These extreme weather conditions are colliding with an unprecedented increase in outdoor recreation, setting up a potentially catastrophic conflict. Does that mean you should scrap your bucket-list backpacking trip, your visit to one of the country’s spectacular Western national parks or your campground reservations made last spring? Not necessarily, experts say. Time spent outdoors has myriad health benefits and exposes you to less risk from highly transmissible coronavirus variants.
However, with roughly 95 percent of the West experiencing a drought, and with wildfires raging across the Pacific Northwest, as well as in other parts of the West, outdoor recreationists of all stripes — including RVers in developed campgrounds and off-the-grid wilderness junkies — should take extra safety measures and exercise caution in the face of unpredictable conditions. Here’s how.
Get the most current data. Before embarking, investigate the weather forecast, wildfire status, air quality, and any closures in and around your destination. The National Interagency Fire Center (nifc.gov) has maps and up-to-date information on wildfires. Find weather alerts and air-quality information on the National Weather Service website (weather.gov). For more localized information, check helpful websites run by state tourism offices, specific public lands agencies and, often, local gear shops. For instance, Teton Mountaineering’s “Local Resources” section for Jackson Hole in Wyoming links to mountain weather forecasts, Teton County Search and Rescue and Grand Teton National Park (tetonmtn.com). Calling public lands’ visitor centers or local tourism offices can also yield valuable information; national park officials, for example, closely monitor the weather and hone their visitor outreach accordingly. Knowing what you’re apt to encounter will help you decide what to pack (extra water bottles, sunscreen and sun hats, for example) and how ambitious to be with your hiking, biking or climbing plans.
Pack wisely, and bring extra everything. “Preparedness is more important than ever these days,” said Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. “Carry the 10 essentials, and communicate your plan thoroughly to someone who will report you as missing if you don’t contact them by a certain time.” The 10 essentials are: navigation tools (map, compass, GPS device, personal locator beacon or satellite messenger); a headlamp; sun protection; first-aid supplies; a knife; fire starter (matches or lighter); shelter (a lightweight emergency bivy sack suffices); extra food; extra water; and synthetic layers/additional masks/extra clothes. In other words: Pack as if you may need to spend an unplanned night outdoors.
Don’t take risks that could require a rescue. The extreme weather and increased visitors to the backcountry are straining rescue teams, many of which are volunteer-only. They may not be able to respond quickly to every call that comes in or may choose not to respond for non-life-threatening injuries, said Joelle Baird, public affairs specialist at Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. For instance, someone with a twisted ankle at the bottom of the Grand Canyon may be advised to spend the night and try to walk out the next day if extreme weather might pose a greater danger to a rescue team. “The hot weather takes a toll on rescuers, too,” she said. “There is always a balancing act between looking out for our rescuers and helping people in the field.” The park has experienced more excessive heat warnings (issued by the National Weather Service when the heat index is 105 degrees or greater for two hours or more) so far this summer than in previous years. Those conditions demand that rescuers and visitors exercise caution and minimize strenuous activity when possible. In addition to packing first-aid supplies, as noted above, travelers should choose their activities wisely.
Get out early. Even the hottest days have temperature variations, and it will probably be cooler earlier in the morning. Plan to hit the trail and work up a sweat before the mercury spikes, said Britta Berube, a mountain bike guide in Sedona, Ariz. “Timing is really important,” Berube said.
Know thyself (and ask thy doctor in advance). Wildfire smoke and ash can wreak havoc on air quality, so travelers should always consult with their doctor if they are uncertain about participating in adventure travel during extreme weather conditions, said Sharon Saltoon, reservations and communications manager for Washington state’s Wet Planet Whitewater by the Columbia River Gorge. “Someone with healthy lungs may have no problem exercising outdoors when there is a bit of smoke from fires, but someone with asthma or other conditions may not be able to participate,” she said. “Travelers should always take it upon themselves to make the best decision for their specific situation.” Consulting with your doctor about potential effects of excessive heat on the efficacy of regular medications or on any preexisting conditions will also help travelers make informed decisions. And if you know you don’t respond well to hot, dry weather, adjust your plans. For instance, instead of trying to summit one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, find a less strenuous hike with shade and, ideally, water along the route.
Purchase travel insurance. Saltoon also recommends that travelers purchase insurance for their trips with professional outfitters. This could come in handy if the outfitter decides to proceed with a trip as scheduled, but you don’t want to go because of the risk of wildfires, heat or other problematic weather. “Depending on the outfitter’s cancellation policy, they may not be eligible for a refund, but travel insurance should cover their purchase if they choose not to participate,” said Saltoon, adding that travelers should confirm the terms of the policy with the insurance company before purchasing.
Be flexible. Those who live, work and recreate in the West are used to living with extreme weather, and they make contingencies for it, said Lizzy Scully, founder and chief executive of Four Corners Guides, a bike-packrafting guiding company based in southwestern Colorado. “We are prepared and have a strong emergency protocol and management plan in place,” she said. In addition, Four Corners’ cancellation policy stipulates that, if a trip cannot proceed because of wildfires or other extreme weather conditions, the company will substitute an alternate itinerary. It can do this because it has permits that allow it to operate over a vast territory. “People need to be flexible and trust they will have a good adventure; it just might be different than what they expect.”
Heed the experts. Trust the rangers who may greet visitors at trailheads and offer advice. In Grand Canyon National Park, preventive search-and-rescue workers educate visitors about the risks of recreating in extreme heat. “They will try to intercept people and make sure they have adequate hiking plans and enough food and water,” Baird said.
Abide by (fire, trail closure, etc.) restrictions. If there is a fire ban in place, do not build a campfire at your site. Illegal fires are responsible for igniting significant wildfires, and the last thing wildland officials need this summer is avoidable, human-caused fires. Not only do these fires threaten local communities and important ecosystems, but they also put pressure on a firefighting system already constrained by limited resources. Consider the warning issued by Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller in mid-July: “We are seeing unprecedented wildfire conditions . . . with no relief from extremely hot, dry conditions in the forecast. The biggest issue we face right now is extremely limited resources to manage these fires, including a lack of aircraft and crews on the ground. We typically tap into our shared resources during these times, but they have very limited availability due to fires in our neighboring states.”
Don’t give up. Although all of this may sound intimidating, would-be travelers should not be dissuaded, said Austyn Dineen, a spokesperson for Breckenridge, Colo. Rather, visitors to Western mountains, rivers and deserts should be aware of the risks and be educated. When in doubt, Dineen recommends talking to the local destination welcome center. “Sometimes, there is a perception of a fire being closer than it may be, and tourism officials can give visitors the best information to make informed decisions,” she said. “And abide by any restrictions. They’re in place so that we can all have a safe summer.”
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Follow her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
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