The winter months are a busy time for search and rescue (SAR) personnel in the Northeast. The region’s famously unpredictable and brutal winter weather leads to many misadventures that require professional rescues—but the vast majority of these incidents are preventable. Careful planning and preparation can help you avoid the many scenarios that lead to costly and time-consuming rescue efforts that can also put rescuers’ lives at risk.
The responsibilities for search and rescue are often split between several different groups and agencies. In New Hampshire for example, this includes:
Local First Responders: Local fire department and emergency medical services, U.S. Forest Service, New Hampshire Fish and Game, and the Dartmouth–Hitchcock Advanced Response Team
Volunteer Rescue Teams: Appalachian Mountain Club, Androscoggin Valley SAR, Lakes Region SAR, Pemigewasset Valley SAR, and Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team
Specialized Volunteer Teams: Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, Mountain Rescue Service, New England K9 and White Mountain Swiftwater Rescue Team
The National Guard is called in for helicopter searches and rescues that involve life threatening emergencies, such as cardiac events. The wide range of people and resources involved, especially for rescues from high elevations or technical terrain, means that search and rescue is incredibly expensive and time consuming.
The time that a rescue takes varies widely based on a variety of factors including weather, distance from the trailhead, and the difficulty of the terrain. While by no means exact, a example timeline for a rescue is:
If someone is injured or has suffered a medical emergency that prevents them from walking out on their own or with assistance, they will have to be carried out in a “litter,” making the trip back to the trailhead two to three times longer than it normally would be.
While you should never be afraid to call for help if you really need it—it just may save your life—you should also be prepared to “self-rescue,” which means getting out of trouble without putting others at risk to rescue you. These types of scenarios are more common. In 2019 alone, there were 102 “no response” calls to 911 where distressed recreators were given enough help over the phone that SAR was not dispatched. Winter is a particularly demanding time of year to be in the backcountry, but there are a few common scenarios you can prepare for that make you less likely to need rescue.
Even the most experienced hikers can underestimate the conditions they’ll face on a hike, especially in winter. Snow, particularly deep snow, can be challenging to navigate and If you’re well prepared, you’ll be weighed down with extra, potentially life-saving gear. All of this amounts to a harder, more time-consuming experience than hiking at other times of the year.
Unsurprisingly, many winter SAR callouts are related to hypothermia. Snow and low temperatures can take a devastating toll on the ill-equipped hiker, and you should be prepared with the right clothing to stave off the winter chill. However, even relatively mild conditions can lead to hypothermia. It may seem like an obvious choice to call off a hike if sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow are in the forecast, but you should be equally wary of rain and the “warm-for-winter” temperatures that go along with it.
Temperatures just above freezing can mean wet snow that can easily soak clothes. Wet snow is also more difficult to traverse even with traction gear and more physical exertion means more sweat, which can be a killer when the temperature drops; any moisture on your skin will wick away heat from your body. Make sure to pack extra layers to add or change into if you become too cold or too wet, along with extra food and water to keep your energy up. Dehydration is also a major contributing factor to hypothermia. Be conscious of your travelling pace and walk at conversational speed to prevent sweating, swapping leads with other members of your team throughout the hike.
It may be tempting to leave behind some of the extra gear that’s recommended for exploring the backcountry in winter, like your emergency shelter or sleeping bag—but these items may save your life. Both can help keep hypothermia at bay if you’re forced to spend a night out on the trail until you can rescue yourself in the morning. Depending on how deep you are into the backcountry, this type of self-rescue may actually be faster than waiting for help to arrive.
If you do find yourself far from the trailhead as darkness falls, stay on the trail and make noise to alert other hikers who may be able to help you. This is when a whistle—another one of the Ten Essentials—comes in handy. Three short blasts on your whistle is the universal distress signal.
Descents at high elevations can be challenging at any time of year but even more so in winter. It’s usually much easier to go up a snowy or icy trail than it is to go down it. Even if you can somehow scramble up an icy incline without traction gear, you’ll almost certainly have a harder time getting back down. A common SAR callout is to assist individuals who are unprepared to descend a snowy or icy trail, either because they shouldn’t have gone up in the first place or due to changes in weather.
Having the right traction gear on hand is critical to a safe winter hike, especially when descending snowy or slippery terrain. Microspikes are useful on packed snow. Snowshoes are necessary for traversing the deep, drifted snow that you’ll often find in more exposed terrain and at higher elevations. It’s tempting to avoid carrying snowshoes because they can seem bulky and awkward to pack, but having them on hand is better than wading through deep snow losing precious energy and body heat. There are many ways to attach snowshoes to your pack that make them easy to carry. For hikes above treeline or traverses of extremely icy, technical terrain, you may also need crampons and an ice axe. Crampon’s large, pointed spikes help you confidently step across thick ice or even extremely hard-packed snow.
Conditions can vary widely depending on changes in terrain and elevation, so consider carrying multiple traction options that you can change in and out of on your hike. Even if the snow at the trailhead is packed, perhaps only requiring microspikes to navigate safely, that’s no guarantee that the rest of trail will be that way.
Numerous SAR calls go out in all seasons for hikers who had planned to rely on their phones to call for help, for navigation, or to use as flashlights. These calls take on a new urgency in winter when conditions become more unforgiving.
The navigation apps we rely on in our day to day lives become dangerously unreliable in the backcountry. While you may see some trails in your phone’s navigation app they are often inaccurate and are no substitute for a physical map carefully prepared by professionals who are familiar with the terrain. Phones also can’t access these maps without mobile service; the deeper you go into the backcountry the more unreliable cell service will become. If you call for help, the cell phone “pings” that may be able to help rescuers pinpoint your location are not as accurate in the mountains due to the terrain. Even worse, you may not be able to call for help at all.
Phone batteries also lose their charge more quickly when they are searching for service—even more so when it’s cold. You should consider keeping your phone on “airplane” mode or even turning it off entirely in case you need it in an emergency. If you want to leave your phone on during your hike, store it near your core, one of the warmest parts of your body, under at least a couple layers of clothing, or insulate it in a wool sock. Also consider carrying a backup power bank and storing it the same way.
You’ll be better able to self-rescue if you have the right gear and don’t plan to rely on your phone at all. Instead, always carry a headlamp with extra batteries, a map, and a compass—all part of the Ten Essentials—no matter how short you think your hike will be. They’re lightweight and potentially lifesaving pieces of gear that no hiker should be without. Headlamps are brighter than your phone’s flashlight, its battery will likely last longer, and you’ll never have to worry about your map and compass losing battery power. If you’re new to hiking make sure that you know how to use your map and compass. AMC offers a variety of staff-led courses each year that help participants learn how to navigate in the backcountry. You should also review your map ahead of your trip and consider what alternate routes could take you back to the trailhead more quickly if you run into trouble.
The most important thing you can do to help potential rescuers is to let a friend or family member at home know where you’re going, who you’ll be with, any other information potential rescuers should know like medical conditions, and most importantly, a timeframe when you expect to return from your trip. This should include the time you expect to return and when they should call for help if they don’t hear from you, for example: “You should hear from me by 5 but don’t get worried or call anyone until 7.” It’s easy to miscalculate when you’ll be back from a hike, especially if it’s long, and SAR gets many calls from anxious friends and families when they’re loved ones run even a little bit late. Many people also don’t know how long they should wait before contacting SAR so giving them this guidance is helpful. Of course, be sure to notify your friend or family member of your safe return so they don’t unnecessarily contact search and rescue on your behalf.
If you spend a lot of time hiking or in the backcountry, consider taking a Wilderness First Aid course like those offered by AMC. These courses will teach how to be better prepared to handle difficult and even life-threatening situations you may encounter on the trail. Additionally, if you’re hiking in the White Mountain National Forest, consider buying a Hike Safe card for yourself or your family. This will limit your liability to repay costs in the event of a rescue and the revenue from sales goes into New Hampshire’s Search and Rescue Fund.
While hiking into the backcountry during the winter months may seem intimidating, with the right skills and preparation it can be one of the most enjoyable experiences you have all year.