Alberta Health Services

Alberta Health Services

Article posted on June 7, 2024

First Responder Safety in the Backcounty

The warm season is upon us and people are venturing into the great outdoors to recreate and explore. As all first responders know, these forays into the wilderness can generate increased call volume and the need for backcountry responses.

Rick Yanco, AHS EMS interim manager of clinical operations for district 5, is based out of the Crowsnest Pass and says MFR agencies provide a critical support for EMS crews and patients alike.

“Our EMS crews respond to various calls in the backcountry. There is a huge footprint that is covered and assistance from our fire first responders is a must. The fire department can supply vehicles for access and extrication, extra people for manpower and logistical support.  Back country events are always taxing on resources especially for a two-person EMS team. The support from our fire crews allow patients to receive the absolute best care from their rescuers.”

Whether mountains or badlands, Alberta’s terrain is tough country and extrications and can be drawn-out and downright dangerous. Last year, the MFR program published new environmental emergency MCPs, which are supported by a new and engaging training module. Covering hypothermia, hyperthermia and submersion emergencies, the content was created specifically for Alberta MFR agencies with a lens that considers the unique challenges of backcountry access and extrication.

Bear Safety

While bear versus human conflict is relatively rare, it should be on the radar of every first responder. If responding to a bear or animal attack, ensure conservation officers accompany the MFR agency. When responding to any back country call in bear country, at least one member should be carrying bear spray which is not expired. Black bears and grizzly bears may respond differently in different circumstances, and it is important to be able to differentiate species, and to determine what type of conflict is occurring. Knowing whether a bear is defensive such as a mother with cubs, predatory or territorial is important in determining next steps. A bear safety and awareness training course may be a wise investment for your organization.


While bears are the most likely wild conflict humans experience, cougar encounters are possible throughout much of Alberta. Ordinarily secretive and solitary, cougars won’t typically engage or hunt humans. However the possibility still exists, especially if the cougar is injured, geriatric or an inexperienced young adult. These populations may have trouble hunting their natural food sources and be more tempted to try non-traditional prey.

Other Mammals and Livestock

Beware of any mammal exhibiting strange behaviour such as a normally nocturnal animal being active during the day, or any animal that approaches humans in an unnatural way. If bitten, scratched or even licked by a wild mammal, seek emergency care for rabies post-exposure prophylactic care. Moose, elk and even deer mothers with young fawns can be very reactive, and bulls and bucks can see people and dogs as rivals during the rut. Wild pigs are increasing in number in Alberta and can be dangerous. When crossing pasture or wild lease land, take a wide berth around livestock. Cattle can be unpredictable, especially with new calves on the ground, or recently turned-out bulls. Always avoid bison pasture if possible and consider engaging with the landowner on best courses of action when dealing with livestock.

Rattlesnake Safety

Prairie rattlesnakes are shy animals, but they do pack a venomous punch. Care should be taken between April 1 and November 1 to watch for rattlesnakes in southern Alberta from Monarch and southeast to the Saskatchewan and Montana borders, and up to the Red Deer River Valley. If you’re likely to respond in rattlesnake backcountry, consider investing in leg protection such as gaiters, which add another protective layer for the first responder. The prairie rattlesnake is Alberta’s only venomous snake – the other six snake species are harmless.

A prairie rattlesnake photographed near Medicine Hat

Insects and Arachnids

Bug spray containing deet will help dissuade mosquitoes and biting flies. At certain times of the year such as in spring and fall, there may be heavy tick activity in some areas. Tucking pants into socks can reduce the number of ticks getting in under clothing, but vigilance in checking for ticks once returning to station should be a priority. The only medically significant spider in Alberta is the western black widow – contrary to popular myth brown recluse do not occur in Canada at all. Black widows are shy and will generally hide if their web is disturbed. While considered medically significant, there are no recent recorded fatalities from widow envenomation in recent history. Gnats and small biting insects can be bothersome when in high numbers and first responders may want to consider keeping a bug net for their face with their gear. Be wary of bee swarms and wasp nests. You may know you’re close to a nest by suddenly encountering several bees or wasps that are flying or buzzing around you, and not perching on the flowers or other food sources.

A western black widow, which is a native species to Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC.

Foot care

While PPE is always important, it is imperative to have proper hiking boots for any backcountry event. Heavy, steel-toed duty or firefighting boots are not appropriate footwear for hiking, climbing or even walking long distances. Lightweight hiking boots which offer ankle support and adequate protection from the elements are critical to avoiding injuries to the feet. In some areas, cactus can be abundant so a tough boot exterior that resists punctures is well-advised. Carrying mole skin and other blister first-aid tools can be a terrific asset in the event a responder begins to experience discomfort or blister development. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Sunscreen and hydration

Protection from the elements is critical during any prolonged environmental exposure. Sunscreen, hats that offer shade, light-coloured clothing and long sleeves can reduce dehydration, energy consumption and sunburn. Water reservoirs for personal hydration can easily be carried in a small backpack, and many brands offer bladders in a three-litre size. Carrying a water sanitization system, straw or tablets may be helpful in the event responders run out of carried water.

Terrain and landscape considerations

Alberta can be very windy, especially on the plains and as a result, eye injuries from debris are one of the most common backcountry injuries. Sunglasses or safety goggles with UV protection can reduce this risk, as well as the risk of sun damage to the eyes. Some soil types contain a high amount of clay, which increases the danger of ATV accidents as well as slip and falls. Rocky and uneven terrain can cause falls, especially in low light. A headlamp with spare batteries should be available to each responder to decrease these risks.

These are just some of the most common hazards first responders face while performing their lifesaving duties in the back country. Do you have safety tips or rescue hacks you would like to share? Email us at


Last Updated: Friday, June 07, 2024

Return to Previous

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada