By Jane Marshall
It’s 1:30am. Mother nature has pulled a shiny layer of ice across the Icefields Parkway. The road is black and slick. It often hugs a guardrail, and beyond that thin metal divide we can see nothing but dark oblivion — yet we know it’s not oblivion, but rather a long plunge off rocky cliffs. My family and I are en-route to Hilda Creek Hostel, almost at our destination, and happy to be done with this white-knuckle winter driving. But then we see something. The only other car on the road, headed toward us, flashes its brights. We pull over and discover a group of young foreign exchange students from Columbia, Brazil, and Russia.
“What’s up?” my husband Mike asks.
“How far is it to Jasper?” asks the young woman who’s driving.
“Hmmm, well, it’s still quite a drive,” we reply.
“I think we’re going to run out of gas.” She and her fellow travellers are worried, and rightly so. The highway condition is awful, it’s -26 Celsius, and they are on a remote mountain highway. If they do run out of gas, they’ll be sleeping on the side of the road in freezing conditions, and it’s uncertain when another car might rescue them. And so we are bound to make a u-turn, drive back to Jasper, buy a jerry can and fill it, and return to the girls. It’s the code of mountain travellers, and I myself have been helped in foreign countries in my own dicey situations. The girls are relieved when we really do return, twist open the gas can lid, and pour in the sweet fuel beneath a sky of shockingly gorgeous stars.
It serves as a good reminder: When going skiing, snowboarding, winter camping, snowshoeing, or whatever our winter adventure happens to be, it’s important that we’re prepared for a winter emergency. It’s easy to forget the freezing wilderness when the block heater is functional and the tunes are flowing.
Winter Road Trip Safety
You’re packed. You’re ready. But are you ready for a breakdown?
Bring these things. They might save your life:
- Cell phone charger so you can call for help. But remember, Alberta has lots of places with no service. Consider bringing a GPS device (you may already have one for your adventure!)
- Warm clothes for long rescue waits
- Extra batteries
- Jerry can with extra gas, safely stored
- Candle and matches, to provide some heat
- Hand and foot warmers
- Shovel for digging out of a snow bank
- Bag of kitty litter for traction if you’re stuck (sprinkle it around your tires)
- Booster cables
Try to leave early so there’s more traffic, therefore more possible help if needed. Tell someone your trip plan, and call or text once you arrive. Make sure you winterize your car. Many Alberta highways require winter tires. Ah yes, and DON’T FORGET: Keep your tank close to full! Some gas stations close for the winter, including Saskatchewan River Crossing, as our friends the exchange students found out.
Other Things to Remember:
Booking a wilderness hostel or backcountry cabin is a fantastic way to get connected with the winter environment. These basic buildings are usually at least a few hundred meters off the highway (or more), have no running water, are heated by propane, and are out-house only. But what happens if you get to the cabin and realize, ‘Whoops! I forgot the door code!’ Or, ‘!#@%!’ the door code doesn’t work!
- Re-check the door code with the hostel or club just before departure, especially if you made your reservation early. Imagine skiing in 10km and not being able to get in!
- Light the propane heaters immediately, and don’t forget to bring multiple sets of matches. Heaters can take a long time to heat a frozen space.
Road Closures and Highway Safety
- Check out the Alberta Motor Association’s Winter Road Trip Safety Tips
- Call 511 or visit 511.alberta.ca for Government of Alberta highway conditions
- Some roads frequently close due to avalanches or poor conditions (such as the Icefields Parkway/Hwy 93, or seasonally, such as numerous Kananaskis roads.