Let’s Talk: Personal Safety

Real talk – you can die in the wilderness.

There are so many things that can happen to you when you go on an adventure outdoors. Everything from becoming injured to becoming lost. If this happens, you want to make sure you give yourself the best chance at being found and at surviving an extended period of time in the outdoors. That’s why it’s so essential to be prepared every time you go outside. Even routine day hikes can go awry and you don’t want to find yourself in a tight spot. I’d argue that day hikes have the potential to be the most dangerous as you’re more likely to have less gear with you.

So when are you most vulnerable? When you’re a beginner and when you become complacent. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years educating myself on being prepared, but I feel lucky nothing bad ever happened to me when I first started hiking because I just naturally knew less and didn’t understand how to really be prepared. It’s hard to be prepared when you don’t understand the risks. Search and Rescue tasks have been way up because with the pandemic, more people are looking to enjoy nature than ever before. While it’s great that more people are getting outside, it’s also super important to get educated.

But it’s not just beginners who are at risk. Those who are experienced, but become complacent in their safety, are just as much at risk. It’s still easy to take a wrong turn on the trail or find yourself hiking in the dark as you get more confident in your abilities. I’ve noticed with some of my friends, there’s a tendency to bring less stuff on hikes in an effort to lighten packs and move faster. That’s great when everything goes as planned, but you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you left something at home that you shouldn’t have.

So whether you’re a beginner or experienced, what should you do to be prepared for a trip into the backcountry?

Create a Trip Plan

In my opinion, creating a trip plan is one of the most important things you must do. Make sure you research where you are going and outline what you expect the trip to look like. In your research of the trail or camp, you should take into consideration:

  • Seasonal conditions (will all the snow be melted? is there avalanche risk?)
  • Weather conditions (is there rain in the forecast? will it be cold?)
  • Daylight hours (how long will it take? will I be hiking in the dark?)
  • Ability (how long is the hike? how much elevation gain?)
  • Special equipment (will I need microspikes? beacon, probe, or shovel?)
  • Emergency contact (does someone know where I’m going and when I’ll return?)

Having an emergency contact who knows your trip plan is so important. If you become lost, this individual will be able to alert search and rescue quickly and advise them on where to look for you. There’s a lot of other information that can be helpful in assisting search and rescue. Leave a trip plan at BC Adventure Smart, or leave the following information with your contact:

  • Where you’ll be hiking, the route you’ll be taking, and when you’ll check in
  • What equipment you have with you
  • Identifying features of your equipment, such as jacket colour, tent brand, and hiking boots
  • Any other important medical information

10 Essentials

When I first started learning about the essentials, I thought it sounded like a lot of stuff and that it was impossible to bring everything with me on every hike. I’ve since learned that a lot of the essentials don’t actually take up that much space and many are things you would intuitively bring with you anyways.

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For example, even as a beginner I knew it was important to bring extra food and water (#1) in case the hike took longer than expected or was super challenging, and extra clothes (#2) in case it was cold at the top. What I’ve learned over the years is to always bring more water than I think I’ll need and I always bring a pack of water tabs with me as a back up (though these won’t help you on a dry hike). I also learned that your warm clothes should be more than just an extra sweater. Bring a hat and gloves, socks, a rain jacket, and warm layers made of wicking fabrics such as wool, fleece, or poly.

Other essentials that are pretty intuitive and don’t take up much space include a pocketknife or multi-tool (#3), a signaling device (#4) such as a whistle, mirror, or flare, and a headlamp or flashlight (#5). Even though it’s small, a headlamp seems to be something a lot of people leave at home. I think people just plan to use their phone flashlight if they need a light, but remember, you’ll likely be taking pictures on your phone or using it for navigation, which can run out the battery, and it may become a lifeline for you if you get lost. A head lamp enables you to be hands-free, making a dark descent safer. I recommend throwing in an extra set of batteries with your headlamp as well, just in case.

A first aid kit (#6) is also intuitive for most people, yet many hike without it. I have a pretty sizable first aid kit that I carry with me whenever I go out, but there are lots of pocket sized kits available at MEC, canadian tire, walmart, etc. Ideally everyone should have their own small kit in case they get separated and at least one person should have a more substantial kit. Some important things to carry in your kit include band-aids, blister care, dressings, gloves, medical tape, scissors, sam splint, and gauze or tensile bandage. I also like to bring polysporin, wet wipes, tweezers, electrolyte powder, and some medications (peptobismal, advil).

Essentials that can be less intuitive to bring on every day hikes include a firestarter (#7) – I bring a ziploc with waterproof matches and 2 small firestarters – and shelter (#8). I think shelter is one people could get hung up on because it sounds like you should bring a tent, but it’s really as simple as bringing an emergency blanket with you. North Shore Search and Rescue recommend pairing a bivvy sack with your thermal blanket. I keep both in my first aid kit so that I never forget them.

I want to spend a bit of time talking about the last two essentials; navigation (#9) and communication (#10), because it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past year. Also, please note, depending on the activity, your essentials list may need to expand to include other specialized gear such as PFD and spare paddle if you’re boating; transceiver, probe, and shovel if you’re in avalanche terrain; or ropes and harness if you’re climbing (as examples).

Navigation

Most people use a cell phone for navigation and communication, myself included until the past year. Options for navigation range from a map and compass, to your phone, to a GPS. Having a map is important because it will set you up for success from the beginning. It’s good to check the map in advance to identify any areas where the trail branches so you can be sure to take the right fork. Maps can become less useful if you become lost and don’t know where you are on the map (unless you’re good at identifying topography, which I still think is an important skill), which is where a GPS can become more useful.

With a GPS, you can track your steps from the very beginning, leaving a digital trail for yourself to follow back if you become lost. The good news is, you don’t really need a dedicated GPS for this and there are lots of great apps you can use directly on your phone. I don’t personally have a GPS and always use my phone, there’s just a few things you need to do in advance to make sure it will work for you in the field.

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If you’re relying on a GPS app, make sure to download the map offline before your adventure and to turn on location services. A lot of maps load from the network and you don’t want to find yourself without navigation because you forgot to pre-load the map. You also want to make sure your battery is going to last if you’re using your phone (especially if you’re also relying on your phone for communication). Make sure you have full battery before you leave and bring a power bank with you. There’s lots of trail apps out there, I personally like the GaiaGPS app. Just be aware that the trails on many apps are based on user data – just because you see a trail on the map doesn’t mean it’s safe; some trails may pass through climbing routes or only be used for winter travel, so you still need to do your research.

Communication

Communication is probably one of the hardest parts of emergency preparedness. It’s expensive to purchase satellite devices, so understandably a lot of people rely on their phones or the fact that they’re hiking in a group and have left a trip plan. The obvious problem with relying on a cell phone is that you may not always have service. If you only hike near cities with good cell service, then it’s probably fine – just make sure you know how to get your GPS coordinates off of your phone in the event you need to be rescued.

If a cell phone is your only communication device and you’re not sure if you’ll have service, then hiking in a group and leaving a trip plan with someone you trust can reduce your risk. By hiking in a group, it’s easier to manage injuries on the trail because it’s usually possible for one of your hiking mates to provide first aid or to turn back for help. It won’t be great if you have an emergency that requires a quick extraction, but at least one of your fellow hikers should be able to go for help faster than having to wait for your emergency contact to raise the alarm when you don’t check in. And in a scenario where your whole group gets lost, you still have the safeguard of your emergency contact to send Search and Rescue to look for you.

However, if you’re going to be spending any extended time in the wilderness – where help or your check in time with your emergency contact are more than a day away – then you should really either buy or rent a reliable satellite communication device for the trip. They are expensive, but it could literally save your life.

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I’m not an expert on satellite devices, so you’ll definitely want to do your own research. Options range from the SPOT, to the InReach, to a personal locator beacon. I recently purchased an InReach Mini from Garmin that I’ve been very happy with. The InReach is more expensive to buy upfront, and costs ~$15-25 a month for a basic subscription. If you won’t actually be using the device that much, you can suspend your subscription for months at a time, which is a nice feature. SPOT has a cheaper upfront cost, but I understand the annual subscription can get pricey and I haven’t heard very good things about their customer service.

The main difference between the two is that SPOT is a one way communication device, so most likely you’ll only be using it to notify your emergency contact to how the trip is going, or to activate the SOS function for emergency rescue. The InReach is a two-way communication device that works like SMS. It has the SOS function as well, but you can also send and receive texts to anyone with a cell phone or email address. Both are great if you find yourself running a day behind schedule or you have a non life-threatening injury, because you can notify your emergency contact. However, my InReach saved us a lot of grief this summer when Brandon’s car broke down on the forestry road to Cape Scott, because after hitching a ride back into town, I was still able to communicate with the group stuck on the forestry road. Plus in an emergency, it’s reassuring to get an immediate response back when you activate SOS, being able to communicate with you enables rescuers to be more prepared for your situation.

Grow Your Knowledge

That pretty much concludes this blog post – I just wanted to note that while the internet is a great resource, there are lots of hands-on ways to grow your skills as well. There are lots of organizations that offer group hikes focused on skill development and I’ve seen a lot of webinars popping up with safety and skills based workshops. Red Cross offers several first aid courses – I don’t recommend their emergency first aid course as it’s too basic, but I’ve done both their standard and wilderness first aid courses, which are excellent. If you spend a lot of time skiing or snowshoeing, I’d also recommend taking Avalanche Safety Training, or if you canoe or kayak, to take the respective training course from Paddle Canada.

Finally, check out the new docu-series on North Shore Search and Rescue, which you can stream for free on Knowledge Network. North Shore is the busiest S&R in Canada and the documentary does an excellent job showcasing the work that they do and the importance of being prepared in the backcountry. Happy adventures everyone!

Elfin Lakes Girl Guide Trip

Since I just wrote about the bike trip I took with Girl Guides, I figured I’d continue the trend by writing about a backpacking trip I did in September 2019 to Elfin Lakes. I wrote this post almost right after the trip, but I never got around to posting it, so with the changing of the seasons (foreshadowing), I thought it was finally time! This was my most recent trip to Elfin Lakes, but I’ve been 3 other times, all of which were very different experiences. Read about my Fall day hike, summer tenting trip, and winter snow camping experience for my stories about the trail.

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I’ve been wanting to take my Pathfinder group into the wilderness, but you need previous experience on backcountry trips with girls before you can lead your own, so I jumped at the opportunity to join the North Vancouver Trex group on this trip. It was only my second trip into the backcountry with Girl Guides, but for some reason I always seem to encounter the craziest weather on guide trips, and this one was no exception!

We were a group of 12 and we planned to hike up to Elfin Lakes on Friday, tent for 2 nights – day hiking to Opal Cone on Saturday – and then hiking back down on Sunday. Needless to say, things did not go quite as planned. We do our best to be prepared as girl guides. The forecast was calling for rain on Friday and temps down to -8 degrees celsius overnight, so we packed lots of rain gear and warm clothes for sleeping. However, the temperature ended up dropping a lot faster than we expected and the rain started to turn to snow just before we reached Red Heather Hut, which is almost the halfway point up to the lakes.

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The girls were thrilled about the snow, which was falling gently, and I have to admit, hiking in the snow is a lot nicer than hiking in the rain. We had hot noodle soup for lunch before continuing on to the lakes. It was still September at this point and it was obvious it was the first snowfall of the year. However, the snow started to accumulate pretty quickly and it started snowing heavier as we continued on from the hut. Fortunately, there was no wind, but visibility wasn’t great and we couldn’t see any of the views on the way up. I admit, the further we hiked, the more apprehensive I got.

I wasn’t really nervous about camping in the snow, because I have done that before and we had brought really warm gear, but we didn’t have snow boots or snow pants and it was increasingly obvious we weren’t going to be able to hike to Opal Cone the following day. Even though it was calling for sun and blue skies on Saturday and Sunday, there was too much snow to hike further without proper footwear. But we just focused on getting to the hut and the girls did really well managing the conditions. Fortunately no one got cold or wet feet on the way up!

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We hit the hut around 4pm and everyone was thrilled to go inside. I think the girls were thinking we were going to abandon the tenting idea and just sleep in the hut, but as we had only booked tent pads and there were 12 of us, that wasn’t really an option (although obviously in an emergency we would have camped out on the floor if we had to.) We made them hot drinks to warm up and everyone hung their wet gear by the fire. I have to say, the girls had a great attitude when we told them we were still planning to camp. The snow did start to slack off and was almost stopped when we went back outside an hour later to scope out the tent pads. Fortunately the clouds had started to lift and you could just start to see the surrounding mountains (which are incredibly striking from the tent pads at Elfin Lakes), so the girls started to get excited again about tenting.

We shoveled off the tent pads and set up 4 tents. This proved to be a bit more of a challenge than we anticipated because it was pretty darn windy when we were setting them up. We had to weigh them down with rocks and then shove all our gear inside them to hold them down. Then we had the added difficultly that we couldn’t peg them because of the tent pad, but we eventually managed to get them set up and soon after that the wind died down and I didn’t give it much more thought.

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By the time we finished it had really cleared off and we had fun getting some photos of the mountains and the tents. Time really got away from us with the weather though and it was 8pm before we finally had supper in the hut. We had pesto pasta and re-hydrated coleslaw for dinner, with 2 bite brownies and reese peanut butter cups for dessert. After that we pretty much hit the sack because we were all exhausted. Unfortunately we decided we couldn’t stay for a second night because it just wouldn’t be safe to hike to Opal Cone and the girls didn’t have the appropriate gear to play in the snow, so it made the most sense to just hike back out on Saturday. The girls took the news pretty well and were very understanding.

I stayed up to get some star photos and then nestled into my sleeping bag for the night. It was pretty calm when we went to bed, so I thought that was the end of it, but oh was I ever wrong. Around 3 or 4am a wind storm blew in that totally put our tents to the test. I grew up in Newfoundland, which is super windy, but I never really did much tenting there, and not in recent years, so sadly I’ve kind of gotten used to tenting without wind. As a result, I never guy line my tent and only ever peg it really to protect from the rain. So it never really occurred to me to guy line the tents. It had occurred to the other leader though, but she had forgotten her rope, so she never brought it up (not realizing I always bring extra rope with me).

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Anyways, I’m sure you see where this is going, but the wind was really strong. I’ve never tented in wind like that and it was totally billowing the tent in and out. It woke everyone up and the girls started freaking out a bit, but everyone’s tents looked fine, so we told them to go back to sleep. Then I was woken up again at 5:30am by one of the other Guiders when her tent collapsed on her and two girls. When we looked at the other two tents the girls were in, it really looked like they were going to collapse soon too. So we had to put the first tent back up and then I got my rope and we guylined them all to the tent pads. Somehow my tent was the only one that didn’t look close to collapsing, but we were in a slightly different area than the rest of the tents, so the wind may have been blowing slightly differently.

It was still super windy in the tent, but the guylines did the trick to prevent any more collapses and we were able to go back to sleep until 8am. The wind never really let up though and it battered us all morning when we tried to take the tents down as well. but it was a beautiful sunny day and the blue sky and fresh snow made for a really beautiful view. We had sunrise spuds for breakfast and then packed everything up again to head down.

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I was worried it was going to be super slippery on the way down and was concerned about not having spikes (my friend once broke her arm in similar conditions), but the snow was still fresh enough that it hadn’t been compacted into ice yet, so it wasn’t too bad. We had a little photo shoot on the ridge looking down on the lake and then hiked back to the Red Heather hut for lunch again.

We had one more spot of adventure on the way down. One of the girls rolled her ankle about a kilometre from the end, but fortunately it seemed to be only sprained and she was able to slowly walk the last little bit out. We divvied up some of her gear and strapped the rest of the pack to my front to carry it out and we all made it down to the parking lot in one piece!

With the exception of the first photo, all pictures were taken on Day 2!

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Hiking High Falls Creek

The Fall hiking season seems to be almost certainly behind us at this point, but Brandon and I were lucky enough to end off the season with a beautiful hike up to High Falls Creek outside Squamish.

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High Falls Creek is one of several trails located along the Squamish River going up the valley. I’ve heard about the river being popular for fishing and camping along the banks, and I once went white water rafting down it with Seth, but otherwise I haven’t explored this area at all. There were a few people still out enjoying the last few nice days of the season, but you do have to be careful camping along the river as it does frequently flood.

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High Falls Creek was basically empty when we arrived though. It’s an extremely steep trail that climbs up the cliffside, providing several glimpses of the waterfall cascading down through the trees. The waterfall is only about 1km in the trail, but it’s so steep that it feels like a lot longer. I’d debating bringing Sadie, but ended up leaving her home because I’d read it isn’t a dog friendly trail. I didn’t regret it because there’s a lot of climbing and rope sections.

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We passed two couples who had gone up to the waterfall, but decided to hike back down rather than do the rest of the trail. I understand why they did this, it’s a 9km loop to do the whole trail, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a loop trail for a reason and I don’t envy them climbing back down all those rope sections. Otherwise, we didn’t see a single other person on the trail!

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As far as waterfalls go, it’s a bit hard to see this one. There’s no real good viewpoints from the trail, though there is a branch that goes down to the top of the falls, which is pretty neat. But I still loved the trail because it has gorgeous views all along looking out at the surrounding mountains and down into the valley. The trail continues up and up after the falls with a total of 500m of elevation gain in under 3km. It took us about 2.5 hours to do the 3km, but after that you pop out on the forestry road and it’s just a leisurely 6km walk back around to the car.

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We were hoping to catch the end of the leaves changing colour, but sadly we were too late. However, there were a lot of bare trees, so I could see this being a great Fall hike earlier in the season and I’d definitely like to return next year. Even though it’s not as rugged, I liked the forestry road because it still had some awesome views down into the valley.

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The last part of the road goes along the river, so we kept our eyes open for good river camping sites for another year. It was a gorgeous sunny day, but we could tell the area had recently flooded. We continued our tour of the valley when we got back to the car and drove around to check out a few of the rec sites, enjoying the last bit of sun before the rain moved in to stay.

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