After a couple months of lockdown, a hike outside can be just what the doctor calls for. The fresh air, the crunch of pine needles under your feet, bird song floating through the air, chipmunks scurrying over nearby rocks; mother nature's paradise! I fell in love at an early age and have made it my life's mission to bring the joy of nature to others through my photography, videography and conservation efforts. Whether it's a close encounter with a Galapagos shark, patiently hiding out to catch a glimpse of majestic grizzly fishing for salmon or watching local marmots frolic, I always remind myself that I am a guest in their home and need to show them appropriate respect so we can all enjoy the experience.
We are blessed to live in a country that has so many nature wonderlands available for our use, even during these COVID-19 times. Whether you plan to venture to the city park, provincial park or national park, there are some basic safety tips everyone should know to help keep you and the family healthy, happy and make the most of your outdoor adventure! I have laid these out in a stepwise fashion below. Make it a fun family routine to run through the steps together or assign each person a different responsibility for the hike.
Step 1 - Research Your Hiking Route
"Fail to plan, plan to fail." A little route research ahead of time will ensure you are prepared for the trail conditions and minimize your risk of getting lost. There are many great websites and social media groups available that provide up to date information on hiking trails. My wife and I headed out to a popular Kananaskis hiking trail on the May long weekend. Thankfully, we checked the app and packed our snowshoes because of recent trail reviews. Turns out that 7 km of the 16.5 km trail were still snow covered (waist deep in some places). If we didn't plan ahead our 2 hour drive out might have been disappointing and fruitless but instead we got to enjoy a hint of winter wonderland and a fun hike / snowshoe!
Step 2 - Weather Check
Check the weather before you go. And remember that in most areas of Canada, the weather can change dramatically on a dime, so be prepared with extra layers. "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes", is a common Swedish maxim that means get outside! No matter the weather, if your clothes are appropriate, you can have a fantastic time. Some of my favourite outdoor experiences have been in a balmy, -30degC setting or a torrential downpour. A little rain? No problem with some good waterproofs on hand! Even something as simple as a small plastic poncho tucked away in your day pack can make an unexpected rain shower just another interesting experience in your outdoor adventure.
Step 3 - Pack the Right Gear for Your Hike
This very much depends on where you are going but items to consider include: a small daypack, proper footwear, extra layers of clothing (toque, gloves, warm layer, weather proof layer), sunscreen, insect spray, a flashlight or headlamp, food, drinking water, first aid kit and an emergency blanket.
Step 4 - Carry a Safety Communication Device
Does your hiking trail have cell phone coverage? If not, what is your back up plan if you have an emergency and need to call for help? A cell phone might be all that you need but consider a gps tracking device if you will frequently be outside of cell phone range. Don't forget to tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return.
Step 5 - Carry Bear Spray
And know how to use it! Whenever we have an expired can of bear spray, we take the nieces and nephews out to a big open field and have them practice spraying. As a minimum watch a short video so you can see how it will work if you do need to use it. Here's a great video made by the Alberta Government on how to use bear spray.
On the Trail
Step 6 - Respect the Trail
Stay on the established trails and avoid trail braiding. Many areas off trail are fragile and stepping on them can kill valuable flora. Make it a fun challenge for the kids with a reward at the end if everyone stays on the trail successfully!
Step 7 - Leave No Trace
What do you love most about your time outdoors? The beautiful flowers, magical fossils, pristine nature in all its glory? Don't spoil it for yourself and others. Teach your kids to leave only footprints and take only memories.
Do not pick or collect wildflowers, leaves, other vegetation or deadfall. Picking or collecting rocks, fossils and artifacts is not permitted in the provincial or national parks.
Don't be a litterbug. This includes cigarette butts, food scraps, seed shells (spits, sunflower seeds, etc.) and tissue / toilet paper. It's not okay to throw out food scraps in the forest. Not only are they an attractant to wildlife ("a fed bear is a dead bear"), but they actually take a very long time to decompose and are not native plants. An apple core can take a month to decompose. An orange peel can take up to six months. And a banana peel can take up to two years!
Step 8 - Make Some Noise
Most wildlife encounters can be avoided by the occasional shout. Hiking in an area with bears and cougars? Now would be the time to enjoy a short family sing along or play a game like "I spy" or 20 questions. Shouts have been proven to be more effective than a bell, whistle or horn. This doesn't mean you need to be belting out the hits the entire hike but the odd loud noise every 10 to 15 minutes can help warn wildlife that you are in the area so they will stay away from you. My wife likes to shout out "A-O" every 15 minutes when we are near a noisy creek or in a particularly dense forest.
Step 9 - Keep Your Dog On a Leash
This is mandatory in provincial and national parks. And for good reason. Wildlife regard your pet as either prey or predator. People often think that dogs will alert them to the danger or scare off the bear. However, dogs have been known to trigger bear attacks. As one bear expert pointed out, "In the 92 attacks analyzed between 2010 and 2014, more than half involved dogs and many were caused by dogs." CBC News: Wildlife Safety
If bears are a real risk in the area you have chosen to hike, you might even want to leave the beloved pooch at home for everyone's safety.
Darryl MacDonald is a professional wildlife photographer and videographer with over 25 years in the industry. He runs a small, Calgary based company called Clear Blue Photobut his work takes him all over the world. Darryl leverages his years growing up in the Canadian Rockies, love of nature, background as a wildfire fighter, scuba diving instructor and registered EMT, to leave no trace when he is out and about. He takes great pride in utilizing these skills and knowledge to help keep himself, his expedition teammates and the wildlife safe and happy.