How to handle a backcountry emergency

In Public by Anna Debattiste

Have you ever thought about what you would do if you or a member of your party were lost or injured in the backcountry?  Exactly what steps would you take, in what order? We tend to expect it will never happen to us, but it’s a good idea to have a plan, just in case.

The first step, of course, is to be proactive in planning so the emergency doesn’t happen in the first place, and so you are prepared to survive if it does. Before you go:

  • Check the forecast, both the weather and the avalanche hazards during the snow season.
  • Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.  Share specific details, including the location of the trailhead, planned route, vehicle description, pertinent medical conditions, and equipment carried.  Call that person immediately when you are out of the backcountry.
  • Avoid traveling alone, especially in avalanche terrain.
  • During snow season, ensure everyone in your party has an avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe, and shovel and knows how to effectively use these tools.  Perform a transceiver check before heading out.
  • Carry a separate flashlight and a fully charged cell phone and spare batteries.  Recognize that cell phone service may not always be available. Use airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain as quickly and don’t use unnecessary apps.  A GPS app should still work in airplane mode.
  • Consider investing in a satellite messaging or communication device.
  • Download a GPS application on your phone to help prevent getting lost and to help identify your location if you do need help.  COTREX is a great app if you’re in Colorado but there are many good ones available. The best app is the one you know how to use.  Also, remember that maps and compasses don’t have battery failures.  
  • Wear appropriate clothing, know how to use your snow travel gear, and carry extra clothing, food, water, sun protection, and a whistle.

If, despite your best efforts at preparation, you  or someone else needs help, communication and knowing your location are the keys.  Here are some steps you can take once the emergency has happened:

  • If others are nearby, ask them for help.
  • If you or a companion are injured, call or text 911 if you have a cell signal.  Texting uses less phone power, but be aware that texting to 911 isn’t always possible.
  • If someone is buried in an avalanche: 
    • If safe, conduct a transceiver search, dig to subjects, and provide first aid.
    • Call/text 911 as soon as reasonable.  Recognize that SAR response will take time and you are your companion’s best chance of survival.
  • Dispatch and SAR will want your location coordinates.  Know how to get them off your phone or map.  Also, include a detailed description of where you are and how you got there.
  • To preserve your cell phone battery, don’t call or contact others.  The sheriff or SAR team may establish a check-in schedule with you so you can turn your phone off to preserve this vital communication link.  
  • If a battery is draining quickly because it got too cold, warm it up inside your coat.
  • If you are the designated person reporting an overdue backcountry user, use our county map to identify what county the trailhead is in.  Then call that county’s sheriff’s office. 

Once a report has been made and you are waiting for help, stay where you are! A team is likely headed toward your last known coordinates, so if you move, you will make things more difficult for them and delay the rescue. Keep your group together and take steps to keep everyone warm.  Get out of the wind, consider building a snow shelter.  Use all available clothing, and sit on your pack or other items to minimize contact with the cold ground.

If you are lost, you may be able to retrace your path in the snow during the winter.  When there’s no snow to show your tracks, however, don’t keep moving.  Slow down and make a plan.  Contact 911 if possible; at times a SAR team can talk you out of the backcountry over the phone without even launching a response.  If you can’t get a cell signal, try backtracking as best you can while checking for cell coverage at high points.  

Lastly, if you need help, please don’t delay calling!  Colorado SAR teams do not charge for their services.  When injured or lost parties delay calling because they’re ashamed to call or think they might be charged, it results in increased risk for both you and the rescuers.  We want you to be prepared before you head into the backcountry, but we’ll be there for you if you need us.  Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to call.