How to Hike with a Drone
June 7, 2021
We’ve all seen incredible drone footage in the last few years: gorgeous panning shots above mountains, aerial views of forests, or unique top-down-perspectives of hiking trails. But before you hit the hike with your drone, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Find Out If You Need A Licence
In Canada, you need a drone pilot licence to fly a drone that weighs more than 250g. You will also need to register your drone.
Know Where You Can Fly
BC Parks, Metro Vancouver Parks, and Parks Canada all prohibit drones without special permits, which means that many hiking trails are no-drone zones. Closer to the city, you also can’t fly within 5.6 km of airports and 1.9 km of heliports, or near emergency operations like forest fires or events like concerts or parades.
You can use an apps like Airmap or DJI FLY that show when you are too close to airports and other restricted areas. (But keep in mind that they don’t show parks as no-fly zones, even though many are.) Many drones also have software that will prevent them from taking off if they are too close to an airport or other restricted area. Always do some research before your trip to find out if you can fly your drone on a hiking trail.
Follow Canadian Aviation Regulations
Transport Canada classifies drones as aircraft, which makes you a pilot and subject to Part IX of the Canadian Aviation Regulations. As a drone pilot, you should read and understand the regulations. But some highlights include:
- You must maintain direct line of sight with your drone
- You can’t fly too high (over 400’/122m) or too close to people (closer than 100’/30m)
- You may not operate a drone if you are drunk or high
- You must steer clear of aircraft and critical infrastructure
Practice, Practice, Practice
Flying a drone while hiking is much more high-consequence than flying at your neighbourhood soccer field. There are many more obstacles to watch out for and the wind can kick up suddenly, making it easier to crash. It can also be MUCH harder to recover your drone if it does crash. Practice basic operations like taking off, landing, flight modes, maintaining position, and photo controls in a low-risk setting before flying your drone on a hike.
Scout Your Location
Before your trip, use Google Earth to scout the trail you plan to hike. Look for interesting places to shoot and get an idea of what hazards you might face.
It can be easy to throw your drone case in your backpack and head out for a hike. But make sure you have all the supplies you need before you go:
- The Ten Essentials (which you already carry on every hike, right?)
- Fully charged batteries for all components, plus extras
- Extra propellers
- Memory cards
- Lens cloth
- Drone apps loaded on your phone and updated to the latest version
- Fully charged phone
Be Aware of Your Surroundings
Have a look around before you fly. Watch for obstacles like trees, power lines, lakes, and cliffs. Be sure that you can safely recover your drone if it crashes. Check the weather to avoid high wind, rain, fog, and cold weather that could affect your flight or cause a crash.
Bring a Friend
It can be helpful to have a friend act as a spotter. Especially when you’re first starting, it can be challenging to manage the flying and photo controls and keep an eye on your surroundings. Your friend can help you spot obstacles or other hazards.
The sound and presence of drones are stressful to animals, so it’s best to give them lots of space. Drones can cause animals to run from cover and expose themselves to predators. The presence of drones can also make wildlife abandon their young or move away from critical food sources. Try not to fly closer than 200m/650’ from animals, and leave the area if the drone causes them to change their behaviour.
Be Mindful of Other Hikers
While drone shots are cool, drone operation can be intrusive for other hikers and take away from their wilderness experience. Be courteous and respect people’s privacy. Don’t fly your drone too close to people. Limit your flying time in an area if there are other hikers around.
Taryn Eyton is a Squamish-based outdoor and adventure travel writer and Leave No Trace Master Educator. She is the founder of the hiking website HappiestOutdoors.ca and the author of Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia: The Essential Guide to Overnight Hiking Trails (Greystone Books, 2021).