Beginner Hiking Tips From a Kananaskis Emergency Rescue Responder
This expert advice can help ensure a safe and satisfying hike, wherever you choose to roam.
Hiking For Beginners
What emergency rescue responders want you to know
One of the many benefits of living in Canada is that no matter where you’re based, you’re never far from world-class hiking trails. Interest in hiking has recently surged—and so too the number of emergency rescue calls in response to hikes gone wrong. Alberta’s Kananaskis Region, for instance, recently recorded a 47 percent year-over-year increase in rescue calls.
No matter where you roam this season, stay safe on the trails with these hiking tips from Alberta’s Kananaskis Region Public Safety Specialist, Jeremy Mackenzie.
Don’t rely on your phone
Over-reliance on cell phones can be a hiker’s downfall. “People tend to think, ‘If I get into trouble, I’ll just call for help,’ but there’s a lot of hiking terrain that doesn’t have cell service,” Mackenzie says. Hiking apps are also risky, as they tend not to be 100 percent accurate. The best resources for hikers are the official trail reports issued by the provincial or national park in which you’re hiking.
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Know where you’re going
“Lost or overdue hikers [are] consistently our biggest response category,” says Mackenzie, noting that a great deal of these calls are down to inexperienced hikers not being prepared. He says it’s vital that hikers research routes in advance and share their hiking plans, along with the phone number of the appropriate emergency dispatch service, with a close contact before heading out. Instruct your contact to call this service if you haven’t checked in by the agreed-upon time.
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Dress for success
Mackenzie says it’s not uncommon to see beginner hikers wearing flip-flops and other inappropriate footwear on the trails. This puts them at increased risk for injuries like fractures and ankle sprains, the second most common response category for Alberta Parks emergency crews.
Snow and ice are often found on higher elevation Kananaskis Region trails until summer, and avalanches can happen well into June. Check conditions in advance, and consider packing good quality traction aids (such as hiking spikes and ice cleats), rain gear, a down jacket, gloves and a hat.
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Be aware of avalanche risks
According to Mackenzie, hiking season is being stretched in both directions, with restless hikers striking out earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Traditionally the realm of skiers and snowshoers, the backcountry is suddenly seeing an influx of hikers who aren’t aware of avalanche risk.
On the May long weekend of 2016, a hiker triggered an avalanche on his descent of Mt. Lawson and his body was found buried in the snow. Fast forward to the same weekend a year later, when seven hikers (some of them children) were caught in another avalanche at the same spot. They were evacuated with critical injuries, but fortunately, all survived.
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Don’t look to Instagram for inspiration
Everything looks so easy and effortless on Instagram, but just because you see a friend or influencer standing on a peak doesn’t mean it’s attainable. Everyone in the picture may be smiling, but what you don’t see is the sweat, strain and skill it took to get there.
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Ease your way in
Many novice hikers are tempted to take on trails that are far too challenging. In May 2021, two hikers had to be rescued by helicopter from Alberta’s Mt. Yamnuska. “They had made it halfway across the chain walk, but were literally frozen in place until we arrived. The irony is, the guy had finished the narrowest, most difficult section, but mentally he was done,” Mackenzie says.
Before amping up to more challenging hikes, consider your skill and fitness level. A good rule of thumb is to complete half a dozen hikes to build experience before moving on to trails with a greater degree of difficulty.
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Know when to quit
There’s no gold star waiting for you at the end of your hike, so don’t feel discouraged if you fail to meet your goals for the day. If the weather changes, you discover scat on the trail or your spidey sense starts tingling for whatever reason, take this as your cue to turn back. The sign of an experienced hiker is their willingness to call it a day.
“It always perplexes us why people didn’t turn around sooner. They often work themselves into more difficult sections,” affirms Mackenzie.
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Go with a pro
Guided hiking is a common practice in Europe and one that’s slowly picking up steam in North America. If you’re not familiar with an area or what to do if you encounter inclement weather or wildlife, a certified guide can make for a safer and more pleasant experience. Additionally, there are plenty of introductory scrambling, mountaineering and overnight backpacking courses novice hikers can take to ensure they’re well prepared when heading out on their own.
With this hiking for beginners advice under your belt, you’re ready to check out the best hikes in Canada.