There are few things better for your body, mind, and spirit than spending time in nature. And,
when it comes to the great outdoors, you couldn’t ask for more scenic vistas or more peaceful
hiking trails than those found in California. Nevertheless, whether you’re a beginner or you’re an
experienced backpacker, there are some things you should know about hitting California’s trails
during fire season.
Unfortunately, California’s fire seasons are getting longer, deadlier, and more unpredictable by
the year. In southern California, in particular, the fire season can run from late spring to well into
the winter months, particularly during drought periods.
What this means for you as a hiker is that you must expect — and prepare for — the
unexpected before setting out on your backpacking trip or hike. Before going on any trip, you
should research the area around the trail and if there are any fires nearby. In any case, you should stay updated about any fire restrictions while you’re out on the trail or if any trails are
Most commonly, you may find that you’re not allowed to participate in certain activities if you’re
on a trail during high-risk wildfire season or if you’re in a high-risk area such as Joshua Tree
National Park. This may mean you can’t burn any campfires, light off fireworks, or drive off-road.
All of these activities could inevitably spark a wildfire. In addition, you should have the
appropriate outdoor tools and equipment to minimize the risk of accidental ignitions while you
are on the trail and after you leave it.
If you come across an unexpected trail closure due to a fire, adapt. For example, The Pacific
Crest Trail Association recommends that you always plan an alternate route for your day hiking
or backpacking trip in anticipation of fire closures. Trails will only open if a fire is completely
contained, so don’t expect to “wait it out.”
If you do try to hike on a closed trail, think of how taxing this could be on those who are looking
out for your safety, and for those who are actively fighting the fires. Firefighters already have to
deal with excessive amounts of stress during wildfire season which contributes to post-traumatic
stress, and they don’t need the added worry of patrons hiking in the middle of a fire.
You should also bring along a buddy when you hike during wildfire season. Fires can ignite and
spread quickly for any number of reasons, so pairing up can help keep you safe and give you a
second set of eyes to keep watch for any signs that an unreported fire may be burning in the
React and Report
If you encounter a fire on the trail while hiking, it’s best to stay calm and follow the following
advice recommended by the Pacific Crest Trail Association:
- Assess the state of the fire: If you spot wind, flames, or if you’re on a ridge or in the
forest, it’s best to get out of the situation as soon as possible. If you see smoke and find
where it’s coming from, walk away from the source.
- Don’t panic and hike away: If you can get out of the trail you’re on, you should. In the
process, don’t panic. You should think quickly, but if you’re panicked, these thoughts will
- Find shelter: If you’re deep into the trails and can’t escape easily, it’s best to find shelter
with small vegetation around. Ideally, you should find areas where there is a lake or a
water source nearby as protection against fire and heat.
- Report: Once you’re safe, report the wildfire. This could be 911, your local sheriff, or
your nearest Forest Service office.
If you live near a wildfire, you should apply the same advice before taking evacuation protocols.
Typically, an emergency responder will give immediate steps for you to take if you find a wildfire
near your residence.
Advocate for Prescribed Fires
In the past, California has been notoriously ignorant about prescribed fires. Although it may
sound counterintuitive, prescribed fires or controlled fires often make accidental wildfires less
frequent and less intense. In these prescribed fires, dead or overgrown bush is burned away,
which can make wildfires larger and spread farther.
In this process, prescribed fires can also rid the area of invasive species like harmful tree
beetles and ticks, which also prevents the spread of tick-borne illnesses. That being said,
although these preventative measures are being taken, you should still show the same caution
while hiking. For one, still check your pet for fleas and ticks during and after hiking in fire-prone
areas. Although prescribed fires may reduce their numbers, ticks and other pests are still very
active in dry, grassy areas.
When it comes to prescribed fires, continue to advocate for their use in California. A 2021 law
was passed that pushed for the continued use of prescribed fires, but laws can easily be
overturned. Keep an eye out for opposing legislation that could threaten this environmentally
Hiking the trails of California is one of life’s greatest pleasures. You’ll see breathtaking sights
that you will never forget. You and your crew will make memories that last a lifetime. However, if
you hit the trail during fire season, there are some important things to keep in mind and some
critical precautions you’ll want to take.
You’ll want to be ready to be flexible, including identifying and preparing alternative routes
should your chosen path be closed. You’re also going to want to be particularly vigilant and
extra cautious while on the trail to prevent accidental ignition. And, if you want to make the most
of your excursion by bringing pets along, just make certain that they are protected against
heartworm, flea, and tick infestations before allowing them to run wild and free in the dry, critter-