With the heavy accumulations of snow that fell in several backcountry locations this past week, many are preparing to head for the hills this weekend, and whether snowmachining in Turnagain Pass, skiing the Resurrection Trail, or mushing in the Caribou Hills, all outdoor recreationists should be prepared for an emergency situation.
"Bad things can happen to good people, but if you're prepared for a mishap, tragedy can be prevented," said Lt. Barry Wilson, the statewide Search and Rescue (SAR) Coordinator for the Alaska State Troopers.
Wilson said from Jan. 1 through May 31 this year, there were 109 total SAR operations performed, involving a total of 1,155 search hours. In the end 55 people were saved. And, while many of these emergencies took place during the summer months, Wilson said SAR operations are just as common in winter.
"We get quite a few from January through April," he said.
While not every rescue will end well, Wilson said there are a few simple steps that people can do to dramatically improve the odds of their survival.
"Don't go alone is the big one," he said.
This may be difficult for some people who pride themselves on their rugged individualism, but Wilson said even the most experienced outdoorsperson can quickly find him- or herself between a rock and a hard place when travelling alone.
"All it takes is one slip and you're down, and with nobody to help you it may be the beginning of end, so it's much better to use the buddy system when going into the Alaska wilderness," he said.
In addition to travelling with someone, Wilson also recommended anyone venturing into the woods whether it be for a simple day hike or a week-long camping excursion to tell a reliable person where they are going, what they are doing and when they'll return.
"This means not being vague," he said.
For example, telling someone you are snowmachining in the Caribou Hills on Saturday and you'll be back on Sunday is better than not saying anything, but it would be far more useful to leave information such as you're snowmachining up the Clam Gulch Trail, camping at Four Corners, and you'll be home by 5 p.m. on Sunday at the latest.
"Be reasonable with the times too. Give a worst case time, so that if your reliable person hasn't heard from you by that time, they know there's a problem, and can call us and give us your plan. And if you pick a time, stick to it. If you're way out in the woods, you shouldn't be putting in a couple more runs at 9 p.m. if your drop dead time is 10 p.m.," he said.
Wilson said that another big rule for traveling into the backcountry is to always be prepared.
"Education is the important thing. Be prepared for the activity you're going to do, and for if an emergency happens while doing it," he said.
Wilson said, for example, it's amazing how many people will get into trouble because while venturing to a friend's house, they will take off across a large lake on the snowmachine without gloves or a wind breaker.
"It may be a trip they've made a thousand times, but all it takes is one time for the snowmachine to break down in the middle, and they could be in real trouble from the cold," he said.
Wilson recommended that anyone traveling in the woods carry an emergency kit with a handful of lifesaving items.
"Have a backpack with these items always in it. Then all you have to do is grab it and go," he said.
The items in the pack or kit should all be essentials. It may not be too tough to carry a lot of gear on a snowmachine, but not all dog mushers, skiers and snowshoers want the burden of carrying too much extra weight. What does get carried should be critically important.
"The basics of the kit are food, water, shelter and the ability to make a fire," Wilson said.
These food items should be high-calorie items and carbohydrate-rich energy food. Wilson said trail mix with nuts and candy, energy bars, military meals-ready-to-eat or MRE's, and or freeze-dried foods that are light to carry, would all be good choices.
"You don't need a huge amount, but a couple thousand calories can keep you alive for a few days," he said.
Carrying a few bottled waters is easy enough to take care of hydration requirements, but travelers must think about how to thaw that water. Wilson said there are numerous options for getting a fire going, and it's OK to carry more than one. The important thing is to know how to use them correctly.
"Waterproof matches, a road flare, magnesium-scraper fire starters are all good, but people may want to practice building a fire with them before they need to do it in an emergency situation," he said.
That's because while someone may be able to get a fire going with dry wood on a calm, winter day at home, it can be a lot different trying to get one going with wet spruce bows during a wind storm in the high country of the Caribou Hills.
"You don't want to end up like that character in Jack London's 'To Build a Fire,'" Wilson said.
For shelter, Wilson recommended people carry an emergency blanket, since these are affordable, light weight, wind and waterproof and can reflect heat back to the body. They're shiny appearance can also be used for signalling. That's not to say that more expensive emergency shelters cannot be utilized, since there are numerous types of bivy sacks and other equipment on the market.
"Whatever options you use, you should still know the basics of using it properly," he said.
Spruce bows or some other type of material can be used under the body to insulate it from the cold ground. Wilson said it's also not a bad idea to learn how to build snow caves or other snow structures to sleep in at night to further conserve body heat.
Beyond these main items for the emergency kit, Wilson said there are a handful of other items that should also be included.
"I recommend a multi-tool with a pliers and a saw. You always need to cut things rope, cloth, branches, you never know what, and they're the same size as a knife, but they give you more options," he said.
Wilson also recommended throwing a small flashlight or headlamp in the emergency kits. Not only can these items sometimes prevent an incident by providing light on the way back to the trail when in the dark someone could get lost or take a bad step they also are easy for rescuers to see if something does happen for the worse.
"When flying over in a helicopter, people on the ground seem small compared to the trees, but any form of light can be picked up with our night vision goggles, so we always recommend people have a flashlight or headlamp and waggle it when they hear the helicopter," he said.
Wilson said it is also a good idea to have extra clothing other than cotton in the emergency kit. These items can be added as additional layers if need be, or changed into in case of a fall into freezing water. Clothes in the kits can be locked in plastic bags with zippers or vacu-sealed to ensure that they don't get wet.
Also, while it may sound like the most simple item of all, cell phones are often overlooked as being part of the emergency gear to carry into the field.
"It's amazing where they can reach these days," Wilson said.
While they may not reach everywhere, if a cell phone connection could be made during an emergency, it could expedite rescue services rather than having to wait hours or days until an emergency contact calls for help when a hiker is past due.
For people that may not want to risk a bad connection, Wilson said Personal Locator Beacons can also be bought. These typically range around $600, but they can give SAR personal an exact GPS location.
"They're getting more and more popular. A few places are even starting to rent them," he said.
While they are numerous other pieces of equipment that can also be carried, Wilson said it boils down to the recreationist knowing exactly what they themselves may need in any and every situation.
"Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Then anything that happens, you're prepared for it," he said.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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