Let’s Talk: Kayaking Safety

Spring is my favourite time to go kayaking! It’s too cold in the winter and the alpine backpacking season is so short in the summer, that Spring has become my core kayaking season. I’ve been on several kayaking trips over the years and bought my own kayak last year, but I am by no means a kayaking expert. If you’ve read my avalanche safety post, this post will be a lot like that in that it’s mostly about me discussing some of the risks in hopes of convincing you to take a paddling safety course.

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I’d kayaked and canoed a handle of times as a kid and a teenager, mostly just renting a kayak for a couple of hours or going on a guided tour. We decided to take up kayak camping in 2018, but my first order of business was to take a basic kayaking safety course first. I didn’t know anything about self rescue and figured this was a basic skill before going paddling for anywhere longer than a few hours.

I was definitely right and took the Paddle Canada sea kayaking basics course. Most of what I was hoping to gain from this course was how to get back in my boat if I fell out, which I did learn, but I would say the most helpful part of the course was actually the focus on paddling skills. Even 4 years later, I’m still not a great paddler, so this is something I’m always focusing on. If your arms hurt after a day of paddling, then you’re not doing it right. If you’re in the lower mainland, I did my course with West Beach Paddle and highly recommend!

Kayaking is not inherently difficult, but like a lot of adventure activities, it does have a certain amount of risk associated with it. If you’re not prepared for the conditions and you capsize your boat, suddenly it has a lot more risk. Knowing how to do partner and self rescue is a skill that actually isn’t that challenging, but something that I think it’s really important to know how to do, and not necessarily intuitive without training. If you don’t know how to get back in your boat, then you should really consider what kind of conditions you go out in. If it’s summer and you’re just renting in a lake for an hour, it’s probably fine, but if you’re going into any kind of remote conditions for an extended period of time, definitely take a course.

In addition, if you’re renting, it’s likely the rental company will provide you with all the safety equipment you need, but if they don’t, make sure first and foremost that you have a PDF. Most kayakers I see are wearing lifejackets, but I see a lot of SUPs out and about in Indian Arm without any lifejacket on board and it boggles my mind. It’s the single most important piece of equipment, at least make sure you have it on board, and better yet, wear it. The other pieces of equipment that are required on a kayak are a whistle, hand pump, towline, and a paddle. I also recommend having a paddle float and a spare paddle. If you don’t know what a paddle float is, take the course.

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My experience has been that reading the conditions is also very important. The course I did focused on managing wind and weather, and a little bit about navigation, in your decision making. The mountains and topography in the lower mainland can create some really interesting wind and wave patterns and the best time for paddling is early in the morning or later in the evening. If the wind gets over 20km/h and you’re a beginner, it’s best to plan not to go at all. Seth and I once spent all morning loading the kayaks and driving to our destination just decide not to go at all because the wind had come up. On multi-day trips (and on some day trips), you also want to be prepared with extra provisions in case the conditions change and you can’t get back when you’d intended. It’s better to wait out strong winds and currents, especially if you’re not a strong paddler.

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Since taking the basic sea kayaking course, we recently returned to take Paddle Canada’s Level 1 course, which is focused on day tripping. So we went over additional navigating skills, how to read current and tide charts, and worked on improving all our paddling strokes. If you’re a casual paddler, I think just doing the basics course is likely fine, as the main skill you want is the ability to get back in your boat. However, when we did the Basics course, it didn’t cover self-rescue, only partner rescue. Our instructor was great and taught us self-rescue anyways, but it’s an important consideration if you’re going solo or in a double, so check if your course teaches it.

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Before taking the course, I’d only ever been out in double kayaks. They’re bigger, but I viewed it as more fun and you do have more power in the boat with two people paddling. Though they have gained the nickname of “divorce boats” because of the tendency to argue with your partner when you’re both in a boat together. We learned so many skills at the course and decided it was safer to have 2 boats as opposed to one (for the purpose of rescue, but also so that we could each focus on our own skills and interests when out on the water). Since then, we’ve always kayaked together in singles, except when we went on a 3-day trip in New Zealand where the rental company refused to rent singles. This was due to how windy it can get and their doubles are a lot more stable on the water. So it does depend on location, but generally in BC it’s recommended to use 2 singles over a double.

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So in conclusion, as always when it comes to safety, my recommendation is to make it a priority and take a course if you frequently kayak, are going on an overnight trip, or going anywhere remote or with challenging conditions. It is a bit pricey, which is why I mostly recommend the Basics Course, which is only 1 day and will cover all the most important aspects of kayaking. But if you’re interested, the Level 1 course is also great and runs for 2 days. We’d like to do Level 2 some day, but it’s a lengthy course that involves a multi day trip, so for right now, we’ll wait a few more years and continue to practice our skills on our own!

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Let’s Talk: First Aid

First aid is one of those things I always knew was important, but it took me a while to really learn just how useful it is. Being able to swim was something that was always really important to my Mom, so she put me in swimming lessons as a kid and later signed me up for lifeguarding courses when I turned 14. I did junior lifeguarding until I was 16, when I completed my National Lifeguard course and was certified for 4 years. First aid is a major component of this course and it is something that has served me well ever since. I’ve done several variations of first aid courses for work and guiding ever since and I think it is so worthwhile to invest time in learning basic first aid. Even if you don’t have a formal certification, being able to recognize symptoms and treat simple emergencies is a huge asset in the outdoors.

I was employed for 2 summers as a lifeguard at age 18, other than that I’ve never had any formal capacity as a first aider. Yet, since then I’ve treated a seizure, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, a broken arm, injured knees, and any number of cuts, scrapes, and blisters. I never leave my first aid kit at home, and I’ve been surprised by how often I’ve needed it. You can be resourceful in the wilderness, but I’ve never regretted carrying along a few extra first aid items (and you will definitely regret if you need them and don’t have it). I think the most important thing is knowing what to bring and how to recognize symptoms.

First Aid Training

Let’s start with training. The easiest way to learn is to do a formal course. There are 3 basic first aid courses: Emergency, Standard, and Wilderness First Aid. Having done them all at least once, I think Standard First Aid is the best bang for your buck. I don’t like Emergency First Aid, it’s only a 1 day course and it covers very little outside of CPR and AED. While these are good skills to have, I don’t think they are the most practical. I’m much less likely to need CPR and much more likely to need to bandage a broken wrist, so I find Standard First Aid more practical (plus you learn CPR/AED in all 3 courses).

Standard First Aid is generally a 2 day course and covers diagnosing and treating all different kinds of ailments, which is why I think it’s more useful. Treating heat stroke was the most life threatening thing I’ve ever done and I was able to diagnose it incredibly quickly, to the benefit of the individual (read about that experience here). Even for simple things, diagnosis can make a big difference. I was once 3 days into the wilderness and had a frightened hiker approach me with heartburn, I gave him pepto-bismal and it resolved in no time (somehow he’d never heard of heartburn – he described his symptoms and Emily immediately diagnosed it as heartburn since she gets it a lot, while I sang the pepto-bismal rhyme and he looked at us like we had 3 heads). So in my opinion, Standard First Aid is more practical than Emergency.

Wilderness First Aid sounds like it would be the most applicable for outdoor adventure (and it is), but it’s also the most expensive and has the biggest time commitment (2 long days or 3 shorter days). In my opinion, Wilderness First Aid is glorified Standard First Aid. It covers the same material, but from the perspective of someone in the wilderness with limited resources. So you practice splinting with sticks, homemade stretchers, and hypothermia wraps, but it’s not substantially different. Though once you have Wilderness First Aid, it’s half the work to re-certify it every 3 years (just a day), so I try and keep mine up to date. So if financial is a concern, I’d recommend Standard First Aid as the best course.

An idea of what “technical” means

Understanding Your Abilities

The second part of first aid is knowing what to bring with you and keeping a cool head in an emergency. If you panic, your patient will panic, so my approach has always been to be reassuring while asking lots of questions. Honestly, the presence of a first aid kit and care from someone who seems like they might be able to help is often reassurance enough for the patient. The other important thing is knowing when to call for help and doing so immediately. For example, you can probably handle small cuts and scrapes yourself, as well as mild dehydration. When my friend broke her wrist on a hike, I was able to wrap it for her to make her comfortable enough to walk back to the car on her own.

Dehydration is one of the more dangerous problems you can encounter, so being able to recognize it is important so that you can self treat. When I did the North Coast Trail, on the third day, me and Emily were both feeling really low and when Emily started to complain of an upset stomach, I immediately made the whole group stop hiking and we took a break while we both chugged a litre of electrolytes. While Emily’s energy remained low, our quick action prevented it from getting worse and we were able to finish the day in good spirits, with no injuries. In contrast, when my friend got heat stroke on the trail to Assiniboine, I didn’t know she was feeling bad until it was really too late. Her muscles started cramping, she couldn’t stand, and she even started losing feeling in her legs – all of these symptoms occurred within 15 minutes of her stopping to say she felt sick. In this case, I immediately made an SOS to emergency services on my inreach and spent 3 hours rehydrating her while waiting for help. Don’t try and be a hero; sometimes professionals and a quick extraction are needed and you are much wiser to make the call in those scenarios. Read my post on personal safety for more about communication devices and preparedness.

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What to Bring

And the last thing I want to highlight is the more practical side of what to bring with you. Lots of places sell small first aid kits and most people opt for a tiny one to throw in their backpack. I wouldn’t say my first aid kit is large, but it is more sizable than what most people bring. Sometimes I lament the extra weight, but I always bring it. REI has a pretty comprehensive list of what to bring, which you can view here. Personally, I like to bring band-aids in varying sizes, a blister kit, sutures, antibacterial wipes, dressings, compression gauze, a tensile bandage, surgical scissors, triangle bandage, tweezers, safety pins, medical tape, polysporin, and latex gloves. I also bring electrolytes, advil or tylenol, pepto-bismal, and an emergency blanket and bivvy sack. Depending where I’m going, sometimes I throw in a small bottle of aloe and in the winter I will add hand warmers. One thing I don’t have is a sam splint, which I’ve been considering adding because it’s on a lot of first aid kit lists, but I’m not convinced I couldn’t just use a stick or a hiking pole in an emergency.

Your first aid kit is only meant to complement your 10 essentials, so make sure you also have extra clothes, food and water, as these can also help in a first aid emergency. If someone in your party is injured and it takes you longer to hike back – you don’t want to further endanger yourselves by not having other essentials, like a headlamp. I always remind myself to pack for the hike that goes wrong rather than the hike that goes right. I bring my insulated seat cushion on most hikes as well, because it can make a big difference to your comfort if you’re stuck sitting on the cold ground for hours waiting for help.

To conclude, my biggest recommendation is to get a first aid kit and learn what to do with it. Learning how to diagnose symptoms and how to treat them can make someone feel a lot more comfortable in an emergency, and may even save your life or the life of a friend. Stay safe out there!

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Let’s Talk: Avalanche Safety

Let me start this post with a disclaimer – I am a newbie to avalanche terrain and only have level 1 training. I am not a reliable resource for avalanche safety. I decided to write this post anyways because I think a lot of people go out into the backcountry in the winter without understanding the risk. I went snowshoeing and camping for 3 years and told myself I was safe because I “checked the forecast” and only went on popular or “safe” trails. I was pretty conservative, but in retrospect, I didn’t actually know how to read the avalanche bulletins and I was unknowingly venturing into avalanche terrain. Without taking a course, I feel it’s hard to get the proper education on identifying avalanche terrain and my main goal with this post is to convince you to take the AST1 course. If your internal reasoning sounds anything like mine above, trust me, take the course.

Growing up on the East Coast, I 100% didn’t understand the threat that avalanches can pose. I figured they were pretty rare and the odds of me getting caught in one were low. In reality, in 90% of avalanche accidents, the avalanche was triggered by the victim in the accident. So while your odds of getting caught in a naturally triggered avalanche are slim, it’s easier than you think to trigger one. Human triggered avalanches are more commonly triggered by backcountry skiers and boarders rather than snowshoers because of the terrain type, but snowshoers are at risk from other phenomenon’s such as cornices. In addition, avalanche risk is generally at its highest after major snowfalls and that tends to be when lots of people crowd into the backcountry to enjoy fresh powder.

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Even if you don’t have avalanche safety training, if you’ve spent any substantial time snowshoeing, you are probably familiar with the avalanche bulletin. The bulletin is a regional mountain forecast issued by Avalanche Canada that tells you the avalanche danger level, problems to look out for, and additional details on the weather and snowpack. Users can also submit reports from their trips on any incidents or avalanche indicators they witnessed, so it’s a useful resource for assessing risk.

The bulletin has 3 parts that are all equally important, but unfortunately most people (myself included in the past) take one look at the danger rating and never make it past the first section of the bulletin, which contains a 3 day colour-coded rating system. There are 5 levels: low, moderate, considerable, high, and extreme. Level of caution depends on the user. Before I did the training I would comfortably go out in low and moderate conditions, but not considerable. However, I know a lot of users view “considerable” as fine and only stay home in high and extreme circumstances. After doing the training, I wouldn’t venture into avalanche terrain above low unless I had appropriate safety gear.

While it’s great to check the danger rating, the other sections of the report are just as important, particularly the problem areas. These tell you what avalanche risks to look out for, where to look for them, and how catastrophic they might be if encountered. For example, the problem below tells me that the chance of a storm slab avalanche in the treeline and above is actually very likely on all aspects of the slope, but not likely to be larger than a size 2 avalanche. But for the record, a size 2 avalanche is still fairly large and can kill you, so don’t be deceived by the fact that the scale goes up to 4.

Finally, the details section tells me what to expect in terms of weather and snowpack and how accurate the bulletin is. The summary below indicates that heavy rain and snow result in uncertainty around avalanche problems and inclement weather makes the mountains a particularly dangerous place to be at that time. The forecaster indicates further in the report (not shown) that because of significant precipitation, they only had a moderate level of confidence in their predictions, so they should be taken with a grain of salt and other risks could be present.

For me, the avalanche bulletin has become a critical part of my avalanche training and planning because it helps me in making decisions about when to go out or not and what to look for if I do go out. There are lots of ways to mitigate your risk in the backcountry. One is by avoiding avalanche terrain altogether – ie, if I’m not going to go to terrain where there is a risk of avalanche, then I don’t need avalanche safety training. There are some trail maps on Avalanche Canada that indicate the different types of avalanche terrain so that you can avoid challenging or complex terrain. But the bigger problem is that without training, I think it is somewhat challenging to identify what isn’t avalanche terrain. There is often information available on the internet about specific trails, but you are most protected if you’re able to identify avalanche terrain and hazards yourself (although I still highly recommend doing specific trail research as well).

Which brings me to the second part of avalanche awareness – staying safe by avoiding avalanche risks in the backcountry. Most of the terrain I’ve travelled through has been simple terrain, meaning low angle or forested terrain with lower risk of triggering an avalanche (beware though, avalanches can happen in the trees too, so don’t assume you’re safe just because you’re in the forest). However, I did unknowingly travel through some slightly higher risk terrain before getting my AST1. For example, Elfin Lakes and Zoa Peak are two popular winter snowshoe trails – the Elfin trail is all in simple terrain (green), but it does pass under some challenging and complex terrain (blue and black) that could potentially place you in the run-out zone. Likewise, if you go all the way to Zoa Peak, you pass through a section of challenging terrain, but if you just go as far as the sub-peak, you stay in simple terrain. Knowing how to read the terrain and identify potential problems or hazards (all taught in the training), allow you make smart choices when recreating.

For me, these were the two parts of the training that were most eye-opening. Sure, you also learn how to use a beacon, probe, and shovel to conduct a rescue, but so much of the training is about avoiding ever having to rescue someone or be rescued. The more you learn about something you didn’t know very much about, the more you realize how little you actually knew. This was very much the case for me with avalanche training. I was completely blind to so many of the risks that it would have been so much easier for me to walk into a scenario that I didn’t know how to escape from. Now, though I’m still a learner, I can at least acknowledge the magnitude of the information I don’t know.

Finally, the last part of the training is about avalanche rescue. What to do if the worst has happened. You learn to mitigate risk further going around avalanche terrain and by making sure to stagger your party on those occasions when you do have to pass through avalanche terrain so that if there is an avalanche, no more than 1 person will be buried, leaving multiple people to initiate rescue. If you’re not able to be rescued by your companions, it’s very unlikely you will be rescued at all. 91% of people survive if rescued within 18 minutes, after that survival drops to 34% in burials between 19 and 35 minutes.

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For this reason, who you recreate with is extremely important because you are potentially relying on your friends to save your life. For this reason, I did my AST1 course with 3 other friends and we practiced together on our snow camping trip last year. I don’t yet own my own beacon and probe (just a shovel), but I have been renting them since I did the training and hope to buy one soon. It’s great if one person in your party has training and can identify hazards and mitigate some of the risk, but unless you all have beacon, probe, and shovel and know how to use it, you will likely be shit out of luck in a real emergency. Fortunately, there are lots of AST1 providers, so I recommend signing up for a course to learn all about avalanche safety and prioritize your safety in winter conditions in the backcountry. I did my course with The Mountain School.

*stats from National Geographic via: https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-avalanches#fn3
**since writing I have acquired my own probe and beacon!