10 Essential Banff Hiking Tips

Author: Dan Brewer

Last Updated:

Banff National Park is a bucket-list hiking destination for travelers around the globe. Visitors are drawn to the rugged wilderness in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, and the very best way to experience the raw beauty of Banff is on a hiking trail.

I’ve grown up hiking these mountains, but what about first time visitors to Banff? I believe everyone should safely enjoy hiking these mountains, so I’ve shared my life experiences in this list of 10 essential Banff hiking tips.

A hiker enjoys views of glaciers and lakes from Wiwaxy Gap.

10 Banff Hiking Tips for Beginners

1. Learn about the Banff Shuttle System

As with many popular national parks around the world, Banff National Park struggles to deal with the large number of visitors who wish to see its most beautiful destinations. For years, visitors to Banff would arrive at Moraine Lake and/or Lake Louise, only to find the parking lots hopelessly full.

In an effort to ensure everyone can see Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, while minimizing the impact on the surrounding ecosystem, Parks Canada has implemented shuttle service to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

Moraine Lake in the afternoon.
Moraine Lake.

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If you wish to see these two top Banff destinations, the most important Banff hiking tip I can give is that you read our posts on the Lake Louise shuttle and the Moraine Lake shuttle. Otherwise, you may go home disappointed.

2. Arrive Early

Moraine Lake and Lake Louise are not the only two hiking destinations in Banff which can get very crowded in the peak season between the Victoria Day long weekend (in May) and the Labour Day weekend (in September).

If you wish to go hiking in the peak season, do yourself a favor and arrive at the trailhead early. As a general rule, the trailhead parking lots in Banff are a modest size and can fill up by mid-morning.

Castle Lookout trailhead and parking lot
Castle Lookout Trail Parking Lot.

Please resist parking on the highway – not only is this dangerous for you and the other cars on the road, but RCMP have been aggressively ticketing cars parked illegally around popular Banff hikes.

As you can see, the number of cars around Banff National Park is a challenge. One of the best Banff hiking tips I can give is to research the many great hikes in Banff which don’t require a car.

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Leave your car behind with these hikes in the Town of Banff which don’t require a car. Alternately, you can look at these excellent hikes around Banff National Park without a car. Virtually every popular hike in the national park can be reached by public transit!

Guide Along App

Recommended App

This GPS activated Canadian Rockies Audio Driving Tour is the perfect companion to your Banff vacation. It’s both entertaining and educational and will greatly enhance any drive in Banff National Park.

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3. Plan Ahead

Tired about talking about cars and buses? Me too! Let’s get to the fun stuff and actually talk about hiking in Banff!

This Banff hiking tip is all about knowing important information about your hike before you go. Banff is a true wilderness and trail conditions change all the time. An area may be closed due to wildlife risk or a thunderstorm may be coming later in the day.

Before setting out to do any hiking in Banff, we recommend you check the following:

Parks Canada Trail Conditions

The Parks Canada website has a Banff hiking trail conditions page for its most popular hiking trails in the national park. Visit this page before every hike to see current trail conditions, any wildlife warnings, avalanche warnings, etc.

Parks Canada recommends hikers in Sheol Valley travel in groups of 4 or more due to grizzly bears

Hiking Trail Descriptions

If you are new to hiking in Banff, you should know a little bit about the hiking trail you are setting out to do. We currently have over 80 blog posts about hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies on our website. We recommend you read the blog post for your intended Banff hike before setting out.

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Don’t know where to start? Check out the best easy hikes in Banff National Park.

Weather Forecasts

As you might imagine, it’s pretty hard to forecast the weather in Banff National Park. Being very mountainous terrain on the leeward side of the Continental Divide means it’s near impossible to guess what the weather will be from hour-to-hour. I recommend you check the Banff weather forecast on the Environment Canada website as well as The Weather Network.

Note that Environment Canada only publishes a “Banff weather forecast“, but The Weather Network is a bit more specific with a “Banff Forecast” and a “Lake Louise Forecast

the kids from the TravelBanffCanada.com family enjoy a different view of Peyto Lake from the Bow Summit Trail.
Our kids enjoying a sunny day at Peyto Lake, Banff.

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If you plan on doing a lot of hiking during your trip to Banff, check out our 5 day hiking itinerary for Banff National Park.

4. Plan for Any Weather

We can get some real crazy weather in Banff National Park. It can get hot and sunny in the middle of winter, or conversely, it can snow in the middle of summer.

The main point of this Banff hiking tip is that you need to be prepared for a sudden change in the weather. I expect most of you will be reading this expecting to enjoy favorable weather during the prime Banff hiking season. And, for the most part, you will likely enjoy great weather. But, always have some extra clothing in your day bag just in case.

the mountains of the Spray Valley Provincial Park emerge through the clouds on the EORR hike near Banff National Park
Me wishing for warmer clothes as the weather changed.

I can’t count the number of times I wish I had brought a toque or gloves on a hike, even in the middle of summer. It can get surprisingly cold in windy mountain valleys, when the sun hides behind a mountain peak, or during a surprise thunderstorm.

At a minimum, take a few moments to read our guide on what to wear for hiking in Banff – you’ll be glad you did!

a family of four hiked to the top of the Big Beehive trail in Lake Louise to see the larch trees in fall.
The Big Beehive hike in Lake Louise, Banff.

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Want to know my favorite hike in Banff National Park? Check out the Plain of Six Glaciers hike in Lake Louise.

5. Bring the Right Hiking Gear

There are a wide variety of hiking trails in Banff National Park. Some hikes are easy lakeside strolls, while others are epic journeys deep into mountain valleys or to mountain summits. As you can imagine, the proper hiking gear for each outing will vary depending on the needs of each hiker and hiking trail they will enjoy.

Hiking is one of the best things to do in Lake Louise

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Check out our post on What to Bring Hiking in Banff which details the essential hiking equipment we bring on every hike.

6. Wildlife Safety (Bears, Cougars, etc)

No discussion about Banff hiking tips would be complete without talking about wildlife safety. I mean, there are bears, cougars and more predators living in these mountains. Although the chances of a dangerous wildlife encounter in Banff is very low, you are responsible for your own safety while hiking in Banff.

This is a very important topic, so we will defer to the experts at Parks Canada. Before hiking in Banff National Park, we strongly encourage you to read the Parks Canada tips on Bear Safety and Cougar Safety.

Bear in Banff National Park

Bear spray is essential equipment when hiking in Banff. If you are visiting Banff, buying bear spray is a small expense compared to the cost of your overall trip. You can either buy bear spray or rent it at a local sporting goods store for the duration of your trip to Banff.

Local Tip

Many hotels will get discarded cans of bear spray from previous guests and keep it for other guests to use. Always check with your hotel first! If they do lend you bear spray – make sure to check the expiry date!

7. Navigation Tools

As a general rule, Parks Canada has done an excellent job marking the hiking trails around Banff with good signage. That said, they are not perfect, and sometimes it’s hard to know which way you should go, which can be a little scary in the middle of a dark forest in the Canadian Rockies.

AllTrails App

When I go hiking in Banff National Park (and around the world for that matter), I always use the AllTrails app (the 2023 App of the Year) on my phone. As you can see by my activity screen, I have logged over 400 activities around Banff on AllTrails!

An activity map on the AllTrails app shows over 400 recorded activities around Banff National Park.

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AllTrails is just one of my favorite apps for a trip to Banff. My other favorites include a great audioguide, a peak finder, and more!

I use AllTrails for many reasons:

I use it to determine the overall difficulty of the hike and estimate the time it will take.

I download the hiking trail map onto my phone before leaving home, so I have access to it even without a cell signal. (It’s rare to have a reliable cell signal on hiking trails in Banff).

While on the trail, I record my progress on AllTrails. Not only does this allow me to look at my hiking stats at the end of the hike, but it allows me to see my relative position vs the hiking trail.

using alltrails app on iphone to navigate

Despite the amount of hiking I have done around Banff, I still make wrong turns all the time. Having my progress shown on my phone, shows me when I am off course, and allows me to easily retrace my steps until I am back on the right track.

A recent App of the Year winner, AllTrails is also one of the best apps for visiting Banff! Enjoy map downloads and many more premium features with a 7-day free trial of AllTrails+!

Gem Trek Topographical Maps

Although I find AllTrails to be quite accurate in Banff National Park, local safety officials warn hikers not to be solely reliant on hiking apps. The hiking maps on these apps can be wrong, your phone can run out of battery, etc. To mitigate against this risk, local officials have recommended having a paper map and a compass as a backstop.

If you are not from Banff, here’s what I recommend:

Buy the Banff & Mount Assiniboine Map and/or the Lake Louise & Yoho topographical maps by Gem Trek before leaving home. While you are at home planning your hikes for your trip to Banff, these topographical maps will be invaluable.

Then, while you are here hiking in Banff, just tuck your sturdy Gem Trek map in your day bag. Chances are you won’t need it, but just like gloves and a toque, you’ll be very glad to have it in an emergency.

I love the Gem Trek hiking maps of Banff and I personally own the entire set.

8. Stay on the Designated Trails

I can distinctly remember the feeling of being lost in the woods. I was hiking with my Mom near the Town of Banff as a kid, and the trail had a lot of horse poop on it. We decided to walk a few feet off the hiking trail, just for a little while, until the trail conditions improved. It wasn’t long until we realized we were lost and couldn’t find the trail.

This was back in the days before AllTrails and Gem Trek maps and being lost in the woods was an especially scary feeling. Please learn from my lesson and stay on the designated hiking trails in Banff. A little mud on your hiking shoes won’t hurt you, but getting lost in the woods might.

You'll be glad to have hiking boots on with the muddy trail conditions to Lower Twin Lake
A very muddy trail to Lower Twin Lake, Banff.

9. Know Your Limits

Sadly, the Search & Rescue teams in Banff and area are an overworked bunch. Ideally, these teams would be in place for the odd rescue mission here and there – a broken ankle in the backcountry, etc., but all too often they are called in to rescue hikers who didn’t know their limits.

One of the main draws of Banff National Park is the rugged mountain wilderness. But, this is not Disneyland – Banff is the real deal and people can and do get hurt.

If you are new to hiking in Banff National Park, try to choose trails which match your fitness and experience levels. If you need help deciding, this list of Banff hiking trails sorts the hikes by their difficulty levels – from beginner Banff hikes all the way up to the most challenging ones.

Are there any easy hikes in Moraine Lake?
There are hikes for all skill levels in Banff.

10. Please Respect the Environment

There’s a reason you want to visit Banff National Park – it’s a very special place. I love Banff National Park and all its inhabitants, so please help keep it this way by treating it with respect.

Over 4 million people visit Banff National Park every year. Imagine how it would look if everyone tossed garbage out of their car windows, or disregarded warnings about feeding wildlife. Even if only 1% of visitors treat Banff with disrespect, that’s over 40,000 people per year doing damage to one of the most special places on earth.

Fox in Banff National Park.

This is one of the most important Banff hiking tips of all. What can you do to help?

Wildlife encounters in Banff are very exciting, but please keep a safe distance from the animals. They are beautiful, but wild and unpredictable animals. Please refer to Parks Canada Top tips to respect wildlife and stay safe for more information.

Along the same lines, never feed any animals in Banff, no matter how cute and/or hungry they appear to be.

Chipmunks are the worst offenders on popular Banff hikes – they are fearless and have learned how to look really cute and oh-so-hungry in order to get their little paws on human food. But, human food is terrible for them and they will not properly prepare for winter.

Chipmunk at Lake Minnewanka in Banff NP

This is vitally important to know… If you feed a bear, you are essentially killing that bear. Bears are very easily conditioned to love human food, and if they get even a single taste, they will seek out populated areas to find more. This never ends well for the bears. I love bears more than anything and I beg you not to feed them.

While hiking in Banff, bring along a little garbage bag so you can pack out all your trash. Of all the places I’ve hiked around the world, the hiking trails in Banff are among the cleanest I’ve seen. Let’s help keep it this way.

A hiker in Banff National Park walking towards Lake Annette.
Paradise Valley Trail.

In the US, the park rangers teach kids to pick up three pieces of garbage on every hike they do. I just love this idea. Imagine if everyone did this?

And there you have it – a lifetime of Banff hiking experience summarized into one short article. I hope you find these Banff hiking tips useful and help enrich your visit to the Canadian Rockies!

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Dan Brewer, a life-long Alberta resident, calls Canmore home along with his wife and two kids. He is the co-owner of Travel Banff Canada, where he gets to share his passion for the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Dan, along with his family, love being outdoors doing one of the many activities they enjoy in the mountains: hiking, mountain biking, paddleboarding, skiing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

When he's not in Canmore enjoying one of his favourite local hikes, you can find him hoping on a plane to explore a new country with his family or working on one of their other two travel sites: Family Can Travel and Baby Can Travel.

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