You can die in a hurry in a lot of places in British Columbia if you find yourself lost or stranded during winter months.
On average about 15 people die in B.C. each year from hypothermia or exposure and even the backcountry around Nanaimo has proven deadly on more than one occasion.
Anyone, from the weekend warrior to seasoned backcountry adventurer, can quickly find themselves in dire straits if they’ve overestimated their abilities and underestimated Mother Nature.
“The potential’s always there for people to get themselves in trouble and that’s compounded by the weather we have here on the coast,” said Kyle Van Delft, Nanaimo Search and Rescue Society spokesman. “You’ve got a relatively nice day out. You may get a little wet if it rains and then the temperature drops dramatically at night and it can catch people off guard.”
Winter weather can also change familiar territory into an alien, impassible, landscape, especially during and after a heavy snowfall. In January 2002 two of three men on a day hike died trying to find their way off of the north side of Mount Benson when they were caught in a sudden snowstorm, daylight faded to night and they became disoriented and lost.
For those who do find themselves stranded, lost or injured in the woods, a few items and a little preparation can be what stands between being rescued and dying from exposure while waiting for help to arrive.
“The biggest thing we urge people to do is file a trip plan,” Van Delft said. “Tell somebody where you’re going and when you’re going to be back. It’s the best way to help us as search and rescue members so we have an idea of where they’re going to be. That gives rescuers a starting point at least.”
Blake Eriskson, spokesman for the Mid Island Sno-Blazers snowmobile club, said it is often people just planning to go for a two-hour walk who most often find themselves in trouble simply because they haven’t prepared for a longer stay outdoors.
Erickson and other club members have been on their share of winter search operations, working with or supporting search and rescue teams. They also work with the City of Nanaimo, the regional district and emergency services to help out when severe snowstorms make roads impassible to vehicles. The organization also gives workshops on backcountry safety and avalanche preparedness.
“There’s so many more people in the backcountry than ever before,” Erickson said. “Not just snowmobiling, but cross-country skiing and all these things. We go into areas now where we never used to see anybody and there’s all kinds of people.”
The good news is, Erickson said, in spite of rising numbers of people enjoying the outdoors, he is not seeing a proportional increase in the numbers of fatalities and injuries.
“People are more conscious now,” Erickson said. “Years ago, even snowmobilers, we used to head out in the backcountry with a sandwich and that was about it. Nowadays people are more aware…. People now are being better prepared. We see it.”
Last year Nanaimo Search and Rescue conducted 26 search operations looking for people who had become lost.
“We look at it as we’re leaving behind our kids, our friends, our families behind for an evening we’re going to look for someone who may never see their family again,” Van Delft said.
At the end of the day, Erickson said, there’s no substitute for common sense.
For a comprehensive information and links on backcountry safety, including a list of other outdoor emergency related resources, please visit www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca/campaigns/backcountry-safety.html.
Tips to survive outdoors on the Island
It’s important to have along a few basic items – often referred to as the 10 essentials – that can be easily carried in a small pack.
Essentials include a map and compass.
Extra clothing so you can layer up to keep warm or take off to cool down.
A small flashlight or headlamp. Unless there’s moonlight, wilderness areas away from city illumination become too dark to function in without artificial or firelight.
First aid supplies, such as bandaids, bandages, scissors, antiseptic cream, etc.
Sunscreen and sunglasses. Winter sun on snow can burn skin in a hurry, especially at higher altitudes.
Something to start a fire with. Matches, cigarette lighter and a candle to use as fuel to help get damp tinder lit. Food, water, a pocket knife and a whistle.
Something for extra warmth or emergency shelter. Silver emergency or “space” blankets weigh practically nothing and take up almost no space.
Everyone who does carry emergency equipment should check it before each excursion.
Rescue volunteers caution people to never rely on smart phones and associated map and GPS apps. Batteries go dead and cell service is virtually non-existent within a couple of kilometres inland in most of the Island’s wilderness areas. Compasses work in almost all conditions.
Check the weather forecasts before you venture out.