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Winter in the Backcountry: Tips for being prepared

By: Caroline Wagner, Communications Advisor

More people have been heading into the wilderness to keep themselves active throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and that hasn’t slowed since winter began. While a day on snowshoes or skis is a great way to fend off cabin fever, it does come with some risks.
 
Nicole Elder is a Wilderness First Aid Instructor Trainer for the Canadian Red Cross, with 15 years of experience in search and rescue. She’s based in Calgary and has been exploring Alberta’s backcountry since she was a child. She offers her tips for planning and packing for a safe winter excursion.
 

Make a trip plan

 
“Don’t go out to the backcountry without completing a trip plan,” says Elder. “Red Cross, in the wilderness program, teaches trip planning in its courses. So that’s number one, even before you start packing the essentials bag.”
 
Two people snowshoeing over a snow-covered hillElder explains that the plan helps you think about how the makeup of the group and weather might affect the trip, and also how you might handle an emergency. Most importantly, it lets searchers know where to look for you.
 
She recommends using the Adventure Smart trip plan, as it stores the information online. 
 
If you make your own plan, it should include:
  • Your route: Where you are going, how far, and when do you expect to return?
  • A weather forecast
  • Contact information for participants, and information about their phones and devices
 
And don’t forget to leave the plan with someone you can trust to raise the alarm if you don’t check in on schedule. “It doesn’t have to be formal,” says Elder, adding that you could simply send the plan to a friend via text message.
 

What to pack

 
Elder says that you need to consider what you would need with you to survive the night. Here’s what she considers essential:
 
  • Nutrition and hydration: Bring enough food and water to get you through the night. Elder suggests adding soup to the list, as it can provide both nutrition and hydration, and can also help warm you up.
  • Insulation: Bring extra clothing, lots of layers and be sure to have an insulated jacket to pull on whenever you stop moving.
  • Shelter: Elder says she always brings a pad to sit on, and a light sleeping bag and emergency bivouac sack as well. If you’re worried about weight, she suggests bringing a mylar blanket.
  • Fire starter: Bring something you’re familiar with, like a lighter or matches, and a backup. A flint and steel kit is great, but only if you know how to use it!
  • Medication: Make sure you have enough medication to get you through a couple days in case of an unplanned overnight in the backcountry.
  • Flashlight or headlamp: With the shorter days in winter, a delay could mean you’re heading back to your car in the dark. Having a light source will help you stay on the trail. Bring spare batteries.
  • Repair kit: In deep snow, a broken snowshoe or ski could make getting back to safety extremely difficult. Bring spare parts and tools, and anything else that could help you out of a jam. Elder recommends a long piece of webbing, which could also be used to create a sled if someone is injured.
  • Sun and eye protection: Snow blindness is always a risk in winter, and sunburns can happen in any season, so don’t forget to pack sunglasses and sunscreen.
  • Navigation device: Bring a map and compass along with your GPS. Don’t forget the spare batteries! Elder adds that you can pre-load maps into a smartphone as well.
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle: Remember, three short blasts mean “help!”
 
Elder explains that everyone on the trip, including the kids, should carry their own supplies; food and water, extra layers and a small first aid kit. That way, if one backpack gets wet, there will still be extra for the group.
 
“Number one, don’t go out without a trip plan,” says Elder. “Pack the essentials that will help you to survive, not comfortably, but to survive overnight.”
 
She adds that taking a course in Wilderness First Aid helps you prepare for possible emergencies along the trail. For information on Canadian Red Cross wilderness training, go to:  redcross.ca/wilderness
 
For anyone heading into avalanche terrain, please visit avalanche.ca to learn about avalanche risk and training.


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