Q+A with Fernie SAR

October 2020 – Fernie BC

Whatever the time of year, Fernie Search and Rescue (SAR), plays a huge part in the safety of all recreationists – whether on the Fernie trail network, or in the backcountry. While these areas and the risks associated with them are vastly different, being prepared, trained and in the know will help keep you safe.

We asked Simon Piney, Head of Fernie Search and Rescue for tips, to help visitors and locals understand and mitigate risks, so that a fun day can be had.


While the vast majority of trail users will never need to call for help, even the best-prepared can have accidents, equipment failures or simply get lost.

This is where Fernie SAR gets involved. The group comprises approximately 30 Rescue Technicians, trained in everything from rope rescue, swift water rescue, avalanche rescue, helicopter rescue, wilderness first aid, K9 responses and much more. The group is responsible for providing emergency coverage 24/7/365 in the backcountry areas where traditional emergency response is not available. This includes much of Fernie’s trail network.

While everyone hopes to avoid needing rescue services on their fun day out, a quick review of some of the challenges we see will hopefully help trail users avoid some more common issues, and plan in case of the unexpected.


We see serious incidents every year, including some with potentially life-changing injuries. Our observations from around the trails is that weather changes often affect trail traction or conditions, and it takes a while for riders to adapt to the new conditions. In almost all cases excess speed is a major factor in loss of control.

We would also point out that Technical Trail Features (TTFs) can be very hazardous.

With winter looking like it is here to stay, fat biking has similar challenges and risks, amplified by rapidly changing conditions on trails. For most of us those trails we barely thought of as a challenge in the summer month become much more significant once covered in snow and ice.

Hiking, Running + Snowshoeing

While hiking, running or snowshoeing are generally a safer options, slippery trails and steep terrain make for easily twisted and broken ankles and legs. It is not possible to eliminate risk entirely, so hikers should take sufficient gear to make sure they are able to wait for rescue services if needed.

In all cases a trip plan is essential. Fernie SAR’s catchment area is nearly 6,000km2 of rivers, mountains and forests. If someone is simply reported as missing then it will take us a long time to find them.

If an overdue person has left a trip plan with a responsible person then that turns a potential search into a rescue and will be a lot quicker. Do NOT rely solely on cell service, as hikers tend to get out of cell range quickly (variable service on Island Lake Trails, almost none on Heiko’s etc.).

For more advice on a trip plan you can find that here: https://ferniesar.ca/trip-plan/

All of Fernie’s trails offer amazing snowshoeing options in the winter months. However, be aware many cross avalanche paths. If you are venturing into avalanche terrain on showshoes then you need to be equipped for companion rescue, the same as though you are ski touring. Even the Fairy Creek Waterfall trail terminates in a run-out zone that has been witness to very significant avalanche activity in the past.

Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiers on the groomed trails at the Golf Course, Elk Valley Nordic Centre, Fernie Alpine Resort and Island Lake area, generally enjoy excellent groomed conditions, good signage and reliable cellphone coverage. As such, SAR is called to respond in these areas relatively infrequently. The main challenge for users needing emergency assistance is staying warm. People cool down very quickly once they stop moving, so an emergency blanket or similar can be a lifesaver and takes almost no room.

For those on XC skis tackling other trails or making their own tracks, then the earlier advice on trip plans and avalanche hazards need to be considered.

Ski touring and snowmobiling

These activities generally take place beyond the immediate recreational trail network and are therefore beyond the scope of this article. However, many of the issues highlighted above also apply – avalanche hazard, filing a trip plan, equipment plan, training, communication challenges and hypothermia are all relevant.

Useful information can be found here:


Dealing with Emergencies on the Trails

If you are with someone who needs help (or you need help) there are a few things you can do to improve the outcome:

Manage hazards – especially important if you have someone lying on a bike trail. If the next person behind comes into you at 50kph as you try to tend to your injured buddy no-one is getting any help. Get someone to go uphill of the incident to stop people, or place branches or clothing in an obvious place to make people slow down (without creating a hazard for other users).

First aid – it is not our place to teach first aid to members of the public, so apply what knowledge you have. Manage the ABCs first. If you believe, or observed, a significant involvement of the head, neck or back then you should do everything to secure the person in the position found, do not aggressively move them unless ABC requirements oblige you to.

Even on a hot day an injured person can get cold surprisingly quickly, so be ready to pile jackets or clothing on them. The winter months make this all the more urgent, build a fire if you can. Avoid giving them food or water.

Call for help – ASAP once you have done what you can to make sure that person is as OK as you can make them. Call 911, ask for the RCMP, state it is a backcountry emergency and that you need SAR. Repeat that many times if they talk about sending an ambulance to your location and you are in the middle of nowhere accessible by road.

Remember, the dispatcher in Kelowna does not know that Swine Flu is a bike trail on a mountain. For all they know it is a restaurant. If you don’t have cell service, then hopefully you have a PLB that will allow you to call for help via satellite, if you don’t have that you will have to take a decision about whether to wait on your trip plan to kick in, or send someone for help.

If you’re not sure if you’re going to need help, call for help. It is easier to stand rescues down than have them launched at the last minute as light is fading, or as the injured person takes a serious turn for the worse. Night rescues inevitably take longer, especially in the winter when avalanche hazard assessment is needed.

Get ready to wait – wilderness rescue is not like calling for an ambulance at home. Access may take a while, resources (such as helicopters, SAR Techs, K9) may need to be found. You may get called by the SAR Manager if you are in cell range.

Everyone in Fernie should have Trailforks on their phone. You will be asked to look at your menu page, hit “Emergency Info” and the “share location” button to share to a destination you will be told (often a text #). This provides invaluable information regarding your location.

Waiting will be a lot easier, especially in the winter months, if you have certain pieces of gear with you. There are suggested equipment lists in many places, including on our website at https://ferniesar.ca/10-essentials/

It can easily take an hour or more to get people out of remote locations. If a helicopter is needed, we may fly over you a few times and then appear to leave the area. This is typically to assess terrain and rescue plan options, plus often we will be setting up for longline rescue so need to reconfigure the aircraft.

Have fun!

With all that said the real purpose of a day out is to have fun, and that is what we wish for all folk, whether visiting Fernie or residents in the valley.

Simon Piney is Head of Fernie Search and Rescue.