…because I feared there would actually be no tomorrow.
That was the moment when my boyfriend calmly said “Is that you, dad?”
And it was. Apparently, he’d still been out in the shed and we’d turned all the lights out and locked the door on him, so he had been stumbling around in the dark trying to find his way to the door to get in. Regardless of the situation’s innocence, or my boyfriend’s mocking (as though he hadn’t at all contemplated that it was more than a petty thief, pft!), it took me a solid half hour to calm down out my terror mode.
Only once I was calm again, and as I lay in the quiet of the night, did I firmly vow: no more murder mysteries…
Many of us hit the trails because they offer reprieve from the noise and stress and busyness of daily life. In nature, we find quiet, often solitude, and the ability to hear nothing but our own breath and footsteps. The calming effect cannot be denied. Research has shown that being in nature can lower blood pressure, stress hormones, heart rate and muscle tension. In other words, nature for the win!
Sometimes, though, we don’t find quiet and solitude on the trails. As an example, this weekend we tried to take my mom into Kananaskis to get her nature on. What we encountered en route was a highway jammed with traffic care of long weekends, and three accidents in a 50 kilometre stretch. A plan B was in order but, unfortunately, that plan B involved swarms of other nature seekers.
Instead of tranquility and solitude and the peaceful hush of nature, we found:
-a crowded parking with illegal parkers blocking valuable driving territory and hikers wandering aimlessly mid-road
-the constant drone of loud conversations
-trail “traffic jams” (i.e. getting stuck behind large groups and a steady stream of slow walkers)
-a canyon floor full of hikers milling about like cattle on the range, rendering humanless picture-taking a near impossible task
Sounds awful doesn’t it? It’s certainly not my ideal. The reality is that more of us are trying to escape to nature and you don’t always have the time nor energy (nor fitness level, in my case!) to seek out the more remote and lesser known trails. Never fear, though, for you can still enjoy the well-travelled trails even when they’re crowded. Here’s how:
1. Shift your mindset: When we arrived and I saw herd upon herd of hikers swarming the parking lot, my first thought was ‘get me out of here.’ But then I realized that we were out for a family day of fun, a little bit of fresh (albeit slightly smokey) air, and to celebrate my mom’s birthday. All she wanted was to be outdoors with her family. This trail met all those criteria. I had to get over my attitude.
2. Enjoy the company: If everyone else around you is going to be talking and yelling and laughing and hollering, join in the fun. Talk and laugh and drown out everyone’s noise with your own.
3. Whenever possible, choose the lesser-travelled path: Along the route there were numerous places where the path split and rejoined later. We always choose the lesser travelled trail and, in those moments, you could almost forget that there were upwards of a hundred other hikers within a kilometre of you.
4. Look up (waaaaaaay up…okay, that reference will be lost on anyone who isn’t a Canadian child of the 80s who watched the CBC classic the Friendly Giant): It was next to impossible to take a picture without people in it, unless I looked up. But there was so much to see that I would have missed otherwise: canyon walls (even some hieroglyphics!), blue skies, spired peaks, and even the odd hoodoo. Looking at things from a new perspective really can make all the difference.
And so, even if you’re forced to hike with the masses, you can still connect with the joy of nature. Get out there!
Sometimes my trail Tuesday posts start to feel like a steady string of PSAs. Perhaps I’m just becoming a worrier as I age. No matter, today I have yet another trail safety post, this time about staying sun safe in the mountains.
Being a ginger, I am no stranger to sunburns. Being a sissy when it comes to heat, I am also no stranger to minor heat stroke. In other words, sunshine and heat are no joke, and their effects are only amplified when hiking in the mountains. At altitude, less UV rays are blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere, something to the tune of 4% for every 1000 feet of elevation! Combine this with exertion, sweating and heat and you have a recipe for heat stroke and/or sunburn. Yikes!
sun safety for sunshiney trail days
1. Carry extra water: I used to carry tiny ass bottles of water for full day hikes. I never got thirsty. I have no idea why. That changed suddenly and inexplicably a few years ago when I started to experience dehydration in a big way and needed to carry tons of water. I have never experienced such a feeling of mental anguish and physical defeat as when i dropped my last water bottle off the side of the mountain at the tail end of a 32 km day hike in 30+ degree weather. I had to hike out the last 2.5 km, which doesn’t sound like much but it feels long when you’re thirsty, and then had to drive another half hour to get to any form of beverage-selling civilization. Even though I had consumed a full 2 L of water on the hike (before I dropped the last bottle), I was still kicking myself for not having more. Carry a lot of water. A lot.
2. Cover yourself: Wearing a hat, light-weight long-sleeved shirt and pants keeps the rays off your skin, meaning no unsightly sunburns. I used to think it was way hotter to hike in pants, but I’ve found as long as they’re loose fitting and light-weight fabric, they actually feel cooler than shorts. Plus, no one has to suffer the sight of my alarmingly pasty white legs. And don’t forget your sunglasses, particularly if you’re hiking anywhere with snow. Sunshine + snow = hella glare that you don’t want to deal with for hours on end without the benefit of sunglasses. Even if you’re not near snow, the effects of sunshine on your eyes can be quite damaging without UV-blocking sunglasses. If you’re like me and enjoy the wonder of sight, you do not want to mess with your eyes.
3. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen: I know, I know, sunscreen’s not actually good for you either. At least there are more and more natural sunblocks available on the market so you don’t have to fear that you’re trading off a sunburn in exchange for toxic chemicals. As I mentioned, hiking at high altitudes will make the sun’s rays even more damaging to your flesh, even if you think you don’t burn. One summer years ago, I had been hiking so regularly that my legs were beyond needing sunscreen for the average hiking excursion–or so I thought. Then one day I spent 2.5 hours on a ridge top in unobstructed sunshine and it proved to be too much for my delicate flesh. Between the length of time and higher elevation than my typical hikes, the backs of my legs were done like dinner. I have never had such a defined sunburn line nor a stark contrast between burned and normal flesh. In fact, the line of the sunburn was visible for months. Months. So yeah, wear your sunscreen (see also: cover yourself).
4. Watch for signs of heat stroke: Sometimes heat and exertion will just get the better of you. Pay attention to your body when you’re hiking in the sunshine. Yes, you’re going to get warm hiking in the summer sunshine, but there’s a difference between being hot and heat stroke. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms: headache, dizzyness or light-headedness, rapid heartbeat, nausea, weakness or lack of sweating despite heat. I’ve had mild heatstroke only a couple of times and it was noticeably different than just being hot and tired and, in my case, was definitely due to pushing the limits of distance and elevation gain in high temperatures without sufficient food and water. I’ve learned my lesson. If you see early signs, pay attention and act accordingly (i.e. do something to try to cool yourself down and avoid further overheating), instead of stubbornly continuing to climb upward as I did. That expression do as I say and not as I do is meant for people like me.
Okay, now I promise (I think) to avoid PSAing you to death. From now on in, you can just enjoy your hiking season.
I used to hike. A lot. In fact, in 2015 I tracked my hiking and I ended up covering something ridiculous like 1200 km of trail. I hiked every weekend and many weekdays, and many of these days were 30+ kilometres. There’s so many good things that come from this type of, dare I say, obsessive hiking. I have stunning pictures and memories, I was the fittest I’d ever been, and I had an overwhelmingly positive outlook on life (which, as we’ve seen in this space, is not my natural state of being). Hiking is wonderful.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses. There is a dark side to frequent hiking that no one tells you about. Before you choose to embark on the path of obsessive hiking, I feel compelled to warn you about these unpleasant side effects of hiking. If you’ve already proven yourself an obsessive hiker, perhaps you can identify with some of these very real risks.
Really chapped lips: I own roughly 9000 chapsticks and yet I never seem to actually put one in my backpack. Hiking is dehydrating. Heat is dehydrating. Sun is dehydrating. It’s a triad of dehydration that is disastrous for your lips. I won’t even describe the horror show of peeling and chapping that my lips have experienced after weeks of hiking. Suffice it to say that they have been, at time, nothing other than repugnant.
Comical tan lines: Sunscreen will only do so much. It will keep you from burning but you will still tan with a vengeance and, when that happens, you will amass a collection of ghastly tan lines that will haunt you for the entire season. If you wear hiking boots, get ready for an awkward mid-calf tan line that will make dress-wearing season an embarrassment. Even if you wear trail runners, like I’m prone to doing, you cannot avoid the tank top/backpack patch tan. There are no clean tan lines happening here. It will look like a crochet pattern on your back and shoulders. Own it.
Sweat Rash: All the breathable, sweat-wicking clothing in the world is not going to keep your back dry when you’re hiking for eight hours straight, with a backpack, in 30 degree weather. That back of yours is going to stay…moist (sorry, there’s no other word for it). And with prolonged moisture comes the dreaded sweat rash. Normally this itchy and unpleasant rash clears up in just a day or two. That is, unless you insist on hiking day after day after day (after day). Obsessive hikers note, you may find yourself suffering from a perpetually mild and irritatingly itchy rash on your back, and sometimes even under the lower band of a sports bra. This is real life y’all. You need to know the potential risks of excessive hiking.
Hiker’s feet: This is my affectionate term for a condition that’s anything other than affectionate. No good can come from having your feet stuffed inside insulated hiking boots for 8 hours at a time. The smell is the least of your problems. I never had dainty feet to start with, but I can promise you that excessive hiking made them ten times worse. There were callouses, blisters, rough patches, places where skin was rubbed raw, and so, so much more. I swear my feet got wider and flatter, too. And, thanks to the sheer volume of my hiking, my feet never saw the light of day and were approximately 20 shades whiter than any other part of my leg, which is saying a lot since I’m ghastly pale at the best of times. Flip flops will be your worst enemy. Avoid them at all costs.
If this has made me sound like a hideous monster, I assure you that I’m relatively normal looking in day to day life. But hiking season will take its toll on you. As much as I’m a huge proponent of hiking, I also want you to know what you’re walking into. Consider yourselves warned.
Hiking season is a wonderful time to see beauty, connect with nature, and to find quiet and calm. It’s my own personal opinion that, in order for hiking to be enjoyable, hikers need to demonstrate trail etiquette. Think of trail etiquette like rules of the road. Nobody likes the guy who drives slow in the fast lane, and nobody likes the hiker oblivious to others on the trail. In other words, trail etiquette is an important part of ensuring that everyone can enjoy his or her time in nature.
I’m particularly fussy about trail etiquette for a couple of reasons 1) I’m easily annoyed by others and 2) I want to preserve trails for as long as possible. Today, I’m here to share my own personal rules for trail etiquette. Follow these trail rules and you’ll never be victim to my seething death glare on the trail. If that’s not enough motivation for you, then at least consider our fine planet and help with preserving nature for future generations.
5 Simple ways to show trail etiquette
1. Don’t cut the trail: You don’t want to walk through mud so you step off trail to walk along the forest floor. You don’t want to walk an extra 20 metres so you cut up the slope between switchbacks; someone’s already done it because the “shortcut” is practically carved into the ground. What’s the harm right? The harm is that you’re potentially damaging plant life that’s fragile and important to the ecosystem. The harm is that you’re potentially causing slopes to become less stable over time. Trails have been created to minimize damage to nature. When we go off trail and create trail erosion, we can increase the likelihood of things like mudslides, rock slides, diverted waterways and, ultimately, decommissioned trails. So just stay on the actual trail. What’s a little mud on your boots and extra exercise? That’s part of the accomplishment of hiking, isn’t it?
2. Make room to pass: Oh, few things fuel my inner rage like groups of hikers walking abreast, completely oblivious to others on the trail. I get that you’re out with your friends and want to talk, but you can still talk to people walking single file. Keep an eye out for other hikers. If you hear someone behind you, make room for him or her to pass. Technically speaking, descending hikers are supposed to yield to uphill hikers, too. To me, this is a bit old-fashioned and mostly relevant for very narrow trails. What matters most is that you’re paying attention to your surroundings and creating as much space as possible for other hikers to get around you.
3. Pack it in, pack it out: This should be so obvious, but over the years I have seen an alarming increase in garbage on trails, including non-biodegradable waste (i.e. plastic bags and wrappers). It goes without saying that this is just bad for the natural environment. I’m just as irritated by biodegradable waste, though. The reality is that an apple core or banana peel isn’t any more indigenous to a mountain region than a candy bar wrapper. I get that no one likes carrying around a smelly banana peel all day, but if you feel that strongly about it, either bring a sealable container to put it in or don’t bring it with you at all. Why? Even though some foods break down in nature, wildlife may still be getting exposed to food that isn’t a part of their natural ecosystem, and that’s just not okay in my books. Any food, tissues, toilet paper, or anything at all that you bring on a trail with you should leave with you. See how riled up I’m getting? It’s not going to get any better with the next couple of rules!
4. Do not feed wildlife: This is another one of my hot button topics. Chipmunks do not need your trail mix. Squirrels do not need your sandwich crusts. Do not even get me started on how insane you must be to try to feed larger wildlife like deer, moose or *gasp* even bears (don’t laugh, people still get caught doing it). This is a hot topic item for me because when we feed wildlife, they grow accustomed to being fed. Over time, they can become less capable of fending for themselves. Also, the foods that humans carry are not what these animals typically eat. Bread products, chips, crackers, candy etc. are not healthy for wildlife. Keep your food to yourself and help keep wildlife wild.
5. For the love of God, stop blasting your music for all to hear: I am not in nature to hear the latest Justin Bieber or One Direction or whoever your current musical fave may be (I know, I know, I am horribly out of touch with popular music). Over the last few years, I’ve seen more and more groups of hikers carrying portable speakers or using their iPhones to blast music while they hike. I love music, but I don’t want to hear your music, and I certainly don’t want to be subjected to it while trying to unplug in nature. It’s just annoying, and often makes it so that you can’t hear other hikers approaching and trying to pass. But mostly it’s just annoying. If you feel the need to rock out while hiking, here’s my tip for you: headphones. Sure, it’s not the safest suggestion, but at least you won’t be irritating everyone else around you (i.e. me).
There you have it, follow these rules and you’ll be widely revered as a courteous and nature-minded hiker…and, perhaps even more importantly, you won’t ruin my day of hiking! Happy trails.
Spring is finally starting to arrive here, which has me thinking about hiking. When the sun is out and temperatures are rising, it’s tempting to want to get cracking on your hiking bucket list. However, just because Spring is…springing (see what I did there?) into action where you live, it doesn’t mean higher elevation trails aren’t still in winter’s grip. This is what we call shoulder season, that transition between winter and hiking season, and it’s basically a crap bag of weather and conditions for which you need to be prepared. That’s why today’s post is all about how to prepare for shoulder season hiking.
Quick note: My recommendations here are for lower elevation day hikes during shoulder season, not more ambitious scrambles or mountaineering. That’s not my jam and it requires a considerable amount of knowledge and gear, neither of which I have.
Tips for Picking Shoulder Season Hikes
1. Check mountain forecasts not city forecasts: : It may be sunny and snow-free where you are, but mountainous areas tend to be their own weather systems. Many National, State and Provincial parks have detailed weather reports for their parks, and some even have weather stations within the parks. These will give you far more accurate expectations for weather conditions on the trail.
2. Whenever possible, check trail condition reports: Many parks also provide regularly updated trail condition reports that can keep you informed of all sorts of things that can ruin your planned hike (i.e. avalanche risk, washed out access roads, washed out trails, deadfall on trails, etc.). There are also countless online forums where other hikers provide trail reports. Just be sure to check report dates to ensure you’re actually using recent information.
3. Follow the sun: Your best shoulder season hikes are on trails that get the most daytime sun exposure. They’ll be the first to be snow-free in the Spring/Summer and the last to get a solid base of snow in Fall/Winter. Consider whether the sun’s trajectory is going to work in your favour on your planned hikes. For me, that most often means southwest facing slopes.
4. How low can you go: Low elevation may not yield the most spectacular views but, unless you know what you’re doing in snowy conditions, they are your best bet for hitting the trails during shoulder season. It’s simple science: snow lingers longest at higher elevations. You have all summer to summit peaks and to get epic panoramic views. Keep it low in shoulder season.
what to take, what to wear & what to know
It’s important to note here that basics like first aid kits and other safety gear should be carried year round, so I haven’t included those items below. Though much of the gear I have mentioned below is also helpful year round, I think it’s particularly critical for the varied conditions you’ll encounter during shoulder season.
1. Light-Weight Waterproof Jacket: It may not be raining or snowing at the trail head. It might even appear to be a perfect day. But I promise you that even a couple hundred metres of elevation gain can leave you standing in drastically different conditions, not to mention that weather systems generally change more quickly in the mountains.Take it from me, the girl who never carried a rain coat and nearly froze her ass off several times in the dead of summer: a compact, light-weight waterproof jacket will offer great protection against rain, snow and wind when temperatures don’t warrant a full-on winter coat.
2. Microspikes: The earlier in the season you attempt to hike, the more likely you’ll encounter some form of snow or ice. I have been ill-prepared for many a shoulder season hike and have descended very long sections of trail only by combining a fierce crab-walk with some anxiety-riddled tree hugging. I don’t recommend either. Microspikes barely take up any room and will save you from making a spectacle of yourself in front of more prepared hikers (not that I would know anything about that).
3. Hiking Boots: I hate hiking boots. They are clunky and heavy and they interfere with my ability to feel the trail beneath my feet. Vanity alert: I also don’t have the leg shape to pull off hiking boots with shorts. Whenever possible, I’m the first to go with trail runners for any hiking experience. The one exception is shoulder season. If it’s not slush or snow, it’s going to be mud. Any and all of these will lead to wet feet if you’re stubborn (like I’ve been in the past) and refuse to wear your hiking boots. You have all summer to hike in trail runners or low day hikers but this is the time to keep your feet insulated and dry. For most moderate snow conditions, I find that hiking boots suffice, though there are the odd occasions when even gaiters would’ve been welcome.
4. Gloves & Toque/Hat: It’s generally good form to carry these two items, but it’s especially important during shoulder season. Should temperatures or weather change, you will be far happier. I’ve also been known to use my hands to help me climb through steep sections of snow. Do that with bare hands just once and you’ll pack gloves forevermore.
5. Poles: I wrote about how much I hate carrying poles in another post in which I recommended carrying them in case of injury. Well, trekking poles are equally helpful for shoulder season in case you encounter snow and ice. They will give you a little extra stability, particularly descending on snow or crossing steep snow slopes. I’ve also used them to test snow depth and stability when on unfamiliar terrain (more on unfamiliar terrain later).
6. Headlamp: Hiking in shoulder season can sometimes take longer than expected due to trail conditions, we sometimes forget the days are still shorter, and it can seem a lot darker in the woods than out in the open. If you are unexpectedly slower than planned, a headlamp is a great thing to have on hand. They’re cheap, light-weight and a lot brighter than the built-in flashlights on smart phones.
6. Know your route and know your limits: If you do encounter snow during shoulder season, it’s entirely possible your route won’t be easily identifiable. There may be no track to follow, and not all routes have tree markers. Let me tell you that even when I’ve been on trails I’ve hiked a million times in Summer conditions, I’ve found snowy conditions change the landscape enough that it can be disorienting and you can easily be led astray. Even if there are tracks in the snow, you can’t be entirely sure that previous hikers are on the right routes or travelling safely. Snow is an entirely different ballgame and what looks like sturdy snow may not be. If you’re unsure of the trail’s direction or snow stability, call it a day and wait for warmer weather to finish the trail. Safety first!
With the right gear and information, shoulder season hiking can be absolutely stunning. If you don’t believe me, here’s just a taste of the tranquility you can find: