Remember the Three Big Rules of Outdoor Safety:
- Tell someone you are going.
- Assume that if you become lost, you will not be found immediately - dress appropriately and bring the right gear.
- Stay with your vehicle - if you brought one, it will probably be found before you are.
Summers in Canada’s North are nothing less than spectacular. The “lands of the midnight sun”, daylight shines from 18 to 24 hours a day, beckoning people in Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories (NWT) to go outdoors to hike, paddle, cycle, climb, look for wildlife and explore with All-Terrain Vehicles and boats.
But even summer weather can be unpredictable in the North. Cold spells and high winds occur without warning, creating tough conditions for wilderness travellers. Snow can fall in any month. Summer storms can severely challenge boaters on the lake systems, especially for non-motorized craft.
Wildlife viewing – including eagles, caribou, bison, dall sheep and especially bears – is hugely popular. But venturing into bear country is a huge responsibility in terms of protecting both your own safety and that of bears. Learn as much as you can before you set out through websites such as Bear Aware.
Remember: drugs and alcohol are a common factor in accidental, preventable outdoor injuries and deaths every year. Canada’s North is challenging enough – stay sober and stay safe.
No one plans to get lost. By completing a Trip Plan and carrying these Seven Summer Essentials, you will increase your chances of being found quickly and in good condition.
Seven Summer Essentials
- Extra clothing to protect you from the cold and the sun
- Navigation and communication aids (maps, compass, GPS, Personal Locator Beacon)
- Food and water (one litre per person)
- Emergency shelter (tarp, sleeping bag, etc.) - preferably in orange to alert searchers
- The Three F’s : flashlight, firestarter, first aid kit
- Pocket knife
- Signalling device (whistle or mirror)
The northern lights, dog sledding, wildlife viewing, snowmobiling – Canada’s North is one of the world’s top destinations for one-of-a-kind winter experiences. Take in a festival, work with an outfitter or set out on your own -- experiencing the winter in the NWT, Yukon or Nunavut can range from community- based outings close to shelter to true tests of wilderness endurance. Both extremes require proper preparation.
With temperatures potentially dropping to legendary “50 below” or worse, weather conditions in Canada’s North are the single most important factor in planning any kind of winter outdoor expedition. Snow storms can come unexpectedly and turn weather conditions from comfortable to extreme in a matter of hours. Ensure you consult a reliable source for weather information before you set out: the Environment Canada Weather Office is a good place to start. Keep in mind that weather conditions can vary over just a few kilometers, so stay alert to changing conditions
Snowmobiling is especially popular in the North and for good reason: these powerful machines give you access to vast untouched wilderness, wildlife viewing and magnificent winter scenery – and they are lots of fun. However, if snowmobiles fail in the wilderness, operators can quickly find themselves in trouble, including risk of frostbite and hypothermia, with potentially deadly consequences. Remember: If your snowmobile or vehicle breaks down, always stay with it: it will more likely be found before you are.
Snowmobiles also provide access to backcountry, where avalanches can pose a deadly risk. Always consult the Canadian Avalanche Centre website before venturing out into avalanche-prone areas.
Whatever your sport, these Seven Snow Essentials can help keep you alive, and should be reviewed before any winter expedition, and included on every snowmobile outing. If you are going out on your own, be sure you complete a Trip Plan and leave it with someone responsible.
Seven Snow Essentials
- Thermal underwear – remember to dress in layers for most protection from cold
- Warm, waterproof jacket and snow pants
- Protect head, fingers and toes: warm hat and/or helmet, goggles, gloves, socks and boots appropriate for weather
- Navigation and communication aids (maps, compass, GPS, Personal Locator Beacon)
- Flashlight and batteries (for signaling)
- Emergency shelter, stove, fuel and food
- Spare gas, belt, plugs and tools
A sturdy back-pack with:
Getting lost can be a mild inconvenience or a life-threatening ordeal -- everything depends on your state of mind and your ability to stay calm and make smart decisions.
If possible, try to locate the point at which you first became disoriented – a little backtracking may do the trick.If you decide that you are lost, searchers will have an easier time finding you if you are not a moving target. Stay with your vehicle. Use all of your gear to keep warm. If weather is poor, build a shelter and bedding from branches or any other material you can find. Brightly coloured fabric will assist searchers, and even a small LED penlight can be visible during an air search over the tundra. And remember that three of anything is a distress signal. Above all, stay calm, stay together and do not stray out of site of your camp.
Tip: When travelling, always make sure you look behind on various occasions so that you can recognize the landscape if you need to backtrack.
Staying in your vehicle when stranded is usually the safest choice if winter storms create poor visibility or if roadways are ice covered. Some safety tips include:
- Tie a brightly coloured cloth to the antenna as a signal to rescuers and raise the hood of the car (if it is not snowing).
- Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area.
- Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets, or newspapers. Huddle with other people for warmth.
- Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems.
- Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe—this will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warmer.
- Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body temperature.
Top Three Mistakes People Make in the Wilderness
- Poor planning: not taking the time to understand the environment and what it takes to survive, including food and water, clothing, navigational aids and communication to others about destination and route
- Insufficient research: failing to match experience and endurance with distance and terrain
- Lack of attention: to paths, terrain, habitat, time of day, fatigue, hunger and thirst
A little preparation can go a long way. Be flexible. Don't gamble with the weather or the terrain. The key to any successful adventure is arriving home safely.
Warnings signs of hypothermia:
- shivering, exhaustion
- confusion, fumbling hands
- memory loss, slurred speech
If you notice any of these signs, get medical attention immediately. If medical care is not available, begin warming the person by moving them indoors or into a shelter, removing wet clothing, and concentrating on warming the centre of the body first (chest, neck, head, and groin). Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages.
At the first signs of redness or pain, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin. Danger signs include:
- a white or greyish-yellow skin area
- skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, get into a warm room as soon as possible. Avoid walking on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage. Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body), or warm the affected area using body heat. Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage, and don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily damaged or burned.
Dress for the occasion -- but do not overdress, for this can be just as hazardous as underdressing. Suggested wear:
- Windproof gloves, over-mitts, a warm hat, scarf, and wool socks are standard gear 12 months a year.
- Layers of long underwear bottoms and shirts.
- Windproof or breathable waterproof jackets and pants.
- Avoid cotton – when it gets wet from rain, snow or perspiration, it tends to stay that way.
- A warm parka with a hood(avoid goose down which can become a liability when damp or wet)
- Warm, practical footwear for your activity (waterproof if necessary)
- Hat, sunscreen with high sun protection factor and good sunglasses.