© Parks Canada / Al Williams
Banff's awe-inspiring scenery can pose some awe-inspiring hazards. The most common risks and how to avoid them are described in this section. This list is only a guideline and further research on your part is recommended, especially if you are new to backcountry travel.
Losing the Trail
It's big out there and wild. Vegetation in the backcountry is often thick and high. Travelers can become easily disoriented and unable to view surrounding landmarks. Bad weather can obscure the trail.
- Carry a map and compass and know how to use them.
- Stay on the trail; do not take short-cuts. Retrace your steps if unsure of your route.
- Make clear plans and make sure the group understands them.
- Keep your party together. Lost persons are typically a result of groups splitting up.
- Leave a detailed travel plan with a friend or sign out a safety registration at a Park Information Centre.
- Be prepared to survive at least one night out a search takes time.
Slips and fall are the main sources of injury in the backcountry. Terrain hazards include: steep slopes and cliffs, wet surfaces, exposed tree roots, moss-covered slopes, loose and falling rocks, late-lying snow patches, and avalanches (which can happen year round).
- Wear boots with good soles and ankle support.
- Take your time and watch your step. Do not underestimate the terrain.
- Keep well back from edges and supervise children closely.
- Much of the Rocky Mountains are made of loose rock. Be alert for rockfall whenever you are on or below steep terrain.
- High elevation trails can be covered by snow or ice until mid-summer. Do not venture onto steep snow slopes without the appropriate equipment and experience.
Mountain weather can change rapidly and is difficult to predict. Snow and freezing temperatures are possible in ALL seasons, especially at higher elevations. Expect surprises.
- Check weather reports before heading out, but be prepared for all conditions.
- Wear and carry appropriate clothing and equipment.
- Bring extra food in case you need more time finishing your trip.
- Carry a map and compass in case the trail becomes obscured due to snow or other adverse weather conditions.
- Use sunglasses and sunscreen, even on overcast days.
The main danger from being struck by lightening is cardiac arrest, which requires an immediate medical response. In order to minimize your chance of being struck:
- Watch the weather and take cover before the storm hits.
- Don't stand in open areas. If possible, take shelter in low forested areas.
- Stay away from single, tall trees and rocky ledges.
- Move down off of peaks and ridges, and move away from open water.
- Do not hold on to metal hiking poles or ice axes during a storm, as they are excellent conductors of electricity.
- If a member of your party is hit, be prepared to give them CPR and first aid for burns and shock.
Mountain lakes and streams are very cold all year long. Fording rivers can be risky, especially during peak runoff and after heavy rains when the water is high and murky. Falling in may result in hypothermia, physical injuries or drowning.
- Cross at a wide, shallow point that is not above rapids.
- Leave your boots on or bring sandals or runners specifically for river crossings.
- Undo your pack's waistbelt, so you can quickly remove it if you lose your balance.
- Use a sturdy stick or ski pole to brace yourself against the current. Face upstream while crossing.
- If the current is too strong or the river too deep go back the way you came.
Avalanches are not restricted to the winter months - whenever there is snow on a slope there is a potential for an avalanche. In Banff, winter snow can last well into the summer, especially at higher elevations.
- Be wary of avalanche danger in the late spring and summer. Learn to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain and potentially hazardous slopes.
- Avoid crossing steep snow slopes during the heat of the day.
- Glacier ice on steep slopes or cliff edges can collapse at any time. Do not walk beneath overhanging ice.
- Backcountry skiers and ice climbers must know how to travel safely in avalanche terrain.
Mountaineering and Glacier Travel
Highly specialized equipment and knowledge are necessary for safe mountain climbing and glacier travel.
- Do not attempt glacier travel unless your group is properly equipped and skilled in crevasse rescue.
- Take a mountaineering / glacier travel course.
- Discuss your plans with a Public Safety Warden in Banff or Lake Louise.
- Sign out a safety registration at a Park Information Centre.
- See Mountaineering and Climbing for more information.
Injury and Illness
Backcountry travelers must be prepared to deal with unexpected circumstances. Groups must be self-sufficient as help is often some distance away. You should be particularly cautious when undertaking activities in which you are a novice, when venturing into unfamiliar terrain, and when you are tired, hungry or cold.
- Have sound knowledge of wilderness first aid.
- Carry a well-stocked first aid kit.
- Carry extra food, water and warm clothing in case of emergency.
Hypothermia, or a decline in core body temperature, is a major killer of outdoor adventurers. Hypothermia is caused by exposure to cold (rain, wind, snow) and physical exhaustion. Dehydration and eating too little food can also be factors.
- Bring extra clothing. Replace wet clothes with dry ones before you get chilled.
- Dress in layers; adjust as you go to prevent overcooling or overheating.
- Wear clothing that retains its insulating properties when wet (e.g. polypropylene, fleece, wool, gore-tex). Do not wear cotton, e.g. jeans.
- Be alert to the first signs of hypothermia: shivering, difficulty using your hands, disorientation, and a drop in body temperature.
- Drink plenty of water and snack throughout the day.
Lack of water is a major contributor to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
- Drink water regularly. Take scheduled water breaks, even in cool weather.
- Wear light coloured, loose clothing and a wide brimmed hat.
- In hot weather, avoid hiking during the middle of the day.
- Eat nutritious and high calorie food.
- Be alert to the symptoms of heat exhaustion: pale skin, sweating, thirst, nausea, dizziness, headaches and muscle cramps.
Ticks are common parasites on many animals and are responsible for the transmission of infectious diseases in humans. Ticks are most active from April to June, particularly in valley bottoms and on dry grassy slopes. Most ticks will be found before attachment occurs, by checking yourself and children daily. If a tick is discovered, it can often be removed with a gentle tug. However, if the tick is difficult to remove, rashes or lesions form, or unexplained symptoms occur, consult a physician.
- Wear long pants with tightly fitting cuffs or gaiters.
- Wear insect repellent containing DEET.
- Ticks are partial to your head, neck, armpits and crotch. Thoroughly check yourself, your children, and your pets at the end of each day.
Surface waters are generally of excellent quality, but harmful bacteria or parasites can exist in untreated water. Giardia lamblia, a waterborne parasite which causes gastrointestinal distress, may be present in mountain streams and rivers.
- Boil or filter all drinking water.
- Practice good sanitation. Use pit privies or dig a hole at least 100 m from any water source.
- Dogs are often carriers of Giardia. Please consider leaving your dog at home.
Vehicle / Wildlife Collisions
Be alert while driving to or from the trailhead, especially at dusk or dawn. Each year an average of 70 large animals are killed on highways in Banff National Park.
- Watch for wildlife warning signs.
- Obey posted speed limits, and reduce your speed at night.
- If you see wildlife on the side of the road, slow down and be prepared to stop.
- Report all collisions to the nearest park office or RCM Police detachment
- For more information, see Driving in Banff National Park.
No matter how tame they may seem, all wildlife are unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
- Do not approach or feed ANY wild animal, big or small. Even ground squirrels can bite and they carry some nasty parasites too.
- Observe wildlife from a safe distance: at least 30m (3 bus lengths) for elk and 100 m. (10 bus lengths) for bears.
- Bear & People: A Guide to Safey & Conservation