Hiking is no joke, and we shouldn’t make it one.

Hiking seems to be gaining popularity as more and more people begin to experience the physical and mental health benefits it offers. In fact one could argue that it has become trendy to create social media posts about hiking (the irony is not lost on me) and make the claim on your dating profile that you enjoy hiking, or that you are a hiker.

Along with the popularity of hiking comes the trolls who want to minimize what hiking actually is. It does not help that if you look up the definition of hiking you get “to walk for a long distance, especially across country or in the woods,” a rather simplistic explanation of what hiking actually entails.

This simplistic definition also leads way to jokes such as Demetri Martin’s “Hiking is just walking where it’s okay to pee,” or “oh… you like hiking; you mean walking uphill!” Although I am a fan of Demetri Martin, especially his joke about the benefit of pjammas having pockets so you don’t have to hold things while you are sleeping, there is a danger of such jokes simplifying hiking down to walking.

I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Here we are surrounded by mountains that we can access year round. Hiking is very popular here, so much so, that there are a number of hikes that should just be avoided due to the numbers of people that hit the trails to get to viewpoints that are often too crowded to even get to. The quest for “the instagram moment” seems to be quite a draw; however, I cannot blame people for our mountains offer up some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. It does; however, also seem that as the popularity of hiking increases so does the number of people that need to be rescued.

The number of people that are unprepared for “the great outdoors” is not decreasing. I remember my first encounter with the “unprepared hiker” was as a kid. My father had taken me up Black Tusk in late September and we had just spend the weekend at lake Garibaldi. On our way back down , late afternoon, we passed two “hikers” in shorts and running shoes who had the goal of getting up to the tusk and back. Garibaldi lake was about 9km up switchbacks from the parking lot. Black Tusk was about another 7 km out from the lake. In total, these people in shorts and running shoes had planned to do 30km out and back hike with no packs, inappropriate footwear and insufficient clothing. Did I mention that the second night, we were at the lake, it snowed on us? The number of variables that are uncontrollable are infinite, and the dangers that can come along with those variables need to be respected.

Recently (Oct. 27th, 2020) the Lions Bay Search and Rescue team along with North Shore Search and Rescue (real life superheroes!) had to assist a couple of hikers that had missed a turn off to The Lions trail and accidentally proceeded up the Harvey Basin trail. They ended up losing the trail, due to snow. It is easy to miss a trailhead or a turnoff if you aren’t being careful; however, if we really look at this situation there is more to it than a simple missed turn…

Both of these trails are a pretty good distance. Lions Binkert trail is about 16km, round trip, with an approximate elevation gain of 1300m. The Harvey Basin trail is about 15km, round trip, with an elevation gain of about 1200m. So the problem was not so much just about a wrong turn, since both trails are similar. This was very much about not being prepared, and not looking after the variables within your control.

Start with a trip plan and share it!!!

If you look at distance alone, a 15km walk would take you a few hours; however, hikes like the ones mentioned above, are 8-9 hour hikes. That is three times the amount of time for the hike than it is for the walk, and distance is not the only issue. Research the trail. Look at how long it will take you. Read the trail reviews. This will give you so much information at what to expect from the trail, and what to expect from the trail during the time of year you are using it. Then when you have a plan with approximate timing, share it to someone. Let them know where you are going and how long you will be. Even if it is a short hike.

Don’t put so much faith in your cellphone!!!

As great as you think your cellphone provider may be, they aren’t. It doesn’t take long, when hiking into the trees, before you lose service, or it becomes quite spotty. Relying entirely on you cell service for safety could be the difference between life and death. If you need a map of where you are hiking, take screen shots, or better yet always take a printed copy, and a compass just in case you can’t get a internet connection or your battery dies. This again is where the trip plan comes in. If you get turned around, or injured with no cell service the trip plan will be your backup. Along with bright clothing, this will be a huge help if you do need assistance on the trail. Speaking of clothing…

Plan your clothing!!!

But it’s sunny out so I’ll be fine in shorts and a t-shirt! No… you won’t.

As you climb, conditions can change… quickly. This varies a little but on average temperature drops by about 1.0 degree Celsius for every 100m gain in elevation or 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet. That means that for both of the above mentioned trails, from top to bottom, there would be an approximate temperature drop of 12-13 degrees celsius, or 53.5-55.5 Fahrenheit. This is a big temperature swing. It is a difference of rain to snow, mud to ice. Thin sweaty cotton will freeze.

When found the rescued hikers, mentioned above, were wearing dark camouflaged clothing that was frozen solid, and very inappropriate footwear, also frozen (see images below). This could have been avoided by doing something every hiker needs to do…

carry a pack!!!

I often wonder why so many people don’t wear a pack? Is that it will wreck their carefully coordinated outfit? Is it because it adds weight and makes the hike harder?

You don’t need a massive pack. In fact sometimes I just carry a leg-bag; however, you need to carry certain things. Food, water, first-aid kit, emergency blanket, an extra layer of clothing, a flashlight or headlamp. The fact is that you don’t know what variables will change, but you can prepare for certain things. They may not happen, but if they do it makes it a lot easier to be ready for them. On top of these things I always carry bear spray, an airhorn or whistle, and a multitool. I want to be safe, I want to keep my children safe, and I want to keep my dogs safe. Especially where I live, you never know when you might come across a bear, a cougar, or even an aggressive off leash dog.

A daypack doesn’t need to weigh you down. In fact, you should aim to keep a daypack below 10% of your body weight (if you are 150lbs try and keep it under 15lbs). If you are still unconvinced, next time you are at the gym pick up a 15lbs weight and think about whether carrying that on your back is worth avoiding much bigger problems… like being rescued by LBSAR, or North Shore Search and Rescue.

These are the three most basic things that you can do to stay safe hiking. Remember, a 2 hour 10km walk around a city park is not the same as 6 hour 10km hike with a 900m elevation gain. Walking and Hiking are very different things, and should be seen that way. Joking comparisons do nothing to keep people safe, and it doesn’t matter who you are, you are not immune to the ever changing variables that hiking offers up. Losing your way, changing weather, or injuries become very serious when surrounded by trees with spotty cellphone service.

Be prepared, it is worth the extra effort.

If you still think that hiking is just glorified walking, I suggest that you watch Search and Rescue North Shore (https://www.knowledge.ca/program/search-and-rescue-north-shore). This is an amazing docuseries about the amazing volunteers who will be there when you need them. The stories they tell will provide you insight into how a little preparation on your part can prevent you from ever having to need their assistance.

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