With an abundance of trails leading to natural wonders, breathtaking views, and pristine lakes, it’s no wonder that the Pacific Northwest draws thousands of hikers to its vast wilderness areas. Outside the developed areas of the state parks and national parks, the forests and wilderness areas are often genuinely wild, and such amenities as indoor plumbing and medical care can be hours away. So before you lace up your hiking boots, there are a few things to know about hiking in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho that will make your wander in the woods a more enjoyable experience.
1. Leave No Trace
There’s a reason the Pacific Northwest’s forests, beaches, and mountains are free of trash and stunningly beautiful: Hikers act as stewards of the natural areas and follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace. In other words, it means anyone who goes into wild places should take only photos and leave nothing but footprints. This approach ensures the natural beauty will be just as pristine on future visits as it is today.
Pro Tip: A quart- or gallon-sized resealable bag is perfect for storing your trash while keeping it away from the other gear in your backpack.
2. Dress In Layers
Dressing in layers ensures that you’re warm, dry, and comfortable regardless of the conditions — or how they change unexpectedly. It’s not unusual to have cool nights and mornings and hot afternoons. Storms can move in quickly, especially in the mountains. Shedding and adding layers as needed also prevents hypothermia. You’ll want waterproof and breathable rain jackets and rain pants (which also block the wind) for hiking in all but the driest areas.
3. Don’t Count On Cell Service
Cell service along main highways can be spotty, and nonexistent away from the road. Download to your phone a topographic map of the area in which you’re planning to hike before you leave town. Better yet, bring a detailed paper map (no batteries required) with the trail clearly marked and a compass. It’s also essential to leave your trip plans and backup plans (in case the first trailhead parking is full) with someone who can send out search parties if you don’t return on time. If you’re planning to hike a little-traveled trail or into the backcountry, consider renting a personal locator beacon (PLB) for emergency rescue.
Pro Tip: Keep a notepad, pen, thumbtacks, and duct tape in your car for leaving messages for your hiking buddies. It’s common to communicate changes in plans, lost items, and other information through notes tacked or taped to the signboard at the trailhead. If the message was left for you, make sure you remove it.
4. Check Road And Trail Conditions
The roads in the Pacific Northwest’s wilder areas are prone to calamities. Although problems are more common during the winter months, at any time highways, side roads, and trails may be closed, blocked by fallen trees, or buried by landslides. Wildfires close roads and trails during the summer. The main highways are plowed in the winter and take priority for the crews clearing away mudslides and rockslides. Side roads, however, are often simply closed at first snowfall and reopened when the snow melts.
To find out the current condition of a road or trail, start with a search on the US Forest Service website for the specific trail or forest area. Alerts and conditions will be listed on the trail’s page. The relevant ranger station can also provide information, as can the road report sites for Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
5. Fill The Gas Tank Often
Away from main towns, gas stations can be few and far between. Make sure you know where they are before you leave town, and fill the tank whenever you have the opportunity. That gas station you were counting on might be closed or out of business when you arrive, or downed trees on the road might force a detour that makes your planned trip twice as long. It can be a long wait for a tow truck, so it’s a good idea to carry a fully inflated spare tire as well as extra water and motor oil.
6. Cougars, Bears, And Other Animals
Though you probably won’t see a bear or cougar on a day hike, these predators do roam the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Animal attacks, however, are rare. Black bears are common throughout the region, while grizzly bears occupy Washington and Idaho. Western rattlesnakes and prairie rattlesnakes are the only venomous snakes in the region and are most often encountered east of the Cascade Mountains (although they live on the west side, too).
No matter where you hike, it’s essential to know what precautions to take and what to do if you meet a bear, cougar, or rattlesnake. One of the simplest ways to avoid an encounter is to use your voice: chat with your hiking buddy, sing songs, yell “Hey bear!” every few minutes, or otherwise alert animals to your presence.
One animal you may encounter is the golden-mantled ground squirrel, often called (erroneously) a chipmunk. In many places, these bold striped bandits have developed an unhealthy appreciation of human food. Left unsupervised, they’ll chew a hole in your backpack, steal your lunch, eat the tastiest parts of your trail mix, and leave behind the food you don’t want to eat either. They also raid tents, picnic tables, and vehicles. Hard plastic, metal, or glass food containers will thwart their thievery.
7. Treat The Water
Many of the Pacific Northwest’s lakes and streams are cold and crystal clear — but that doesn’t mean the water is safe to drink. The best bet is to bring your own water. When refilling on the trail, use a purifying water filter (sold in sporting goods stores). Make sure it’s designed to remove the protozoan cysts and other pathogens that will make you sick, such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia, E. coli, Salmonella, and other bacteria.
8. Permits And Passes
They may seem vast, but the national forests, parks, and wilderness areas can still suffer from overcrowding. To protect the trails and environment, a few of the most popular trailheads now require permits, reservable online in advance of your hike for a small fee. In addition, overnight stays outside of developed campgrounds often require a backcountry camping permit. However, the majority of trails in the region don’t need any permits.
Many trails do require a parking pass regardless of whether a permit is needed. The Northwest Forest Pass covers all national forests in Oregon and Washington and can be purchased online as an annual pass or day pass. The America the Beautiful Pass covers parking and entrance fees at all federally operated forests and parks. It does not cover the cost of hiking, camping, and other recreation permits.
To find out what permits and parking passes are needed to hike a particular trail, look up the trail using the search function on the US Forest Service website. Each trail has its own page which lists current conditions, any passes or permits that are required, and other important information.
The floating gray balls of mosquitos you’ve seen in cartoons are real, and you’ll find them at the high mountain lakes. Many smaller, shallow alpine lakes are warm enough for swimming in the summer, but so heavily infested with mosquitoes that you may not want to take a dip. From snowmelt until mid- to late-August, mosquito populations explode. Ranger stations and online trail reports can give you an idea of what to expect in the area you plan to visit.
10. Safety On The Trail
Even with a personal locator beacon, rescue can be hours away. Two things help ensure your safe return when things go wrong: a hiking buddy and having the 10 Essentials in your backpack. Ankle and knee injuries are far more common than animal attacks and a buddy can fetch assistance or help you limp back to the car. The 10 Essentials help you survive until rescuers arrive.
Hiking is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the wild places of the Pacific Northwest. A little preparation ensures a safe excursion filled with the adventures and natural beauty that have made the region famous. One last tip: Don’t forget your camera!