The Canadian Rockies are a dream come true for hiking enthusiasts. There are hundreds of trails to suit all experience levels, from leisurely wetland boardwalk strolls to challenging mountaintop scrambles. Your hiking efforts are rewarded with astonishing views – icy blue mirror-like glacial lakes, towering craggy peaks dusted with snow, surreal bulbous rock formations, dense green pine forests and roaring rivers rushing through yawning canyons.
However, before you strap on your hiking shoes and head out into the Rocky Mountain wilderness there are a few things that you should know. Hiking in this region can be dangerous, especially due to the unpredictable weather and the wildlife. There have been serious injuries and deaths on the trails, often due to hikers being uninformed and unprepared.
Make sure that you prepare before your trip by learning how to stay safe while exploring this incredibly beautiful part of the world:
Check the weather report before you plan a hike so that you know what to expect. If the forecast calls for rain, be wary of steep mountain trails. The rain will lead to muddy pathways which can make it easier to slip and fall.
Also, consider the fact that as you climb in elevation the climate and weather will change. The temperature will drop and it can rain or snow without much notice. Pack layers of clothing and waterproof gear just in case.
Carry drinking water with you and don’t drink the water from the streams or lakes. It might look clean and beautiful, but it can carry Giardia Lamblia which will give you serious cramps, bloating and diarrhea. If you are going on a long hiking trip you could consider bringing a water filtration device to make the water safe to drink.
You should always tell someone before you go on a hiking trip, so they know when to expect you back. If you haven’t returned by the end of the day, your friend or family member can notify the authorities so that they can start a search for you.
The Canadian Rockies are home to black and grizzly bears and an encounter with either of these animals can be very dangerous. The best thing to do is to avoid encountering a bear in the first place.
Bears don’t like to be around people, so while you are hiking you should make a lot of noise to let them know you are there so that they can avoid you. Sing, talk, clap, call out and attach bear bells to your clothing, especially around streams, berry patches and dense vegetation. Hike in a group of four or more and don’t let children wander away from the group. Always hike only on the marked trails and paths.
If you spot fresh bear droppings, torn up logs, turned-over rocks or a fresh animal carcass, this is a sign that a bear is in the area and you should leave as soon as possible. Any animal carcasses should be reported to park staff.
If you do encounter a bear, what should you do? Here is a great guide that explains a range of different strategies for escape, depending on whether the bear has seen you and whether it is aggressive.
When my English boyfriend first arrived in Canada and we went hiking in the Rocky Mountains, he thought bear spray was like bug spray – something that you applied to your own skin to make the bears avoid you. It’s a good thing we explained this misconception before he tried it out! Bear spray is more like mace or pepper spray, it is a small portable spray canister that will sting the eyes of the bear and cause them to have difficulty breathing. As a last resort, it can stop a bear from attacking you and cause them to retreat. Here is a great guide from Parks Canada on how to use bear spray in an attack situation.
There is also a chance of spotting a cougar while hiking in the Canadian Rockies – and I’m not talking about a flirtatious 40-something divorcee. This guide tells you what you should do if you run into one of these big cats.
Unlike the “play dead” strategy in a bear encounter, in a cougar encounter you should make yourself appear as large and threatening as possible by yelling and waving your arms above your head.
If you are hiking in the mountains in the winter there is a risk of avalanche. Be on guard for any cracks that you spot in the snow and listen out for a “whomp” sound on a steep cliff. If you are not sure whether your hike will take you into avalanche territory, you should check with the visitor information centre before heading out and perhaps even take an avalanche safety class.
Make sure that you bring enough water with you and that you drink it frequently on your trip. It is also important to consume enough calories for the physical exertion of hiking in the mountains. If you are hungry or dehydrated you can quickly become fatigued, which is dangerous when you are in the middle of the wilderness.
Above all, it is important not to embark on a hiking trip in the Rocky Mountains without a little forethought and advance planning. If it is your first time, you might want to bring along a friend or a guide who can teach you how to hike in this region so that you can enjoy the gorgeous vistas safely.