Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Map Skills in the Digital Age

A Guest blog by Past President Neil Van Dyke

There was an interesting piece on National Public Radio recently about map making in the digital age.  While the discussion was quite broad reaching in scope, there was some very interesting commentary that related directly to search and rescue.  One of the points was that the younger generation in large part has no experience with the use of paper maps.  Their map and navigational world revolves around Google maps or other apps on their computer or smart phone. To this generation one navigates by asking their phone how to get from point A to point B then watching their progress, whether they are travelling by vehicle or on foot.  We increasing see this in the backcountry.  This past summer while on patrol one ranger I work with encountered a young man with an iPad slung around his neck which he was using for his map. I was personally involved in about a half a dozen incidents this year where people got lost while trying to navigate using their phone.  

Some of the issues these folks encountered:
-One party thought a blue line on the map was a trail, when in fact it was a stream. (This would have been obvious to anybody familiar with reading a standard USGS map.) They lost the trail, a search was initiated and they spent an uncomfortable night out in the woods.
-A solo hiker was navigating using his phone when the battery went dead.  He had no other map. He also spent a cold night in the woods and needed to be “rescued” and escorted out of the backcountry.
-Two different hikers got “lost” on or near the same trail which was not shown on the mapping app. We were able to talk them back onto the trail and convince them to turn around and retrace their route back out.
The problems associated with using electronic maps seem self evident to us old timers who grew up on paper maps and a compass:
- Batteries can quickly go dead, or even if not quickly then inevitably! This is especially true in cold weather. 
- Much mapping software requires cell coverage - obviously an issue in many remote areas.
-Most  electronic maps have incomplete (or non-existent)  trail data on them.
- Phones and other electronic devices are susceptible to damage or other operational issues in inclement weather.

So what’s to be done?   I wish there was a magic bullet on this one, but if there is I’m not sure what it is.  Some thoughts:
  1.          Incorporate this topic into any public education efforts that we are involved with. Point out that sometimes  paper trail maps and a compass will be one’s best friend in the backcountry. They often have the most relevant information, don’t need an internet connection, and the batteries never go dead!
  2.        As rescuers we need to be up to speed with how to use this technology to our advantage.  This can be a whole new topic, but every SAR team should know at least how to instruct somebody who is “lost” on how to text them their location from the mapping app. This has been a great tool for us on numerous occasions.

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on this!

Neil is team leader for Stowe (Vermont) Mountain Rescue, works as a seasonal backcountry ranger in New York’s Adirondack Park, and is a Past President of the Mountain Rescue Association

Thursday, May 31, 2012

What is the Mountain Rescue Association? 

The Mountain Rescue Association is an organization of teams dedicated to saving lives through rescue and mountain safety education.  We do so by improving the quality, availability, and safety of mountain search and rescue through; 
- Creating a framework for and accrediting member teams 
- Promoting mountain safety education
- Providing a forum for development and exchange of information on mountain search and rescue techniques,  equipment, and safety
- Representing member teams providing mountain search and rescue services to requesting governmental agencies 

The Mountain Rescue Association creates excellence through:

Courage - Commitment - Compassion

     Mountain Rescue Association 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The "Ten Essentials"

The first and most obvious rule of safe backcountry use is to always carry equipment that might become necessary in emergencies. Every backcountry user, even on seemingly insignificant day hikes, should carry the most basic equipment; commonly referred to as the “Ten Essentials,”

The key word is "essentials." The survival equipment, clothing and other resources you carry will increase your chances of surviving an emergency. Even backcountry users on short day trips should carry and know how to use the Ten Essentials.

Technically skilled and highly experienced rescue rs never go into the field on search or rescue missions without these ten essentials. Carefully selected, these items can easily fit within a small backpack.

1. Topographic map and magnetic compass - Too often, backcountry users venture deep into the backcountry without a map and compass. The fact that they are able to safely venture back out is usually pure dumb luck. With a map and compass, it is much easier to identify your location and direction of travel. This is especially important in the event that you become lost.  To learn to use these items, see the chapter entitled "Map and Compass" in the MRA's GeneralBackcountry Safety program

2. Flashlight or headlamp (with extra batteries and bulb) - How far do you suppose you could safely travel at night in the backcountry without a flashlight? Could you signal others, if you saw a campsite far away? A flashlight or headlamp makes travel at night possible and aids in signaling when lost.

3. Extra clothing (including mittens, hat, jacket and rain gear) - Hypothermia is the most common killer of backcountry users. Inability to maintain body heat can quickly rob an unsuspecting victim of all energy and common sense. Since severe weather may present itself very quickly in the backcountry, extra clothing should be carried to help maintain body heat.

4. Sunglasses - Especially in the winter, ultraviolet glare from the sun can cause blindness. Worst of all, the backcountry user may not realize this is happening until it is too late. A good pair of sunglasses, designed to limit ultraviolet light, will eliminate this risk.

5. Extra food and water - These items will maintain energy levels in the case of an emergency and help maintain body temperature in cold weather. While you can survive three days without water and three weeks without food, your energy levels will be seriously depleted without these.

6. Waterproof matches in waterproof container - Waterproof matches, available from most backcountry supply stores, are capable of igniting in high winds and/or blinding rain. Building a fire may be impossible without these. Fires are critical since they not only provide heat, but also make the job of search and rescue teams easier by providing a visible signal.

7. Candle/Fire starter - A candle burns much longer than does a match. This is helpful when trying to start a fire, especially if your firewood is wet.

8. Pocket knife - There are a multitude of applications for a pocketknife in emergencies. The common Swiss Army Knife is so-called because it is standard issue for the Swiss Army, which has devised 246 uses for their standard 7-instrument knife.

9. First aid kit - Proper first aid care is difficult, if not impossible, without a good first aid kit.  Backcountry shops carry several brands of small, lightweight first aid kits including small first-aid manuals.

10. Space blanket or two large heavyduty trash bags - These items can help provide shelter in an emergency situation and can be used as a raincoat or a windbreak. The additional
warmth they provide far outweighs their minimal weight.

This list of "Ten Essentials" assumes your trip is a summer excursion. At any other time of the year, be sure to bring more of the right kind of clothes. When choosing your equipment, remember that the body's ability to maintain its core temperature is critical to your survival in the backcountry.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of search fatalities would have probably survived had they carried and used the ten essentials. When you venture into the backcountry, you are often many miles away from civilization.   Emergencies often present themselves at times when qualified help is many hours away. This simple fact underscores the need to carry emergency equipment.

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Think "Before"
"Prepare" is defined in Webster's Dictionary as "to make ready beforehand for some purpose, use or activity." The inclusion of the word "before" in this definition is not by accident. One way of assuring the success of your trip is to remember the "Rule of Befores".

Listen to a weather forecast before planning a trip. Tell people where you are going and when you'll be back before you leave. While on the trail, drink before you get thirsty, eat before you get hungry. Add a layer of clothes before you get cold; remove a layer of clothes before you get hot. Make camp before you need camp. Find protection from foul weather before it arrives.

By doing these things, you will find yourself always thinking ahead. Think ahead at all times and you will rarely find yourself unprepared.

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Public Information Officer in Search and Rescue

What is a Public Information Officer? A Public Information Officer (“PIO”) is a representative of an official organization.  This person serves as a central source of information for release by the department and responds to requests for information by the news media and the community.

In search and rescue operations, the PIO might be a representative of any number of organizations, including: 
1. The local law enforcement entity (frequently the county sheriff or state police); 
2. The local search and rescue organization; or,
3. The regional or state search and rescue organization. 

In any SAR incident, the PIO serves a number of important roles: 
1. Assisting news personnel in covering incidents; 
2. Assisting the news media on an oncall basis; 
3. Preparing and distributing news releases; 
4. Arranging for, and assisting at, news conferences; 
5. Coordinating and authorizing the release of information about victims and incidents; 
6. Assisting in crisis situations within the agency 
7. Coordinating the release of authorized information concerning agency operations 
8. Posting, monitoring and managing the use of Social Media outlets

As you can see from the list above, the primary purpose of the PIO is to provide a central source of information to the media.  At the same time, the PIO serves another equally important role of keeping others in positions of authority and leadership from having to deal with the media while performing their duties. 

It is the role of the PIO to answer the most common questions, those of “who, what, when, where, why, how, how come?”  The PIO then goes on to describe what the various agencies are doing about the situation. Because sharing information with the media can be a difficult job, SAR organizations should be certain to provide necessary and appropriate training for all individuals that might serve in the capacity of PIO. 

Why is a PIO Important? 
The public demands, and indeed deserves, to be made aware of the circumstances and events associated with a SAR incident.  This is best accomplished through the media, which has direct and often immediate access to the public. Furthermore, proper public information at a SAR incident will enable the SAR authority to provide preventive SAR education to the public. 

Over the years, some SAR organizations have tried to avoid dealing with the media.  Some have been known to say, “The media NEVER gets it right.”  In fact, by avoiding the media, a SAR entity can rest assured that the media will not get it right.  Only by dealing directly with the media, in all it's forms, can we assure that the story is as close to accurate as possible. 

Who Makes a Good PIO?
First and foremost, a PIO needs to be very knowledgeable in the field of SAR operations.  For this reason, PIO’s should be chosen from among the veterans of a SAR organization.  Some people are natural teachers, and the role of PIO is somewhat a teaching role.  Still, the best teachers are those who are very well trained in the topic. 

In addition to experience, a PIO needs to have the proper balance of humility and self-confidence.  When he media or public see an egocentric rescuer in front of the camera, then the focus becomes the PIO and his/her agency not the message. 

A good PIO has great respect for the media.  Power comes through knowledge – knowledge that is shared, not knowledge that is kept.  The more respect a PIO has for the media, the better s/he will be at communicating the important messages to them. 

When choosing a PIO, any organization should ask who it wants to be the spokesperson for the group.  often, the most well respected individuals in the organization will be good candidates for PIO.  This is because the respect those individuals have gained over time is most often based on the combination of their personality, knowledge and expertise. Purposefully choose your PIO.  Take your time, and choose someone who is polished, professional, humble, and knowledgeable. 

General Guidelines 
It is true that “bad news travels faster than good news.”  Since most SAR incidents involve some bad news for the victims, the media is often quick to respond to our calls. While a SAR team’s PIO should be prepared at any time to respond to media calls regarding an incident, an experienced PIO will know the moment a SAR call is dispatched whether it will attract media attention. 

There is no such thing as a “media circus.”  The media professionals are there to do their job, and it becomes the PIO’s responsibility/opportunity to help them do their job.  A PIO should maintain an attitude of helpfulness at all times.  His/her perspective should always be, “I’m here to help you, and to make sure I get you the information I have.” Some level of excitement and adrenaline should always be present, so the PIO maintains focus.  A lazy or disinterested PIO makes a bad PIO.

Your PIO should also not ignore social media. Frequently, social media streams like Twitter and Facebook are breaking stories well before more traditional media outlets can get on scene. In some cases traditional media organizations like CNN and their iReport site are even "crowdsourcing" news.  Because of the nature of social media, these tools can be used not only to get your message out, but also to see how you message is being understood by the public. As it is two way communication, it can also be used to gather information. 

Consider posting missing person information and mission updates to your team Facebook Page and Twitter feeds but only do so with the authorization of the agency having jurisdiction. Because this can be done "in the moment" and from mobile devices, this can keep the public updated outside of the traditional media cycle.    

We will go more into Social Media for Search and Rescue at the joint MRA / NASAR Conference in June and will follow up with a blog post. 

Stay Safe!

For more information on how to effectively work with the media, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations rescuer education program 

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hypothermia...The Most Common Killer of Backcountry Users 
On February 1, 1989, the temperature in Butte, Montana dropped from 42 degrees to -4 in one hour. Regardless of the season, a temperature drop of 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit in one hour is not uncommon in the mountains.  Add cold rain and wind and nature has mixed the perfect recipe for hypothermia. 

What is Hypothermia? 
Hypothermia is the rapid, progressive mental and physical collapse accompanying the chilling of the inner core of the body.  It is caused by exposure to cold, aggravated by wet, wind and exhaustion. Hypothermia has killed more unprepared backcountry users than any other malady.  In fact, the state with the most reported cases of hypothermia is, believe it or not, Florida!  The reason is simple. Floridians are generally unprepared for cold weather. 

There are a number of ways to avoid hypothermia.  The trick to staying warm is to gain more calories than you lose.  The body can burn as little as 50 calories per hour while sleeping or more than 1,000 an hour during heavy work.  Just as the body constantly produces heat, it constantly loses it.   

Your body may burn over 50% more fuel in winter than it would in summer.  This is because you are inhaling cold air, warming it and saturating it with water vapor.  In fact, as much as one-third of your body-heat loss can occur through breathing.  Breathing through a scarf or balaclava may help by "pre-heating" the inspired air.  The body also loses heat by perspiration and its subsequent evaporation from the skin.  In addition, 75% of the body heat can be radiated from an unprotected head, since the blood vessels in the scalp lie close to the 

Creating Body Heat Clothing and shelter can only conserve body-heat, they can't create it.  Liquids and food are the only "internal" source of heat creation for the body.  This is because heat is produced in the body by chemical reactions through the metabolism of food, mainly oxidation of carbohydrates.  Muscular activity is a second source of heat, but uses food energy to generate the heat. 

The Body's Reaction to Cold 
The body's first reaction to cold is to shiver. Shivering is the first sign of hypothermia and is the body's way of forcing an isometric contraction and triggering a stored glycogen "dump" from the liver.  It is the body's attempt to generate heat by rapidly and rhythmically contracting muscles. Despite the fact that shivering is fatiguing, it generally helps keep us warm.  It diminishes with oxygen deficiency, breathing of carbon  monoxide or the taking of aspirin or alcohol.  The body's ability to maintain warmth is depressed by the lack of water, lack of food, fatigue and shock. After shivering stops, hypothermic victims are confused into thinking they are feeling warmer. THEY ARE NOT.  They are dying. 

Problems Which Increase Hypothermia Dangers 
Constipation retards efficient metabolism of food and reduces energy levels.  This is a dangerous situation in the winter, as the body can no longer take advantage of the energy provided by the "fuel" ingested. Despite what grandmother told you on those cold Wisconsin evenings, alcohol reduces the body's ability to fight cold.  It dilates peripheral blood vessels, blocking vasoconstriction and allowing warm blood to exit the body's core.  In addition, the alcohol may actually make the victim feel warm and more competent. The low temperatures will increase the intoxication because brain cell membranes are more fluid as a result of the increased metabolism.  Smoking or chewing tobacco constricts peripheral vessels, reducing circulation necessary to keep the skin warm.  Aspirin also dilates the vessels.  Such conditions are conducive to frostbite and hypothermia. In addition, sedatives, antidepressants and neurological problems common in the 
elderly will all increase the risk of hypothermia. 

Hypothermia is a killer in summer as well as winter.  It is more often triggered by a combination of wind, wet and cold than by cold alone. In fact, just plain dry cold, even at extremes of -30 degrees, is far more manageable and far more pleasant than 20-degree weather with wet snow and rain falling and a harsh wind blowing.  I'll take the 30 below any day. 

The Hypothermia Lab in Duluth Minnesota has studied this phenomenon for over a decade.  The lab discovered that the human body can adjust its metabolism to adapt to the cold.  Studies showed that Eskimos respond to cooling with an almost instant metabolic leap and with skin temperatures that remain remarkably high.  The "Ama", Korean pearl divers who once dived naked into icy waters in search of treasure, had high basal metabolic rates, more efficient tissue insulation and a higher threshold of tolerance before the onset of shivering.  One generation after they had started using wet-suits, they had completely lost their specialized responses to the cold. 

Hypothermia and the Mind 
The Hypothermia Lab also found that circulation can be increased by mind-power.  Subjects of experiments who thought about how much they wanted to get out of the cold suffered rapidly falling body temperatures.  On the other hand, shivering subjects, directed to perform a mental arithmetic task, stopped shivering for short periods.  In addition, when people get anxious, they have more problems with temperature 

One of hypothermia's strangest manifestations is "paradoxical undressing." People suffering severe hypothermia are often observed throwing off their clothes, as if they felt they were burning up.  This is believed to be because the hypothermic victim's body, which has been vasoconstricted to maintain core heat, may abruptly vasodilate, allowing warm blood to pump briefly through the body's peripheral areas. To the hypothermic victim, who is already mentally foggy, the vasodilation may produce a sense of extreme warmth. In addition, chemical changes occur in the body that can make the situation more dangerous.  First, epinephrine (adrenaline) is released into the bloodstream, which increases the heart rate.  This is healthy, since it increases the metabolism.  Other chemical changes, however, can cause hypothermic victims to experience vivid hallucinations very similar to those reported by schizophrenics.  This is believed to be caused by increased dopamine in the blood.  In addition, researchers have found that spinal and cerebral neurons become hypersensitive when they are cooled just three or four degrees below normal.  This can lead to neural misfiring and to seeing things that just aren't there. 

Believe the signs, not the victim.  
Team members should monitor each other carefully, even in temperatures of 50 degrees.  Any early sign of hypothermia is a serious warning. Take immediate action to correct the situation before it is too late. Most cases of hypothermia develop in temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Many novice backcountry users simply don't believe such temperatures are dangerous.  They fatally underestimate the dangers of being wet and/or poorly clothed at such temperatures. 

Environmental Conditions Contributing to Hypothermia 
When the body is wet, the evaporation of moisture from the skin has a very rapid cooling effect that can be extremely dangerous.  Water conducts heat 25 times faster than air.  Therefore, heat is lost much more quickly if evaporation is occurring.  A wet backcountry user must always change quickly into extra dry clothing as soon as possible.  Staying wet is an open invitation to the dangers of hypothermia. It is equally important to protect yourself from your own sweat.  Working up a sweat on the trail will result in wet clothes by the time a final destination or resting place is reached.  Wet clothes will chill the body significantly, especially in conditions of high wind where evaporation takes place much more quickly. 

The Body's Reaction to Hypothermia 
Mother often said and (for once) she was right:  "If you want to keep your feet warm, wear a hat."  Up to 75% of heat loss is through your head and neck, since the blood vessels are close to the surface.  If the head, or any other body part, is exposed to cold, the body chills and "shunting" can result.  When this happens, circulation to the extremities is sacrificed to assure that the remaining body heat is reserved for vital internal organs.  The result is that the hands and feet receive less warm blood. Shunting occurs as a result of vasoconstriction. Vasoconstriction cranks up your blood pressure as you chill.  As a result, cold can be dangerous for people with heart disease. 

The key to avoiding this dangerous situation is to be brave (and smart) enough to give up reaching the peak when the first signs of hypothermia present themselves. 

Have fun and stay safe out there!

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Avalanche!!!! The Snowpack Variable 

Snowpack is the last variable that we will use for clues.  By combining the clues you observe, identify and feel from the snowpack, a decision should easily be made whether or not the snow is unstable and has potential to slide. Some of the signs of avalanche are obvious.  The following clues are direct indications of instability in the snowpack: 

Recent Avalanche Activity 
Again, recent avalanche activity is the best indicator of dangerous slopes, especially when it is on slopes of similar aspect and steepness.  In other words, if you see the debris from a recent avalanche, know that there is danger of additional avalanches on similar slopes. 

                                              A bad day on the snow 

Recent Wind-Loading  
Recent wind-loading is another indicator of avalanche danger.  Smooth "pillows" and cornices as well as snow plumes of the ridge tops are indicators of wind-transported snow.  This means increased stress is being exerted on the snowpack due to the addition of the wind deposited snow.  Furthermore, wind deposited crystals develop dangerous "wind slabs," since this type of crystal is subject to numerous collisions while the snow is wind-blown. 

Hollow Sounds 
You must use your ears as you evaluate avalanche hazard.  "Drum-like" or "whumpf" sounds that occur under your feet indicate unstable slab conditions.  Also, pay attention to distinctive settling sounds; feeling the snow settle or drop are clues of an unstable layer of snow...indicating a dangerous avalanche condition. 

Shooting Cracks 
Look closely at the terrain you wish to cross.  Cracks in the snow around you are an excellent indicator of avalanche danger, especially if they are occurring around you as you move across the snowpack. You should not only avoid the slope where you see or produce cracks, but also any slopes with similar profile and/or orientation. 

Snow Stability Tests 
Through additional training, you can learn to recognize the weaknesses in the snowpack by evaluating a cut-away of the snow layers.  For now, just remember that avalanches occur when a weak layer in the snowpack fails.  Your ability to recognize these weaknesses will help you make an educated decision regarding safe backcountry travel. 

In summary, by looking, listening and feeling you should be able to recognize, evaluate and avoid avalanche hazards that you may encounter on your next backcountry trip.  You must be thinking avalanche whenever you are on or near slopes, regardless of the slope size and time of year.  By always thinking avalanche you will be much more observant, you will gather more information from clues, and you will become a better decision-maker

For more information on avalanche safety check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education program @ as well as our Backcountry Skiing & Riding Safety Video  

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Avalanche!!!! The Terrain Variable 

Learning to identify avalanche terrain is most important in recognizing and evaluating avalanche hazard.  It's asy to recognize where avalanches are common and where they are not. 

Slope Steepness 
The steepness of a slope is a key factor in determining avalanche danger.  It is a common misconception that avalanches occur on steep slopes.  The fact is that most avalanches occur on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees.  It is within this range of steepness that the balance between the strength of the layers of snow and the stress of gravity is most critical.  Steeper slopes tend not to hold a significant amount of snow due to gravity.  

Slopes of less than 30 degrees may not be as prone to slide, but may be as dangerous in the right conditions especially in the spring when wet avalanches occur. Unfortunately, 30 to 45 degrees also provides the most challenging ski terrain. 

Remember, too, that short slopes may be as dangerous as long ones.

For a lesson on how to use an Inclinometer for your slope steepness check out this post from Skiing the Backcountry

Slope Orientation 
The orientation of a slope is also an important factor.  By "orientation," we mean whether the slope is having snow blown onto it or blown off from it.  We also mean whether the slope faces north or south.  Leeward slopes, or those drifted by winds, are more dangerous because of the added depth and weight of the snow. North-facing and shaded slopes tend to be more dangerous during the mid-winter periods, mostly because of the colder surface temperatures.  South-facing slopes tend to be more dangerous during spring thaw, specially on a sunny day, due to solar heating and the introduction of water (melting snow on the surface) into the 

Slope Profile 
We must also evaluate the slope profile.  That is, whether the slope is flat or curved.  Convex slopes are likely to fracture at the bulge.  Concave slopes provide a certain amount of support at the base, though they are still capable of avalanching. 

Be especially cautious around bowl-shaped slopes or those with narrow, deep gullies.  Both of these features help trap blowing snow, especially on the leeward side of the mountain. 

Vegetation can be a key indication of avalanche hazard.  The first thing to look for is "ground cover."  Large rocks, trees and heavy brush help anchor the snow, at least until they become covered.  Avalanches can start even in the trees, since sparse trees can actually weeken the snow cover.  To be reasonably safe, the trees must be so dense as to make it difficult to maneuver. Equally important, yet often neglected, is knowing what the slope looks like without the snowpack.  If the slope is a grassy hill in the summer, it is more likely to slide due to the lack of anchors. Conversely, if the slope is known to have many large rocks, tree stumps or bushes, it may be more stable.  

This is true only as long as the snowpack is not so deep as to cover these natural anchors. 

What about elevation?  Avalanche danger generally increases with elevation.  Most large avalanche starting zones are above timberline.  This is due to the fact that there is generally a greater snow cover above treeline.  In addition, there are less natural anchors above treeline. 

Our next post will wrap up our series on the variables that help develop a potentially unstable snowcover with a discussion of snowpack. By understanding these variables, backcountry users will have a better chance of predicting avalanche danger.

For more information on avalanche safety check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education program @ as well as our Backcountry Skiing & Riding Safety Video  

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association