This post was in response to the following Georgia Straight article, titled “Hikers urged to post #TrailheadSelfie to aid search-and-rescue efforts.” We DO NOT agree with the TrailHead Selfie being advocated in relation to sharing trip plans with others. While it is an interesting concept, it should fall very far down the continuum of things to do to stay safe. Now that the cat is out of the bag, we feel it is critical to make it explicit that it is NOT an alternative, in any way, to telling someone responsible where you are going, when to expect you back and carrying the 10 Essentials. We believe there is a serious risk of it being confused as an alternative and it could be dangerous if people fail to do the basics, thinking mistakenly they are covered by a Selfie.

Assume someone doesn’t click the link to get more info? or just reads the title of the article? What is the takeaway message? It looks like an endorsement of a lazy option that could get you or your loved one into some serious trouble. Our opinion is that the grave risks of misapprehension far outweigh the minimal benefits to SAR.

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I myself am guilty of often only reading the first couple lines of an article on social media, and the last thing we would want is for anyone to scan this article and come away thinking that a Selfie is even remotely a viable alternative. I know from professional media training, that many readers (again myself included) only consume small amounts of an article (“bits and bytes”), and thus it is incumbent to make your position clear at the start. That is our goal here.

While we laud the public safety initiative of our fellow SAR volunteers who endorse the TrailHead Selfie, we want to make sure that it is not misunderstood, as it could be dangerous. To be clear, NSR definitely sees the value in social media and we regularly utilize it in our missing persons investigations. That said, we do not endorse proposing TrailHead Selfies as a good idea (or innocuously as a viable alternative) in relation to telling someone where you are going, when to expect you back, and taking the 10 essentials. It needs to be very very clear, that it is not an alternative. Take your selfies, check-in, tag away; but know, if we do not get a missing person call, we may only be able to use it to find a body (maybe).

On the face of it, it seems like a good idea, but in reality could lead to false sense of security. Younger individuals live by their technology, and although this may not be a conscious thought, often see it as infallible. Take for instance cellphone GPS. It works great in the city, but may not be so good as soon as you step into the wilderness. The reality is there are a few major issues with trailhead selfies:

  • They may be mistaken as a viable alternative with the best intentions
  • A selfie is only useful if the person is reported missing, and even then may be of limited use
  • Broad social media is not a good place for telling people where you are going or setting up a return time – there is a real risk of non-reporting and of over-reporting in the same token. Furthermore, a message to the world leaves us without a viable witness to interview for details.
  • A selfie at a trailhead is not indicative of where a person eventually ends up on many trails. Large networks with many entrances, exits, and paths can mean that the search area is as narrow as “Western North Vancouver”. Not ideal.
  • A trailheadselfie may fail to post or be limited due to privacy settings
  • Some, in fact many, trailheads in this province do not have cell reception (and thus it will be too late to tell someone where you are going or to take a selfie)

A fictional case study (actually not all that fictional) based on extremes to illustrate:

  1. Situation 1 – John calls his brother and tells him he is going hiking to Tim Jones Peak on Mount Seymour, he thinks it will take him 4 hours, but if he is not home after 8pm, to call Police and get search in rescue involved. NSR gets paged by police at 8:30pm and has field teams in the area by 9:30pm. At 10:30pm that field team makes contact with John and he is escorted out. John is carrying the 10 essentials, and was able to change his wet clothes, and create a small fire to keep him warm while waiting in the cold.
  2. Situation 2 – John heads up mount Seymour and posts a trailhead selfie to his twitter account. He gets a bunch of retweets and favourites, and thinks he’s covered because people know where he is, but it is soon lost down everyone else’s feed. Johns brother is not on twitter. 5 days pass, and John’s brother is worried because he hasn’t heard from him. He calls the police, the police investigate and find John has researched the hike to Tim Jones Peak (among other hikes) on his computer. NSR is activated the next day. 6 days have passed and it has snowed. NSR searches his social media and finds a trailhead selfie, ok, we know he was headed out from the Seymour parking lot, maybe to Tim Jones Peak. NSR eventually finds John, but it is too late.

This is an extreme situation, but it illustrates the risk. Social media is great, but it is limited, and it should never be equated with the basics of safety.

It was noted to me that we have proposed a limited trailhead camera as a solution to a very local problem in the past, however we do not equate this in any way shape or form with the selfie. For one, the fixed and passive trailhead camera was proposed as a discrete investigative tool for a contained and local problem. Lynn Headwaters and the Hanes Valley is a contained area that attracts, in addition to prepared backcountry users, the inexperienced and tourists, due to ease of transit access. It was never proposed as an additional protection to telling someone where you are going. It was a response to two narrow fact situations which included delayed reporting of them being overdue (they had likely already passed away), and we faced circumstantial evidence of them entering the area. For our own operations, we do not see trailhead cameras as being a cost-effective or useful tool outside of this narrow circumstance.

We will use whatever investigative tools are at our disposal, but we see no value in proposing Trailhead Selfies in relation to what is  the gold standard, advocated by all SAR teams across this province. That is, telling someone responsible where you are going, when to expect you back, and carrying the 10 essentials. We as SAR are only successful if we are activated early, and only where the missing person can care for themselves in the interval between getting lost/injured and our arrival.