VANCOUVER -- A recent surge in the number of calls to B.C. search and rescue teams is “disheartening and worrisome” to wilderness safety advocates who are urging people to use common sense before heading into the woods and onto the water in the time of COVID-19.

Calls for help spiked 35 per cent in the first week of May compared to the same time period last year, according to BC AdventureSmart, and those calls are “keeping the search and rescue volunteers a little bit too busy,” said the organization’s CEO, Sandra Riches.

Volunteers responded to 165 calls in May 2019, but AdventureSmart couldn’t specify how many calls came in the first week of that month. Nonetheless, concerns are high that calls have risen more than one third, an increase that puts more people at risk of infection from the novel coronavirus.

“It’s a little disheartening, to say the least,” Riches told CTV News Vancouver. “We’re an active, healthy province. We’re used to being in a fast, higher gear, per say, and it’s time to come from fifth gear down to second gear. Slow it down and be cognizant of our conditions right now.”

To prepare for a call during the pandemic, volunteers go to extra lengths to gear up using additional personal protective equipment. When the reach the victim, not only is close contact often unavoidable, but that person is also likely transported to safety on a stretcher to a vehicle such as an ambulance or helicopter.

“Then they go back to the search and rescue base after the call and completely disinfect everything they had on,” said Riches. “Boots, pack, jacket, helmet, gloves. Everything. Stretchers, trucks, too. That process is onerous as well.

“As we all go out there, I’d like everyone to thin of the volunteer as well. They’re leaving their family to help you, which they will, they then have to come back to their family. So the more we can reduce the number and severity of those calls, the better for everyone.”

Close to home

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has emphasized personal responsibility in favour of strict lockdown measures, a decision that seems to be paying off in B.C. where residents have managed to flatten the curve though the country’s first death from COVID-19 was recorded in this province March 8 at the Lynn Valley Care Centre. As of Saturday, there were 2,330 cases in B.C. compared to Ontario and Quebec with more than 20,000 and 37,000 cases, respectively.

If British Columbians have been heeding the advice to stay home and isolate indoors as much as possible, that collective action is reflected in the province’s case counts and also the number of calls to search and rescue teams.

In April, AdventureSmart reported a 50 per cent decrease in the number of calls to SAR teams in the two weeks before Easter, remarkable figures that Riches said brought considerable “hope and comfort” to many of the 2,500 search and rescue volunteers who respond to an average 1,700 calls every year.

“Early on, we all actually did stay in, and now the weather is a bit nicer and we’re encourage to get outside. We are being encourage to get outside for mental and physical well-being, yet we’re really encouraged to stay close to our community and in our regions” said Riches, echoing the advice of Dr. Henry that fresh air and physical activity are good for us as long as we endeavour to stay close to home and maintain physical distancing.

In April 2019, volunteers responded to 87 calls and the monthly average is 121. In April 2020, they responded to 76 calls despite the slow start to the month in the week before Easter.

"While the number is down, it was because before Easter the number of tasks were 50 per cent of normal. From Easter on, the trend bounced back and last week spiked - a trend we don't want to see continue," a senior manager of B.C. Search and Rescue Association said in an email to CTV News Monday.

Coronavirus cabin fever

The contrast is stark, but the advice remains the same. The AdventureSmart tag line is “get informed and go outdoors,” a mantra the organization supports through online resources, apps, training, safety information and guidelines for children as well as video tutorials and presentations for every season.

“We’re not here to say don’t go. When you do go, stay local, stay in your community,” said the AdventureSmart CEO, adding that active British Columbians are ready to make the most of warm spring temperatures as a way to cope with a global outbreak that has killed thousands, caused massive unemployment and forced many away from family and friends as they shelter in place.

The rise in calls to search and rescue teams in B.C. is tied to this need to carve out some space, to stretch the legs, and connect with the wider world that’s been shut away for the moment.

“We’re all now in a smaller area to play in, so that can make some of us a bit antsy… At this stage in the game, people are getting a little bit of cabin fever and a feeling a bit of pent up energy and starting to explore a little more,” said Riches, listing off a string of factors that may be influencing how people are assessing risk.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of people are recreating in their regions, and maybe some aren’t. And, maybe they are exploring areas and trails and activities that they haven’t done before. Maybe they’re not physically fit for those activities, maybe they’re not completely prepared for them, mentally, physically – literally, with gear. Maybe they haven’t filed a trip plan. Maybe they don’t even know the area they’re going to play in.”

Can you keep warm overnight?

As B.C. moves through its phases to reopen the economy and loosen restrictions, provincial parks open back up to day-trippers May 14. Timed deliberately for that date, AdventureSmart is hosting an online presentation on outdoor survival techniques at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13.

For everyone heading into B.C.’s wilderness, preparation is essential but so too is conservative risk-taking given the pandemic, said Riches.

“We should be using a lot of common sense and a lot of guidance from our health officials, which they have been wonderful,” she said. “Recreate close to home. Follow our three Ts.”

Those “three Ts” include trip planning, training and taking essentials, which Riches emphasise matter, “every single time, no matter if you’re recreating locally or planning future adventures.”

General guidelines include letting someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Bring the right equipment for the activity and be physically fit for what you’ll be doing and how far you’ll be going.

Also, prepare for the worst, adds Riches.

“Can you keep warm and dry? Do you have extra food, water? Could you spend the night out there and get through an emergency situation? That easy access that we have to recreation throughout the province can often give people a sense a false sense of security and they don’t realise how much they do have to be prepared because it’s so easy to get to.”


B.C. search and rescue officials initally said there were 91 calls in April 2019, but later corrected that number to 87. They said there were 152 calls in April 2020, but said in an email the next day there were only 76.