Surviving the backcountry: Top 5 tips from Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue

Jeremy Jones surfing a nice wave in the Tahoe backcountry. When skiing in the Sierra, it’s important to remember: safety first. Photo: Ming Poon Photography / mingpoonphotography.com

Every year search and rescue teams around the Tahoe Basin respond to calls of missing skiers and boarders, usually when they have skied out of bounds at a resort and gotten lost.

Usually these stories have happy endings.

But back in 1976, a 12-year-old boy got lost off the back side of Northstar California (then known as Northstar-At-Tahoe) during a blizzard. Back then, there was no organized backcountry ski team to search for the boy.

By the time a group of skiers were assembled and set off to search for him, it was too late. As a result, Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue (TNSAR) was established with the goal of conducting fast, safe rescues and educating the public on winter safety.

Today, TNSAR has around 70 volunteer members who respond to calls with Placer, Nevada, El Dorado, Washoe and Douglas counties’ sheriffs’ offices and other agencies.

The team also visits area schools to educate students on how to stay safe while out on the mountain. Whether you’re 15 or 75, the same safety rules apply.

Here are TNSAR’s top 5 tips for winter preparedness and survival should you find yourself lost on the mountain:

GET A SURVIVAL KIT

Before you set out, be prepared for the worst. TNSAR suggests bringing a pack with water, food, two large plastic bags to be used as a poncho or emergency shelter, water-proof matches, plastic whistle, flashlight or headland, container for melting snow, duct tape for repairs, a first aid kit, compass, and a cellphone.

“There are so many useful maps and GPS apps, so take advantage of them because if you download a map on your phone, you could easily figure out where you are and how to get out,” says Andrew Oesterreicher, TNSAR board member.

STAY PUT

The most common mistake people make when lost is to keep going without a plan.

“You need to stop, think about where you are, who may have last seen you and observe what time of day it is and make a plan from there,” adds Oesterreicher. “When folks just keep going, they almost always just keep getting more and more lost.”

BUILD A SHELTER

If you can’t figure out where you are and can’t create a clear path back to civilization, it’s time to think about building a shelter.

“Keep it small and keep it simple,” advises Oesterreicher. “Use snow to make a shelter and line it with pine bows on the ground. They act as a really nice insulating layer to keep you off of the snow and warm and dry.”

A tree well can be bolstered with additional branches and snow to create a shelter, too.

LEAVE A SIGNAL

“If you’re holed up in the shelter asleep, make sure you have some sort of signal outside that would lead somebody to you,” suggests Oesterreicher. “There have been plenty of times when we’ve basically just skied over someone because they are holed up somewhere and we can’t see them.”

You could cross your skis and polls, or stamp out SOS or a trail in four directions from your shelter. Fires create smoke during the day and serve as a light source at night.

STAY POSITIVE

Attitude can go a long way in a difficult situation. Breathe deeply, think positively and stay calm.

Above all, says Oesterreicher, “Be smart. And always tell someone where you are.”

TNSAR operates in part thanks to donations. If you’d like to make a donation, visit www.tahoenordicsar.com.

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