2023 Backpacking Safety


Due to Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s record-breaking snowpack over the winter, it is especially important to properly prepare yourself before backpacking through the parks during the summer of 2023. Backpackers will need to be self-reliant and ready for risks such as snow hazards, swift water crossings and altitude sickness.

Backpacker stands on rocks overlooking a snowfield and a grand expanse of jagged, rocky mountains.

NPS Photo - Mandy Holmgren, The Institute for Bird Populations'

Snow Hazards

Before embarking on your trip, conduct a risk assessment to identify potential hazards and plan for ways to mitigate or avoid them. If at any point in your journey you feel unprepared, or that the danger is too high, turn around. Do not commit to an action from which you are not sure you can turn around. FOMO is not worth risking your life, especially in conditions such as this.

Consider hazards such as:

  • Snow Cornices 
  • Snow bridges 
  • Exposed chutes 
  • Snow blindness

Hikers must carry the appropriate tools (i.e. ice axe and crampons) and know how to use them.  

Middle Fork Kaweah River

NPS Photo - Rick Cain

Swift Water and River Crossing

Only experienced travelers should attempt to cross a wilderness river without the aid of a bridge. Be aware of your surroundings, your physical limits and skill level. Remember that in the wilderness you may be miles away from help.

The snow-melt-fed rivers are icy cold and will rapidly deplete your energy, leading to hypothermia, shock, and potential drowning. The best way to limit your exposure to swift water danger is to NOT enter the rivers or attempt crossings. Don't be afraid to change your plans if you’re faced with a dangerous crossing, or any other risk that you cannot mitigate.  

It is crucial to carry the appropriate gear and know how to use it correctly. Learn and practice crossing techniques before entering the wilderness. If you are unsure about the safety of the situation, turn back.  

Snow melt and river flow is less intense in the morning, making it safer to cross in the early hours of the day. Water levels typically peak in the late afternoon or early evening when the snow has been exposed to a full day of sun and heat. Increased temperatures cause increased melting and river swelling. The river you comfortably crossed in the morning may rise to dangerous levels by the time you return to it in the afternoon. Be prepared with extra food and overnight gear in case you’re delayed in returning. 

In a wilderness setting, the risks associated with swift water and stream crossings are even greater.

High Sierra mountains and lakes on Mount Whitney Trail

NPS Photo - Elijah Nevarez

Altitude Sickness

Many of the park's attractions are situated at elevations over 8,000 feet, putting visitors at risk of acute mountain sickness and other elevation related emergencies. Altitude illness can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or fitness level.

As you climb higher, air pressure decreases and the amount of oxygen in the air drops. Altitude illness symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • loss of appetite
  • confusion
  • altered mental status.

In severe cases, altitude sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which can be life-threatening.

If you're hiking through the wilderness, it's important to take your time and give your body a chance to adjust to the elevation.  An overnight stay at an intermediate altitude can help your body adjust. Travel slowly, take frequent breaks, drink plenty of fluids, and eat salty snacks to help your body retain fluids. It is crucial to stay hydrated. Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills, both suppress breathing and can exacerbate problems by lowering blood oxygen levels.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling and turn back if you experience any symptoms of altitude illness. 

If symptoms do occur, the best treatment is to descend to a lower elevation. If that's not possible, it's important to seek medical attention right away. Don't wait until symptoms become severe or progress to more serious altitude illnesses. 



Preparedness and self-reliance are essential. Make sure to plan for all potential hazards before your trip. Pack the necessary equipment and clothing for the terrain and weather conditions you may encounter. Know your own physical limitations and plan your route accordingly.  

It is important to treat an SOS device as a tool of last resort. Do not use it to justify accepting more risk than you would without it. Ask yourself if you would continue with the activity if you didn't have the device. If the answer is no, do not proceed with the activity. 

SOS activation should only be used for true emergencies when you are unable to self-rescue. If you can self-rescue safely on your own or with assistance from other hikers, then it is your responsibility to do so. However, if you have a reasonable concern for your life, call for help immediately.  Be clear and concise when giving information about the nature and severity of the incident, your location, and the number of people in your group.

Remember: Activating an SOS device does not guarantee immediate rescue. 

Stay together when traveling in a group. Wait for one another at trail junctions and creek crossings. Do not separate due to different hiking speeds or during an emergency, unless separation is necessary for the safety of the group, as this can increase the risk of getting lost or injured and complicate rescue efforts. 

Last updated: June 27, 2023

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