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How to Hike Safely

Hiking is a fantastic way to get outside and enjoy Alberta’s beautiful backyard! Obviously, we are partial to the hiking trails in Kananaskis, but there are just so many incredible places to explore! No matter where you are hiking, there are certain things to take into consideration and certain things to plan for to make sure that you have the most enjoyable experience possible. Check out our top five list of things you need to do and know before heading out hiking:

1. Research Your Route

One of the most important things you need to know is where you are going. Researching your potential route can take on many forms such as: talking to locals or professional guides. reading blog posts, referencing trail guides, etc.

Once you have a trail in mind, check a second source for information. For example, if a local tells you about it or you read a random person’s blog post on it, look it up in a reputable trail guide. If you are liking the sounds of the trail, then it’s time to look it up on a topographical map. Topo maps (like the Gemtrek ones for the Kananaskis Area) are an incredibly valuable tool in the planning stage of the hike as well as when you are actually out hiking. All of this planning can be done well in advance of the day of the hike, and it’s something you can make fun for the whole family! If you have kids, show them on the map where you are going and share with them what you hope to see. Ask them to use their imagination and tell you a story about what you are going to see along the hike.

Closer to the day of the actual hike, check the local trail reports for closures due to weather or bears, or other unforeseeable conditions. This is where it’s a good idea to have a backup plan for the trail so that if the trail you wanted to hike is closed for some reason, you can still get out for an awesome day outside!

2. Hike in Your Comfort Zone

While it’s great to challenge yourself with new terrain and bigger, longer hikes, you never want to get so far in over your head that you end up in trouble. Take manageable risks and if doing something that is way more difficult than you are used to, then go with someone who has done that route before, or who has more experience than you. Think about all the members of your group and pick something that is appropriate for everyone. You definitely want to always be expanding your horizons in terms of what you are hiking, but take it in steps and work yourself up to the big stuff!

3. What To Carry

This is by no means a complete list of everything you need to carry for every hike, but these are the basics that you should never forget.

  • Map (more helpful with a compass, especially if you know how to use it)

  • Headlamp or light of some kind, even for daytime hikes

  • Enough food and water for all members of the group, including pets!

  • First Aid Kit (throw in some extra moleskin for blisters!)

  • Emergency blanket, or extra layers

  • Sunscreen, sunglasses (bug spray is also a good idea)

  • Bear Spray

Everything in your hiking ’emergency kit’ or ‘go bag’ can be packed into a dry bag (except for the bear spray!) and stuffed into your backpack so it is safe and dry if you need it.  Bear spray should always be kept accessible and on the outside of your pack, or on a belt so that it is there if you need it.

Bears of Kananaskis4. Bear Spray

If you are hiking in the mountains, then you are hiking in Bear Country, no exceptions. There is always the chance to encounter a bear on any given trail, at any given time. To avoid encounters, you should make noise, preferably in the form of talking to the other members of your group. Talking is a distinctly human sound, so you are less likely to surprise a bear, and most encounters happen due to surprise.

“So what about bear bells?”

There is a lot of controversy over whether or not bear bells work, but a lot of experts agree that they are not an effective way to prevent bear encounters. The noise is repetitive and can sound like a bird, so it is easily tuned out by bears. Talking is a far more effective way to prevent a bear encounter. Bells will 100% not stop a bear if it chooses to stalk or attack you; this is where bear spray becomes a necessity. Bear Spray is proven to stop aggressive bears.

The second most important thing after carrying bear spray is knowing how to use it. It’s not very useful for you if you don’t know what to do with it, so make sure that when you buy it, you ask the store selling it how to use it. We always give a full demonstration with empty cans and make sure people feel comfortable using it before sending them off into the world. There is also a lot of good information on the bear spray can itself, so make sure you read it. Alberta Parks has also created a great video showing how to use bear spray, you can watch it here.

5. Tell Someone Where You Are Going

This final step is a very important one: always make sure someone knows where you are going and when to expect you back. Set a ‘due back by’ time and have a procedure in place for if you do not check in with your safety person at the designated time. In Kananaskis, when there is an overdue hiker, you can call Kananaskis Dispatch and the dispatcher will help you work through finding the missing hiking party. For this step to be effective, the reporting person needs to know some specific information: Where the group is hiking, the name of the trail/route, trailhead name, what vehicle to expect at the trailhead, etc. 

You can see how a little planning can make for an amazing hike, with less chance of things going sideways on you. While we love being spontaneous as much as the next person, when it comes to personal safety, it is better to play it on the safe side.

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