Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Winter Operations in the Coast Range Mountains of BC

It seems to me that there are some inconsistencies with regard to knowledge and equipment requirements when effectively operating in the coastally influenced mountainous regions of northwest British Columbia. This article will attempt to address some possible knowledge and equipment gaps.

It’s winter time and by now you have field stripped your summer 24hr and 3-day packs and rebuilt them to suit the inclement winter weather and equipment requirements of your area. If you are in High Level Alberta or Lynn Lake Manitoba, your 24hr and 3-day packs will look different in comparison to mine which is constructed for coastal winters. If you haven’t given consideration to re-building your gear and equipment for winter then you haven’t a moment to lose. Consider dedicating some-time this weekend to get yourself prepared. The type, application purpose, manufacturing quality & ergonomics of your equipment will vary based on your individual experience, confidence & knowledge.

My Background: I have been working in for the last 25 years in the mountains of coastally influenced northwest British Columbia. The experience and equipment that I have is vocationally tailored for the purpose of working as a forest resource technologist in remote locations during all seasons. My equipment requirements changes significantly depending on the season and the terrain that I am working in. I routinely inspect my equipment for wear and damage as I greatly depend on it for my work and for my safety. I place the same importance and forethought into my Ranger equipment as I do to my vocational forestry needs.

Mild & Damp VS. Cold and Dry – The Coast Range Mountains

Since I have been a Canadian Ranger I have had conversations with my interior based counterparts during northern coastal exercises about how surprised they were to feel chilled. More often than not they attribute their condition to fatigue and laugh it off. You should listen to the signals your body is telling you. These clues could be telling you that you are not appropriately attired or equipped. People in the interior of BC are acclimatized to operating in -15 to -30 Celsius winter weather conditions on a regular basis so why are they feeling chilled on the coast when it is only -5 degrees Celsius? It’s because damp cold needs to be managed differently than dry cold. The bottom line is that moisture reduces the insulation value of your clothing and the type of clothing you wear must change to suit the environment.

Coastal winters are very mild and damp in contrast to the very cold and dry interior winters. Geographically this line can almost be drawn on a map by utilizing the Coast Range Mountains of BC which permeate from the Yukon to Washington State. High humidity and fog are normal elements along this mountain range during the winter. The Coast Range Mountains act as a physical barrier to warm pacific weather systems which are heavy with precipitation and help to define the dark and overcast winters up and down the entire length of BC’s mountainous maritime and sub-maritime areas. This is a transitional zone between low pacific and arctic high pressure fronts. The result is a snow-belt zone where it is not abnormal to observe 100 – 200cm of snow within a 24 hour period prior to receiving heavy rain. Under these conditions roofs collapse, trees break, transportation corridors close, power lines break and avalanches are widespread. Coastal winters can be unpredictable and Rangers operating under these conditions should be prepared to test the limits of their skill and their equipment. 
Area in red – Coast Range Mountains of BC

For your consideration:
ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT Essential equipment is similar to a PFD on a boat or a seat belt in your truck. I recommend the following with a view to considering them essential equipment when operating in the Coast Range Mountains of BC. This is not a complete listing of clothing or equipment but rather a few suggestions for your consideration when you compile your winter kit in preparation for winter.

RAIN GEAR (Tops and Bottoms)
Helly Hansen (HEAVY RUBBER)  http://www.hellyhansen.com/
Do not go cheap on rain gear. Rubber coated products are durable and 100% water proof. There are two types of Helly Hansen rain gear and they are used for different applications (light & heavy). I recommend heavy rubber gear if you live or work in coastally oriented areas of BC. Best used in areas common with thick brush such as high density 2nd growth forests, salal, huckleberry, wild crab apple and black hawthorn. These woody schrubs are VERY COMMON in coastally influences areas which will rip your rain gear to shreds unless you attire yourself with heavy rubber Helly Hansen rain gear.  Your rain jacket should be one or two times larger than you would normally wear so you can wear your tac vest or cruising vest underneath your rain jacket. Keep things dry - keep them light. Your vest and equipment won’t turn into a block of ice the next time you hang them up. 

WOOL PANTS & SUSPENDERS (treated with paraffin)
Choose wool pants with a very tight weave. I use surplus Swedish army wool pants which are quite resilient and accept a paraffin wax treatment very well. These pants are one or two sizes larger than I normally wear so I can tuck in sweaters to the waist band and keep things from getting too tight. The paraffin wax treatment is optional but recommended for working in wetter climes.

Keep a spare set of wool socks in your pack.

People sweat and you must wear underwear that will whisk moisture away from your skin. This stuff works.

Remember you need layers in insulation that can be removed and re-applied as required. This is where you regulate your body heat. Pay attention to your temperature and do not allow yourself to sweat profusely. Pay attention, this is an important one.

Make sure they will fit your snow shoes before you purchase these. Do not buy cordura or leather uppers unless they are rubber coated. If you cannot stand in 8” of water without getting your feet wet then source another set of winter boots. These boots have to be 100% waterproof. Silicone or Mink Oil treatments are not sufficient for coastal winters. If you rely on substandard foot products you will become a liability to the Rangers that are depending on you.

Key Note: If you're in deep snow (even on a sunny day) wear your rain pants. It will stop snow from entering the top of your boots. Don't let your feet get wet.

To choose the type of snow shoes you need you need to understand the type of snow and terrain you will be working in and on. Coastal snow is usually heavy, deep and moist, frozen corn snow or capped with a layer of partially frozen slippery snow. The terrain is often steep or hummocky if working under a forest canopy. There will be large hollows under each tree, or clump or trees, with high and deep ridges of snow on the periphery of each tree’s crown or drip-line. Quite often the snow hides juvenile trees that once stepped on reveals a hole that your snowshoe and leg disappears into suddenly. This is the nature of the beast up and down the north in the Coast Range Mountains. This calls for a specific type of snow show.

The Arctic Trekker or Sherpa Snowshoe

Laced or Grommet designed snow shoes composed of an aircraft grade tubular aluminum frame with composite materials that will not swell with moisture. They are strong, they are reliable and I have walked many miles in the coastal mountains in these snow shoes. Harnesses must be sturdy for lateral and horizontal support to allow effective walking up and down icy hills. Harnesses must be supported by a hinge rod, heel claw and a heel plate to permit a positive grip.

If you have a GPS make sure you calibrate your pacing while wearing snowshoes. Your pacing will change with the terrain, the load you’re carrying and the snow conditions of the day.

The CF may issue you with the magnesium plated aluminum snow shoes. There are not always entirely appropriate for significant areas within the Coast Range Mountains of BC. If the terrain is flat and the snow is light, or fluffy, the CF issue shoes will work fine.      


Raincoast Hardhat (Brim 360o). These helmets were made for working in the bush. They will keep your head dry, water off the back of your neck, lamps can be affixed to these helmets and there is a wide assortment of winter liners and harnesses to choose from. The B.C. Worker’s Compensation Board prohibits industry workers from entering a work site with over-head hazards without approved safety protection equipment. In the Forest Industry you must wear a Hi-visibility hard hat on your head at any time you are within proximity to the tree line. I am completely sold on this product for use in the forests of coastal BC. I can tell you that wearing a hard hat – especially in winter climes while under a forest canopy is an essential piece of kit. I have been hit by snow & ice falling out of the crowns of these trees and I can tell you from personal experience that I probably would not have walked out of the bush that day if it were not for my hard hat. Canadian Rangers are not insured by WCB and therefore we are not required to wear hard hats while employed by the Canadian Armed Forces, however it is my due diligence to highly recommend this safety product to you. More information on this recommendation can be found in an article I published in 2006. Safety Equipment Recommendation for Canadian Rangers

Ansell Canada makes some wonderful products that you can work in wet conditions and keep your hands dry. They make a considerable variety of gloves that may work well for you. I use the Scorpio because it grips well on smooth surfaces. If you allow your hands to become saturated (prune appearance) they will be very susceptible to cuts, abrasions and infection. Wet extremities are also difficult to re-warm should you lose the heat from your hands.


Every first aid kit should have a few of these. Under normal situations I would not encourage anyone to steal from the FA Kit but if you’re in a survival application put a pair on underneath your work gloves. You’re saving a spare set of dry mitts for night time right? Try to keep your hands dry by stowing a few of these easy to pack items in your pack. Simple things like this can make a huge difference in your ability to function on the coast. Wear these under your normal leather work gloves. Impregnate your leather work gloves with silicone or mink wax to make them moisture resistant.


SCORPIO® WORK GLOVE 100% waterproof
Neoprene Coated
Interlock knit cotton lining and flexible neoprene coating stretch to provide a snug fit, and allow easy on and off
Two-piece lining eliminates seams which can cause hand irritation and premature wear-through
Dipped rough finish makes handling wet, slippery materials easier and safer
All-around utility and material handling glove—wet or dry

There are several items that are heavy that you don’t need to carry on your back. The belt rig is intended to expand your access to the tools you often need to access and move the weight of heavier items from your back onto your hips. Items such as water, hatchet, bush knife, pruning saw, karabiner, .303 British ammunition, etc... I have tried several different belt designs but have only recently found a belt rig system that works well for me. Things to look for are clasps that will slip loose under strain and belts that will bind into your sides while under weight.  The durable, comfortable and very affordable Canadian Tire Mastercraft Basic Padded Belt has an expanded surface area to distribute the weight across your mid-section and a clasping system that does not slip. At $14.99 you can’t go wrong and you find that your comfort of working in the bush is significantly improved.

Ultimately my favorite waist rig is the British P.L.C.E. belt order. The system disperses weight evenly across your hips through a cushioned mesh barrier upon which the belt rests. This stops the weight from digging into your flesh and still provides room for field knife, hatchet and a pruning saw. The system also rides fairly low and allows space for the user to don a ruck if required. System comes complete with a yoke and suspenders. I have moved to this system and I am very satisfied and very comfortable. 

Utility vests are rugged pieces of kit that allow you to access frequently required tools that the Canadian Ranger regularly requires. My personal favourite is a Cruising Vest which is covered with accessible pockets and pouches. These are usually constructed of Cotton or 500 Denier Nylon Cordura. I recommend Cordura construction as it will repel water rather than soak up water like cotton. These vests can be used to carry all of the components you need in a 24hr pack and can be used to supplement your 3 day pack. Many Rangers prefer tactical vests however in all practicality the cruising vest is probably better suited to Rangers for working in the bush. The pouches and pockets are much larger and the vest is much more comfortable to wear. Most of our operations are 'Overt' not 'Covert' so bright colours can be of benefit.


Due to the multitude of applications a hatchet can be used for it qualifies as essential equipment for the Canadian Ranger. I recommend that your hatchet possesses the following attributes:

1. High carbon steel for a sharper edge & prolonged periods between re-sharpening;
2. A slicing axe not a splitting axe (weight saving)

3. No double bit axes (the other side is needed as a hammer);

I have owned many axes and I highly recommend the Wetterlings small hunting axe. They are an excellent product and I have used this one axe extensively, for a multitude of applications, over the last eight years. The only thing I have replaced is the sheath which I found to be insufficiently durable. The head has remained firm and the blade can be made razor sharp.   http://www.wetterlings.com/

A small file or stone to sharpen your tools while in the field

Good for numerous sawing applications and a fantastic piece of kit for opening the rib cage on moose or deer in order to access internal organs and ventilate / cool the animal quickly.

I carry a 10’X12’ silicone impregnated MEC tarp in my 24hr pack. With this lightweight tarp I can effectively shelter two grown people and their equipment in driving rain. It is important to be able to remove yourself from the elements and hunker down for the night.

In the winter it is important to be able to easily access water. A bug net full of clean snow hanging in close proximity to a fire will melt into cups or tins and provide a constant source of clean drinking water. Do not eat snow in order to rehydrate as you will quickly reduce your core body temperature. This is one of those lightweight items that will add huge dividends when you need them.
Being cold will elevate your stress hormones which in turn will make you produce more urine. To counter-act this you have to ingest more fluids than normal. If you become dehydrated your circulation is affected and your extremities will become more difficult to keep warm. Your ability to think clearly or work effectively is reduces as a result of dehydration. So have an effective and simple plan to keep your body hydrated.
In Conclusion
Shelter, fire and water help you to save the energy reserves in your body and use it as efficiently as possible. In the Coast Range Mountains these essential equipment items will assist you in that regard.
Staying warm in cold and dry environments is your most important priority;
Staying warm in mild and damp environments means staying dry as your most important priority, and on the coast that is a difficult task;
In general terms on the coast we are not building quinzies as a survival mechanism unless you’re in the alpine, sub-alpine or on a frozen lake. In coastal mountainous areas you are usually situated in, or near, forested terrain which acts an opportunity to remove yourself from avoidable wind exposure. Shelters are generally constructed from the native building materials such as small diameter logs, branches and snow.
Know how to insulate yourself from heat sinks. Stay Dry - Stay Warm – Stay Alive.
Determination to live, a positive attitude and a good sense of humour are characteristics of the kind of people that resource the Canadian Rangers. If you are of like mind and spirit consider joining the adventure.