Between better weather and a population still spiritually exhausted by COVID-19, outdoor experts are hoping to keep this summer’s impending rush of novice hikers and trekkers out of trouble.
Mount Rainier National Park information officer Kevin Bacher foresees a gangbuster season for backcountry enthusiasts this year, just like last summer. In 2020, park staff had to adapt to a huge number of people who were using trails and outdoor spaces with little prior experience, he said, and the park saw several record-setting weekends for attendance.
“I think that was the real revelation about last summer,” Bacher said. “Not only were a lot of people coming out, but a lot of people who usually don’t recreate (were) doing so for the first time.”
On one hand, Bacher was thrilled to see people discover the wonders of the wilderness for the first time, developing skills, hobbies and connections to the outdoor world that they didn’t have before.
But more adventure means more misadventure: The Seattle Times reported in early March that Mount Rainier National Park rangers embarked on 60 search-and-rescue operations in 2020, the most in the past five years, according to park data.
With visitor centers closed due to the pandemic, the park had to beef up ranger and volunteer presence on the trails in order to reach hikers that were often stepping foot for the first time on the mountain, unaware of safety or etiquette on the trail, Bacher said.
He’s hoping adventurers this summer are just as eager, and a little wiser.
KNOW YOUR TRAIL
Park rangers stress the value of researching the place you’re visiting before heading out. Geographical and seasonal hazards are usually detailed online or in trail guides.
It’s also helpful to learn CPR and the fundamentals of first aid and wilderness survival before embarking.
Before you leave, check the weather and road conditions in the area you’re visiting, Bacher said. Where’s the closest gas station? Which roads are closed in the season you’re visiting? Those aren’t mysteries you want to be solving on-the-day.
Mount Rainier, for instance, is open, but park visitor centers, the Paradise Inn and the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center are closed due to the pandemic. Most park roads are closed, and all drivers are required to carry and be ready to use tire chains in the park in the winter season (November through the end of April).
Another step rangers and search-and-rescue volunteers stress: Make an itinerary for the day and share it with someone else who isn’t going hiking. That way, if you don’t return on time, that person can alert searchers as to where you were heading and when you were supposed to be back.
When you do head out, get an early start so as to maximize your time before nightfall (and your chances of getting a parking space). Travel with a group, especially in rough weather, so you and your friends can get help if someone is injured.
You don’t need “a giant backpack full of gear,” but packing clothes for a variety of temperatures, as well as rain, snow and sun is a good start, King County Search and Rescue volunteer Nathan Lorance said.
“You might have a really warm cotton sweatshirt, but as soon as it gets wet, it’s like a t-shirt,” Lorance said. “There’s nothing there.”
First-aid kits and tools to communicate and navigate are also crucial for when mishaps strike. The most common rescue calls searchers took were for minor injuries, Lorance said, like twisted ankles from slips and falls on hiking trails.
“Accidents truly happen to everyone,” Lorance said. “You can have all the protective gear, all the training, and still trip on a rock.”
Park officials stress these items for any kind of outdoor excursion:
Navigation: A compass, map of the area (a paper map doesn’t run out of batteries) and a GPS.
Light: A flashlight or lamp with extra batteries (save your phone juice for communication).
Food: Extra food and water, and a way to filter water on longer journeys .
Severe weather protection: Raingear, insulating clothes and gloves.
Sun Protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, chapstick and a hat.
Tools: A pocketknife and any other tools you foresee yourself needing.
Firestarters: Weatherproof matches and a lighter or other firestarters.
Communication: A fully-charged cell phone along with a backup battery.
First Aid Kit
Shelter: An emergency blanket for shelter on short trips, or a tent or tarp for longer trips .
If you plan to go on the water, a lifejacket or other flotation device is handy, too.
In an emergency, all these tools help you manage the one resource you can’t buy: Time.
“One of the things a lot of folks don’t realize, is that unlike the fire department, our volunteers are coming from all over the county,” Lorance said. “As long as it takes you to hike in, it’s going to take us that long too. … Having the basic essentials means you can be as comfortable as possible while waiting for additional help to survive.”
WHERE – AND WHEN – TO START?
Spring is a great time to develop your physical and mental outdoor skills, especially if you plan to hike some of the grueling and high-elevation trails that won’t be snow free until late summer.
Even in the summer, trails in the upper parts of Mount Rainier and other parks are subject to harshly cold weather and treacherous conditions. The trail that “looks fantastic on Instagram” might be buried in snow even when you visit it in June, Bacher said.
But “maybe this is the time of year to hike … places where the trails don’t have the spectacular views of the mountain, but are really really beautiful, (with) forest trails through ancient trees, waterfalls that are really flowing beautifully … because the snow is melting and feeding them,” Bacher said.
Trail of the Shadows and Greenwater (AKA Meeker) Lakes are two such places in and around the Mt. Rainier National Park. The former provides a great beginner’s hike in the foothills of the mountain, while Greenwater Lakes serves up a smorgasbord of old growth forest, waterfalls, lakes and bridges. (It’s even pet friendly.)
For picturesque views of the Carbon River Rainforest, consider the Rainforest Nature Loop Trail in the Carbon River area. It’s a short, 0.3 mile loop that is snow-free year round.
And for those who like to see history up close, the Melmont Ghost Town can be traversed from Wilkeson/Carbonado via SR 165. No pass is needed to visit the ruins, which are slowly being reclaimed by nature.