Alberta Parks public safety specialists saw a massive increase in the amount of people hiking on trails in Kananaskis Country this summer with people looking for new outdoor activities to participate in during the pandemic. But in a number of cases their inexperience lead to trouble.

“It was our highest call volume by far,” said Matt Mueller, Alberta Parks public safety specialist. “At the peak we were probably doing three or four a day so generally by noon the calls would start rolling in and we’d go to six o’clock or so reliably every day.”

Mueller and others in the department fear that as the season changes to winter activities in the mountain parks, they will continue to see people not prepared for the elements.

Public safety specialist Jeff Macpherson says winter is less forgiving than summer hiking because the weather can change quickly at the turn of a corner on a backcountry trail.

“Dark comes very quickly,” said Macpherson. “And if you’re not prepared it gets cold very quick so plan that it’s different than in the summer when you can tough it out.”

Mueller says there are many resources online to help amateurs prepare for their outdoor winter activity, but he says it’s important to research a number of sights rather than relying on just one. He recommends the Kananaskis country public safety section’s facebook page and avalanche.ca.

Critical step

“That’s where you can see the daily bulletin that we produce as well as neighbouring mountain parks,” said Mueller. “That’s a critical step that should be done the night before at the very least and even ongoing through the week as you’re planning your next trip.”

Alberta Parks say one user group that’s gotten themselves into trouble in the past is people snowshoeing. In many cases they don’t understand the avalanche risks and wander off designated trails.

“We find that that often leads them into avalanche terrain and a lot of time they’re not aware of it,” said Mueller. “They’ll start walking up slopes a lot of times and expose themselves to the run out of avalanche and be completely oblivious and that’s something that we’re really trying to address this year is that education component about avalanche terrain and avalanche hazard.”

Macpherson says winter rescues are much more difficult than summer ones.

“On a day like today we probably couldn’t fly the helicopter so everything is going to happen by ground which takes way longer,” said Macpherson. “The other thing that limits us is the short days we can’t fly at night so anything that happens in that late afternoon becomes a real emergency quickly.”

Public safety specialists recommend visitors take an avalanche course to educate themselves on how to be safe in the winter while in the back country. And before heading out fill a backpack with a number of items like food, water, extra clothing, a first aid kit and something to start a fire.

Mueller says experience is key and to know your limitations.

“If you feel like you’re out of your comfort zone,” Mueller said. “Take that as a red flag and the best thing to do is just turn around and go home.”