Manitoba Geocaching Association

Safety Tips Workshop – December 2/3, 2006


This workshop was suggested by Roger Giasson (Stuntman) to provide some ideas for geocachers that are heading out into the backcountry to find those more remote caches.  The workshop looks at things to consider and remember when heading out for day trips and short overnight trips – make your experience safe and fun.  I will not pretend this is a complete list – it is an eclectic set of thoughts put together to keep us on track during the workshop. Some trips will require other specific equipment (e.g. snow shoes, canoe, rope).


The workshop ran over two days with an inside discussion session and an out door field session.  Most of these notes cover the indoor discussion.  The outdoor session had a practical compass session, fire building skills, and discussion on cold weather clothing. We took a bearing to a known point from our GPSr set and walked the bearing correcting for large obstacles such as thick bush.  Using a section of 2x4x12 wood, a small knife, and a can we built a fire and boiled water.  The day ended with marshmallows roasted over the fire.


Map Created for field session. The route that one group walked is marked on the lower left side of the map.


Tips (Common Sense)

The following is only a brief list thoughts depending on needs, type of trip, length and other factors there may be other considerations.


Do Before

Prepare Before


On Trail

-  Tell someone when you are leaving, where you are going (e.g. cache name and co-ordinates), and when you are coming back.  Don’t forget to let them know when you come back.

-  Check conditions (weather forecast, water conditions, snow level, etc…)

-  Talk to others (ask cache owner), check cache logs

-  How long is trail to cache, what is the terrain.

-  Do you need special equipment (ropes, harnesses, canoe/yak, etc…)

-  Check for medical conditions of others coming to cache.

-  Backcountry travel is not always a walk in the park.  Go hiking to closer caches ahead of time with the pack and equipment you will be taking.

-  Try out equipment

-    setup

-    turn on

-    use

-  Find a compatible ‘buddy’ and work out responsibilities

-  Break in yourself, your shoes (boots), and anything else necessary.

-  Practice what ever you need to do ahead of time to prepare (oh I mentioned that).


-  Water and/or a way to get potable water (CocaCola and alcohol don’t count)

-  Food (add an extra meal for longer trips, take energy snack for shorter trips)

-  Extra batteries ( remember in winter alkaline and rechargeable batteries don’t last as long as lithium)

-  Compass/Map

-  First aid kit (full or ouch kit)

-  Whistle

-  Tarp (at least), tent overnight

-  Clothing for forecast and unexpected conditions (e.g. rain gear).

-  Appropriate footwear (approach shoes/hiking boots, snow boots, good socks)

-  Change of clothes (dry)

-  Hat (winter touque, summer sun).

-  Matches/lighter (note lighters are often unhappy in winter)

-  Walking poles

- Your buddy

-  Common sense

-  Don’t forget your usual Geocaching stuff J

-  Look around (know where you are – even in the city I have seen many geocachers walk across roads without looking)

-  Stay on the trail (or at least keep a  back bearing out)

-  Stay dry (cardinal winter rule)

-  Stay with your buddy

-  Be careful stay within your abilities (remember you may be out of cell range with no quick egress if in distress)

-  Watch your buddy (are they cold, hot, lost)

-  Waypoint your car (egress point) and other significant locations.

-  Periodically check back bearings to last waypoint.

-  Have Fun!


The following Notes were made in preparation of the workshop by Charles Burchill


1. Be Prepared


Get an idea of what you are getting your self into. This is a problem for most people but it seems more so for people just starting out with geocaching since often we start out looking in more tame places and as we run out caches in easy locations we move to more difficult remote caches. Geocaches sometimes are put in places that we might not have gone if not for that cache.


To get an idea of the difficulty

-         Easiest place is look in the logs and the difficulty terrain to see what is said by others. 

-         Dropping a note to the person that hid the cache just to say that you are going - they may have some advice. 

-         Do you need any special equipment? 

-         Do you know how to use that equipment?

-         How far is the walk/yak/ski etc...? 

-         How long can you expect to be out there? 


If you are looking at a day hike doubling the time that it would normally take you to walk the given distance (e.g. 3-4 hours plan on an additional 6-8 hours). On multiple day trips add an extra day (this includes single full day trips) to account for contingencies.  This does not mean that you have to bring a tent/sleeping bag on a day hike but consider things like extra bit of food/water and a tarp just in case you have to stay in the back country.


Can you walk the listed distance (at least) and have you done that distance recently.  Walking a 10km tail is a lot more work than walking downtown from home (~10km) not to mention if your usual walk is from your door to your car.  Plan a head and do a little practice.  With the exception of walking across bald short grass prairie (even then it is not guaranteed) walking to that cache 10km distant will often be twice or three times the straight line distance.


Go with someone.  I know that it is kind of cool to do solo trips, I have done my share, but do as I say not as I do J.


Check ahead - weather, conditions, temperature. This advice is appropriate at all times but in winter and when on the water it is more important.  In the winter check ice conditions with conservation or people that have been there recently.  If you are crossing moving water (e.g. rivers creeks) or marshy areas in the winter be very careful often the ice is very thin. 


Tell someone where you are going.  This seems obvious but most people don't.  A good idea is to leave information on the cache you are going to find (by name and co-ordinates).  Include the route and method that you will be using to get into the cache.  Let them know when you are leaving and when you are coming back. Remember to let them know when you return – sometimes we forget to let conservation/parks etc... know when we come back and then someone might wonder about where you are and go looking.


Do you have a way to get out or a method to contact others for help? A cell phone is useful but be careful since much of Manitoba does not have coverage.  


Don't trust your GPSr.  It is a good reliable system but there are times that it will not help you.  Examples include when you drop your GPSr in the lake (or it breaks, or you run out of batteries).  The other thing that most of us know is a GPSr is great at telling you where you are but it is not great at telling you where that location is; a built in map will help but not always.  Set a waypoint for your car (and periodically on route).  Note the back bearing to that point so you can use it with your magnetic compass.


In the winter (even in the summer) the cardinal rule is 'stay dry'.  Getting wet from sweat, falling through the ice, getting rained is a real problem. I have been soaked by a late December or early spring rain L.


One last bit of advice is be prepared to pack out everything that you bring in (in some cases this might be food that your have processed. 


2. Equipment


Knowing what you are getting yourself into will often dictate the equipment that you are going to take.  The most important part about equipment is knowing how to use what you take.  Usually this means opening everything up, turning it on, trying it out, etc… before heading out (every time not just when you buy). It is disappointing to get 30km in to a backcountry tip, setup your tent, go to cook supper only to find out your stove has blown a gasket and you don't have a spare.


a. Footwear - the good/the bad/the painful. Runners/approach shoes/hiking boots/winter boots/rubbers.


Remember you have to walk on those poor things at the end of your legs – look after your feet! Keep them dry and clean, use clean socks, and take those little rocks out of your shoes/boots as soon as you notice they are there.


Most important rule with footwear is proper fit and given them a chance to break in a little.  Even footwear that does not have a break-in period (e.g. many modern runners) should be used ahead of time.  Blisters are a real downer and black toe is even worse.   I like to wear two pair of socks (light cotton, polypropylene, or silk, and wool overtop). I find this helps reduce blisters.  Bring extra socks and keep your feet dry.


There is a wide difference in opinion about what you should wear for footwear.  At one time I would only wear hiking boots when camping.  I have changed over time and now have moved to wearing runners or approach shoes more often.  Mostly this is due to the quality of the support and strength of materials that have been developed over time. Pick and use appropriate footwear that works for you and the trip you are taking.  Lighter hiking shoes are great until you try to walk with a pack for 20 or 30km. If you are boating (e.g. yak/canoe) you might have to walk out someday. When you wrap your boat around a rock on some distant rapids those nice comfy water socks will not be up to the challenge.


Gators are a great idea to keep the snow out of your boots and your legs reasonably dry.


b. Other clothes. The same basic items serve in both winter and summer it is a matter of how much you take. 

- Take a change of clothes so you can change when you get to camp or if you fall in the lake.

- Layers are the rule of the day – inner wicking layer (polypropylene), warmth layer, warmth layer, wind layer, rain layer. 

- Wear a hat – in the summer a sun hat; in the winter a toque - avoid just an ear band as it will not do when it counts.


When packing wind proof and/or rain gear don't forget you have legs as well. Waterproof breathable material is a little tricky when you are doing moderate to intense exercise (skiing, snowshoeing, and wading through hip deep snow) since it typically does not breathe enough for most strenuous activities.  Be prepared to dry out or alter layers to stay dry. Warmth (I like fleece but will usually take a nice wool sweater as well.  Use long underwear that does not hold water but transfers it out to the next layer.


Keep your spare clothes in a dry bag or waterproof stuff sack. 


Your hands are another part that is difficult to deal with since you will often want to use your fingers but when it is cold you might want mitts. A suggestion is to wear a light pair of gloves (e.g. polyester or silk) inside your mitts so you still have some protection when you need to pull your hands out.  I usually take leather gloves (work gloves no lining) in both the summer and winter.  Leather is good for working around the fire, collecting fire wood, digging through spruce and juniper looking for caches, etc…  I suggest leather because the synthetic materials usually melt in the heat.


c. Packs - Day pack. Packs come in a variety of sizes to suit your needs.  Short day hikes a fanny pack will be enough to carry some water, a snack, and geocaching needs.  Longer day hikes and single overnights a small 30 or 40L pack should be lots.  When fitting the pack make sure you pack appropriately (keep heavy things near the bottom and distributed well). Keeping the hip belt done up and adjusted will transfer some of the weight to your hips and save your back..  You know all of those cool tabs, straps, belts on your pack - learn how to use them and setup your pack.  Every trip will need to be adjusted (often several times/day as necessary).   With overnight packs it is really important to pack your stuff then go for a hike in your neighborhood - can you really carry all of that stuff.  Weigh your pack (OK put it on and weigh yourself) then subtract your weight: 40-50lb is enough.  Most people with practice can easily carry more but if your are just starting out shoot for less.


d. Tents,  expedition Hammock,   Tarp.


A shelter is very helpful if you are out for multiple days.  Even on single day trips a light tarp is a handy item to take along for shade at lunch, hide under during an unexpected rain, blocking the wind.


e. Sleeping gear (sleeping bags). - summer - three season - winter (three plus over bag) - liners (silk/cotton in summer/plastic in winter) - Keep your sleeping gear dry (also see your spare clothes) using a waterproof stuff sack.  Plastic bags for liners are OK but will not last.  If you use put a plastic bag then put it between two stuff sacks. 


Don’t forget to bring something to sleep on.  In the summer this is mostly for comfort but it in the winter it may save your life.  Sleeping pads will separate you from the cold ground or snow and help keep you dry.  Air mattresses are generally a poor choice.  Thermarest pads are great but they are slippery, they have to inflate, and can be punctured.  Yellow closed cell foam is better than blue because it usually does not freeze as badly.  Many sleeping pads will absorb some (or a lot) of water and they are hard to dry out.  In the winter take a full length pad - you might be able to get away with a 3/4 or even 1/2 length in the summer but in the winter you will get soaked and cold.


f. First Aid kit. When I first started geocaching I discovered something interesting – it is a dangerous activity. I have worked/guided/camped in the back country for the last 30+ years.  I have had a few accidents (e.g. slipping and falling while wading a set of rapids) but accidents were rare.  In the last year of geocaching I have been poked and scrapped more than all of the last 30 years combined.  This usually happens right at the location of the cache.


I have also noticed people using a GPSr (not just geocaching but that activity seems to be the worst) don't look around but watch the GPSr.  This is really problematic in the city where I have had to grab people from walking in front of cars several times.  There are equally serious issues if you don't look around when you are in the backcountry.


g. map/compass. When going into the backcountry you should always take a compass with you and know how, and when, to use it. Unfortunately most people that use a GPSr forget quickly how to use a magnetic compass.


Review - Use of a compass

-         How a compass works

-         Taking a bearing

-         Setting a bearing

-         Walking a bearing

-         Note difference between magnetic north and true north.  How to set this in your GPSr.  In southern MB it is not much of a problem but in Alaska and NFLD it is a huge issue - as much as 20 degrees or more. If transferring bearings from GPSr to Compass make sure you are using magnetic bearings.


Review – Use of Map and GPS

When transferring locations from GPS to Topographic maps (and reverse) I use UTM co-ordinates because it is easer.  


In Canada most new maps use NAD83 (which is very close to WGS84), older maps use NAD27 Canada. The difference in Manitoba between the two datums is ~200m North/South but elsewhere it can be more.  Before using a GPSr with a topographic map check to make sure you have the appropriate datum set.


h. Fire. Bring matches (several sets in separate dry containers). I don't use waterproof matches but I do take strike anywhere matches in several waterproof containers.  A number of people will coat the matches with a thin layer of nail polish to keep them dry and protected.  Wood matches work better than paper. Lighters are great - bring one but in the winter they may not work well.  Many people now also have magnesium blocks or steel wool and a flint to use when things go badly wrong.


Do you know how to build a fire?


Where should you build that nice fire? If in provincial parks (near backcountry) use fire pits and don't start new ones.  Only build fires on mineral soil, rock (but minimize fire scares), or sand. Keep the fire small and collect wood minimizing damage by using downed wood, and vary the distance and direction away from camp.  Avoid temptation to use an axe/hatchet/saw - they are generally not necessary.  Burn what you can collect and break by hand.  Smaller size material will burn completely and will continue to burn with less smoke.  Of course smaller material will burn quickly.


i. Stoves

Butane and LPG (liquid propane gas) does not work well in winter since the pressure is reduced. White gas (naptha) often needs priming paste or a little liquid gas to pre-heat the burner/supply.  If you are out in the winter the best bet is a white gas stove that you can pressurize.


j  Our bodily functions - Don't forget TP and trowel. Why is this in a safety workshop? Because of disease and animals, but also the ‘eww’ factor.


In low traffic areas dig a small personal cat hole (I now bring a trowel for digging holes).  When traveling with a larger group or higher traffic areas look for a forest throne (conservation as put many of these along the most popular canoe and hiking routes) or dig a temporary shallow latrine.  Human waste should be at least 100m from open water.  Remember an open latrine might attract unwanted visitors.


What to do with TP - Yes you can use leaves but it can be nasty (see more on plants later). Here are the alternatives: pack out (no trace), cat hole (bury - minimal trace).  If your are going to bury TP make sure it is appropriate for composting.  Most sources are now suggesting that TP be burnt in the fire.  This can be a problem if you are in fire limited area.


Wash your hands!  A nice little container of hand sanitizer usually fits the bill.


Sanitary napkins - double bag and pack out.


j. Water/Food. Bring adequate water or a way to get potable water from local sources.  We need a lot more water than most of us think.


Water – since I had children and have grown older (and I hope wiser) I have become more concerned about drinking water directly out of lakes and rivers.  Water collected from surface sources should be treated (e.g.Chlorine or iodine tablets or treatment),filtered or boiled.  In all cases remember to let turbidity settle out first since suspended particles reduce the effectiveness of treatment and clog filters.  Remember chemical treatments are less effective in cold temperatures.  Read all of the instructions completely and learn how to use the treatment method before you go.  Keep treatment away from input water source (e.g. with filters keep output line away from source water).


In the winter try to get liquid water since heating ice/snow takes a long time.  If you must melt snow start by melting a little and add snow to the water.  Don't try to melt a big pot of snow especially if you are doing it over a stove.


Even when I have a filter or treatment I keep a water bottle full for use on the trail


On a related note: gray water (dishes, washing) goes in a hole ~100m or more from open water.


Bring some high energy food even on shorter day hikes.


k. Dealing with animals.  Animals that are problematic usually have a good sense of smell and come to visit at night.  The general rule of thumb is keep kitchen/food and sleeping/clothes separated as much as possible.

-         Keep food packed in good containers and hang away from camp at night (bear proof)

-         Keep food away from sleeping (tent/clothes/sleeping bag)

-         Dispose of waste properly (gray water and latrines a good distance away, pack garbage in sealed container or bags)

-         Keep food and anything else that has a smell (soap, creams, etc…) out of your tent – be militant about this.


Most problematic animals:  mice, squirrels (DON'T FEED THESE PESTS!), bears, skunks, raccoons.  Be careful with pepper spray as it will attract bears (bear spray is not a repellant)


Things to bring as examples:


- compasses

- maps

- foot wear

- tents/hammock

- stoves

- matches

- tarp

- first aid kit(s)/ouch kit

- packs (day and multi-day)

- water filter

- water treatment

- examples of clothes

- leather gloves

- whistle

- Fire starter

- walking poles

- sleeping bag

- clothes (fleece, underwear, mitts, gloves)


Things to put in your car

- Rogers’ Can

            - Can, fire starter, little wood, candles, matches, little food

- first aid kit

- shovel

- sleeping bag (or two)