How to Stay Safe While Hiking During Wildfire Season

Wildfire season in the West is unfortunately back with a vengeance, which means smoke filled forests and closures across many long trails throughout the nation. It seems as though wildfires are increasing each year, coming back with more frequency, magnitude, and duration, which has created additional obstacles for those planning to thru hike a number of trails throughout the West.

Although wildfires have the potential to drastically alter your hike, there are some ways you can stay safe and aim to prevent the adverse effects from putting a damper on your adventure:

2020 wildfire on Mt. Tammy near the AT in Delaware Water Gap, NJ. Image via Knowlton Twp. Fire & Rescue

Is It Safe To Hike On Smoke Covered Trails?

The short answer is: no. Wildfire smoke contains fine particles that can wreak havoc in your lungs when inhaled. More mild reactions include runny nose, watery eyes, a sore throat, and the taste of smoke in your mouth can cause a slight inconvenience to hikers. On the more extreme side, chest pain, coughing, wheezing, and trouble breathing can bring a screeching halt to your thru hike.

Unfortunately for hikers, wildfire smoke can travel for hundreds of miles causing otherwise fire-free parts of the trail to be socked in with a thick cloud of smoke – and it’s no surprise that most hikers won’t want to stop a thru hike for smoke from a fire that’s 100 miles away.

If you’re in the middle of a backcountry trip when wildfire smoke begins to set in, there’s a few things you can do. First, it’s important to find real-time information that ensures the smoke isn’t from a fire causing immediate danger to yourself. If you get the green-light, it all comes down to listening to your body – some people are more sensitive to smoke than others, including people with pre-existing conditions and elderly hikers. If you don’t fall into this group, and you are okay with putting your future lung health at risk, then it’s fine to keep hiking as long as your body feels good. If choosing to forgo smoke warnings, always have an “escape plan” so you can get off trail quickly in case the smoke starts causing negative reactions from your body.

If you choose to continue hiking, it’s a good idea to have some basic knowledge of how to visually estimate the current smoke levels: In daylight hours while facing away from the sun, pick out several dark objects on the horizon, using a map to determine how far away they are. If you can see objects more than 10 miles away, the air quality is “good” and you are okay to continue hiking, but if you are having trouble seeing objects that are only 5 miles away, then the air quality is unhealthy and you should consider getting off trail. Less than 1 mile of visibility means that the current levels are hazardous for your health and you should get off trail immediately.

How To Handle The Worst Case Scenario

Ideally, you will be paying attention to social media, news outlets, and trail crews to know both the current status of active fires, and the chances of a new wildfire starting where you choose to hike. If you still happen to get caught in a wildfire while hiking, there are ways to increase your chances of survival.

When planning an escape route, remember that fire generally travels upwards – so avoid ridges and try to find lower ground ASAP. Look for open meadows, rivers, and lakes where the fire will have less fuel to burn. It’s also crucial to pay attention to the smoke pattern from the fire. If the smoke is moving upwards, then there is no wind and the fire will move slowly. If smoke plumes are veering dramatically in one direction, then the wind is pushing the fire in the direction of the smoke and you should choose an evacuation route that avoids this path. Wildfires move surprising fast if conditions are right, so it’s wise to assume you will not be able to outrun an active fire.

One of the best ways to stay safe is by sticking to the charred zones where the fire has already been. If the fire is active and nearby, then these areas will be hot, dry, smokey, and just generally uncomfortable, but it is one of the safest places to be when caught in an active fire. Be mindful of falling trees and branches, beware of burning embers, and watch for burned-out root systems that can trap hikers in seemingly invisible holes. It’s recommended to stay put and hunker down until the fire danger has passed, then opt to find more stable land.

If you are unable to escape the flames, there is still a chance at survival – find a depression in the land (like a ditch or stream bed), and dig a small hole for your face in the dirt. Lay face down with your feet facing the direction of the fire, and use a cloth or handkerchief to avoid breathing in smoke. Put on any layers you have to help protect your skin from the hot air and flames. As the fire passes over you, try to stay as calm as possible and avoid the temptation to jump up – the air 5 feet above the ground is incredibly hot, smoky, and will likely be deadly.

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Come Up With Plan B In the Event of A Trail Closure

For the long trails that criss-cross our nation’s west, large scale wildfires may unfortunately be the new normal. This means that it’s important for thru hikers to factor the chances of a wildfire into their planning, and have a game plan for how to handle trail closures.

For some, this may be as simple as saving enough money to have a shuttle drive you to the other side of the closure, and then back down to any skipped sections once conditions are safe. Others who follow a more purist mindset of wanting to hike in a single line from point A to point B, may have understandable reservations about skipping larger sections of trail. In this case, it may be wise to go into your hike with a Plan B for if fire closures prevent you from following your route. This may mean hunkering down in town for a few days, or even postponing your hike for the following year.

Regardless of how you choose to construct your backup plan, please be wise and respect any trail closures. It’s understandably frustrating for large parts of the trail to be closed during your thru hiking year, but remember that closures are put in place for the safety of hikers, the trail, and emergency response teams who are both fighting the flames, and will be response for rescuing any hikers who run into trouble within a closed section of trail. Additionally, alternate thru hikes are largely accepted by each trail governing body, like the CDTC, if the reroute was due to wildfires. If your concern if “officially” completing a thru hike, check with the organization for your trail to determine what their wildfire guidelines are.

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Don’t Be The Cause of The Next Big Fire

One of the best ways to avoid another devastating wildfire season is for all outdoor recreationalists to be responsible with their actions. Sometimes, the best answer is to not have a fire at all, and luckily most places still allow portable camp stoves to be used even during fire bans. Although they are less of a risk than a campfire, there is no guarantee these stoves are safe in dry, fire-prone environments. Please be mindful when using any sort of flame during a fire ban, and consider following the below precautions:

  • Always have plenty of water on hand for the off chance your stove tips over and starts a fire. You may only have seconds before more devastating consequences.
  • Be mindful of wind and tall grasses if cooking on the ground. In areas experiencing the most severe risk of fire danger, even just the heat from your stove could be enough to ignite grasses. To help minimize the risk, invest in a ground cover and windscreen for your stove that will protect against heating up vulnerable vegetation.
  • If you are unfamiliar with your stove, practice with it on pavement before heading out to get a feel for how strong the flames are, and if you will be able to safely use it in a dry, fire prone backcountry environment.

If you choose to build a campfire instead of using a backpacking stove, please keep a few simple tips in mind:

  • When there are no fire bans in place, keep fires small and manageable. Never leave the fire unattended, even for a few minutes.
  • Do not build fires on hazardous sites including areas that are windy, have low hanging branches, or are closer than 15 feet from tent walls, scrubs, trees, and other flammable objects.
  • When deciding to end your fire, burn wood all the way through until it is ash. Properly extinguish the fire by dousing it with water until there is no hissing and embers are cool enough to handle with your hands.
  • And finally, if there is a fire ban, please listen to local authorities and do not light a fire, use fireworks, light cigarettes, or shoot guns. The bans are in place to not only keep the forest safe, but for the safety of neighboring towns and firefighters who risk their lives to battle the blazes.

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With wildfire season seeming to come sooner, last longer, and be more devastating every year, it’s wise to be prepared when planning a thru hike on a western trail. Having proper knowledge of smoke dangers, fire safety, and evacuation routes is key in ensuring you can successfully (and safely) finish your hike. Pay attention to current fire conditions, respect trail closures, and always have a plan B in your back pocket to make sure your adventure has the best chance of withstanding wildfire season.

Information on how to survive getting trapped in a wildfire via Outside Online

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