Mike Kelly, December 11, 2001
Seven rules for a safe trip
- Make a plan and stick to it. People who go out for a quick
day hike are the ones who most often get into trouble, because
they don't think they need a plan.
- Never travel alone. Ideally, you should have a total of 4
people: If one person gets hurt, then one person can stay with
the injured person, and two other people can hike out for help.
- Have the right equipment
- Always leave word with someone about your trip
- Watch the weather. Weather is the single most critical factor
in the backcountry
- Always Be prepared to spend the night outdoors unexpectedly
- Avoid avalanche conditions
- Backup (someone who knows where you are going)
- Navigation skills
- Map reading (topo maps)
- Compass use
- Grid coordinates, UTM system or latitude/longitude system,
superimposed on a topo map
- GPS: A GPS tells you your position in either latitude/longitude,
or UTM. But you need to know how to use it.
- Survival skills
- Simple weather forecasting skills
- Avalanche skills
- Be realistic: don't exceed your capabilities or experience
- Be specific to the planned route and duration. People need
to be able to find you by following your plan. If you want to
deviate from your plan to visit an area that looks interesting,
make a note of it and visit the area on your next trip.
- Plan around the weakest person
- Don't go alone
- Make sure everyone understands and agrees to the plan
For a quick day trip
- Map and compass. Suunto and Silva are good manufacturers.
Get a compass with a mirror: it allows you to get a more accurate
bearing by looking at the needle and the target simultaneously.
- Bring lots of water
- Sufficient clothing (should allow you to spend the night
- First aid
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat. After January, the sun stays
up longer and can reflect off the snow and up to your chin and
- Headlamp / flashlight in case you spend the night
- Repair kit (duct tape)
- Shovel - essential at all times. For avalanche scenarios,
or building shelters.
- Knife (85% of the time, a knife is used only for cutting
cheese on backcountry trips). Good to have if you need to spend
- First Aid
- 4x4 sterile dressing
- 4" roll bandage, to bandage the 4x4 in place.
- Betadine wipes or swabs
- Ziplock bags - you can fill them with snow and use for an
- Large safety pin - to make a sling with. (the shovel handle
can be used for the sling)
- Blister treatment, such as moleskin
- Latex gloves to prevent blood born pathogens
- Ski repair kit
- Leatherman or pocketknife
- Posi-drive tip or screwdriver for binding screws
- Spare binding screws
- Board thread repair, in case your threads strip
- Golf tee: you can stick the tee in a stripped threaded socket,
then screw in the screw.
- Steel wool - you can stick it in the threaded hole to keep
the screw in place.
- Pole splint - metal flashing
- Hose clamps to clamp the pole splint
- Duct tape - you can wrap it around your ski pole for compactness
- A medium size can to melt snow for water. Snow generally
does not require purification
- A wire bail to suspend the can when melting snow
- A wide mouth Nalgene bottle: snow can be stuffed into the
- REI storm proof matches, in a waterproof case fire starter.
Or, you can make a fire by first lighting grass-sized wood, then
proceed to larger tinder until you have a raging fire.
- Mylar blanket, or 2 large garbage bags: Keeps you dry, and
acts as a windbreaker.
- A saw: either a wire saw, or a pocketknife saw. A wire saw
can easily break.
- All weather blanket or tarp with grommet holes in all four
- 20' of parachute cord, cut into four pieces. The tarp can
be anchored using dead man stakes along with a taught line hitch
or a tent hitch.
- 10' of wire (generally useful)
- Tea bags and bouillon cubes: small, lightweight, and provides
- 20-30' of surveyor's tape. If you need to hike away from
your base camp, you can use the surveyor's tape so that you can
find your way back.
- Single edge razor blade or knife. You need only one of these
in the group.
- Select a responsible person as a backup: they need to blow
the whistle if you don't come back.
- Provide them with detailed knowledge
- Names and phone #s of all participants, experience level
of each participant, and equipment
- Approximate times to hike in and out
- Who and when to call if overdue
- If you are doing just a day trip, you probably need to be
saved right away, because you are unlikely to be prepared for
spending the night.
- Don't forget to call your backup when you get out.
- Stay put, near a clearing if possible. Only attempt to hike
out if you know exactly which way to go. If you stay on your
planned route, then 99% of the time you will be found.
- Make yourself visible - many people are saved by aircraft.
- Be aware that aircraft cannot fly in bad weather
- Create a shelter
- Conserve energy
- Check periodically for frostbite. Cold and pressure contribute
to frostbite, so make sure your boots are not too tight. Fingers
and toes are affected first.
- Maintain a positive attitude
- Use your survival package
- Stay dry
There are several types of shelters that you can build:
- Trench: Dig a trench 3' deep, 7' long, 3' wide. Place your
poles across the width of the trench, then place skis across
the length, over the poles. Then put the tarp over the trench.
A trench is colder than a cave. Make a cold air sinkhole in the
trench by digging an 18" pit in one corner: the cold air
will flow into the pit and away from you.
- Cave: You can dig into the side of a snow bank. Dig a cold
air drain near the front entrance of the cave. Can also use a
- Quinzhee: pile up snow, let it sinter for an hour, then poke
branches into the pile so that they extend 6" below the
surface. Then dig out a shelter: when you hit the branches, you
are 6" below the surface.
The problem with a cave or a quinzhee is that you can become
wet by digging them. When going on side trips away from your base
camp, bring a tarp with you in case you get get snowed in away
from the base camp and need to build a shelter. You can cut down
pine tree boughs and sleep on them.
- Self-rescue is preferable. Either get yourself out, or get
someone in your party to go for help
- Family radios can be of use: The ski patrol monitors channel
9, security code 11 (911) for distress signals (out of a total
of 14 channels x 38 security codes)
- Cell phones
- Limited signal available
- Check carrier roaming procedures: you may not be able to
roam without signing up first
- Couriers, who can deliver detailed written information. Include
as much info as possible.
- What to expect from a rescue effort
- It takes time to organize a search. it may take 2-3 days
- Weather dependent. A search team will not embark in avalanche
- Take a level 1 avalanche course (level 2 focuses on physics,
level 3 is for guides).
- Avalanches happen almost entirely on terrain with 30-45 degree
slopes. Avoid walking on or in the path of these slopes. 38 degrees
is the average slope for avalanches.
- Avalanche conditions are highest during and 24-48 hours after
- Know the rules for finding a safe route. The safest place
to hike is on the windward side of a ridge top. Avoid the leeward
side where cornices can build up.
- Avoid wide open avalanche chutes: stay in the trees. if you
must cross a chute, go one at a time, and use the same tracks
as the previous person to avoid triggering the avalanche sweet
- Keep your avalanche eyeballs open at all times
- Carry a transceiver, a probe, and a shovel.
- Practice using the transceiver
- Avalanche hotline: US forest service in Truckee 530 587-2158
or online at http://www.r5.fs.fed.us/tahoe/avalanche/
- Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (6th Rev edition),
by Don Graydon. October 1997. ISBN 0898864275. Bible of the backcountry.
- Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book: Traveling
and Camping Skills for a Winter, by Allen O'Bannon and Mike
Clelland. November 1996. ISBN 1575400766. Also available via
Adobe e-book. ASIN: B00005MLE4. Useful and witty