How to Stay Safe on the Trails
The girl guides were right: Always be prepared.
Whether we identify as travellers or not, a lot of us are taking time during the pandemic to connect with nature. Depending on where you live in the world, restaurants, shops, and even parks have been closed, so a lot of us are hitting the trails to enjoy the fresh air. Even if city parks near you are open, the hiking trails are typically less crowded, so you’re able to better practice physical distancing from others.
But here’s the thing: If you’re new to hiking, it’s easy to be under-prepared. Even five minutes from home, things can still go awry in nature.
A few months ago, just as the pandemic was getting started, I decided to head out solo to hike a new trail in the neighbourhood beside mine. I embarked on what should have been a three-hour hike, and ended up spending seven hours on the mountain. I could practically see my apartment from where I was standing, but had lost the trail on the way down and had to call for help. I am not new to hiking, and thankfully I was prepared for setbacks — but things could have gone differently if I wasn’t.
Here’s what happened.
I received a book of day hikes from a friend before I moved out to Kelowna, BC, and was eagerly reading through it and planning out my adventures. I had done a relatively easy trail the weekend before, and on that particular day, I purposefully looked for something a bit more challenging. After finding one in the book, I then also found the trail on AllTrails, a popular website with guides, maps, reviews, and images. The reviews on All Trails, like the review in the book, all said the hike was steep and hard. Perfect.
I set out early in the afternoon, which gave me plenty of time to make it off the mountain and back to my car before sunset (I had about a seven-hour window to do a roughly three-hour hike). I quickly came to a water reservoir (which the book told me I would) but it was built into the side of the mountain and I didn’t see an obvious trail on the other side. It was early April, so no leafy summer vegetation had grown in yet, which can help make a well-traveled trail even more obvious.
I looked behind me and noticed a smaller pathway just in front of the reservoir, so I backtracked a couple meters, looked to my left, and saw some yellow flags clearly marking a trail — and off I went.
It. Was. Hard.
But, everything I read said it would be, so I wasn’t surprised. I scaled the side of the mountain, following a light trail, footprints from previous hikers, and yellow flags all the way to the summit, where there was still quite a bit of snow.
I stayed for about 30 minutes looking out over the neighbourhood below and Okanagan Lake in the background, before turning around and heading back down. About a kilometer down, I followed the yellow flags into a clearing and suddenly: the trail stopped.
I spent an hour going in circles all around the clearing looking for the trail — but other than the way I had arrived, there was no obvious route out. I could see the neighbourhood below me — heck, I could almost see my car — but had no idea where the trail to get there was.
I was tempted to just continue down the mountain, but going off-trail, alone, on the side of a mountain is the least smart thing to do in that situation. As long as I was on the trail, I could be found.
I ended up using all of my time buffer. If I wanted to be back at my car well before dark, I needed to get going, and I didn’t know where to go. So I swallowed my pride, and called 9-1-1.
Local RCMP sent someone up the trail to come find me. He was very kind, friendly, and we chatted the whole way down. I was beyond embarrassed. We actually went down a different way than I had gone up, so we back-tracked back up to the summit, crossed the top of the mountain, and headed down on the other side.
It wasn’t until we were on our way down that it suddenly hit me:
“Wait, is this the trail??”
“What did I come up?!”
“Goat trails — the yellow flags are from different groups geo-caching.”
Ottawa doesn’t have mountain goats (it barely has hills, let alone mountains) — if you’re on a trail there, it’s a real human-made trail.
In the end, we made it off the mountain and back to my car right as the sun was setting. Alone, I would have been on that mountain (in bear country) in the dark. Good thing I had my cell phone.
In the end, it all worked out — and I recently did the same hike again (but up the right trail this time). But being unprepared, panicking, or going off-trail are not situations you want to find yourself in. Use this as a reminder to always be over-prepared anytime you head out into nature — you never know what will happen, even just five minutes from your home.
Here are some tips (in no particular order) to make sure you’re ready before you head out:
- Pack lots of water and extra snacks. Plan to be gone longer than you think you’ll need, and possibly even overnight.
- Dress in layers, and bring a warmer layer just in case you end up out there in the evening, or even overnight (this was the one thing I didn’t have — I did dress in layers, but got damp from working up a sweat and my socks and shoes were wet from walking through the snow at the top. Dry socks and a warm, dry sweater or rain jacket would have made a big difference if I had to be out there much longer).
- Bring a flashlight (and check the batteries before leaving).
- Make sure friends or family know where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Know how long the hike should take you, and give yourself some buffer time to make it out of the woods before dark (remember, it gets darker in the woods earlier than it does in town).
- Know what to expect along the trail — read reviews, watch for landmarks, etc.
- Make sure your cell phone is fully charged.
- Bring bear spray — even if the hike is ‘in town’.
- Never intentionally leave the trail. Stay put if you’re disoriented, and call for help well before it gets dark.
- All Trails lets you download maps ahead of time, so you can follow your progress even when you’re out of cell service. It’s really great to have any time you’re out on a new trail.
No matter how you’re choosing to get outside during this time, I hope you stay safe, have fun, and enjoy that fresh air! Trying new things is important, so don’t be afraid to tackle new challenges — just remember to be prepared while doing it.
If you have any questions at all about hiking trails, camping, or just getting out in nature, send me a message! I’d love to connect with you and follow along on your adventures, too.
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Nikki Gillingham is an entrepreneur and owner of Blue Whale Communications, a content marketing and social media agency that operates remotely. Having a business without a location-based office let’s Nikki spend time travelling and exploring. She’s passionate about wildlife, loves the outdoors, and is forever chasing those Mountain Views. You can follower her adventures in business and travel in Instagram @nikkigillingham.