Photo courtesy Travel Alberta
Barry Taylor knows how to navigate the trail. He has found himself traversing switchbacks and scaling mountainsides across the country, sending dispatches to friends and family, at first through a newsletter and in recent years, a blog. With age, the 69-year-old has had to slow down a bit (“I go for the spectacular views that might not be that difficult,” he says), but he’s still an evangelist for the power of hiking.
“In the beginning, I was afraid, like other people,” he says. “But I’ve had incredible encounters. Just go up there, stand in the sunlight with the cool breeze in your face and you’re hooked.”
Many people stop following outdoor pursuits because they think it’s too expensive and too exclusive. But hiking is one activity you can begin whenever you like – all you have to do is get out there. Fall is also one of the best times for beginners to start hiking because the weather is temperate but not hot, and the summer crowds have tapered from cramped, popular trails.
All you really need, by way of equipment, is a good pair of shoes. “Rocky Mountain trails are a bit on the robust side, so you can’t do it in sandals,” says Taylor, noting sturdy sneakers or trail shoes will suffice for easy, flat hikes. If you’re interested in finding a pair of hiking boots, he suggests having the store salesperson help you find the perfect fit. A good boot could last you up to a decade, so taking this part seriously can really pay off. When you stand up in the boots, make sure you can wiggle your toes around.
Morgan Rattray, a hiking and camping customer representative at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Calgary, recommends purchasing wool socks. These will wick moisture away from your feet, which is the best way to prevent blisters. The general rule is that if your feet are happy walking, you’ll be happy on the trail.
He jokes that he once thought they were “for wimps,” Taylor recently started using alpine hiking poles on his hikes, but he notes that they’re not a necessity, especially in the beginning. Other gear includes the clothes in your closet – but beware that you’re certain to get them dirty, so don’t wear your nicest outfits. Once you start taking new paths, you might consider buying hiking-specific clothes. You’ll also want a good backpack, with solid back support, to carry your goods for the day.
Taylor considers his blog, Hiking With Barry, an outdoor diary rather than a guide, and suggests going out to buy a certified guidebook to help you take on more ambitious walks.
“You don’t have to start off backpacking,” adds Rattray. “Just taking a walk in a park provides different scenery and views than walking in the city. It’s somewhere that you haven’t been before.”
Both Taylor and Rattray say that there are a number of hiking groups that coordinate online. They are often organized by skill level and speed, so there’s something for everyone.
What often scares new hikers the most about the trail is wildlife – and there’s no shortage of it in the Canadian Rockies. But Taylor says there’s no need to be terrified, or to be heavy-handed with the bear spray (which you should still carry). “Tell the bear where you are,” he says, explaining that you should always make noise or chat with your hiking group. “Don’t go around bends without hooting and hollering, and don’t walk into a clearing with berries.”
Rattray warns that you should try to be aware of when the sun sets each day – there are special watches that keep track of this for you, or you can check with the Weather Network. You might also want to take a map and learn how to read it because even GPS systems can fail. “They also don’t function like the ones you use in your car, so you have to understand them,” she says.
But that doesn’t have to mean stifling your spontaneity, either. Once you know the key rules, there’s lots of room to abide an adventurous spirit, says Taylor: “Listen to your gut,” he says. “Go over the ridge if it says to. Indulge your inner child.”
How to Pack Your Bag
Necessities for the trail, from the bottom up
Emergency kit: You never know what could happen. Taylor has never had to use his kit but he still carries one that includes a reflective blanket, mirror, matches and paper, knife, and tarp for shelter. Include a flashlight and headlamp, in case you lose track of time and night falls.
Rain gear: An umbrella will work just fine for short hikes, says Taylor, but if there’s any chance of serious rain or if you’re going to be outdoors for a long time, it’s best to have a waterproof outside pant layer (like gaiters) and a jacket.
Layers: It’s Alberta, so the weather changes fast. If it’s a hot day, still bring a long-sleeved wool shirt, hat and fleece sweater. In the winter, you could need as many as four layers. Try to find sweat-wicking clothes that dry out fast.
First-aid kit: It should be easily accessible, right above your change of clothes, so you can reach it in a hurry.
On top: You’ll want sunscreen, bug spray, wipes and tissues. And bring some snacks, depending on the length of the hike.
Tip: Clip your water bottle and camera to the outside of your bag.
Photo courtesy Parks Canada
Alberta’s Best-Loved Hikes
- Lake Agnes teahouse and the area around Moraine Lake have stunning postcard vistas.
- Johnston Canyon on the Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Lake Louise is well-maintained and entirely tracked with handrails and gravel, making it ideal for all physical activity levels.
- Tunnel Mountain in Banff has switchbacks and is relatively short with a great view at the end. It’s popular with families.
- Calgary’s Nose Hill Park, a great urban wilderness, has hours of walking trails and different terrain.
- Bighorn Alley in Jasper provides access to both Annette and Edith lakes.
- Athabasca Falls, along the Icefields Parkway, offers a glimpse into a thundering canyon and waterfall spray.