Spring and Fall are crazy times of year in Vancouver. One minute it’s 17C and sunny, and the next we’re engulfed in a snowstorm that shuts down the city. So where do we hike, and more importantly, how do we make sure that we’re prepared for where we decide to hike. Being such a transient place, many of our residents are just passing through for extended stays so they really just don’t know. The most common question I get asked in these shoulder seasons is “what are conditions like?” If you’re a seasoned Vancouverite hiker, you may know the typical time of year when snow melts or arrives at certain elevations and certain regions, but if you’re like most, you may need a bit of help. And that’s OK, we all gotta learn sometime, somehow, so here I present to you some tips I have learned over the years about how to find current trail conditions.
ONLY YOU are responsible for your safety when out hiking. Not me, not Search and Rescue, not the people who didn’t place enough visible trail markers, not Mother Nature, not even that terribly irresponsible “writer” that includes Hanes Valley in a listicle of spring hikes …just you. Venturing out after seeing one photo or reading one trip report does not constitute doing adequate research or make you prepared. To stay truly safe, you need to take responsibility for yourself. Understand that hiking is not a walk in the park. Trip plan, train and take essentials on EVERY SINGLE HIKE. Learn more at adventuresmart.ca
So, how do we be safe?
Often, we learn through experience. We will all make mistakes, but let’s minimize the impact. Research, make a trip plan, and be prepared before going on any hike at any time of the year.
Thoroughly research your route before making any definitive plans, regardless if you’re hiking as part of a group. Look up multiple trail descriptions from multiple sources (there are so many!), make sure you have a paper in addition to any offline-accessible map of the trail (see my blog post about hiking apps) and fully review it before going, check the trail is appropriate for the time of year based on your skill level, and make sure that you’re fully capable of completing the hike. Do not rely on subjective trail classifications like easy, moderate or difficult. Dog Mountain, for example, may be easy for some but terribly difficult for others. All trail reports I’ve read say it has “minimal elevation gain” which is totally incorrect. The elevation change is minimal but it climbs a cumulative total of 200 metres, which in snowshoes, is nothing to scoff at for a beginner hiker. So, look instead at the trail distance and elevation gain. Can you hike for that long? Can you handle climbing that steep a slope? It will also give you an indication of the grade (aka slope, incline, pitch), which is a much better picture of how steep a hike is. Lastly, get a sense of what the current trail conditions are like with these tips:
1.Instagram can be super helpful if you use it correctly. Search the trail by geotag (select “places” under the search bar). Scroll down to the most recent posts and scan through them. Not all will be recent hikes, so look for captions that talk about timing like a caption that reads “about yesterday” so it’s a good chance the photo depicts what the current conditions are like. Of course this is not foolproof so try to find at least a few posts to verify your findings. Also be aware that just because the top of a trail doesn’t have snow, does not mean there is no snow on the trail. For example, I hiked Tunnel Bluffs in March 2018 and the top was totally clear of snow because it has full sun exposure but the last 2 km of the trail had deep snow that required you to be wearing waterproof footwear and spikes for traction are very helpful. It’s an important point to remember, which is why the next section of my article about being prepared is just as important to read.
2. Join a bunch of Facebook Groups and Pages. Find some groups and pages in the area you want to hike and join/like them. Ask the question and you’ll probably get an answer if the trail is well-known. Some of my faves groups include: my group of course 😉 Group Hikes Near Vancouver, as well as Chilliwack BC Hiking Group, Take a Hike Vancouver Island, and Let’s Hike Sunshine Coast BC. There are lots of other great ones, they’re just not as big or responsive I find. Liking and following pages in addition to groups is a good way to get regular information to help you learn about trends, as pages post more informative posts than groups, which are more member question-based. Page admins such as myself are frequent hikers who obviously love sharing information so use us! Post on the wall or send us a DM. Taryn from Happiest Outdoors is a great wealth of knowledge for example. You can also do a general search in the top search bar of Facebook like the above recommended way for Instagram. On the left bar, you can select viewing “all posts” to see any public post and filter by date.
3. Bookmark or join hiking forums and websites. Some hiking websites with more common trails like Vancouver Trails, LiveTrails, AllTrails and Trailpeak have great comment sections where people sometimes mention their recent visits. Vancouver Trails usually has the most recent comments, but Live Trails has the best information in my opinion as they are more extensive reports with photos, gpx tracks you can download, etc. The mountain biking trail site TrailForks is also a good resource.
4. Check live webcams. It’s pretty awesome what modern technology can tell us these days. Most ski resorts have live webcams pointed at various places on the mountain, so you can easily gauge whether or not there is snow, and you can also check on the current weather. See the cams here for Seymour, Grouse, Cypress, Squamish’s Sea to Sky gondola, and Whistler. There are lots of live cams along BC highways too. Check them out here. If there is snow at those elevations, there will be snow higher.
5. Search the data at Snow Weather Stations. The Province of BC’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy has Snow Weather Stations dotted around the province, providing the public with current-year, near-real-time hourly data for the previous seven days, and graphs of snow-water equivalent from Oct. 1 to the end of the snow season (typically late June). Check out the interactive map here. Data are collected and transmitted hourly utilizing the Data Collection System (DCS) on Geostationary Satellites (GOES) operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Remotely sensed snow and meteorological data from automated snow weather stations (ASWS) are available in near real time, including snow-water equivalent, snow depth, air temperature and precipitation. You can also check historic snow coverage using Google Earth’s Historical Imagery feature.
6. Check out park management pages. While usually not providing as specific or up-to-date info as you can get via social media, certain websites like BC Parks and local park managers like Metro Vancouver Regional Parks will have some information and you can also call them directly. Each BC Parks website will have a trail report under the “Know Before You Go” subheading and regional parks usually have general advisories.
Leave a trip plan.
The reason you should complete a trip plan and leave it with someone you trust is so someone will know where to begin a search if you do not return at the intended time. If you leave a trip plan with a friend, make sure they are aware of why you are doing so, and explain to them the importance of their role.
The trip plan must answer all the basic questions (sometimes known as the 5 W’s and H), as all of these questions will be asked by a search manager initiating a search.
WHO? Provide names and a detailed description of who is in your party, what they are wearing, gear they have with them, training and experience, medical conditions, who to notify, etc.
WHEN? It is important to include when you are going and when you plan to return from your trip. If you are not back at the intended time or day, this is what will initiate a response first from your friend then from SAR. It is good to build in a buffer to allow for minor mishaps and underestimating the time it may take for your trip.
WHY? State the purpose of your trip, and the mode in which you will be traveling (e.g. day hike, overnight, skiing, climbing, and mushroom-picking, etc.).
WHERE? Give specific locations of the area in which your trip is, as well as your intended route to your destination. It is also good to provide an alternate route.
WHAT? The equipment and supplies you have with you will help searchers know what to look for, as well as determine your level of preparedness for the given terrain and weather.
HOW? Indicate how you are getting to the starting point and end point of your trip. Many searches begin at the subject’s vehicle.
Planning a search and rescue effort starts with assessing the subject’s destination, probable route, and likely location. The best chance of rescue exists close to the place where you initially become lost. At a distance of 1km from your planned route, the search area is 3.1 square km. At 3 km from your route, it is 28 square km and at 10 km it is 314 square km! Therefore, if you stick to your trip plan, and are near your intended route, your chances of being found are good.
Make sure you have the right gear for the type of hike and time of year. Summer hikes and winter hikes require different equipment. Read my blog post about hiking in the rain for some suggestions on what to bring on wet-weather hikes for example. Heading out for a snowy hike? Read my blog post about snowshoeing for beginners for some tips on being prepared for a winter hike.
No matter the hike, always always ALWAYS carry The 10 Essentials. It is not overkill. Ever.
Do not overestimate your ability. It is important that you have the fitness capability to complete a hike, but no level of fitness can get you out of an unexpected accident like getting lost or injured. Make sure you always have the right gear and tools to help you in an emergency.