If you’ve never been on a wilderness trip before, the idea of traveling beyond cell service, seemingly out of touch with the rest of the world, can seem daunting. The questions are many: How do we let concerned family members know where we are? Will there be any cell service? What if we need to call for help? Maybe you have no doubts about communication, but your friends and family need some reassurance about your safety as you strike out on a trip into the backcountry. While the escape from instant communication and interruption is one of the great joys and benefits of the wilderness, it’s good practice to form a communication plan for your trip into the Boundary Waters. This article shares a few thoughts on emergency communication in the wilderness. It’s written with the BWCAW in mind, but the principles apply in any backcountry situation.
Disclaimer: this article is not intended as advice for handling emergency situations in the backcountry. You are responsible for understanding the risks of backcountry travel, the dynamics of communication in a wilderness setting, and adequately responding to emergency situations.
Approach the Boundary Waters with respect
The Boundary Waters/Quetico is a big place. While containing fewer inherent risks than wilderness environments such as the high alpine or gaudy whitewater rivers, canoe country ought to be taken seriously. The same rugged beauty and solitude that gives the Boundary Waters its draw makes it necessary to take a few precautions. You are responsible for the safety of those in your group. Owing to the rugged and remote terrain, emergency response from outside organizations can (understandably) be slow and should not be relied upon as the only plan for handling an emergency. Don’t assume you’ll be able to use a cell phone and call for a quick rescue, or that help will arrive soon after your call. Respect the power and isolation of the wilderness, be prepared to handle basic accidents, and have a plan for more serious ones.
With limited communication considered, remember that the BWCAW is one of the most accessible and “friendly” wilderness areas in the country. You should certainly have a plan for handling emergencies, but it should not scare or prevent you from taking a trip to the wilderness.
Prevention is the best emergency management tool
The best tool for managing emergencies in the wilderness is prevention. Prevention can be thought of in two stages: preparation, and critical decision making while in the field.
Preventing a self-inflicted emergency begins with preparation, of both a thorough plan and adequate gear for a wilderness trip. Before you set out on a trip, leave a plan of your route with one or two people at home. Include estimated departure and return times, the size of your group, contact info, and a trip itinerary. Make a rescue or emergency plan and discuss is with your paddling group and your emergency contacts. Research your route and potential hazards ahead of time. If you’re not familiar with the wilderness area, ask a local outfitter (and be sure to support these awesome local businesses, as well!). Consider taking a course on wilderness medicine if you are planning an especially remote or extended trip. None of these steps are difficult or costly, and they provide an added level of safety to a wilderness trip.
A complete list of proper gear for a canoe trip is a topic for a different discussion, but be sure to pack essential items for handling adverse weather, wilderness navigation, and medical mishaps. A short list of emergency-focused gear might include: a first aid kit, map and compass, backup matches, water filtration, rain/cold weather clothes, an extra paddle, and a device for emergency communication (which we’ll cover in just a moment).
The second element of prevention is good decision making while in the backcountry. Consequences are more swiftly and immediately felt in the wilderness, making it critical to think carefully before taking on risk. Always wear life jackets while paddling, portage around swift water, and be aware of hazards such as dead trees hanging over campsites. Avoid high-risk activities such as cliff jumping or running difficult rapids. Consider the potential consequence of an action and the accident management that might follow if something goes wrong. Pausing for a moment before making a decision can greatly help to prevent emergency situations. There are plenty of fun things to do in the wilderness that don’t bring unnecessary risk to you or those who might have to rescue your party.
Bring a phone but don’t rely on it
Solitude and escape from interruption is one of the great joys of a canoe trip. For many, it’s tempting to leave all phones behind since they’re not likely to work in the wilderness anyway. While you likely won’t have service during your trip, it’s a good idea to bring at least one or two phones in case of an emergency. Two-way communication is preferable in an emergency situation, and while you can’t rely on a cell phone to make a rescue call, there is a chance you’ll get service on a high ridge or near an entry point. Being able to communicate details about your situation (or another group’s emergency) can make a significant difference for rescue personnel. Thus, it’s helpful to have a phone along just in case.
Phone service is extremely limited in most parts of the Boundary Waters and the Quetico, so you shouldn’t trust your phone as your only planned communication device. However, remember the risks of canoe country and take a reasonable view of emergency probability. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the BWCAW each year without incident. While you should always be prepared to handle the reasonable worst case scenario, you’re often not as far removed from communication as you might think. Be prepared, but don’t let stress or fear prevent you from taking a trip into the backcountry.
Consider a satelite communication device
Satelite communication devices are the most reliable form of emergency communication in the backcountry. These devices range from two-way messengers to one-way pagers that send pre-programmed messages and GPS coordinates to a list of your contacts. Popular options include devices from brands like Garmin or SPOT. The beauty of these satelite devices is that you don’t need cell service to contact the outside world. Most can be programmed to send a few different messages ranging from “Everything is great, this is where we are” to a full SOS call that initiates a search and rescue operation from emergency response organizations. Some offer a route-tracking option that updates friends and family on your location, which can be a fun (and reassuring) addition to your trip. These are an excellent risk management tool and provide the possibility to request help in life-threatening situations. In remote situations, these devices add a significant level of safety to a wilderness trip.
While helpful, even these devices should not be relied upon as your only emergency response tool – you are responsible for the safety of you and your group and should take as many steps as possible to prevent rescue situations or handle it yourself. An SOS call should be a last resort rather than a first reaction to any sort of accident. Making an SOS call is very serious; careful consideration must be taken before calling for help. Keep in mind that whenever you call for help there is some level of risk to rescue personell. SOS calls should be made only when critically necessary.
Though reliable as communication devices, just because you send an SOS call doesn’t mean that rescue personell will be able to reach you quickly or sometimes even at all. Variables such as bad weather, lack of rescue resources at a specific time, or difficult terrain might delay a rescue response. Float planes, the travel method of choice for backcountry search and rescue operations in canoe country, won’t fly during storms or unfavorable times of day. Having a satelite communication device does not excuse you from being prepared to respond to an emergency, at least at a fundamental level.
Satelite phones are another wilderness communication option. Some outfitters rent both satelite communication devices (such as SPOT or Garmin) and satelite phones – a great option for those who won’t be in the wilderness often enough to purchase a device and pay for a subscription. Check availability long before your trip and be sure to reserve your device from outfitters before you arrive.
Even when all preventative steps are taken, accidents or circumstances beyond your control sometimes make it necessary to call for help. When a rescue or change of plans is called for, understanding the basics of backcountry emergency communication and having a plan in place to handle it can help initiate a response with mimimal complications. Sometimes it might provide life-saving intervention to you or someone else’s group. At the very least, having a plan for emergency communications adds an additional level of safety and peace to your backcountry trip.