Hiking unprepared in backcountry can have deadly consequences.

Every year people die visiting Mount Rainier. Many of these incidents occur simply because people are unprepared for the fickle and often severe weather of the Cascades. Others occur because hikers are unprepared for navigation and get lost. To make matters worse, park staff and rescuers have to put their lives on the line during search and rescue/recovery missions. Rescuers have died trying to find or rescue lost and injured hikers. The good news is that it isn’t that hard to be prepared and avoid becoming one of these tragedies.

The first death on park record at Mount Rainier was on New Years Day, 1897. Since then there have over four hundred deaths, many occurring in recent years as the number of tourist visits increase. Some of these deaths are due to climbing accidents, but many others have occurred to hikers and visitors in other areas of the park.

Always be prepared and have a plan for bad weather, hiking on snow, navigational challenges, injuries, fatigue, and not making your destination by nightfall.

Late summer and early autumn are typically the safest times to hike the Wonderland Trail. Be extra prepared for navigational challenges, river crossings, and bad weather if you’re hiking early or late in the season.

The Ten Essentials

  1. Navigation – Topographic map, a compass, and a GPS receiver
  2. Sun protection – Sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, and clothing for sun protection
  3. Insulation – Hat, gloves, jacket, extra clothes for the coldest weather you can expect in the season
  4. Illumination – An LED headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries
  5. A First-aid kit
  6. Fire – A butane lighter plus matches in a waterproof container
  7. Repair kit and tools – A multi-tool pocket knife with pliers, duct tape, cable ties, and a shovel
  8. Nutrition – Carry extra food for one additional day.
  9. Hydration – 2 liters per day plus a method for water purification
  10. Emergency shelter – Bring a tarp or bivy sack and an insulated sleeping pad

Hypothermia

A major danger on the Wonderland Trail, as well as any trail in the region, is hypothermia. Here are some general tips for avoiding, identifying, and treating hypothermia.

  • Know the symptoms of hypothermia and look for these in yourself and your hiking partners. Abnormal fatigue, confusion, slurred speech, clumsiness and shivering (which subsides as hypothermia worsens) are all symptoms of moderate to severe hypothermia.
  • Don’t wear cotton – only wear wool or synthetic fibers that can still insulate when wet.
  • Make sure you always have a dry (and insulating) change of clothes. Keep some of your clothes in a waterproof bag for this purpose.
  • Make sure your sleeping bag always stays dry, and use the utmost of care if you have a down bag (once down gets wet, there is no way you’ll be able to dry it by the time you need it).
  • Make sure you drink enough liquids and that you’re getting enough to eat.
  • If for some reason you find yourself getting too cold and unable to warm up by adding layers of clothing, set up your tent, change into dry clothes and get into your sleeping bag. If you have a stove, drink some hot liquids. Fill up your water containers with hot water and place them in your sleeping bag.

Once hypothermia has become severe, chances of survival are slim without emergency medical care to actively rewarm the victim.

River crossings

Remember that a small creek may turn into an impassible torrent after a few minutes of heavy rain. Additionally, most of the rivers encountered on the Wonderland Trail can be impassible or dangerous to ford early in the summer when snowmelt is at its highest. Always try to talk with a ranger first to find out the latest trail conditions.

If you must ford a river, try to do so early in the morning before snow begins melting for the day.

When fording a river, look for calm water that is less than knee deep. Scout downstream and make sure that there’s a spot where you can likely pull yourself to shore if you fall and get swept downstream.

Unbuckle your pack so you can be prepared to slip out of it if you fall. Use hiking poles or two sticks, and wear water shoes or sandals so you have steady footing and don’t hurt your feet on the river bottom.

Never ford a river above dangerous rapids, a waterfall, or logs that could trap you. Angle your path so it’s slightly downstream. Most importantly, if you feel like the conditions are not safe, trust your instincts and wait, or find a safer place to cross.

Navigation

Navigation on the Wonderland Trail can be challenging whenever snow is encountered on the ground. It can also be a challenge in thick fog or bad weather. Areas of particular danger are the Panhandle Gap area, Spray Park, and Windy Gap on the Northern Loop Trail.

Knowledge of navigation by map and compass are mandatory before hiking in the wilderness. Additionally, it’s wise to bring a waterproof map and a durable GPS unit. Know how to use these devices before you get lost! This sounds like a no-brainer, but many people think they can figure it out if they get lost, and discover it’s more challenging to navigate than anticipated.

Never hike solo in the wilderness. A hiking partner is your strongest lifeline.

Research the area you’re visiting, know its dangers, and avoid hiking early or late in the season when snow is on the trail or bad weather is common.

Have a plan for being completely lost or unable to travel due to navigational mistakes, bad weather or injury. A good strategy is to “hug a tree.” If you can, make camp in an exposed and safe location where you might be spotted by searchers from the air. If you are lost, try to avoid descending into valleys where you’ll be difficult to locate. Many lost hikers die in the Pacific NW when they attempt to follow rivers or streams downstream to their source.

Most importantly, share your hiking plans with someone, and check-in with them as soon as you return. If you don’t return, this person can notify the park service to go and look for you.

Share your plans: There is no check-out system for backpackers in the park, and the park service will not know to look for you if someone doesn’t report you missing.

Be aware of the dangers of hiking on snow

Trails can be difficult to see when they are obscured by snowpack. As the snow melts, it can erase marks left by other hikers. Trail markers can be buried under snow.
Hikers can get lost, fall through ice into creeks, or slip off of cliffs or down hillsides. Trees buried in deep snow sometimes form cavities of loose snow that can swallow hikers whole, not to be found until the summer thaw.

A common cause of death in the park is when a hiker slips and falls on a snowy slope. A fall on a slippery hillside can carry someone thousands of feet from the trail without hardly a trace. Even if someone survives an initial fall, they are often injured and unable to find help before dying of hypothermia. Many bodies remain hidden until the snow melts, and many more are never accounted for.

  • Hike in-season to avoid snow at higher elevations. On the Wonderland Trail this is August and September. Use great care when hiking earlier or later in the year.
  • Check with rangers for the latest updates on trail conditions.
  • If you know that you’ll encounter patches of snow, use sturdy water-resistant footwear, keep a light backpack, use hiking poles, and plan for slower progress.
  • Use care when hiking across steep slopes, and be aware that some hikers may have more difficulty maintaining their balance on the snow.
  • Never hike over what appears to be a frozen creek or body of water, or over any area where you hear flowing water under the snow.

Know your physical limits

If you’re new to hiking or aren’t much of an athlete, limit your daily distance to around eight miles. Always give yourself more time to reach your destination than you think you need. This is particularly important if you’re day-hiking and light on the gear you need to safely spend the night. When you get tired, you’re more prone to injuries and falls. In the rugged landscape surrounding Mount Rainier a fall could turn into a serious emergency or worse.

Know how to perform basic wilderness first aid

For a starting point, Wikipedia has a good article on wilderness first aid. If you want a more comprehensive guide, I recommend picking up a copy of NOLS Wilderness First Aid (Nols Library).

Bring extra supplies

Bring more food than you need, carry extra water, and keep an extra set of dry clothes in a waterproof bag. Never hike without rain gear. Make sure you’ve always got the ten essentials.

Large animals

Animals generally pose little threat to visitors in Mount Rainier National Park. On the trail, you are likely to encounter mountain goats, black bears, elk and black-tailed deer. Caution and respect should always be exercised.

Black bears

Black bears attacks are extremely rare in the United States, but can occur if you surprise or make a bear feel threatened.

If you see a bear before it sees you, make some noise to alert it of your presence. Bears have poor eyesight and can be startled if you get too close.

If you find yourself facing a bear on the trail, back away and give it time to leave – especially if you see cubs. Here is a thorough article on black bear safety from WSU.

Never feed bears. This means not leaving food unattended.

Mountain lions

It is rare to see a mountain lion in the wilderness. If you do see a cougar, back away slowly (do not run or turn your back to the lion). Hold any small children and keep larger kids close. If a cougar approaches you, wave your arms, yell, throw things and try to look larger than you actually are.

While it is a rare occurrence in Washington State (and the United States), in the event you or a hiking partner is attacked by a cougar, fight with everything you have and guard your neck and head. Try to hit the lion in the head with a rock or a stick, and try to get dirt into its eyes. Mountain lions will typically focus on one target, and may return again for this same target, even after you’ve repelled an attack. When they attack, they are vicious and determined, and you may need to severely injure or kill the cougar to end the attack. On that uplifting note, let’s move along…

Goats, elk, and deer

Goats can sometimes be aggressive. Don’t get too close. Goats can be curious, territorial, and bold. Although it rarely happens, they sometimes attack people. Always give goats the right-of-way on a trail, and use care if you are near them on a steep slope.

The same treatment applies to elk and deer. Elk and deer can be territorial if you get too close during the fall rut and it’s best to not approach them.

Avoid conflicts by protecting food and scented goods

Mice, black bears, and everything in-between will be attracted to unattended food or scented items.

Keep your food and scented goods hanging or in a bear-proof canister when in camp unless you are eating. Never leave food or scented items in a tent or unattended. When you leave your empty backpack outside of the tent, be sure to unzip all of your pockets, or be prepared to find holes chewed through to wherever you stored that Cliff Bar or bag of trail-mix earlier in the day.

Wilderness safety starts with personal responsibility and preparedness

You are the only person responsible for your safety in the wilderness.

When people need to be rescued, they put rescuers at risk of injury and death, extending tragedy to other families and individuals.

Do your research before hiking and have plans for dealing with emergencies. Always carry the ten essentials, hike with a partner, stay on the trail, and leave your hiking plans with someone at home. If a situation doesn’t feel safe, then it probably isn’t.

Changing your hiking plans is always a more favorable scenario than making the evening news.

Stay safe and have fun!

Additional resources:

Hiking Safety – Mount Rainier National Park
Six Tips to Stay Safe in the Wilderness