My husband James and his best friend Dan set out this weekend to bushwhack in the Kawartha Highlands. It reminded me of some valuable safety lessons I learned as the partner of an avid backcountry camper. Before their last canoe trip into Algonquin, my husband gave me the usual “our route is X and we’ll be out no later than Y pm” speech. I listened with half my attention as I chased our toddler around. That was a mistake. On the day of their return home I waited with growing anxiety until about 10 pm, and, after panicked texts to Dan’s wife, I decided to call the OPP.
The following are the top 5 things I learned from the OPP, chats with my husband, and a newly discovered common sense about safety in the backcountry.
1. Tell someone where you’re going and make sure they write it down. The first thing the OPP officer asked me was “What was their access point?” I could remember neither the access point nor the exact route. I could only vaguely remember the lake they were paddling to, and with the help of an extra park map I was able to guess where they might have started. As soon as I was able to offer that guess the officer instantly dispatched officers to that point. This leads me to the next thing I learned.
2. Don’t hesitate to call the OPP. The officer basically gave me “it’s better to be safe than sorry” speech when I apologized for possibly putting them through needless trouble. They will take you seriously and will not make you feel bad about being cautious.
After the speech, the next thing the officer asked was: did they bring their cell phones? From which I learned that it’s always important to…
3. Bring your cell phone and make sure your partner knows the number and provider. Fearing potential damage, my husband would usually leave his phone in the car at the access point. If the OPP knows the number and provider they can ping any cell phone and locate it. Alternatively, you could also…
4. Consider a GPS device. Dan did some research and liked the DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Communicator because the signal reaches the back country and allows for 2 way communication similar to texting. There are cheaper models that allow you to send one-way pre-set messages like “We’re ok.” Or “SOS.” Either way you’ll have to pay for data, but your partner’s peace of mind may be worth it.
However much you’re willing to spend or not spend there is nothing cheaper and more common sense than my final piece of advice:
5. Be realistic about the timing of your trip. Factor in possible setbacks like rain delays and try to be level-headed about how long the trip will actually take. Don’t overestimate your capabilities. In Ontario there are maps (like Jeff’s Map) for most back country trips that allow you to estimate the average time it will take. If you’re a newbie, err on the side of below average and as your experience grows, you can hack off time accordingly. Encourage your partner to be realistic too. Remind them that delays can happen and talk about when would be a good time to call the OPP.
In the end, James and Dan were delayed by rain but made it out safely by about 11pm. It was a happy ending, but it might not have been. When you are planning your next trip, I hope you’ll consider your safety and your loved one’s sanity as much as you consider your menu or what gear to pack.
By Maeghan Mott.