Snowmobiling in the mountains of British Columbia is an amazing experience. Getting above the valley cloud into the sunshine and enjoying some of the most beautiful vistas and endless photo opportunities can make for an experience of a life time. However, it doesn't take long for that experience to take a turn for the worse and leave you in a situation where the decisions you make and how well equipped you are to handle the situation will determine your survival.
The sport of snowmobiling is growing and every year and with an increasing number of people new to the sport venturing into the back country, too many are heading out seriously unprepared. Do you know what to take with you should an emergency situation arise? Could you start a fire? Could you build a shelter? Could you survive?
Where your safety Begins..
A safe return home after a day of sledding should begin even before you head out. Always leave word with someone where you are headed and estimated time of return. Should the need arise for a search, you have just reduced the search time by a ton of precious hours. Also common sense should tell you..NEVER RIDE ALONE!
Have a means of Communication..
Cell phones will not cut it as your primary means of communication in the back country! Yes, they work when you can get a cellular signal, but cell signals in the mountains are hit and miss at best. Satellite phones, InReach and SPOT communication devices are invaluable to your survival. They operate on satellite tracking and not cellular signals so they are very effective in summoning assistance should the need arise. Yes, there is a monthly fee for the satellite services but when you're twenty miles from the truck, daylight is dwindling, temps are dropping and you're partner is seriously injured, you'll be glad you spent the money.
Have a Plan..
When riding with a friend or as a group, you should always have a "Plan". What will you do should members of your group become separated? If you don't carry radios for communication, agree on a plan of action to re-group. Going back to the spot where you last stopped is one idea. Suggest a well known meadow or meeting spot where everyone will meet at a given time. Stop, shut off your engines and attempt whistle communications. If that doesn't work..what is your next step to find your missing friends? Back track together with the remaining members of the group continuously staying within sight of each other. At this point it is crucial to stay together! You don't want to lose anyone else and complicate matters. Stop your sleds frequently and listen. Do you hear a call for help? Do you hear whistle signals. Can you hear your friend's sled? So now 3 hours have passed and no sign of your missing friend. It's getting dark. You've exhausted your "Plan". What do you do? Don't wait too long to summon help. Hopefully you ride with people who are as well prepared as you. If you wait into the night to summon help the search is now that much more complicated under the blanket of darkness. Temperatures will have dropped. Depending on the number of people in your group you may want 2 or 3 riders to go down to the parking lot and see if your friend has returned on his/her own. Two or 3 riders can stay on the hill and continue looking for the missing rider. Not at the parking lot? Call for help now. It will take Search and Rescue some time to gather their group and equipment and deploy to the mountain. REMEMBER... Call for help early into the incident. Search and Rescue does not charge for their services and would rather be stood down should the incident be resolved, than having you wait too long and the situation gets worse. Be prepared to meet with S&R to give them crucial information as to where they should begin their search. If you plan on searching with them, make sure you have enough fuel to do so. By this time you may be running low and in danger of running out, creating yet another problem.
Being prepared to spend the night in the winter woods is crucial..but even more crucial is avoiding the need to do so. Do you carry the essentials to get yourself out of a situation so you don't have to spend a freezing night trying to survive? Example, do you carry a spare belt for your sled? Simple right? You'd be surprised how many sledders don't. Below is a brief check list of items to carry with you every time you venture out. Items to help you get out of a situation.
- Spare belt for your sled
-Extra set of plugs and plug boots
- Folding Saw
-Fire Making Kit
-2 Way Radios
-GPS or map of the area
The final 2 items on the list, beacon and probe, are only effective if you know how to use them properly. Taking an AST course is highly recommended for all mountain riders. You may feel as though you don't ride in dangerous terrain but should you happen across an avalanche search in progress you'll be happy that you're able to be of assistance. Possibly save a life.
Obviously this list could be quite extensive but these are a few the basics to help you get yourself out of a stuck or lost situation. Anything less than these bare essentials is not enough.
What's in Your Pack?
There are several different versions, depending on who you talk to, about what are the essentials required to survive a night in the back country. Below is a good place to start your list of what to carry on yourself in a pack or on your sled. Some items are important to keep on your body should you by chance become separated from your sled. Example: Fire Starter..should your sled become submerged or roll down an embankment, you have now lost your means of staying warm. You're in serious trouble!
Consider the items on the list below as necessities for your survival if you need to spend a night in the woods awaiting rescue. (Use this list in conjunction with the items listed above)
-Fire Starter kit. (Consisting of fire starter cubes or similar. Waterproof matches or lighter(s)) This tops the list because if you can't keep warm, Hypothermia can set in very quickly and your life is in danger. Keep this on you!
-SPOT or InReach Satellite communicator
-Drinking Water (Trying to melt snow for hydration requires a lot of snow!!! ..Always carry extra fluids for hydration)
-Power Bars for nutrition
-Whistle or signal device
-Length of cord or rope for shelter building
This sounds like a lot of items to carry but if you put it all together you'll see it doesn't take up much room in your pack at all. The main issues you need to address to survive a night in the cold outdoors are 1) Keeping warm in the cold. 2) Getting out of the wind and snow. 3) Staying hydrated.
With the brief list(s) above and little bit of know how, you should be able to start a fire and build a small shelter to comfortably survive a cold night. And when it's all over, you'll have a great story to share with friends.
Dressing For The Elements..
Staying warm is not only important for you to get the most enjoyment out of your day of riding... the right inner and outer layers could save your life when the going gets tough.
Rules of clothing for snowmobilers to keep in mind:
- Don't cheap out on your clothing!!!! Inner or outer layers.
- Stay away from cotton for base layers. Cotton will hold moisture and keep you wet and cold.
- Base layers that move moisture away from your skin and allow it to evaporate are far superior to cotton. Most are polyester blends.
- Windproof, waterproof and breathable outer layers are your best bet. So important to move moisture away from your skin to where it can evaporate
- Warm, waterproof boots with a winter rating of at least -20 with socks that are breathable. Again...avoid cotton.
- Carry extra socks and gloves in your pack.
SAFETY & SECURITY
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