RCMP search parties have been busy in B.C. this month. One camper went missing (and is presumed drowned) in the Harrison Lake area. Another two campers went missing near Kimberley after their truck plunged into a river.
The B.C. government also announced high-resolution maps available for free on smartphones, creating concern among some search-and-rescue experts that hikers may leave paper maps at home.
Brian Jones has been a mountain wilderness guide for nearly three decades, and has owned the Canada West Mountain School since 1990. He spoke with The Globe and Mail about what hikers and campers should be aware of this summer.
When you hear of people going missing in B.C.’s backcountry, what runs through your mind?
Well, it goes back to before they were leaving. Does somebody know where they are, and does somebody have a response plan if they don’t check in at a certain time?
If you want to stay as safe as possible, always have someone with you. But if I’m going to go on my own, I want to make sure that somebody knows where I am, when I’m due back, and what to do if I don’t come back at that date and time. So if something does go wrong, it’s not like all of a sudden people say, “Brian’s gone, but we don’t know where he is and how long he was supposed to be gone for.” That’s the worst-case scenario for workers and rescue personnel.
If people become separated from their campsite, what basic steps do you recommend?
Stay put, especially if you are lost or injured. Stay put and wait for searchers. If everything else has been taken care of, if people know where you are and when you’re due back, and if you’re properly prepared for the environment, then you should be able to wait until somebody comes and finds you.
What particular risks does B.C.’s back country present?
The standard concerns are the terrain you’re in, and how rough it can be. I know close to Vancouver, for instance, is very rugged mountainous terrain, and it changes in a very short distance. You can be in terrain that seems quite benign and simple, and go 100 metres and be in very steep terrain.
And that includes not just mountains but, as in this latest one, water. We see a lot of drowning accidents. You know, people in rivers, creek crossings … people totally underestimating the power of the water and the severity of getting off of a marked trail.
How does technology – such as the new B.C. smartphone maps – help and hurt back country hikers?
Well, maps are maps. So whether you’re holding a paper copy or holding it on a smartphone, it’s just a different way of presenting the same tools. I think it’s great that they’re making maps more accessible. The downside to an electronic version of a map is that you’re relying on a smartphone. The battery can die, you can drop it, it can get wet, it can fail. I still really strongly recommend for people going for an extended period of time in wilderness areas to get a paper map.
An ideal situation would be if everyone had a satellite phone, because then they’d be in full communication anywhere. But because that’s not quite realistic yet, there’s a number of relatively inexpensive beacon technologies out there where you can transmit messages via satellite … such as an emergency distress signal. That technology, if it’s used properly, could save a lot of people.
For campers planning a back country trip this summer, what advice would you give them?
The key thing is, be prepared with your equipment, your knowledge of the area, and the activity that you’re going into. Make sure somebody knows your plan. The standard is: Before you’re leaving, you ask yourself, what’s going to happen if I get lost?
This interview has been edited and condensed.