Health & insurance
Visiting city dwellers will need to keep their wits about them in order to minimize the chances of suffering an avoidable accident or tragedy. Dress appropriately, tell people where you are going, don’t bite off more than you can chew and, above all, respect the wilderness and the inherent dangers that it conceals.
If you have an emergency while staying in the national parks dial 911.
Bring all prescription medications in their original, labeled containers. A signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names, is a good idea. If you're carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their necessity.
Some of the walks in the area are physically demanding and most require a reasonable level of fitness. Even if you’re tackling the easy or easy–moderate walks, it pays to be relatively fit, rather than launch straight into them after months of fairly sedentary living. If you’re aiming for the demanding walks, fitness is essential.
If you have any medical problems, or are concerned about your health in any way, it’s a good idea to have a full checkup before you start walking.
Before You Go
There are no required vaccinations for travel to Canada; however, an up-to-date tetanus shot is highly recommended for anyone planning to engage in outdoor activities.
If you’re visiting from abroad, be sure to check what services your medical and/or travel insurance company will cover in Canada.
- acetaminophen (paracetamol) or aspirin
- adhesive bandages (Band-Aids)
- adhesive medical tape
- antibacterial ointment for cuts and abrasions
- antidiarrheal drugs (eg loperamide)
- antihistamines (for hay fever and allergic reactions)
- anti-inflammatory drugs (eg ibuprofen)
- bandages, gauze swabs, gauze rolls
- DEET–containing insect repellent
- elasticized support bandage
- iodine tablets or water filter (for water purification)
- moleskin for blisters
- nonadhesive dressing
- oral rehydration salts
- paper stitches
- permethrin-containing insect spray for clothing, tents and bed nets
- pocket knife
- scissors, safety pins, tweezers
- sterile alcohol wipes
- steroid cream or cortisone (for allergic rashes)
- syringes and needles – ask your doctor for a note explaining why you have them
Medicine for Mountaineering & Other Wilderness Activities (James Wilkerson) An outstanding reference book for the layperson; describes many of the medical problems typically encountered while trekking.
Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries (James Wilkerson) Good background reading on the subject of cold and high-altitude problems.
Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters (Dave Smith) Good on the basics of bear behavior and biology.
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (The Mountaineers) Comprehensive guide to mountaineering, with a substantial section covering safety, first aid and alpine rescue.
In Banff & Jasper
Availability and Cost of Health Care
Banff and Jasper townsites both have good 24-hour medical facilities. Costs are moderate by world standards. When traveling anywhere outside the townsites, you should carry a first-aid kit, especially if hiking in the backcountry.
Tap water is safe to drink throughout Banff and Jasper. However, water from streams, lakes and rivers should always be boiled or treated before drinking (no matter how pure it may look).
Always call 911 first in an emergency. Both parks also have 24-hour emergency dispatch numbers:
While water running through the mountains may look crystal-clear, much of it carries Giardia lamblia, a microscopic parasite that causes intestinal disorders. To avoid getting sick, boil all water for at least 10 minutes, treat it with water tablets or filter at 0.5 microns or smaller. Note that iodine in cold water doesn’t destroy giardiasis.
Symptoms of giardiasis include stomach cramps; nausea; a bloated stomach; watery, foul-smelling diarrhea; and frequent gas. Giardiasis can appear several weeks after you have been exposed to the parasite. The symptoms may disappear for a few days and then return; this can go on for several weeks.
Seek medical advice if you think you have giardiasis, but where this is not possible, tinidazole or metronidazole are the recommended drugs. Treatment is a 2g single dose of tinidazole, or 250mg of metronidazole three times daily for five to 10 days.
To ensure you are getting safe, clean drinking water in the backcountry you have three basic options.
Boiling Water is considered safe to drink if it has been boiled at 100°C for at least a minute. This is best done when you set up your camp and stove in the evening.
Chemical purification There are two types of chemical additives that will purify water: chlorine and iodine. You can choose from various products on the market, but read the instructions carefully first, be aware of expiration dates and check you are not allergic to either chemical.
Filtration Mobile devices can pump water through microscopic filters and take out potentially harmful organisms. If carrying a filter, take care it doesn’t get damaged in transit, read the instructions carefully and always filter the cleanest water you can find.
Although people have an inordinate fear of being hurt by bears, the Canadian Rockies are a far more dangerous place for the bears themselves. In Banff National Park alone, 90% of known grizzly bear deaths have occurred within 400m (0.25 miles) of roads and buildings, with most bears either being killed by cars or by wardens when bears and people come into unwanted contact with one another. Cross-continental trains traveling through the parks have also killed many of these magnificent beasts.
Bears are intelligent opportunists that quickly learn that humans come with food and tasty garbage. Unfortunately, once this association is learned, a bear nearly always has to be shot. Remember: ‘A fed bear is a dead bear,’ so never feed a bear, never improperly store food or garbage, and always clean up after yourself.
Bears are also surprisingly fast creatures that can sprint the length of a football field in six seconds. Although such encounters are rare, bears will readily attack if their cubs are around, if they’re defending food or if they feel surprised and threatened. Your best defenses against surprising a bear are to remain alert, avoid hiking at night (when bears feed) and be careful when traveling upwind near streams or where visibility is obscured.
To avoid an encounter altogether, hike in groups (bears almost never attack hiking groups of more than four people) and make noise on the trail, preferably by talking or singing. Jangling bear bells aren’t really loud enough to be effective.
If you do encounter a bear, there are several defensive strategies to employ, but no guarantees. If the bear doesn’t see you, move a safe distance downwind and make noise to alert it to your presence. If the bear sees you, slowly back out of its path, avoid eye contact, speak softly and wave your hands above your head slowly. Never turn your back to the bear, never kneel down and never run.
Sows with cubs are particularly dangerous, and you should make every effort to avoid coming between a sow and her cubs. A sow may clack her jaws, lower her head and shake it as a warning before she charges.
If a bear does charge, do not panic and do not scream (which may frighten the bear and make it more aggressive), because the bear may only be charging as a bluff. Drop to the ground, crouch face down in a ball, and play dead, covering the back of your neck with your hands and your chest and stomach with your knees. Do not resist the bear’s inquisitive pawing – it may get bored and go away.
If the bear continues to attack you, it may be a (rare) predatory bear, in which case you should fight back aggressively. Park authorities recommend hikers carry bear spray, which can be used as a last resort. It has proved to be effective if aimed into the face of a charging bear from a range of about 5m (16.5ft) to 10m (33ft).
For an informative video on bear safety and proper bear spray usage, see www.biosphereinstitute.org/bearspray.
Altitude sickness can strike anyone heading up into the mountains. Thinner air means less oxygen is reaching your muscles and brain, requiring the heart and lungs to work harder. Many trailheads begin at high elevations, meaning that you don’t have to go very far before feeling the effects.
Symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) include headache, lethargy, dizziness, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite. AMS may become more severe without warning and can be fatal. Severe symptoms include breathlessness, a dry, irritating cough (which may progress to the production of pink, frothy sputum), severe headache, lack of coordination and balance, confusion, irrational behavior, vomiting, drowsiness and unconsciousness. There is no hard-and-fast rule as to what is too high – AMS has been fatal at 3000m (9843ft) – although 3500m to 4500m (11483ft to 14764ft) is the usual range.
Treat mild symptoms by resting at the same altitude until recovery, usually a day or two. Paracetamol or aspirin can be taken for headaches. If symptoms persist or become worse, however, immediate descent is necessary; even 500m (1640ft) can help. Drug treatments should never be used to avoid descent or to enable further ascent.
The drugs acetazolamide and dexamethasone are recommended by some doctors for the prevention of AMS; however, their use is controversial. They can reduce the symptoms, but they may also mask warning signs; severe and fatal AMS has occurred in people taking these drugs. In general we do not recommend them for travelers.
To prevent acute mountain sickness:
- Ascend slowly – have frequent rest days, spending two to three nights at each rise of 1000m (3281ft). If you reach a high altitude by trekking, acclimatization takes place gradually and you are less likely to be affected than if you fly directly to high altitude.
- It is always wise to sleep at a lower altitude than the greatest height reached during the day, if possible. Also, if traveling above 3000m (9843ft), care should be taken not to increase the sleeping altitude by more than 300m (984ft) per day.
- Drink extra fluids. The mountain air is dry and cold and moisture is lost as you breathe; evaporation of sweat may occur unnoticed and result in dehydration.
- Eat light, high-carbohydrate meals for more energy.
- Avoid alcohol and sedatives.
Mosquitoes can be rampant in all parks, particularly on summer evenings. In Banff and Jasper, you’ll notice them around lakes and on wooded hikes; they are particularly prevalent in the Tonquin Valley and along parts of the remote North Boundary Trail. Use repellent, wear light-colored clothing and cover yourself in the evening.
Ticks are most active from spring to autumn, especially where there are plenty of sheep or deer. They usually lurk in overhanging vegetation, so avoid pushing through tall bushes.
If a tick is found attached to the skin, press down around its head with tweezers, grab the head and gently pull upward. Avoid pulling the rear of the body as this may squeeze the tick’s gut contents through its mouth into your skin, increasing the risk of infection and disease. Smearing chemicals on the tick will not make it let go and is not recommended.
Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness that manifests itself in skin lesions and, later on, intermittent or persistent arthritis. To avoid contracting it, use all normal mosquito preventative measures, including wearing long-sleeved shirts and trousers, checking clothing for ticks after outdoor activity, and using an effective brand of DEET or insect repellent.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is another tick-borne disease that is potentially lethal, but usually curable if diagnosed early. Symptoms include fever and muscle pain followed by the development of a rash. Treatment is with antibiotics, but to prevent it take the usual anti-tick measures especially when walking in areas of tall grass or brush.
This occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it and the core temperature of the body falls.
It is frighteningly easy to progress from very cold to dangerously cold due to a combination of wind, wet clothing, fatigue and hunger, even if the air temperature is above freezing. If the weather deteriorates, put on extra layers of warm clothing; a windproof and/or waterproof jacket, wool or fleece hat and gloves are all essential. Have something energy-giving to eat and ensure that everyone in your group is fit, feeling well and alert.
Symptoms of hypothermia are exhaustion, numb skin (particularly toes and fingers), shivering, slurred speech, irrational or violent behavior, lethargy, stumbling, dizzy spells, muscle cramps and violent bursts of energy. Irrationality may take the form of sufferers claiming they are warm and trying to take off their clothes.
To treat mild hypothermia, first get the person out of the wind and/or rain, remove their clothing if it’s wet and replace it with dry, warm clothing. Give them hot liquids – not alcohol – and some high-energy, easily digestible food. Do not rub victims: instead, allow them to slowly warm themselves.
This refers to the freezing of extremities, including fingers, toes and the nose. Signs and symptoms of frostbite include a whitish or waxy cast to the skin, or even crystals on the surface, plus itching, numbness and pain. Warm the affected areas by immersion in warm (not hot) water, or with blankets or clothes, only until the skin becomes flushed. Frostbitten parts should not be rubbed. Pain and swelling are inevitable. Blisters should not be broken. Get medical attention right away.
Dehydration & Heat Exhaustion
Dehydration is a potentially dangerous and generally preventable condition caused by excessive fluid loss. Sweating combined with inadequate fluid intake is one of the common causes in trekkers, but other causes are diarrhea, vomiting and high fever.
The first symptoms are weakness, thirst and passing small amounts of very concentrated urine. This may lead to drowsiness, dizziness or fainting on standing up, and finally, coma.
It’s easy to forget how much fluid you are losing via perspiration while you are trekking, particularly if a strong breeze is drying your skin quickly. You should always maintain a good fluid intake – a minimum of 3L a day is recommended.
Dehydration and salt deficiency can cause heat exhaustion. Salt deficiency is characterized by fatigue, lethargy, headaches, giddiness and muscle cramps. Salt tablets are overkill; just adding extra salt to your food is probably sufficient.
This is a serious, occasionally fatal, condition that occurs if the body’s heat-regulating mechanism breaks down and the body temperature rises to dangerous levels. Long, continuous periods of exposure to high temperatures and insufficient fluids can leave you vulnerable to heatstroke.
The symptoms are feeling unwell, not sweating very much (or at all) and a high body temperature of around 39°C to 41°C (102°F to 106°F). Where sweating has ceased, the skin becomes flushed and red. Severe, throbbing headaches and lack of coordination will also occur, and the sufferer may be confused or aggressive. Eventually the victim will become delirious or convulse. Hospitalization is essential but, in the interim, get victims out of the sun, remove their clothing, cover them with a wet sheet or towel, and then fan continually. Give fluids if they are conscious.
This is a temporary, painful condition resulting from sunburn of the surface of the eye (cornea). It usually occurs when someone walks on snow or in bright sunshine without sunglasses. Treatment is to relieve the pain – cold cloths on closed eyelids may help. Antibiotic and anesthetic eye drops are not necessary. The condition usually resolves itself within a few days and there are no long-term consequences.
Protection against the sun should always be taken seriously. Particularly in the rarefied air and deceptive coolness of the mountains, sunburn occurs rapidly. Slap on the sunscreen and a barrier cream for your nose and lips, wear a broad-brimmed hat and protect your eyes with good-quality sunglasses with UV lenses, particularly when walking near water, sand or snow. If, despite these precautions, you get yourself burnt, apply calamine lotion, aloe vera or other commercial sunburn-relief preparations to the affected area.
Safety Basics for Hikers
- Allow plenty of time to accomplish a walk before dark, particularly when daylight hours are shorter.
- Study the route carefully before setting out, noting the possible escape routes and the point of no return (where it’s quicker to continue than to turn back). Monitor your progress during the day against the time estimated for the walk, and keep an eye on the weather.
- It’s wise not to walk alone. Always leave details of your intended route, number of people in your group and expected return time with someone responsible before you set off, and let that person know when you return.
- Before setting off, make sure you have a relevant map, compass and whistle, and that you know the weather forecast for the area for the next 24 hours. Always carry extra warm, dry layers of clothing and plenty of emergency, high-energy food.
Safety Basics for Cyclists
- Wildlife can be especially hazardous for off-road cyclists, who run the risk of surprising large animals such as moose or bears when progressing rapidly along twisting forested trails. To avoid potentially dangerous encounters with foraging megafauna, cyclists are encouraged to take heed of posted trail warnings and make plenty of noise on concealed corners and rises (remember, a bear can easily outsprint a cyclist).
- Another common and related problem that cyclists may encounter is unobservant motorists busy gawping at the scenery and wildlife!
- Helmets are mandatory in both Banff and Jasper. Off-roaders may also want to invest in elbow and knee pads.
Avalanches are a threat during and following storms, in high winds and during temperature changes, particularly when it warms in spring. Educate yourself about the dangers of avalanches before setting out into the backcountry. Signs of avalanche activity include felled trees and slides.
For up-to-date information on avalanche hazards in all the Canadian Rockies national parks, visit avalanche.pc.gc.ca. Alternatively, call 403-762-1470 for Banff or 780-852-6155 for Jasper, or contact Avalanche Canada.
If you are caught in an avalanche, your chance of survival depends on your ability to keep yourself above the flowing snow and your companions’ ability to rescue you. The probability of survival decreases rapidly after half an hour, so the party must be self-equipped, with each member carrying an avalanche beacon, a sectional probe and a collapsible shovel.
Sudden downpours are common in the mountains and can speedily turn a gentle stream into a raging torrent. If you’re in any doubt about the safety of a crossing, look for a safer passage upstream or wait. If the rain is short-lived, it should subside quickly.
If you decide it’s essential to cross (late in the day, for example), look for a wide, relatively shallow stretch of the stream rather than a bend. Take off your trousers and socks, but keep your boots on to prevent injury. Put dry, warm clothes and a towel in a plastic bag near the top of your pack. Use a walking pole, grasped in both hands, on the upstream side as a third leg, or go arm in arm with a companion, clasping at the wrist, and cross side-on to the flow, taking short steps.
If a storm brews, avoid exposed areas. Lightning has a penchant for crests, lone trees, small depressions, gullies, caves and cabin entrances, as well as wet ground. If you are caught out in the open, try to curl up as tightly as possible with your feet together and keep a layer of insulation between you and the ground. Place metal objects such as metal-frame backpacks and walking poles away from you.
Rescue & Evacuation
If someone in your group is injured or falls ill and can’t move, leave somebody with them while others go for help. Those leaving the scene should take clear written details of the location and condition of the victim, and of helicopter landing conditions. If there are only two of you, leave the injured person with as much warm clothing, food and water as it’s sensible to spare, plus the whistle and torch. Mark the position with something conspicuous – an orange bivvy bag, or perhaps a large stone cross on the ground.