"You are in Bear Country"

For years, that was the title of a brochure handed to everyone entering Banff National Park, and it is still true. The animals in Banff are all wild, and all wild animals have the potential to be dangerous. Bears, cougars, elk, and deer are all of particular concern. Bears will become accustomed to human activity, and lose their shyness about approaching hikers, campers, and tourists. Although the number of bears seen in the Banff townsite has been greatly reduced in the last 20 years as a result of firm controls on garbage and other artificial food sources (such as bird feeders), bears do still enter into the town and the large Tunnel Mountain campground nearby. Feeding bears (and other wildlife) is a very dangerous practice for both people and wildlife, and therefore it has been illegal within the national parks for the last forty years or more.

It is illegal and dangerous to feed wildlife

Visitors may end up in legal difficulty if they are caught feeding elk, bighorn sheep, deer, or mountain goats. It is also illegal to feed birds, chipmunks, tree squirrels, and ground squirrels (gophers), or any other small animals, although it is less likely that you will be prosecuted for that. There are three good reasons not to feed wildlife; first, it encourages bold, bandit-like behaviour, as the animals learn to steal food from picnic tables or anywhere else within their reach. Second, although wildlife will eat "people food", some foods can be harmful to them. And finally, the same food that attracts that cute little chipmunk may also attract bears.

Parks Canada bear-proof garbage can

Use Parks Canada's bear-proof garbage cans (above)

In certain areas where the risk of bear-human encounters is considered to be high, Parks Canada had a policy requiring hikers to travel in tight groups of four people or more. (The groups used to be limited to six or more people, but they have recently re-examined this issue, in light of experience, and have reduced the required group size. However, they stress that the group members must stick close together.) If you are concerned about bear encounters even when outside of these areas, you might consider combining with some fellow travellers to make a hiking group of four or more people.

And it is truly not smart to hike, bike or ski solo, at dusk, while listening to your iPod.  Pay attention to your surroundings!

Pepper spray is legal in Canada if used for protection against bears; however, it is considered a prohibited weapon for all other purposes. So if you feel you would like to carry pepper spray when hiking in the Banff area, it is best to purchase it in Canada, rather than attempt to bring it across the border. And be careful not to carry it with you if you are not hiking. Some outdoor shops in Banff rent pepper spray.

Cougars are nocturnal, and therefore rarely seen, however it is dangerous to engage in activities such as cross-country skiing, cycling, or hiking solo or after dark, even if you are very close to the town of Banff.

Elk cows are dangerous in the spring, when they will charge at you to protect their calves, who will be well-hidden from view. Elk bulls are also dangerous in the fall, when they are rutting (breeding).  If an elk charges you, back away and try to get something solid (a tree, a car, a railing) between you and the elk, or you risk broken limbs or worse.  The best elk defense is to stay far away in the first place - make a wide circle around any elk you see when you're on foot, and enjoy them from a distance.

Other Natural Hazards 

Even within the Town of Banff, there are many natural hazards, such as the Bow River, the cliffs near Bow Falls, and cliffs at various spots on Tunnel Mountain. Please make sure to pack your common sense. Don't go past barriers, and don't expect that there will always be a barrier to protect you from danger. Do not short-cut the switchbacks (S-bends) in mountain trails (e.g. Tunnel Mountain, Sulphur Mountain); not only do your feet increase the damage caused by erosion, but you risk a serious fall by trying to take the shorter, steeper route.

Trails can be icy and slippery in the winter months. Use traction aids such as crampons or YakTrax on your footwear; a broken leg or bad sprain far from the nearest road is no joke! Avoid walking on ice or snow on or near rivers and lakes. Experts say that even in the depths of winter, when a lake is apparently frozen solid, there is no way of knowing for sure if the ice below you is safe. In spring, you may see ice and snow on the edges of lakes and rivers. Although it is tempting to walk on this in order to get closer to the open water, stay off! Unless you are very familiar with the area, you won't know whether you are walking on ice which is just above the lakeshore or riverbank, or ice aove the lake or river waters. This ice may looks pristine and smooth on top, but below it has been eroded away by lapping lake waves or river currents. It's not unusual for a large chunk of shore ice to break off under a walker's weight.  In rivers, once you've ended up in the water, you may find yourself trapped underneath thicker ice downstream.

Most lakes, rivers, and streams in the mountain parks are going to be at near-freezing temperatures year round, so a fall into them will mean a serious and immediate risk of hypothermia. If you are boating, make sure to wear a PFD (life jacket); a PFD along with the H.E.L.P. position will increase the length of time you can spend in cold water before hypothermia sets in. Drinking while boating is both unsafe and illegal.  If you're paddling, be sure to get high quality information on your route; in 2007, two visitors went over Bow Falls in a canoe because they had been told that the Bow River from the town of Banff was an "easy float". Luckily, a specialist in swift-water rescue just happened to be at the bottom of the dangerous falls with an extra boat, so they survived, bloody and battered.

If you're going to be hiking, even if it's just a short hike, bring drinking water. (Bringing food such as trail mix is also a very good idea.) Do not drink water from streams or lakes without disinfecting it first; the best way to do this is by boiling for two to ten minutes (longer at higher elevations). Use of a small backpacking stove to boil water makes this procedure quick and convenient, while avoiding the environmental impact of campfires. When it is not possible to boil water, bleach or chlorine tablets may also work, though these are not effective at killing certain types of bacteria and disease-causing contaminants. Special high-tech water filters (available from outdoor specialty stores) are the most expensive option, but many frequent campers and hikers prefer them for convenience and better taste. These filters are not the type commonly used on tap water.

In the winter, avalanches can occur on any slope that is steep enough to toboggan or ski down and gentle enough to hold snow. Ask park wardens or information centres about snow conditions before going into areas where avalanches may occur.  You should also check with the Canadian Avalanche Centre for current avalanche risk information. Downhill ski areas have avalanche control; do not go into closed areas or out of bounds. For more detailed information on safety while downhill skiing, including the Alpine Responsibility Code, see Inside Canadian Rockies: Skiing here at TripAdvisor.

Crime

For a busy tourist centre, Banff has a surprisingly small amount of violent crime. Most violent offenses happen late at night, when the bars are closing.  Violent offenses are generally drunken fights between people who know each other - assaults on strangers are extremely rare.  Exercise normal caution:  don't leave the bar alone with someone you just met that night, don't pick fights, and if you must drink to excess, drink with a buddy or two who will keep track of you.

The total number of reported crimes of violence against persons ranged between 100 - 119 incidents per year in the 1999 - 2004 period.  There were 130 incidents in 2005.  There were no homicides or attempted murders during the 1999-2004 period, but there was one attempted murder in 2005.  Sexual assaults range between 4 to 14 incidents per year.

Property crime happens here as it does everywhere.  Purse-snatching and pickpocketing are practically unknown, but theft from cars and occasionally from hotel rooms does occur.  Lock your car, lock up your new skis or your fancy mountain bike, keep your valuables in the hotel safe. 

There were 635 reported crimes against property in Banff in 2004.  In 2006, there was an armed robbery of a local bank.

When reading the above numbers, keep in mind that 3 million people pass through Banff each year.

RCMP Banff Detachment's Tips to Prevent Ski Theft

  1. Remove skis from vehicle ski racks when parking overnight.
  2. Use ski storage facilities provided by hotel/motel.
  3. Do not leave skis inside locked vehicles.
  4. Record ski make, model, and serial number to help with recovery in the event of theft.
  5. Separate or lock your skis when leaving them unattended at the ski hills.

Driving

Always remember that many of the drivers around you are admiring the scenery, or lost, or driving big vehicles that they drive only once a year, or used to driving on the other side of the road, or tired at the end of a long day on the road, or all of the above. If you are driving after dark, watch for elk and deer crossing the road; they can be very hard to see, and often you only see their shining eyes. Where there is one animal, there are usually others that may be less visible.  Drive defensively, slow down, and live to enjoy the park another day. 

For more detailed suggestions about driving, see the TripAdvisor page entitled Inside Banff National Park : Driving in the Mountains .