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How to stay AdventureSmart in the backcountry this winter

AdventureSmart staff educates backcountry users on winter safety and search-and-rescue prevention

BC AdventureSmart staff spent a weekend earlier this month in the sun-drenched Sea to Sky corridor, educating outdoor enthusiasts of all ages about how to stay safe in the backcountry before heading off on their winter weekend adventures.

AdventureSmart outreach educators PJ Richards and Kelly Uren were onhand at Callaghan Country's Alexander Falls touring centre trailhead on Saturday, Jan. 12 and Sunday, Jan. 13 to increase awareness around snow and mountain safety and outdoor preparedness, in addition to sharing search-and-rescue (SAR) prevention resources, tips on necessary gear and AdventureSmart resources.

The weekend outreach event followed a Friday, Jan. 11 presentation to 400 students at Spring Creek Community School in Whistler.

Uren and Richards shared their knowledge about everything from which essentials to pack, to when to call one of B.C.'s 80 search-and-rescue groups, and where to get proper—and, in many cases, even sport-specific—backcountry training with each of the cross-country skiers and snowshoers who stopped by the booth for a chat.

"We're also getting more into training people to offer AdventureSmart presentations ... so we can have more people who are able to volunteer (to do workshops) in their communities," Uren explains.

The pair was also giving out free emergency blankets, which can double as shelter, and whistles—three short blasts signify someone in trouble.

Outreach programs like this one help facilitate B.C. AdventureSmart's mandate to increase outdoor safety awareness as a way to reduce the number and severity of incidents across the province.

When it comes to adventuring in more remote areas of the corridor, the AdventureSmart team had a few main takeaways, including the three 'T's: trip planning, training and taking the essentials.

Trip Planning

"It's super important to leave that trip plan, whether it's a text message or sending an email to someone, leaving a note, just letting someone know—and be specific with the trail ... because it could take a long time for search and rescue to find you if you don't give them a hint (about where) to exactly zone in," Uren says. Some friends even post a "trailhead selfie" on social media when heading out, and check back in when they return, she adds.


AdventureSmart urges outdoor enthusiasts to obtain the knowledge and skills they need before heading out, such as knowing to stop and stay put in case of an emergency or injury, to avoid any creeks or water sources, as well as knowing and staying within your limits.

"People can stay overnight as long as they have the essentials to keep warm and dry, but as soon as you get wet, you are more prone to hypothermia or frostbite—so more likely to become a Popsicle. Even if water feels like it's not so deep or it's not so cold, just avoid getting wet at all costs, because it will really lower your chances of survival," Uren said.

Backcountry users should also be properly trained in avalanche safety, and reference Avalanche Canada's conditions forecast, before heading into avalanche terrain.

Taking the Essentials

Uren and Richards reminded skiers, snowshoers and hikers never to head out on the trails without a backpack filled with:

Extra food

A tip from Richards: When you're packing food to keep you sustained in an emergency scenario, try not to pack snacks you crave—because who hasn't been tempted by an extra tasty treat or two sitting in your pack? As a way to avoid temptation, one backcountry enthusiast Richards encountered even swears by packing dry dog kibble as his emergency meal, though Richards doesn't encourage anyone to go to that extreme.

Extra water, or a method to treat water

Extra layers

An emergency blanket

The thin, metallic emergency blankets AdventureSmart was doling out might conjure up worst-case scenario thoughts of being stranded outside on a cold winter night, but the thin, packable sheet is one item Uren said she never goes into the mountains without—even if those mountains are accessible by a gondola and covered in groomed runs.

"It's super tiny; I always keep mine in my snowboard jacket. My friend was stuck on a chairlift for three hours one time, and he really could have used it," she says.

A headlight

"It gets dark so early, especially in the trees," cautions Uren.

A map and compass

Emergency communication

For example, a whistle or GPS device.

A first aid kit

A fire starting kit

And, if you plan on heading into avalanche terrain or think there's a chance you might, take a transceiver, probe, and shovel—and, better yet, a partner who can rescue you.

When to Call Search and Rescue

When trouble in the backcountry hits, some might feel apprehensive about calling search and rescue. As Richards explains, this is not the time to second-guess yourself.

"As soon as you realize you're lost or something's gone wrong, or if you've hurt yourself, don't hesitate to make that call," he says. "It's safer for our SAR volunteers ... and a lot easier to be found a lot faster the sooner you call. We don't want any deterrent for anyone to not call right away.

"(SAR would) much rather come out while it's still sunny out. It's easier for helicopters to fly; lots of helicopters won't fly at night, so it means they have to wait until the next day to even get the helicopter into the air."

Uren adds: "People often think SAR is only going for skiers and riders who duck out of bounds, but that's such a small amount of their rescues. "We're also educating people on the reasoning for search and rescues being totally free. Even if people are on vacation or they're not a citizen, (rescues) are always free, and a lot of people don't realize that, or they think people should be charged, but search and rescue will never charge anyone, because there's no price you can put on someone's life."

In the event of a backcountry emergency, "You have to humble yourself and realize that you're lost or injured and need some outside help," Uren says.

"(Then) you could signal for help yourself, whether that's with your cellphone if you have battery and cellphone service, or you could use a beacon of some sort, like an inReach or SPOT device.

"We give away whistles; they're the emergency communication, so three short blasts for help."

It's also essential to share your travel plans with someone you trust.

"(You should have left) a trip plan with someone who's not with you, so that person can follow up with you if you're not back by the time you said you would be, and then they would call 911 and RCMP would dispatch search and rescue ... You don't have to be missing any length of time in the wilderness, they'll come looking right away."

Keeping your Pets Safe

With dogs running and playing around the AdventureSmart tent throughout the weekend, Richards also offers up an important tip when it comes to keeping your pets safe in the backcountry: keep them on a leash.

"It's more of a safety risk for you not having them on a leash because they don't know how to be bear aware, or anything like that. If they charge and scare a bear, they might actually bring it back to you ... it's also required in most parks, anyways."

Those safety risks don't diminish when bears are hibernating either, Richards adds. "Being in water (in the winter) is a risk, no matter what," he says. "You have to make sure (the pet is) not going into a place where you're going to have to put yourself at risk to get them out of an area."

One group Richards had recently spoken with told him that they were forced to dig their dog out of a tree well after it had chased an errant squirrel.

"That would be another example of, if that dog had been on leash, it wouldn't have gotten into that situation," he adds.



Always make a trip plan and leave it with a friend or family member.

Your trip plan should include

> Day and time of trip start and intended return

> Specific area and intended route both in and out with a Plan B alternative for getting home

> Transportation to and from the starting point with any scheduled pick-ups

> Names, details and any medical conditions of party members

> List of equipment and provisions brought for the trip

Search and Rescue

We are fortunate in Canada to have one of the best search-and-rescue (SAR) systems in the world. The federal, provincial and territorial governments share responsibility for search and rescue; each has authority within its own jurisdiction and they collectively make up the National Search and Rescue Program.

Volunteers are fundamental to this system. They provide an invaluable resource that is often called upon in SAR operations, and they help raise awareness of SAR-related risks among the general population.

Every search and rescue task involves putting a number of people into the same environment which is causing problems for the subject. SAR volunteers are not immune to the dangers.

It is important, as outdoor recreationalists and backcountry travellers, for us to realize that when it comes to being rescued, help takes time to arrive. It takes time to muster for a search effort, and to prepare the gear and the teams to do an efficient and effective job.

There is a popular misconception that when victims call for help, a helicopter can quickly scoop them out of danger. Although helicopters and other aircraft are a valuable resource in search and rescue, their use is limited by weather, daylight, landing conditions, and other restrictions. The use of a helicopter is very expensive and is not meant to be a service for anyone who gets tired, cold or hungry out in the elements.

In most cases, searchers must reach their subject on the ground to be able to help them. Search and rescue is well-organized and effective, but it does come at a cost.

For more information go to


Gear – The 10 Essentials

NOTE: This list is in addition to avalanche safety gear and the normal food, water and clothing that you would take into the backcountry

Flashlight or Headlamp

Once it gets dark, the chances of getting lost are greater. Although we all have some night vision, we are much more vulnerable after dark. Without a source of light, moving at night can be dangerous.

Fire making kit or lighter

Fire can be used for providing essential warmth, drying clothing, cooking food, signalling, melting snow or boiling unsafe water and keeping animals away.

Signal device Whistle or mirror

It takes much less energy to blow a whistle than it does to yell, and the sound carries farther. In actual rescues, a signalling mirror has been spotted from a rescue plane over five miles distant.

Extra food and water

Having extra food and water can make the difference between an extended stay and a survival situation.

Navigation /communication aids

Carry maps and a compass at a minimum. A Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, cellular phone, satellite phone, and hand held radio—all with fully charged batteries—are also valuable tools. Know how to use these items, but don't rely on them.

First aid kit - Know how to use it

Outdoor travellers are well advised to take a first aid course. There is no "911" in the true wilderness, and self-reliance is important. Courses that teach wilderness first aid teach this self-reliance when far from help.

Emergency shelter

Always bring an orange tarp or large orange plastic bag. These can also be used as signalling devices. A tarp can be very useful in creating a makeshift shelter to keep a person dry. It may be the difference between getting hypothermia or not.

Pocket knife/saw

A knife is an important survival tool, and can be used to help in shelter building, firewood collecting and a number of other things.

Sun protection - Glasses, sunscreen, hat

Sun protection includes glasses, sunscreen, and a hat. Sun exposure can lead to hyperthermia, dehydration, and burns. In bright environments like snowfields, it can also lead to snow blindness. These conditions can be painful, dangerous and debilitating.

Pocket knife/saw

A knife is an important survival tool, and can be used to help in shelter building, firewood collecting and a number of other things.