November 14, 2018
White on white. Terry Ricks in the lead, navigating a whiteout by snowmobile.
By Mike Duffy, BCA sled ambassador
We’ve all been there. A snowstorm rolls in, or the wind picks up, and we can’t see a thing. Sometimes we sit it out, and it ends soon; other times we wonder when it’s going to end. If zero-visibility conditions continue, there are some crucial decisions to be made. Here is a rundown of some skills and tools sledders can use for navigating a whiteout.
I’ve been on many rescues where people were stranded or lost due to whiteouts. Once, we came across one group who were asking where the road was; they were on it. If you’re overdue and people are looking for you, stay together in one spot. Don’t keep moving. A moving target is hard to find and leads to extended searches.
Prevention is critical, but we can all get surprised by sudden weather changes.
A defining characteristic of a good mountaineer and snowmobiler is the ability to know when to turn back. I always look at forecasts and have found NOAA to be reliable. The “Radar and Satellite Image” section on their website–and/or their NOAA Radar Weather app–gives a visual of what areas are getting the storms, wind speed and direction, and the movement of the storm. While riding, I’m always watching for clouds coming in and winds increasing.
Navigating a Whiteout: Three ways to increase your odds before the visibility drops.
- Look at your map as you go. It is easier to know where you are. Don’t pull it out once lost.
- As you’re riding, look for reference points over your shoulder. See what it looks like from the direction of not only going in but coming out. If you’re new to an area, keep the routes simple. Avoid shortcuts on the way, stay on a simple, defined route. Better to stick to the areas you know when visibility is bad. Take photos of signs on the way in and make notes.
- Start tracking with your GPS when leaving the parking area. I use a Garmin Montana® 680t which automatically starts tracking when turned on. It features a big touchscreen that is large enough to navigate on the go. It’s much easier to follow your track out than try to find your way from point A to B.
Navigating a Whiteout: Six things to do once the visibility drops
- Come up with a plan. Do we wait it out or start heading out? Take into consideration that it’s much harder to navigate a whiteout in the dark. Is there a route you can take through the trees that you know well? Trees offer better reference and less wind. Safety of the group is essential. Don’t compound the problem. Be ready to spend the night out.
- Stay together, ride close and slow. We have crept out of areas about 10 feet apart going 10 mph using GPS. In other situations, we walked ahead and found the trail marker pole and moved the sleds from pole to pole. Use a compass to determine the direction of travel. Do not send one person ahead to find the way–you may not see them again.
- Have your GPS mounted so you can drive and see it. I use a Ram Mount on the handlebar. Other options include dash mounts. I want it visible, so I don’t waste time pulling it out of my pocket.
- If you don’t see the person behind you, stop. Everyone knows the plan is to regroup at the last seen point if separated. Radios are very useful in these situations.
- If you can’t make it out, go to a place protected from the wind and make yourself visible. Prepare to spend the night.
Proficiency with a GPS is gained through practice. Looking for geocaches will hone your skills: www.geocaching.com. In the summer, I use GPS on dirt bike trips, setting tracks and following them in reverse. The Garmin Montana GPS is one of the easiest to use.
Navigating a whiteout isn’t a good situation to be in. Keep calm, have a plan and move deliberately to your goal.
Looking for stranded skiers by snowmobile at midnight in a whiteout.
BCA sled ambassador Mike Duffy provides professional avalanche education for mountain riders, snowmobile clubs, and dealers. Visit Avalanche1.com for a schedule of courses, or to book Mike to present at your location.