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By Diane Spicer
If you're here for tips on hiking in wildfire season, you've already noticed that wildfires are growing larger, more common, start earlier and last longer during the summer hiking season.
If you haven't been keeping close track of how bad things have gotten in the U.S., here is a little background reading:
The thought of hiking in wildfire season is becoming a pressing concern for hikers throughout the United States.
How can you have a safe hiking fire season?
What can you do to take good care of your health and safety during wildfire season?
I've gathered some resources and tips together to make hiking during fire season easier for you.
You'll need long range information (months ahead of your hiking), plus in depth knowledge of current conditions, to stay safe hiking in wildfire season.
That's a given.
So here's how to get that knowledge.
Read this free pdf annual 2021 report from the National Interagency Coordination Center on Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics.
It goes into detail on where, and when, wildfires occurred in the United States.
The maps and tables are eye opening, to say the least.
Sit down with it to get a feel for the chances of a fire where you're planning to hike and backpack.
Be clear eyed and pass on fire prone areas for the upcoming season.
Another thing to do way ahead of time: use predictive modeling from the National Interagency Fire Center to choose a good hiking window.
Once you zero in on a hiking trail or camping area, know the current rules. There is no excuse for not doing this, full stop.
Find answers to these questions:
Is the forest or park I'm headed to experiencing closures?
Where can I get off the trail in a hurry if I need to?
Are camp fires allowed?
If no fires, what are some campfire alternatives?
If you're traveling to an area and plan on using a stove that needs fuel, ask yourself:
The good old days of disappearing for weeks at a time during the height of summer are gone.
Sad but true fact.
To stay safe, you'll have to check in and get updates for your area every day when you're in fire prone areas.
Here are a few resources for updates, and I'll add more as I find and evaluate them.
Bookmark the National Weather Service page for your targeted area.
They have a special fire weather page here.
Check this fire and smoke U.S. and Canadian map, updated daily.
Go more granular for wildfire information by searching for state agencies that monitor these events.
Start with InciWeb, which maps current prescribed and wild fires across the U.S. You can drill down to the fire you're interested in, and follow its progression.
Also do a search by state for real time updates from local officials and media (with caution, since sensationalized stories sell).
Then check this real time air quality monitoring website which is color coded green, orange, red.
Now for the pivotal question.
There are a lot of variables embedded within that question.
Let's start with some changes in behavior that you can adopt if you are concerned about hiking in wildfire season.
Every month you wait to go backpacking or day hiking, conditions get drier and more combustible.
So move up your plans into late spring and early summer.
But you will have to address early season concerns like a deep snowpack, raging stream crossings, and soggy trails.
Determine what means more to you:
getting out there and having fun, or taking a chance on late(r) season hiking with the possibility of canceling plans.
Should you start a backpacking trip when you already know a fire is burning in or near the area you want to hike through?
To get a sense of your personal risk tolerance, ask yourself:
Add up all the risks you're willing to take.
Balance them with the deal breaker risks.
And you already know this, but here it comes:
It's tough to cancel or reschedule a trip you've been looking forward to for months.
Even tougher: to scramble to relocate to a nearby but safe(r) area.
I've had to do all of the above, and it left huge feelings of disappointment behind.
Hate to say it, but "better safe than sorry".
If you're faced with any of these decisions (abort, divert, delay or reschedule) due to wildfire in the area you're headed into, some pertinent questions:
likely is it for this area to be closed in the near future, including
What is the current air quality? What is the weather forecast (precipitation, wind direction)?
What is my plan if a fire explodes or jumps a line into my area?
What are my chances of rescue if I get trapped?
Who back home can I trust to help me track daily conditions and receive/relay my changing location information?
I'm not going to sugar coat this.
You know road access points (see above), so do one of these things when you get news of an uncontrolled or escalating fire close to you:
Option A: Turn around to get to a road quickly. Call ahead if possible to arrange transportation.
Option B: Keep hiking to get off the trail as soon as possible.
If there's a trail or park closure, respect it. If you press onward in the face of a fire, you endanger other lives, too.
And if you're hiking through a burned area, be aware of falling tree dangers.
The question is something you should contemplate before you're in this situation:
What will you do if you're caught in an area of smoke or active fire?
These tips from the Pacific Crest Trail Association are going to save your life.
These tips from Leave No Trace help you decide what to do when you see smoke.
As you hike in smoky air, you pull particulates and toxins into your lungs and therefore into your bloodstream.
Even when the fire is hundreds of miles away, the particulates linger in the air until you suck them into your body with your deep breathing.
Precautions you can take while hiking in wildfire season:
Add these safety and self care items to your gear checklist and have them handy while hiking in wildfire season:
It's up to you whether or not you venture out into this new landscape haunted by fire.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, I've resigned myself to the fact that August will bring hazy skies, the smell of smoke, hazardous air quality, and both trail and road closures.
So I've moved up my plans and learned to deal safely with early summer conditions.
"Adapt" is the route I've decided to take.
What will you do?
My hope is that you'll use the resources on this page to continue hiking in wildfire season, but in a safe and purposeful way to keep yourself and others out of harms way.
Hiking in wildfire season, just one more wrinkle in the fabric of being a smart and safe hiker!
Hiking In Wildfire Season: Best Tips For Safety