Natural hazards are part of every visit to the Rocky Mountains. Some of the most common risks, and how to avoid them, are described here.
Among beautiful landscapes and unfamiliar surroundings, you may not be as attentive on the road as you would be at home. Try making a few changes to keep yourself safe and ensure you have fun:
- Take your time. Give yourself extra time to reach your destination and find a place to park.
- Watch for wildlife. Slow down for the best chance to spot wildlife and prevent collisions.
- Watch for cyclists. They can be hard to see, especially from an RV. Leave lots of space around side mirrors and avoid driving on the shoulder.
- Wait it out. If the weather is poor, slow down or stop somewhere. It’s all part of the adventure!
- Be patient. Make allowances for other drivers who may be in a hurry, lost, or distracted by the scenery.
- Do not speed. As always, obey the posted speed limits of 90 km / hr max (56 mph) on major routes and 60 km / hr max (37 mph) on secondary roads.
In the winter:
- Go slow. Reduce your speed and leave more space than usual between you and the next vehicle.
- Don’t cruise. Avoid using cruise control.
- Brake with care. Avoid unnecessary braking, especially where black ice may form on bridges, near rivers and lakes, and in the shade.
- Pass courteously. Give a wide berth when passing and pulling back in to avoid showering other motorists with snow and gravel.
- Yield to plows. Avoid passing operating snowplows. Give them time to pull out of your way.
- Fuel up. Keep your fuel levels above half, especially when it the weather is cold.
- Be prepared. Equip your vehicle with a shovel, flashlight, blanket, food and extra warm clothing.
- Snow tires. Always have snow tires, all-season radials or chains. During the winter, they are required by law for travel on all roads except Hwy #1 and #16.
- Keep in mind that cell phone reception outside of townsites is unreliable.
Any encounter with a wild animal is thrilling. It is easy to get lost in the moment and forget, well, everything! Keep these guidelines in mind for a cherished experience that is safe for both you and the wildlife you admire. For more information, pick up Keep the Wild in Wildlife.
At the roadside
- Consider not stopping. Animals that become accustomed to humans are more likely to die unnatural deaths.
- If you stop, stay in your vehicle. Pull well onto the shoulder. Do not stop on blind corners, near hill crests, or during high traffic volumes.
- Peace and quiet. Keep a minimum of three bus lengths (30 metres / 100 feet) away from elk, deer, moose and bighorn sheep and ten bus lengths (100 metres / 325 feet) away from bears, cougars and wolves. Resist the urge to get close or call out. Telephoto lenses get the best photos. If you cause an animal to move, you are too close.
- Move on. Stay only a few minutes. Leave immediately if an animal looks agitated (e.g. wariness, avoidance, huffing, yawning, pawing, stamping, flattened ears).
- Never pursue. Never follow, approach, entice or pet wildlife (even the little ones!)
- Never feed wildlife. A fed animal is a dead animal. Feeding wildlife is prohibited by law and may lead to a fine of up to $25,000 CDN.
In the campground
- Pack away smells. Store food, pet food, garbage, dishes and toiletries inside your vehicle or at a designated bear-proof storage site. Locked coolers are not bear proof.
- Keep pets safely leashed. Unattended pets may attract carnivores. Your pet is either predator or prey.
- Keep a ‘Bare’ Campsite. Learn how to avoid enticing bears to your campsite. Read about this required program.
On the trail
- Prepare. Carry bear spray (where you can reach it) and know how to use it.
- Be aware. Be vigilant around open meadows and streams. Watch for berry bushes, carcasses, diggings, and scat.
- Let bears know you are there. Make noise. Talk, sing, or shout occasionally, especially when approaching water, blind corners, or avalanche slopes. Bells are not effective.
- If you see a bear? Read the Bears and People brochure before departing and follow these simple tips to stay safe.
- Spring – In March and April, large, mail bears emerge from their dens and spend time in valley bottoms. Be bear aware on low-elevation ski trail and at roadsides.
- Early summer – In May and June, give bears and elk lots of space and watch for ticks. Female bears and cubs are emerging from their dens and spending time in valley bottoms and near road sides. Female elk are calving and can be aggressive. Check your clothing and body for ticks after time on the trail. Tick bites can cause serious illness.
- Late summer – In August, berries emerge and bears gorge on the fruits to gain weight for the winter. They may not hear or see you. Be extra bear aware.
- Fall – In September and October, give bears and elk lots of space. It is a critical time for bears preparing for winter. Male elk are rutting and can be aggressive.
- Early winter – Big bears may stay awake as late as mid-December. Be bear aware on ski trails.
A little preparation can prevent a small setback from ruining your day or your trip. Follow these tips to have a day you will never forget… in a good way.
Before you go:
- Plan for your current level of experience. Choose a route that is close to what you’ve experienced before. Work your way up to the big trips so that you can enjoy them.
- Be a good leader. Accommodate your party’s least experienced member.
- Leave time. Plan extra time to relax, rest and allow for unexpected delays.
- Check the trail report. Ensure there are no warnings, closures or restrictions for your trail.
- Be avalanche aware. Some trails are hazardous as late as June or as early as November. Check the trail report before departing.
- Leave an itinerary. Tell someone responsible where you are going, when you expect to be back, and your vehicle license plate. Here is a helpful form from AdventureSmart.ca
On the trail:
- Food, water and clothing. Wear layers and appropriate rubber-soled footwear. Plan for inclement weather regardless of the forecast. If you go for more than a couple of hours, bring food and at least 1L of water.
- Carry bear spray. Carry it (where you can reach it) and know how to use it. Find out what to do if you encounter a bear.
- Boil the water. Before you drink from rivers, streams or lakes, bring water to a rolling boil for 3 minutes. Or bring a purifying kit.
- Bring a first aid kit. Don’t expect accidents, but do plan for them. Learn what to put in your first aid kit.
In the winter:
- All of the above still apply!
- Dress appropriately. Insulated layers and footwear are important in the winter.
- Stay warm and hydrated. Dehydration, frostbite and hypothermia are more common during the winter.
- Be avalanche aware. You don’t need to walk far from your car to be in avalanche terrain. Not all signed summer destinations are safe for winter travel. Check with a Parks Canada Visitor Centre for safe and fun winter options.
- Get training: Every member of your party should have accredited avalanche safety training.
- Carry avalanche equipment: Every member of your part should carry a beacon, probe and shovel and know how to use them.
- Check the avalanche forecast: Every member of your party should know the avalanche forecast for the area in which you plan to travel, and assess the risks.
- Leave an itinerary.
- Avalanche information
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.
- Weather Forecast
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.
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 or untreated water from a hand-pumped well. Boil and filter untreated water before using, or carry water from a treated water source.