Backcountry Safety and Communications Part 1: Simple Guidelines to Keep Things Safe Out There

Published 2023-01-10

by John Huston & Zach Reeves
Mystery Ranch Ambassadors

Background: John is a polar explorer, cold weather expert, and a safety and logistics manager. Zach is a former Special Operations Forces (SOF) team member, Reconnaissance Marine, and military intelligence expert. We both run companies that train SOF personnel. From time to time we work together on trainings and on projects at Mystery Ranch. We also happen to be fellow Hamms’ beer aficionados.

“Safe travels” or “Have a safe trip” are things that friends and family like to tell people who are heading out the door. Although warmhearted, these regards feel a bit like a wish to the winds of fate. In the backcountry those winds blow strong and it is important to get your shit together in terms of safety and communications (comms).

Planning, equipment, experience, and risk management are some of the primary variables that impact backcountry safety. In this post we’ll focus on comms and safety planning. Look out for another Mystery Ranch blog where we will get into risk management in the field.

In our respective lines of work we hate epics. The stories of struggle and tragedy narrowly averted might be entertaining on the surface, but in reality they are dangerous calamities caused by poor planning and poor judgment. A person injured and alone in the wilderness with no one who knows where they are and no comms, group members separated and lost while snowmobiling in low visibility with no safety plan and no comms resulting in severe frostbite and amputated fingers and toes, search and rescue deployed for report of a missing hiker…the list of incidents that could’ve been prevented with a simple safety and comms plan is endless.

When it comes to comms, one of easiest things to do is to simply let someone know specifically where you are going, your route plan, and when you expect to return. But this is often overlooked. Many backcountry disasters could have been avoided if people had simply known where to look.

Make a basic trip plan. Identify who, what, where, when, how.

A basic trip plan can consist of the five questions: who, what, where, when, how.

  • Who: Identify who is involved in the trip. People, dogs, horses, etc…
  • What: Identify what activities will be part of the trip. Hiking, camping, skiing, hunting, running, etc…
  • Where: Identify the start location, route, campsites, finish location.
  • When: Identify start time, end time, lag time, oh shit time to come looking for us time. Be specific. Identify when the party will communicate.
  • How: Identify how the party will communicate.

Tell someone who is responsible about the plan. If it is sent via text message or email that is even better so that there is no confusion about the details and place names.

John Huston making a satellite phone call in the Canadian Arctic. © Kyle O’Donoghue.

Make a comms PACE plan with contingencies.

PACE plans work well for outlining comms. PACE refers to Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency. An example PACE plan may look of something like this:

  • Primary: A satellite communications device such as a satellite tracking and texting device or a satellite phone. Some of these also feature an SOS beacon button. Here is a good overview review of the satellite comms devices on the market today.
  • Alternate: A mobile phone or handheld high-power radio for VHF/UHF communications with Ranger stations at high elevations.
  • Contingency: A signal mirror or bright panel marker for signaling aircraft or distant locations.
  • Emergency: A fire starting capability for creating smoke that can be seen at a distance.

This is just one example of a PACE plan, but the point is to have multiple communications options as backups in the event of an emergency. The plan in this example focuses on communications with entities outside of your excursion party, but it is important to remember that this PACE plan should also apply to communications within the field team as well, with your primary being voice and the other backups being some combination along the lines explained above.

Communicate that your trip has concluded.

It is absolutely essential to close your communications loop when you complete your itinerary. With all the communications devices available these days comes the added responsibility of not creating unnecessary search and rescues. This can happen when people miss comms windows or are considered missing because they simply failed to notify someone that their trip has been completed safely. EMS and Search and Rescue (SAR) crews have gone nuts chasing missing backcountry users who weren’t actually missing or who hit the wrong button or otherwise misused their communication device. Each year SAR wastes their time and resources with thousands of non-emergencies triggered by failure to close comms loops or the misuse of comms devices. Upon returning to your vehicle, trailhead, mobile phone service etc… tell your comms point of contact that you’re out of the woods. Make sure to do this every trip.

The same goes for simple comms and safety plans. Make it a habit everytime. Murphy’s law is out to get us. The peace of mind that comes with these plans is worth it alone and in our minds adds to any backcountry experience.

Header image: John Huston calling into base on the way to the South Pole. © Cameron Hudson