By James Stewart 9 November 2020
Many outdoor enthusiasts know the responsibility of planning for an outdoor adventure but can still make a potentially fatal mistake. Many people make the mistake of only focusing on where they are going ... on how they might not get lost once they are out all predicated on the assumption they will be able to get themselves home. Being completely self-confident in your own ability, being knowledgable, and even taking the right safety gear, can seem like you have done enough to be prepared, but the problem still arises when no one knows this plan other than you.
In 95% of search and rescue cases an individual is found within the first 24 hours. In the other 5% of cases, many of those involve cases where a person didn't leave a plan with anyone. This often delays a search and rescue response for days – even a week or more - until someone will eventually notice you missing. Once the search is underway, and its been determined you are hiking somewhere (maybe your car is located at a trailhead), this can spread the resources of a search and rescue operation extremely thin, turning what would be a narrow search region into something covering vast amounts of terrain. This greatly increasing your chances of not being found within a survivable timeframe.
Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue Warn:
DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE EXPOSURE – most people do not last longer than 24 hours in the mountains without a tent and sleeping bag. You will get wet, you will get hypothermia and you will die of exposure in under 24 hours. Think about that next time you start a hike – if you get lost, and you don’t have the appropriate equipment – you could be dead in less than 24 hours. This happens every year even in non-freezing temperatures. Bring warm clothing and an emergency tarp, such as a sil tarp at all times. [ Source - https://www.northshorerescue.com/education/heading-outside/ ]
Ultimately, there is a more important consideration than just knowing where you are going and that is: have you also made a plan on how you will be found if you go missing?
Even the most well-planned individuals are not immune from having an accident or incident in the mountains that prevents them from getting home of their own volition.
Some reasons this could occur are:
1. Unpredictable weather conditions. Sometimes - despite your best plans - some unexpected weather hits and turns a reasonably comfortable and typical outing, into a life or death situation. Despite weather forecasters best efforts, the mountains often create their own weather, and the higher altitudes in the mountains can result in nice weather in the lower terrains (where the forecasts apply) but drastically different and deteriorating conditions up higher. Bad weather can blow in quickly catching people unawares and without time to get out of the situation.
2. Accidents. Even in good weather, accidents can occur, such as simply tripping on a rock, root or other obstacle because of brief inattention. No matter how experienced or skillful you are, no one is immune to getting caught in their thoughts temporarily, or misstepping on something unstable or slippery.
3. Improper gear. A common issue is not having the right footwear for the terrain - especially in areas in Canada where it can be dry and sunny in the city, but wet or icy in the nearby mountain peaks. The shoulder season is notorious for search and rescues involving people caught out by early winter conditions at high elevations. Many falls occur because people slip on ice, when a well-planned individual would always be taking microspikes during the shoulder season just in case ice is encountered.
4. Delays. Many people become lost because of darkness. Even unexpected delays can turn any outing into an extended crisis. You might have overestimated the demands of the terrain and often many day adventurers are not prepared for nightfall, especially in forested areas that darken rapdily in the hours before sunset. I always take two lights, even on a day hike. There is nothing worse than being stranded in darkness without a light, and I like the double redundancy in case one light fails. One time, I didn't notice one of my lights in my pack had been accidentally switched on since I left home, but I was able to get off the mountain at night, because I had a second light on hand.
The first thing you will read on any search and rescue website is something like this from the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada:
Take the time to plan your route using maps, and/or a GPS and to make sure that you have all of the equipment you may need. Ensure your equipment is in good repair, and most importantly, don’t forget to tell a responsible individual where you are going and when they should expect you to return. [Source - https://sarvac.ca/survival/ ]
According to search and rescue, leaving a trip plan with someone is the most important factor for a successful rescue response.
The Three “T”s
1. Trip Plan
Research your route thoroughly. Read trail descriptions, review the route on a map, create a route on your smart phone or watch, make sure the route is appropriate for the time of year. Know the terrain and conditions. Check the weather. When planning a trip, you should obtain the knowledge and skills you need before heading out.
A proper trip plan should involve multiple components. AdventureSmart in BC have provided a handy brochure to help educate you on a good plan: https://www.adventuresmart.ca/images/NSS_AdventureSmart-Brochure_En-c.pdf
AdventureSmart also have a handy online or mobile phone app (check your app store) you can use for your trip plans: https://plan.adventuresmart.ca/
Briefly, these are the most valuable components of the trip plan:
1. Expected trip location, purpose and intended route/direction.
2. Departure time and expected completion time.
3. A checklist of the clothing and equipment you are taking (this is important for search and rescue to know).
Leave your plan with a responsible person and your expected return time. If you do not return as planned, this person can give the accurate information to the police who will then initiate the search and rescue response.
Know and stay within your limits and your level of training. Make sure you have the appropriate training for your destination and objectives. If you don't know if you have the experience of level of training for a particular route, then you must do more research before heading out. If you can't find the information online, find a facebook group for your region and ask around. People will be quick to help educate you on how to have a safe and enjoyable experience.
3. Take the Essentials.
Always carry a bunch of survival essentials. This will vary throughout the year – during winter you obviously will need different equipment than the summer. AdventureSmart discuss the list you should consider here: https://www.adventuresmart.ca/land/survive-essentials.htm
It is quite likely that you may not be reported missing for many hours. A good rule of thumb for day-trippers is to be able to stay out overnight, in case of trouble. Does your safety gear reflect this ability? You will need to be mentally prepared to endure the night out.
Always plan for what MIGHT happen, not what you THINK will happen. The weather changes fast in the mountains.
How to get yourself located in the outdoors
1. Make sure you have a RECCO reflector to increase your searchability.
This is a new technology designed to dramatically reduce time spent searching for lost hikers. I will now not go out without this safety essential.
The RECCO technology (pronounced “wreck-o”) is a two-part system, featuring an active detector, carried by the rescuer, and a passive reflector, carried by the user (you). RECCO reflectors are lightweight passive transponders which require no power or activation to function are designed to last a lifetime and do not age or wear out. They consist of a diode and an antenna.
RECCO reflectors are integrated in products from more than 150 brands, including jackets, pants, helmets, backpacks, back protectors, boots, transceivers, watches and harnesses. Reflectors are also available as single products which you can attach to Helmets and Backpacks (this is what I use because I regularly use different gear in the mountains). Electromagnetic signals transmitted from the detector are reflected back as pulses of sound if a lost hiker is wearing a piece of clothing or carrying a backpack equipped with a Recco reflector.
Search and rescue (SAR) organisations typically use helicopters to conduct a visual search of the terrain, and are now outfitted with a RECCO detector hanging below listening for signals from reflectors. This detector emits a directional radar signal approximately 100 metres wide. When the radar signal hits the RECCO reflector, it is echoed back to the detector and points the rescuer in the direction ultimately allowing the rescuer to pinpoint the victim's location.
A SAR RECCO helicopter detector can cover a large area fast, and searches are conducted by repeatedly sweeping back and forth over an area following a grid pattern to ensure that every piece of ground is effectively covered. Searching from a height of 100 meters and covering a search area of approximately 100 meters wide, the SAR detector enables rescuers to search 1km² within 6 minutes.
This technology is amazing, because its powerless - a reflector will never "run out of battery", unlike a cellphone. And there are many spots in mountain ranges where cellphones will not work. The reflector also works if the individual is buried in snow - it was originally designed for avalanche rescue and body retrieval.
The best solution is to simply purchase the reflector as a stand-alone item that can be transferred from one pack or jacket to the next. This is the one I use $50: Recco Backpack Reflector. How much is your life worth?
2. Stay Put - Signal for Help.
In an emergency, Search and Rescue recommend to stay put and to stay calm (don't panic and make things worse), as it reduces time and search area for those looking for you. People who carry on after becoming lost usually get further from roads and trails, and further from people who are looking for them. Seek shelter and protect yourself from the elements by staying warm and dry. Therefore, part of your safety equipment is packing gear that allows you to do this.
If you’ve left a proper trip plan with someone who knows when to expect you back, then search and rescue will be on their way soon.
If you can, place a signal that can be seen from the air. It’s extremely important to put yourself in the ‘eyes of the rescuer’ when it comes to signaling for help. Think BIG and think CONTRAST. Create a giant V or "SOS" at least three meters in length. Bright Orange is a good colour to be seen from the air as well since it is not natural in nature.
Part of your safety gear should include a whistle. Yelling can quickly make you lose your voice, and whistles can be heard further away. For rescue blast your whistle 3 times, take a break, blast 3 times again and continue to do this. If there are ground search and rescue members within hearing distance, they will locate you. Remember, to stop blasting occasionally, so you can hear the searchers responding to your calls.
If you have the ability to make fire (a small fire starter should be in your essential safety equipment list), the rule is three fires spread in a triangle (or straight line if a triangle is not possible) is the universal signal for needing help. Of course, don’t light fires when the conditions involve a fire danger risk as this will put other people at risk – including your rescuers.
Do not go downhill. If you are lost on a mountain, going downhill often leads to dangerous natural drainages. These drainages have the common features of very thick bush, steep cliffs, and waterfalls. Your best chance of survival is to remain where you are rather than trying to find your way out.
So before heading out on your next adventure, make sure you not only plan for where you will be going but also how you will be found if you get lost or injured.