We all want to play safe in K-Country, and in this series of pages, we’re going to cover the basics of how to have a great day out there. This series is being produced with the support of Kananaskis Mountain Rescue, and in particular, thanks to Morgen Funston of KCMR for her wisdom and suggestions.
A safe and successful trip starts before you set foot out the door. It involves far more than just posting a question on social media about where you should go that day.
What will the Weather be?
Don’t leave home without knowing the WEATHER. Whether you are planning a day on the bike, on foot or on horseback, the fun goes south with unexpected weather that you’re not prepared for. There are lots of good weather resources out there, all of which you should check before you head out for a day, even if that day is just a short stroll to Troll Falls. In addition to looking at the general regional Environment Canada forecasts, look at these:
- Mountain-Forecast.com produces specific forecasts for many mountains in K-Country, including forecasts for 3 elevations for each peak. Their temperature forecasts are pretty reliable, and if they say it will rain or snow, it probably will, though how much is less reliably predicted.
- SpotWX.com enables you to see the raw, detailed data from the various weather model runs of Environment Canada and the US National Weather Service for anywhere in K-Country. It’s all specific to the elevation, too. Just click on where you’re headed. Good to look at one or two forecasts and see where they agree or disagree.
- Kananaskis Mountain Rescue maintains weather stations at Burstall, Black Prince and the Highwood Pass. That data’s available at Avalanche.ca on the map view. You can use these to ground truth the forecasts you get elsewhere.
- If thunderstorms are forecast – a common event in K-Country – consider that in your trip planning and destination selection. Standing on the top of a mountain, or biking across an exposed ridge, when there’s lighting around is a poor survival strategy. In the photo to the right, we’re in a rapid descent off Jumpingpound Mountain as a July t-storm rolls in. We were pelted with hail, and lightning cracked all around us for 20 minutes as we hid below tree line.
Pay particular attention to forecast overnight lows and weather. If things go south, and you’re stuck out for the night, think about what you might have to put up with.
Know your Route
Whether you’re travelling a popular, official trail, doing a long distance mountain bike, paddling the Bow, or planning an adventurous scramble to a new peak, study and learn everything you can about where you are going – before you get to your starting point.
- Read the Guidebooks, and for K-Country hiking, that means Gillean Daffern’s books. No other hiking guidebook comes close to the level of accuracy, with excellent maps and detailed description of routes that are always up to date (if you have the current edition). Check her blog for any updates, too. For mountain biking, the best book is the “Find the Hidden Treasures: A Guide to Mountain Bike Trails In Kananaskis Country” by Peter Oprsal (aka BikePirate). Peter’s book is a bit out of date now, and Peter moved to Whistler, so it’s no longer being updated. For scrambling, it’s Alan Kane “Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies” and Andrew Nugara’s “More Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies“. Both are regularly expanded and updated. For snowshoeing, it’s Andrew Nugara’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies” or “Popular Snowshoe Trails of the Canadian Rockies“.
- If it’s a new (to you) or complex scramble route, in addiition to reading Kane & Nugara, do a bit of searching on-line for others who have been there. Many, many people have completed all of them, and blog about them. Read between the lines looking for route information and hazards, not just for the pretty pictures (but do study photos that would help you if you get fogged in suddenly.) Super experienced scramblers like Bob Spirko have probably been where you’re going already. Read his excellent descriptions and download his GPX formatted GPS routes to follow. The photo to the right is just one of the places people get “off route” and into trouble on the Heart Mountain Horseshoe scramble.
- If you’re doing a big mountain bike ride, look at sources like TrailForks, SingleTracks.com, MTB Project and others. Study what others have written about the technical complexity of the ride and the hazards you are up against.
- Look at the satellite images on Google Maps/Google Earth and Apple Maps (each use different sat image data). Try to get an understanding of what the terrain will be like. Often, the sat photo is detailed enough to see the cliffs that don’t show up on the topo.
- Study the route on your GemTrek topo map. Look for landmarks and viewpoints that will help you navigate along the way. Count the number of contour lines you’ll be crossing, and compare that to the guidebook’s height gains and losses.
- Read the K-Country official trail condition reports for trails nearby. That will give you a sense of whether your trail will be dry or muddy.
Apps can be useful, but…
If you use an app to track your hikes/bikes/skis, often you can do route planning in advance on-line and upload it to your device. Apps like Gaia GPS and their associated websites can give you elevation profiles of your planned route. However, in K-Country, topo maps often aren’t detailed enough to show the 20 m cliffs in your way.
Beware of AllTrails, nicknamed “AllFails” by many users for its issues. Because the data is crowd-sourced, it can be meaningless, as one person’s “easy” hike is another’s “difficult”. It can contain useful info, such as recent photos of trail conditions. But all too often, it contains misleading and unreliable information in K-Country. Mountain Rescue has responded to many issues that originated with reliance on AllTrails. Never trust AllTrails, and always take anything you read with a grain of salt.
Some mapping apps, like Topo Maps Canada by David Crawshay, work very well off-line. But other popular apps require cell connections. Very few areas of K-Country have cell service, and those that do have a LOT of dead zones in canyons and valleys, including those in the Bow Valley like Jura Creek, Grotto Canyon and others.
The Two Key Elements
Probably the most critical bit of info you must know before you go is “How much vertical do I have to climb?” A day’s hiking objective of 500 m and under is doable by most people; 750 m is a serious workout and anything over 1,000 m requires you to be in very good shape.
The second most important is “How far do I have to travel?“ For hiking, under 10 km is pretty straightforward for most; a 15 km round trip is serious, and anything over 20 km quite the outing.
After all of this, make the hard but honest decision: Am I capable of doing this adventure? If the answer is anything less than “Heck, yes”, dial it down, and pick something else. That mountaintop will be there to conquer another day.
Check Warnings and Closures
Know about WARNINGS and CLOSURES for wildlife, avalanches or other travel related issue like bridges that are out.
- Look at the K-Country official advisory site. Are there bear warnings in place? Are there wildlife closures in place? We once missed this step, and wound up at a trailhead for a trail that was closed because of a grizzly bluff charge, without a backup plan.
- Read the WildSmart weekly bear summary for where bear activity is happening. While mostly focused on the Bow Valley, it includes some Kananaskis Valley info, too
- In the winter, study the avalanche reports and forecasts on Avalanche.ca.
Know how LONG your trip will take
- On this page, we explore the Naismith formula that quickly and accurately predicts hiking times. We are not aware of similar tools for mountain bikers, XC skiers or scramblers. If you are aware of some, please pass them along, and we will provide links. Just like in gambling, it is essential to know your limit and play within it.
- Know what time sunset is. Plan your adventure so you are back at the trailhead at least an hour before sunset. There’s rarely any downside in starting earlier, but often risk in later starts.
- Assuming that descending while hiking is faster than ascending can be a dangerous. Often, coming down off mountains safely is slower than climbing up them. Almost always, descending a scramble is slower than ascending. This is discussed extensively in Tom Morin’s little book, A Hiker’s Guide to Scrambling Safely.
- Use your hiking or biking time expectation to help plan how much food and water you need to carry, and what other extra equipment you need as well.
Use the above info to establish “we’ve bitten off more than we can chew” turnaround points for your day. The psychological urge to trying to make that summit or lake is compelling. However, smart, prepared people know when to turn around and try again another day.
What it looks like when you get it wrong
Here are just some “bad planning” things we have seen where issues have been created by not knowing what was expected. The Mountain Rescue team have far too many rescue stories that sound like this:
- We often run into folks on a trail getting to their lunch stop at 2:30 PM when they thought they would make it by noon. They have, in effect, underestimated their day by 5 hours;
- Working in the field, we have met countless numbers of individuals who have a destination in mind, but are miles from it because they started in the wrong place, are on the wrong trail, don’t have a map, and don’t have cell service;
- We once finished our day at 4 PM at the Lusk Pass trailhead on Powderface Trail, and ran into two mountain bikers who had started at 10 AM east of Moose Mountain. They were riding to Banff, hoping to make it by 6 PM — and they still had to cross Lusk Pass, Barrier Mountain and Jewell Pass just to get to the Bow Valley. On the bright side, they had a food and water cache waiting for them at Barrier Dam;
- We ran into a solo gentleman one day around 11 AM by Mt. Engadine Lodge, on his way to the Mt. Shark trailhead. He was planning to hike to Mt. Assiniboine Lodge and back that afternoon, but he had no idea how far it was (it’s actually a round trip of 50 km with one-way elevation gain of 575 m), nor really how to get there, and he had no map. We hope he was carrying dinner. And breakfast.
BEFORE YOU GO, you gotta KNOW:
- The weather;
- Your route to get where you’re going;
- The expected conditions;
- Warnings and closures;
- How long your outing will take YOU.
To see how planning changes in the winter, head here –>
Onward to What to CARRY when you go –>