Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

Archive for the ‘Search and Rescue’ Category

Technology Tips for the Backcountry

with one comment


As spring starts and the snow line starts to move back up the mountains, lots of people are planning their hiking and outdoor recreation goals for this new season. With COVID curtailing many of people’s usual indoor activities, we are seeing many new people out on the trails in their brand new hiking boots and other equipment. In this article, I’m going to review some common technologies and techniques to help you stay safe, avoid getting lost, and provide a way to get help if you need it.

This article doesn’t cover other things you need such as sufficient water, food, good hiking boots, warm/waterproof clothes, first aid kit, knife/multitool, bear spray, fire starter, sunscreen, headlamps, and shelter to spend the night.

Technology Breaks

Batteries die, devices can be dropped in a creek and cell phone coverage isn’t good in the Canadian wilderness. Generally it is good to have a backup plan. Knowing how to use a map and compass is a great backup. Even then compasses can fall apart, and a printed map won’t survive getting wet unless plasticized. Here are a few tips to help keep things working:

  • Cell phone battery packs are reasonably inexpensive and light. These provide a great way to recharge your cell phone or other device. Remember to charge the battery pack before a trip and to include the connector cable. Pack the cable and battery together in a ziplock bag to keep them dry. If a device doesn’t have rechargeable batteries, make sure you bring along a spare set of batteries and remember batteries fade even when not in use, so replace these every year. It’s a good idea to carry a separate headlamp or good flashlight, so you don’t need to rely on your phone as a flashlight as this won’t last long and there are more important things to do with your phone.
  • As temperature drops, the internal resistance in batteries increases, reducing their capacity. Typically a battery will only have 50% capacity at -18°C. Keep devices with batteries in your inside pockets so your body heat will keep them warm. Do not keep them in outside pockets on your pack.

  • Have a good shock resistant case for your phone, so if you drop it and it hits a rock, it is ok. Most newer phones are fairly water resistant, but a waterproof case can help. Generally try to keep your device out of the direct rain just in case.

  • Search & Rescue (SAR) statistics show that most lost people are alone. Part of this is that when hiking with a buddy or group, then you have more phones, possibly on different networks, redundancy of equipment and someone there to help if you get stuck or injured.

Let Someone Know Where You Are

If Search & Rescue finds someone within 24 hours of being lost, their chances are very good. Then for each day beyond that the survival statistics fall off rapidly. It is crucial that someone knows where you went and when you are expected back. If no one notices you missing for a week or they don’t know where you went, it can be a life threatening situation. Searching all the trailheads and forest service roads for your car is time consuming and often takes days.

If you hike a lot, just casually telling someone where you are going is probably insufficient. They could easily forget, not really know when you are expected back, confuse the latest hike with a previous hike or not really know which trailhead you went to. A better way is to email or text a message to the person, so they have something to look up. Make sure you include the exact trails you are doing, who you are going with, when you are starting, the trailhead you are parking at and when you are expected back and when to consider you overdue. If your plans change, cancel the hike unless you can update them. It’s a good idea that someone knows what equipment you travel with so SAR knows your capabilities.

There are a couple of apps to help with recording where you are going, that Search & Rescue can also tap into:

AdventureSmart Trip Planner: This is a great app to record the information for your next trip.

Overdue Trip Plan: Another trip planner app, that automates notifying your contacts and includes some offline map and navigation capability.

Prepare to be Offline

If you live in the city, you are used to your mobile phone always working. You can call, text, email or facebook anytime without thinking about it. You don’t have to head very far outside of the city into the backcountry before this stops being so reliable. Even if you can see a large cell phone tower up on the mountain above you, you still may not get coverage. Often when you do a longer hike you will go in and out of coverage as you go up and down and the terrain closes around you or opens up. Here are some tips to deal with being out of coverage. These are both to help you navigate as well as being able to call for help if you need it.

Use 911 to Call for Help

If you need help, call 911 rather than calling a friend. Even if your phone is out of coverage, 911 might still work because it will use any cell network, not just the one you subscribe to. Further the 911 call will include your GPS position, helping SAR get to you directly without having to mount a major search.

Offline Maps

Google and Apple Maps only work when you are online. Besides that they are terrible when you are in the backcountry. They don’t have many trails or landmarks and usually make it look like you are in a green desert. Make sure you use an App with trails, backcountry details and that it downloads the maps to your phone so it can work when out of coverage. Trailforks is a good choice here. More full featured GPS apps like Gaia or ViewRanger are great, but you need to purchase a yearly subscription to download their maps. Another option is to use a standalone GPS such as one of the many Garmin ones.

Satellite Devices

If you really need to stay online, you can purchase a satellite phone. The downside to these is that they are quite expensive and their data plans make regular cell plans look cheap. These are great devices, and will work in many places where cell phones won’t work. But they don’t work everywhere, they need line of sight to their satellite and hence won’t work in gulleys, some valleys and dense vegetation. The good thing is that you usually don’t need to travel far to get reception, on the other hand if you are stuck, you can’t call for help.

 A cheaper alternative are devices like SPOT and InReach. These are satellite devices that can send a selection of messages through the satellite network, but don’t have general communications capability. You can use these to send ok messages, SOS messages as well as let people track your progress on a hike. The subscription fees for these devices is a lot less than full satellite phones and you can often get a discount by calling them.

If you are using one of these devices, they have the capability to track your progress to a website and if you let people know the URL for this map, they can see where you are in real time. If you have one of these devices, make sure you turn on trip tracking at the start of every excursion. This is in case you get in trouble and can’t hit the SOS button, perhaps you fall and hit your head, perhaps you get stuck in a gully. Then SAR can use this map to know your last known position in much greater detail. Chances are you are located at most a ten minutes walk from this last plotted point which allows SAR to find you quicker than starting the search at your car.

Other cell phone apps like Strava and ViewRanger have this capability but can only report when you are in cell coverage. This can still be helpful, as if you are going in and out of coverage it might provide a better last known position than your car helping searchers get to you quicker.


Whenever you travel into the backcountry you need to be prepared for any eventuality. Weather changes quickly, even a minor fall can hurt your ankle, greatly slowing you down. This article just touches on a few things that can help make your outdoor activities safer and give you peace of mind to enjoy the environment.

Written by smist08

March 19, 2021 at 11:10 am

Some Useful Phone Apps for Search & Rescue

with 2 comments


Cell phones have become extremely useful tools for Search & Rescue (SAR) groups providing all-in-one functionality for GPS, maps, camera, communications, reference manuals and even provide an emergency light. This article lists some useful apps to have on your phone to help with SAR activities. Of course, you don’t want to 100% rely on your phone since batteries fail and all equipment can fail in the difficult environments we operate in. That being said, newer phones have longer battery life, are waterproof (to some degree) and in a good case are fairly durable.

Weather and Conditions

WeatherCAN: There are lots of good weather applications as well as the one built into your phone. I like WeatherCAN, but there are lots of good alternatives.

AvalancheCanada: In winter, checking avalanche conditions is crucial to your team’s safety. The Avalanche Canada app is the good one and you should always check the conditions before heading out. Further, be sure to use the app to report conditions as you travel in avalanche terrain.

BC Wildfire: In the summer, there can be wildfires affecting our searches, whether causing us to avoid areas or having our search area obscured by smoke. This app is a good way to keep an eye on what is going on.

First Aid

BCEHS Handbook: This handbook has all our treatment guidelines, so if you have a first aid situation and need to look something up, this is a handy tool to have. Further it saves weight on not needing to have printed books in your pack.

AED: This app lets you locate the nearest AED if you are handling a heart attack. Useful for urban searches as well it is handy outside of SAR.

First Aid: This is the Canadian Red Cross app which contains lots of useful information on common simple first aid procedures.

CPR Tempo: The rate of performing chest compressions is fairly fast and you need to keep it up, even as you get tired. This app is a simple way to get beeps at the correct rate to keep you steady.


Avenza Maps: Most SAR management packages can produce maps in PDF format. Typically, they will mark the search areas on the map and then issue it for the teams. They then send out a QR code which you can scan into Avenza Maps, download the map and use it to do your navigation. I’ve used this on several searches and it is a great way to divide up an area for the individual teams.

Gaia GPS: I blogged on Gaia GPS last week. One of the good general GPS programs for phones.

Trailforks: Is a simpler navigation program than the full GPS apps and is really great for having all an area’s trails covered. New trails usually show up in Trailforks before anywhere else. Also many groups use Trailforks for reporting trail conditions, so a good place to check on these. I’ve often used this on searches to see all the mountain bike trails, which were missing from the official map I was following.

TrailMapps Sunshine Coast: Often there is a specialty app for your area, in this case a specialty Sunshine Coast trail app which I’ve found useful.

OsmAnd Maps: This is quite a good navigation tool. It is free and anyone is able to update the maps. I find this is good for things like hydro access roads and other obscure, but not official things that can be used as trails.

ViewRanger: is another full featured GPS program like Gaia. I liked it because the yearly subscription was cheaper, it was easier to use a variety of GPS coordinates and is easy on the phone’s battery when recording a track. It recently merged with outdooractive, so I’m not too sure what its future is now.

Strava: This is an app used by athletes and others to record their physical activities. This is useful for SAR, since if a subject uses Strava then you can get a clue as to where they like to go. Strava also can create a heatmap of where people record, and then search managers can use this when calculating Probability of Area (PoA).

The Strava Heatmap for the Gibsons Area

Utilities & Reference

Inclination: This app lets you use your phone to measure a slope’s inclination. This is useful when judging avalanche risk. It also is important to know when you need to use a safety line on a stretcher when the slope is greater than 20°.

BCSARA Mobile App: This app contains all our BCSARA reference material. It also has utilities to convert between GPS coordinates as well as providing a compass.

RADeMS: Response Assessment and Decision Making Support is our standard tool for evaluating risk. You answer a set of questions on what you are contemplating and get back a risk score to help with your decision making.

YouTube: If you are stuck on something, chances are YouTube has a video to walk you through it.

Phone Builtin Functions

Flashlight: the phone’s builtin flashlight can be useful if your other light sources have failed, but use this as a last resort since your battery is better served for other purposes.

Messenger: Your phone’s texting app is a great way to send in photos and other info to command if you have cell reception.

Camera: Make sure you take a picture of any clues.

EMail: Another low priority communication mechanism.

Compass: a quick way to see your direction and to copy your GPS coordinates to the clipboard (to paste into say messenger).

Maps: Often Apple or Google maps are best for urban searches.

Browser: If you are online, you can look up pretty much anything.

Clock: Set timers and alarms. Perhaps to remember to check in with command.

Phone (and Facetime): often best to phone command. Especially for confidential info when you don’t have a secure radio channel.


Modern cell phones are amazing devices and if there is some sort of use you can think of, chances are someone has already created an app for that. Most (but not all) of the apps mentioned here are free. I’m sure there are tons more useful apps and would love to hear about them in the comments below. However, you don’t want too many apps, as it’s better to have a smaller set of apps that you regularly use so you are familiar with them and don’t have to figure out something new when you are in the middle of a stressful SAR call.

For SAR make sure you can make do when you are offline. You don’t want to rely on having good cell coverage.

Written by smist08

March 12, 2021 at 11:05 am