Surviving a wildfire you encounter while day hiking or backpacking is definitely possible. This post gives key wildfire-survival hiker safety tips to decrease the chance you’ll be caught in a wildfire — and to increase your chance of survival if you do.
I am an avid hiker and also a hiking guidebook writer, and I hike in and write about Northern California, a very popular hiking spot where wildfires are increasing in severity. As I write this, fires burn across California, and the Carr Fire is burning large parts of my hometown of Redding, California. This post is my way of doing what I can to help, since a significant number of people read this blog.
Before You Go Hiking: Assess the Wildfire Danger
Pay attention to the news and social media like Facebook, check websites about wildfires and smoke conditions, and especially check the website of agencies that combat wildfires and give updates on wildfire growth and evacuation areas. (I have a post on California fire, smoke, and air quality conditions that also has links applicable to other states.)
Ranger stations are often your best source of current information.
Check the Weather for Thunderstorms, Lightning, and Red Flag Warnings
Also check the weather forecast for the area where you intend to hike. Lightning from thunderstorms is a common cause of backcountry wildfires; weather reports provide detailed discussion of location, probability, and severity of thunderstorms. Weather forecasts also predict wind, humidity, and temperature conditions, and they include red flag warnings about impending fire danger.
Currently, my favorite source for weather is the National Weather Service.
And make sure you follow all rules and regulations about campfires for your state. You don’t want to be the cause of a major conflagration.
Plan Escape Routes
Before you take your day hike or backpacking trip, look at topographic maps and read descriptions of your trail and nearby trails to determine the best escape routes if a fire does threaten. Plan for different fire locations and directions of movement.
Noticing a Wildfire While Hiking or Backpacking
If you see smoke, assess its distance from you, the direction of smoke movement, and the smoke quantity. This helps you assess the potential danger.
It’s always better to be safe than sorry. If you feel there is any potential danger, hurry back to the trailhead and get out of there. If necessary, leave gear behind.
When it’s safe to do so, call 911, the managing government agency, or the county sheriff’s office to report the fire, especially if it’s a small one that may have avoided previous detection.
Surviving a Wildfire
Wildfires can move unpredictably and rapidly. Don’t assume you can outrun or outwalk a fire, as they can have explosive growth, especially during the afternoon hours when temperatures are highest and humidity is lowest.
Take Action Before the Wildfire Reaches You
Ridges and forests are the most dangerous. Fire can rise rapidly uphill, and it can roar rapidly through a forest. Move away from the fire and to lower area out of the forest that will give you the highest probability of surviving.
You may be able to move out of the path of the fire to a safe area, depending on the rate and direction of fire movement.
Sheltering in Place during a Wildfire
Find a depression in a meadow or open area with the least amount of flammable materials. If there’s time, clear as much flammable material away from your chosen spot in as wide a circumference as possible. If feasible, dig a small hole in the dirt for your face.
Another good spot: amidst large rocks that can block heat and flames.
If you can reach an area that has already burned, stay there. A stream or lake can be an excellent place to shelter, but avoid streamside or lakeside vegetation.
If there’s time, remove synthetic clothes, since these can burn at lower temperatures than natural fibers. Wear a jacket and any other natural-fiber clothes to help protect you from heat and flames.
It’s also very important to protect your lungs. Place a cloth or piece of clothing over your mouth to protect your lungs from both heat and smoke particles.
What To Do As the Wildfire Passes Over You
Stay as calm as possible, and do your best to calm any hiking companions. Lie face down with your feet pointed toward the flames. Stay there until the flames have passed. Do not give in to any temptation to jump up and run: the air 5 feet above the ground is far hotter and smokier and can quickly kill you. The flames will roar loudly and can last up to a minute. Do not stand up until just after the flames have passed.
What To Do After the Wildfire Has Passed
Plan an escape route that keeps you away from the path of the fire and on or near previously burned areas, if possible, since changing winds can cause the fire to reverse direction and move back in the direction it previously burned. Pay close attention to hot areas, spitting embers, and burned tree snags that can fall or drop branches.
Thoughts? Suggestions? Experiences? Share in the comments below.