What to Do If You Get Lost Skiing

©istockphoto/PaulMorton
©istockphoto/PaulMorton

Get­ting lost ski­ing or snow­board­ing is one of those worst-case sce­nar­ios you hope you nev­er find your­self in. If you’re stuck out­doors in cold, wet con­di­tions with­out the right gear, the odds of sur­vival are pret­ty slim.

Here’s what you can do to pre­vent your­self from get­ting lost in the first place, and how to sur­vive if you do find your­self lost on the mountain.

Plan Your Trip
Know where you’re going and what you’re doing. That might be as sim­ple as plan­ning to ski in-bounds for the day at your local resort, or it might involve plan­ning a mul­ti-day trek through the back­coun­try. What­ev­er your plans are, pre­pare accord­ing­ly. Learn­ing the ter­rain and acquir­ing maps of the area are absolute musts.

Tell Some­one Where You’re Going
Now that you’ve got a plan, fill some­one in. This some­one should be a per­son who is stay­ing at home (in oth­er words, not some­one who is join­ing you on your trip). They should know when you’re leav­ing, where you’re going, and when you plan on com­ing back. Leave them with an itin­er­ary, and let them know who to con­tact if you don’t return as sched­uled (start with 911).

Know Com­mon Pitfalls
Most areas—even ski resorts—have zones where it’s espe­cial­ly easy to get lost. Do your research and find out where these trap areas are, and learn how to avoid them. You might find them dis­cussed on blogs, online mes­sage boards, or local Search and Res­cue sites. You should also chat with peo­ple famil­iar with the area to learn the lay of the land.

Gath­er Your Gear and Crew
If you’re head­ing into the back­coun­try, you need to have the right gear with you. At a min­i­mum, take extra food and water; your shov­el, bea­con, and probe; basic first aid and sur­vival gear; extra lay­ers to keep you warm; nav­i­ga­tion equip­ment; and a charged cell phone, VHF radio, or satel­lite phone, along with the appro­pri­ate num­bers to call. You should also be using good qual­i­ty gear—don’t for­get to take tools you might need to make repairs if some­thing breaks.

Just as impor­tant as the phys­i­cal gear itself, you also need the knowl­edge of how to use it prop­er­ly, as well as avalanche safe­ty knowl­edge and an under­stand­ing of cur­rent conditions.

Final­ly, don’t for­get to bring along some equal­ly well-pre­pared buddies—don’t head out into the back­coun­try alone.

Chan­nel Your Inner Weatherman
Know what con­di­tions are like where you’re head­ing. Keep tabs on avalanche bul­letins in the areas you’ll be trav­el­ing in. Be pre­pared for con­di­tions to change on a dime—these are the moun­tains, after all—and nev­er hes­i­tate to change your plans if you come across unfa­vor­able weath­er. Be con­ser­v­a­tive in your decision-making.

Assess the Situation
So you did your home­work, are equipped with all the right gear, and you still got lost. If turn­ing back is an option, do so. Oth­er­wise, your best bet is prob­a­bly to stay put: the more you move, the more lost you’ll get—especially in white­out conditions.

Get Vis­i­ble
Now, get vis­i­ble, posi­tion­ing your­self in a spot where you can be seen from the air in case a heli­copter comes to your rescue.

Call for Help
If you’ve got cell phone recep­tion or access to a VHF radio or satel­lite phone, call for help. Don’t text your bud­dies to let them know you think you might be lost—call 911 imme­di­ate­ly. The soon­er you call them, the better.

If you’re rely­ing on your cell phone and you’re not get­ting any recep­tion, turn your phone off to con­serve bat­tery. It helps to know ahead of time what cov­er­age is like where you’re going. Learn to not rely on your phone—coverage is typ­i­cal­ly spot­ty in the back­coun­try, at best.

Be Pre­pared to Spend the Night
By the time any­one notices that you’re miss­ing, it’ll prob­a­bly be too late in the day for a search mis­sion to get under­way. You should be pre­pared to spend the night in the wilderness—now would be a good time to learn how to build a snow cave, con­serve heat, and use nat­ur­al fea­tures to pro­tect you from the ele­ments, in case you ever need these skills in the future.

Stay Hydrat­ed and Nourished
You did bring extra food and water, right? Stay­ing hydrat­ed and nour­ished is key to stay­ing strong and keep­ing your head straight. Stay fueled.

Self-Res­cue
When you head into the back­coun­try, noth­ing is guar­an­teed. If con­di­tions are dicey, Search and Res­cue crews won’t be able to get to you. Heck, there is no guar­an­tee that any­one even knows you’re miss­ing, espe­cial­ly if you didn’t fol­low the ear­li­er steps. Your crew needs to be able to self-res­cue if some­thing comes up—and if you can’t, you have to accept that as one of the risks of the sport. Stay safe!