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The Outsider: Dumbing down the safety message for backcountry hikers

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AdventureSmart BC released a series of videos detailing the 11 riskiest hikes in B.C.

Last month, BC AdventureSmart began rolling out a series called Trail Specific Safety Videos as part of its annual effort to reduce Search and Rescue (SAR) calls to popular hiking trails. I’ve been on the BC AdventureSmart press release mailing list for years now, and the spring/summer messaging never seemed to change that much. Leave a detailed trip plan with a friend, wear decent footwear, pack water, food and emergency gear, actually carry a map of your route and know how to interpret it etc., etc. A few weeks into the summer, the broken-record safety messaging predictably seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The SAR teams in B.C. begin plucking unprepared and underequipped hikers out of the hills, and the media (including this illustrious publication) run a story with more broken-record messaging from SAR leaders. “Always head out with gear as if you’ll need to spend the night in the backcountry…” etc., etc. For the savvy mountain hiker, it triggers eye-rolls, head shakes and mutters of “what the hell were these people thinking?”

For better or worse, backcountry hiking is now a mainstream activity. One can blame social media all they want, but we all have to accept those accessible trailheads are now perpetually crowded. And with exponentially more people on trails, the likelihood of unprepared and underequipped hikers overextending themselves also increases exponentially, hence the rapid rise in SAR calls and responses.

What I like about AdventureSmart’s latest initiative is that they’ve concentrated their messaging efforts on the areas of the highest SAR call volumes. Unsurprisingly, some of the most popular hikes in British Columbia are also the riskiest. And “riskiest” doesn’t necessarily imply a high difficulty level or increased exposure to hazards such as falling, avalanches or overhead cornices. “Riskiest” in this context simply means more people manage to get themselves into more trouble, statistically. It describes the (un)preparedness level of the hikers as much as the trail itself.

The 11 “riskiest” hikes in B.C. are The Stawamus Chief Trail (Squamish), Juan de Fuca Trail (southwest coast of Vancouver Island), Eagle Bluffs Trail (North Shore), Mount Seymour Trail (North Shore), Skywalk South Trail (Whistler), Howe Sound Crest Trail (Sea to Sky), Golden Ears Summit Trail (Maple Ridge), Mount Albert Edward Trail (Comox Valley), Black Tusk Trail (Sea to Sky), The Grouse Grind (North Shore) and Hanes Valley Trail (Lynn Valley).

AdventureSmart commissioned detailed videos specifically for each of these trails that include 3D map routes, the best months of the year to hike them, weather resources, and how to follow (quite robust) trail signs, as well as all the aforementioned broken-record messaging. This information has long been available to those savvy enough to research their route before setting out, but I don’t think AdventureSmart is trying to reach the savvy with these videos. This is for the new entrants, the backcountry curious, the folks who want to get the most out of their summers with their newfound love of hiking in the hills. Add to that the people who follow friends who may appear to know what they’re doing but actual experience says otherwise.

What I like most about these videos (other than how professional they look) is how the narrator reinforces how these trails should not be underestimated. I’ll hazard a guess that many SAR calls are from people letting crowds of other people influence their decisions. If you know your limits and turn around when you get that icky feeling you may be out of your depth, then you’re making good decisions. If you’re pushing for the ridge at 4 o’clock in the afternoon just because there’s another group doing it and the photos are going to be epic, you’re probably not making good decisions. 

What the videos don’t detail is trail etiquette, and fair enough—AdventureSmart needs to stay on message by communicating the best way to stay safe. But it would be great to have a similar series on how to best deal with approaching wildlife, how to not park dangerously on a mountain pass highway and how to respect your fellow hikers by not blaring music on the trail (see my Outsider rant titled “A case against Bluetooth speakers in the outdoors” from June 2021).

It’s a wet and cold start to the summer, which means alpine snow will be hanging around longer than usual. SAR calls will happen, but I’m sure that the hard-working volunteers would appreciate rescuing more people who “did it right” with preparedness, skills and equipment, rather than the ones “doing it wrong” by heading into the backcountry in flip-flops and carrying a six-pack. Let’s hope these excellent videos have some effect this summer.


Vince Shuley advocates for smart adventures. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email or Instagram @whis_vince.