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Escape Routes and Safety Zones: Tips for Hiking During Wildfire Season

Wildfire season in Washington typically peaks in July, August and September -- just when hikers and campers head out to enjoy the outdoors. Burn bans, poor air quality, hazy views and a forecast of hot weather impact hikers and campers. Learn how to prevent wildfires and how to check the status on trails before you hike while fires are burning.

When you head out on trail and fire danger is high, hikers and backpackers need to keep the possibility of fire in mind, and have a plan for what to do if you encounter signs of a fire in the backcountry.

plan before you go

Take a tip from the pros. Firefighters don't tackle a wildfire until escape routes and safety zones have been identified and everyone knows how to reach them. This is a good approach for hikers to take during fire season. In fact, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest recommends hikers use this strategy.

  • Check conditions. Checking trail, road and weather conditions are best practices for any day hike or backpacking trip. Use the tips below to consider wildfires in your conditions checks.
  • Size up the scene. Your favorite trail or camping spot may only have one-way access. Ask yourself where you will go if a fire should block the way out. How can you plan for your own safety? Like experienced firefighters, having a plan, escape routes, and safety zones could pay off during an emergency.
  • Mark up a map. The best way to find out about the routes in, out, and around a specific area is to get a good map. Before you leave for your trip, study the map and mark in red all routes out (escape routes) and safety zones (an area where a person could find adequate refuge from danger). Pay attention to where the largest bodies of water are close to the trails you'll be hiking.

How to check wildfire conditions

While we try to keep our Hiking Guide updated with the latest wildfire information, it's always best to crosscheck with an official source like Inciweb, which has information, maps and recent updates about wildfires burning across Washington. 

Consult the Hiking Guide: When trails are closed because of a fire, look for the corresponding entry to have a red alert indicating that they are inaccessible. You can see these in both the list view of the Hiking Guide, and on individual entries. 

    Thunderstorms and wind: When researching weather, make sure you know the thunderstorm and wind forecasts for the area you will be traveling.

    Talk to a ranger: If you ever have a question about hiking in a region with an active wildfire, contact or visit a ranger station. Not sure which ranger to call for the trail you want to hike? Most of our Hiking Guide entries list the land manager under the Map and Directions.

    ENcountering Fire on Trail

    You're hiking and spot or smell smoke. What do you do?

    You leave. Fires are powerful forces and they can move fast and unpredictably based on the terrain, wind and weather. If you smell smoke you can't trace back to a nearby campfire, or if you spy a column of smoke, leave immediately — even if it means cutting your trip short or leaving some gear behind. Lost gear can be replaced, lost lives cannot.

    Smoke plume at Sunny Pass
    Spotting a smoke plume in early July 2015 prompted pseudotsuga to make the safe bet and end his trip early. Photo by pseudotsuga. 

    When the 2015 Newby Lake Fire started near Horseshoe Basin, trip reporter pseudotsuga was on the tail end of a multi-night trip in the Pasayten Wilderness:

    "We planned our last night to be on Thursday evening at Louden Lake on the return trip. Just as we were setting up the tents, we noticed smoke billowing from just over the ridge top of Armstrong, so we decided to hightail it out. Probably best we did as the evacuation was ordered before we made it out."

    In 2017, more than 140 day-hikers out for a short hike on the Eagle Creek Trail required rescue and needed to hike more than 11 miles through the night after their route was cut off by a fast-moving wildfire in the Columbia River Gorge.