Safety and Hazards
Special places require special rules.
The awe-inspiring scenery can pose some awe-inspiring hazards too. The most common risks, and how to avoid them, are described here.
Statistically, it's the most dangerous activity in the park.
- Obey posted speed limits: 90 km/hr max (56 mph) on major routes and 60 km/hr max (37 mph) on secondary roads.
- Make allowances for other drivers, who may be in a hurry, lost, or distracted by the scenery...
- Be prepared for a variety of conditions; it may snow in summer at higher elevations.
- Slow down in bad weather or stop somewhere safe and wait it out.
- Watch out for cyclists. They may be difficult to see, especially from an RV. Do not drive on the road shoulder.
- Watch out for wildlife.
Driving in WINTER conditions takes extra care:
- Slow down if the road is snow-covered or if visibility is poor.
- Watch out for black ice, especially on bridges and near water.
- The use of cruise control is not recommended.
- Snow tires or chains are required by law for travel on all roads except highway #1 and #16 between Nov. 1st and March 31st
- It is a good idea to equip your car with a shovel, flashlight, blanket, food and extra warm clothing.
- Cell phone reception outside of townsites is unreliable.
Never underestimate the power of weather in the mountains.
- Check the local weather forecast before heading out, but be prepared for anything. Conditions can change rapidly in the mountains, from minute to minute and from place to place. Generally, the higher you go, the colder and windier it gets.
- Take along clothing to protect you from wind, cold, rain or snow.
- Dress in layers; adjust to prevent overcooling or overheating.
- Use sunglasses and sunscreen, even on overcast or cool days. Ultraviolet radiation is stronger at higher elevations. Reflection from snow or ice can damage your eyes.
Hazards are part of the wilderness environment. Reduce the risks by following these guidelines:
- Research your trip before you go.
- Tell someone where you're going and when you will be back.
- Take along a map.
- Bring water, food, and extra clothing.
- Travel with others, and keep your group together.
- Stay on the trail; retrace your steps if unsure of your route.
- Be prepared to stay out overnight, just in case. A search takes time.
All it takes is a slippery slope or a momentary lapse of attention...
- Keep away from the edge.
- Avoid slippery patches on trails and rocky areas adjacent to canyons, waterfalls and streams.
- Heed warning signs, and stay behind safety fences.
- Be aware that high elevation trails may be covered by snow or ice until mid-summer.
- Falling into a crevasse can be fatal; glacier travel should only be attempted by experienced and properly equipped mountaineers.
Rock & Ice
- There is a lot of loose rock in the Rocky Mountains. Be alert for rockfall whenever you are in steep terrain.
- Glacier ice on steep slopes or cliff edges can collapse at any time. Do not walk on or beneath overhanging ice or snow.
The following are some basic guidelines:
- Drivers should avoid stopping in posted avalanche zones.
- Many of the backcountry trails travel through avalanche-prone terrain and require a skill-set for evaluating avalanche risk. Backcountry skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and hikers should be well informed about the type of terrain they will encounter when embarking on a backcountry trip in the winter.
- Travel in avalanche prone terrain also requires the use of specialized equipment (avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel). Use of this equipment requires practice, and instruction from a skilled user.
- Avalanche Bulletin
- The National Parks backcountry is managed as a natural area, and as such many natural hazards exist. Backcountry travellers are responsible for their own decisions and safety - becoming well informed is a good start.
New Standard of Care for Youth Groups in the Backcountry
Effective immediately, new policies have been introduced for custodial groups planning backcountry travel in the mountain National Parks (Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper, Mt. Revelstoke, Glacier, and Waterton Lakes). These policies are in effect from Nov 15 - Apr 30 each year, and have evolved significantly since they were first introduced in April 2004.
Parks Canada has established a new standard of care, and custodial group leaders have new obligations and pre-trip planning considerations they must understand. Parks Canada’s goal is to encourage our youth to travel in their mountain parks, while at the same time receiving appropriate leadership in suitable locations. The information contained within these pages attempts to offer a strong resource for custodial groups who plan to undertake backcountry travel.
If you are approached by a PREDATOR
If you are approached by a cougar, wolf or coyote, send a clear message that you are NOT potential prey.
- Pick up small children immediately.
- Do anything you can to make yourself look bigger.
- Be prepared to use pepper spray if you have it.
- Fight back aggressively if attacked.
- DO NOT crouch, play dead, run, or turn your back to the animal.
To a carnivore, your PET may look appetizing.
- Keep dogs on a leash, walk them in open areas and during daylight hours only.
- Do not leave pets unattended outside.
ELK are wild animals too!
"My wife and I visited your national park last September. One morning we saw some elk near the road. We stopped a safe distance away. While I made my camera with a 500 mm telephoto lens ready to take a photo of this big elk, another car appeared. The driver left his car and walked toward the elk to take a close picture. The elk seemed to become angry about this and chased him back across the road, where he hid behind his car. This was the moment when I took this picture. It shows clearly that your recommendation to stay at least 3 bus lengths from an elk really makes sense!"
- submitted by Claus-Peter Ernst, Mainz, Germany
Getting too close to elk is hazardous.
Getting too close to elk is hazardous © Claus-Peter Ernst
Attacks have occurred at any time of the year. Females are most aggressive during the May/June calving season, and males are especially dangerous during the September/October rut.
Prevent conflicts with wildlife
They may sometimes appear unconcerned by our presence, but all park animals are unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
Always keep your distance.
Do not approach or entice wildlife. Use binoculars or a telephoto lens instead.
Remain at least:
- 100 metres (10 bus lengths) away from BEARS, COUGARS and WOLVES
- 30 metres (3 bus lengths) away from ELK, DEER, SHEEP, GOATS and MOOSE
Never leave food attractants out for wildlife.
Food attractants include:
- coolers (they are NOT bearproof!)
- food scraps or leftovers
- dirty dishes, pots or barbecues
- empty bottles, cans or wrappers
- toothpaste, soap or other toiletries
- pet food dishes (full or empty)
Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Because it is impossible to predict how wildlife will react in any situation, avoiding encounters is the only sure way to keep people safe and wildlife wild.
- Always be on the lookout for animals or signs of their presence.
- Carefully supervise children whenever outdoors.
Watch out for animals near the road
Drive with care and be prepared to avoid a collision at all
times. Be especially cautious at dusk and dawn, when many
animals are most active, and visibility is poor.
If you see an animal by the road:
- Slow down. It could run out into your path at any time.
- Warn other motorists by flashing your hazard lights.
- Where there is one animal, expect others nearby.
If you wish to stop and view roadside wildlife:
- Pull safely out of traffic.
- Remain in your vehicle.
- Move on after a few minutes.
If you see a bear... Consider not stopping.
If you see a bear beside the road, consider this:
It may run onto the road.
At any time, anywhere. And especially if there are crowds of people stopping to watch it, getting out of their cars, approaching too closely. In the past 10 years, 125 bears have been killed on roads in the mountain national parks.
It is stronger and faster than you are.
It may look 'docile', but a bear that appears unconcerned about your presence is the one you should fear the most. It's obviously not afraid of you, and it could be getting a bit bothered by all the people who keep disturbing it - all day long, day after day...
It is likely eating or looking for food.
Bears have to eat almost constantly during the snow-free months to accumulate enough energy to survive their long winter hibernation. Being able to feed undisturbed may make the difference between life or death for that bear or, if it's a female, for her offspring: though she may have mated in the spring, she can't get pregnant unless she builds up enough body fat over the summer.
It could be a female.
In this harsh mountain environment, it takes a female grizzly 7 years to reach breeding age, and her cubs will stay with her for 3 or 4 years. This means she may only produce two litters of offspring in her lifetime - a very low reproductive rate. The unnatural loss of any individual, especially a female, is therefore a serious threat to the long-term survival of the population.
It could be an adolescent.
Trying to find its place in a difficult world, an adolescent bear is highly susceptible to picking up bad habits (like losing its natural fear of people) and getting into trouble (by approaching people for food). The fact that relatively few roadside adolescent bears survive to maturity in our busy parks is one of the reasons that scientists fear for the future of the grizzly in this part of the world.
If it loses its wildness, it probably won't survive.
'Habituated' bears - bears that have lost their natural fear of humans - almost inevitably become ‘problem’ bears. They actively seek out places where people congregate because they have learned that where there are people, there is also food and garbage to eat. Over time they become increasingly more aggressive in their search for an easy meal. Problem bears usually end up having to be removed or destroyed because of the threat they pose to public safety. It is very difficult, and often impossible, to undo habituation. The only real solution is prevention.
If you see a bear beside the road, consider not stopping.
Give Them the Space They Need
Please do your part to limit the impact that so many people have on park wildlife. Give all the animals you see the respect they deserve and the space they need. Enjoy a safe visit and ensure that future generations have the chance to see wildlife that is truly wild.
What should I do if I see a BEAR?
If you are driving: stay in your car, and consider not stopping.
If you are not in a vehicle:
- Stay calm. If a bear rears on its hind legs and waves its nose about, it is trying to identify you. Remain still and talk calmly so that it knows you are human and not a prey animal. Bears may also bluff charge: run toward you and turn away at the last moment. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack.
- Pick up children, stay in a group.
- Back away slowly, don’t run.
- Leave the area. If this is impossible, wait until the bear leaves; make sure it has an escape route.
To reduce your risk of a surprise encounter:
- Make noise. Clap, sing or yell to announce your presence, especially where a bear might not otherwise smell, hear or see you coming. (Bear bells are not very effective.)
- Travel in groups, on established trails, and during daylight hours.
- Minimize odours by proper storage of food, garbage and toiletries.
- Leave the area if you see a bear or fresh tracks, droppings, diggings; or if you come across a large dead animal (a bear may be nearby).
If you surprise a bear and it defends itself:
- Use bear spray if you have it. PLAY DEAD, let it know you are not a threat: lie on stomach with legs apart, cover back of head and neck with hands, keep pack on to protect your back.
If a bear stalks you and then attacks, or attacks at night:
- Try to escape, use bear spray if you have it. FIGHT BACK, let it know that you are not easy prey. (This kind of predatory attack is very rare.)
Wildlife Watching Tips
DO Try "Seton watching."
DO Act small
Find a comfortable, safe spot, and just sit quietly and observe. Watch how creatures interact with each other and their habitat. You’ll be amazed at what nature will reveal!
Resist that impulse to get close, reach out, or call out to wildlife. Use binoculars and telephoto lenses. Your best chance of observing truly wild nature is to become as insignificant as possible ....but stay safe. Retreat immediately if an animal approaches you or shows any sign of aggression.
DO See small.
The big creatures get all the press, but there just aren’t that many of them out there. It’s more rewarding to look for the smaller ones. Interest - like beauty - is largely in the eyes of the beholder.
DO Think big.
While observing the activity at an ant’s nest, for example, contemplate the ant’s role in the bigger picture-as a model of society, perhaps, or as an important source of food for grizzly bears.
DO Intrude less.
Cherish the knowledge that there are creatures living wild and free out there, whether you see them or not. Buy a wildlife postcard and write about hearing wolves howl, or finding lynx tracks.
DO Learn more.
Join a Parks Canada interpretive program, hire a guide, read one of the many books about the nature of the mountains. Indulge your curiosity!
DON'T Feed or disturb wildlife.
Help us keep park wildlife WILD AND ALIVE
The chance to observe wild animals as they go about their natural lives is one of the most fascinating experiences that our mountain national parks have to offer.
Along with this opportunity, however, comes the responsibility to treat wild animals with the respect they deserve, and need to survive.
It’s not easy to ‘make a living’ here in the mountains. Wildlife must devote all available energy to simple survival: feeding, resting, staying warm or cool enough, avoiding natural dangers, and producing healthy offspring.
Every time we disrupt these natural activities we are, in effect, taking energy away from their survival ‘bank account.’ With millions of people visiting our mountain parks every year, these ‘withdrawals’ can quickly add up to ‘dead broke.’
Is there a difference between a wild bear and one in a zoo? We can only guess at what the bear might think. But from our perspective, isn’t the very thing that makes wild animals so attractive to us the fact that they are indeed wild? Unfortunately, when animals become used to being around people, they are in danger of losing that very thing that makes them special, their wildness.
How can we keep park wildlife WILD and ALIVE?
Parks Canada staff are trying to teach some bears to avoid busy areas by using noise-makers, flares, rubber bullets and even specially trained bear dogs. We call this aversive conditioning .
You may also see crews and signs along park roadways asking for your help in preventing animal jams , dangerous traffic jams around roadside wildlife. Please do your part; every action counts!
Biting or stinging insects may occur along trails and at backcountry campsites. Bring insect repellent. Avoid wearing scented lotions and perfumes. Rocky Mountain Wood Ticks are common during the spring and early summer. After hiking, check for ticks on your body and clothing. Tick bites can cause serious illness.
Though park waters are generally clean, there is always a chance that harmful bacteria or parasites may exist in untreated surface water. Boil and filter untreated water before using, or carry water from a treated water source.
Remember, you are responsible for your own SAFETY!