Hiking in the PNW

In the Puget Sound region, hiking is one of the easiest and most rewarding ways to get closer to nature and stay healthy. The benefits to both physical and mental health combine with the amazing views and abundance of paths to make hiking accessible to everyone from a weekend adventurer to hardcore enthusiast. Now that hiking season is in full swing, and with Bellevue College offering several hiking trips through the Health and Wellness Program, it is time to take stock of some important hiking safety lessons.

Hiking can be dangerous at any level. While some of the dangers of hiking are apparent, such as a fall from El Capitan, other dangers are often missed by inexperienced hikers or ignored by those with experience. The dangers of hiking are unforgiving; the time required to respond to a hiking accident is several hours more than in the city, and often specialized equipment or techniques may be necessary. Other complications, such as weather or terrain, will only make a rescue more difficult. However, many of the dangers of hiking can be avoided by following guidelines and properly preparing for the excursion.

Inexperienced hikers should never hike alone. Solo hiking is a unique experience with its own advantages and disadvantages, but it amplifies the risk to the hiker tremendously. A sprained ankle 3 miles into a trail is a burden that may be shared in a group, as members can support each other and look to each other’s safety on the way to the trailhead. However, a solo hiker in the same situation has no assistance. They must make it 3 miles on a bad ankle down a mountain or, if they cannot make it out unaided, they must wait for ranger assistance. Hiking alone can turn inconvenience into catastrophe, and should be avoided by novice trail-goers.

Packing proper gear is essential to the success of a hike. The Washington Trail Association has a list of “Ten Essentials” they believe are necessary for any hike, no matter what the destination is. Their website claims every hiker should have “a topographic map, compass, extra food, water, extra clothing, firestarter and matches, sun protection, a pocket knife, first-aid kit and flashlight.” While this list is far from comprehensive, it is an excellent starting point for any beginning hiker’s day pack. Food and water, especially, are more important than many realize. Hiking is hard work, and while dehydration is commonly prepared for, exhaustion and collapse from lack of proper nutrition are just as dangerous.

While a day pack is an important part of every hike, each trail has its own challenges to overcome. To ensure that proper equipment for a hike is brought, research into the destination trail is paramount. This includes checking weather conditions, as sunshine in the city does not prevent snow on the mountain. Contacting ranger stations near the trail itself is also a good source of information about that trail. The WTA also has “Trip Reports” for each trail, which allows hikers to communicate trail conditions to each other to prevent wilderness surprises. Researching a hike should be the first step a hiker takes before they step onto the trail itself.

Hikes generally occur in nature, and nature in Washington includes bears and cougars. While incidents between humans and animals are rare, they can be deadly. Most close encounters with large animals should be avoided entirely, due to the inherent dangers to both animal and human. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests travelling in noisy groups during the day to give any animal plenty of time to move from the path and to keep an eye out for common signs of large animals. Both bears and cougars will leave claw marks in trees, to either mark territory or search for food, and large feces are also a clear sign of areas that should be avoided. Any dead animals should also be left alone, as cougars can take several days to eat a large prey item. Lethal encounters with wild animals are rare, and avoidance is always the best policy when bears and cougars are involved.

Hiking in the Puget Sound is an amazing experience. The Cascades to the east offers completely different hikes than the Olympics across the bay, and each path has its own personality. However, even the easiest trails may claim the life of an unprepared adventurer. Planning for the hike itself is just as important as getting to the trailhead, and many pitfalls of nature can be avoided simply by bringing the right gear and mindset on every hike.