Public information package for custodial groups planning winter backcountry travel
Canada is one of the world's great alpine nations. Renowned for its steep mountains, vast forests, extensive glaciers and churning rivers - it is here that many of life's most important lessons can be learned; a place where countless individuals have become inspired to appreciate life to its fullest. As a society, Canadians are inherently connected to the wilderness.
The importance of passing this message along to our youth of today should not be underestimated. Providing a group of children with an opportunity to experience the wilderness of their own country is a gift they are likely to recall for the rest of their life; indeed, it may shape how they choose to live their lives.
But leading a group of children into the wilderness comes with tremendous responsibilities – there are risks to be managed and many decisions to be made. The onus is on everyone who encourages children to explore the mountains to understand and accept the personal responsibilities associated with this. This includes parents, group organizers, group leaders, guides and land managers.
The following information is in regards to taking a custodial group into the backcountry of the Mountain National Parks. The following points are intended to clarify Parks Canada's policies and regulations for this activity, and to offer some assistance and resources for planning a safe and rewarding mountain experience.
What is a custodial group?
Officially: A "custodial group" means a group affiliated with an institution, where at least one person is below the age of majority and that minor is not in the company of his/her parent or legal guardian* . Institutional groups include (but are not limited to) school groups, Scout/Guide groups, church groups, cadet groups and community youth groups.
In other words: if an institution of some form has organized the group, and there are minors participating whose parents aren't present – then it's a custodial group. Custodial refers to custody, and the fact that when leading minors in the absence of their parent or legal guardian*, the group leader is in loco parentis (in the place of the parent).
This doesn't include groups of friends or families - this is about institutions, and their responsibility to the children they lead and the parents they replace.
The age of majority is 18 in Alberta and 19 in British Columbia.
*legal guardian: A guardian appointed by court order; or, a guardian appointed by will; or, a person who has permanent, ongoing, provincial government sanctioned custody of the child.
Pre-trip planning and risk disclosure
Planning ahead for backcountry travel is an absolutely essential part of the experience – a well-prepared group with well-researched options has the best chance for success. Of primary importance when planning a trip with custodial groups is involving more than just the participants themselves. Parents and institutions also need reliable information if they are to make decisions on behalf of their children or students.
This requires extra effort on the part of everyone involved to explain the trip details, options, and risks in a clear and concise format that an untrained parent, group leader, or teacher will understand. These same people bear an equal or greater responsibility to listen to the information, and to ask questions which will ensure they understand the risks the group may face.
All parents want to make the right decisions on behalf of their children and their own family's tolerance for risk. It is a major responsibility of the institutions organizing these trips to assist those parents in making informed decisions.
The following links lead to important information that must be considered when planning any winter backcountry trip. Resources such as guidebooks, maps and ATES ratings should be considered long before the trip. Weather and avalanche bulletin information must be tracked regularly in the weeks leading up to the trip - and checked once more just prior to departure. Whether you follow the links from here, or use your own resources – do not leave out researching any of the following information.
- List of National Park licensed guides
- Avalanche Terrain Ratings
- Guidebook and map resources
- Generic equipment list
- Avalanche bulletin information
- Weather forecasts
Parks Canada policies and regulations for custodial groups
The following policies and regulations apply to custodial groups only, and are in effect from Nov 15 – Apr 30 annually. The goal of these policies is to ensure that custodial groups receive the right leadership, in the appropriate terrain, during good avalanche conditions.
Custodial group policies are based upon Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) ratings. Details of this system, along with a list of over 250 rated trips in the mountain National Parks, can be obtained from any Parks Canada Information Centre, or on our ATES Rating page. These ratings describe the level of commitment, and exposure to avalanches that each different trip offers.
|Parks Canada Custodial Policies|
|Custodial groups may travel with no specific leadership or custodial permitting requirements in Class 1 (Simple) terrain only. Parks Canada recommends that custodial groups avoid backcountry travel entirely during Backcountry Avalanche Advisories of POOR.|
|An ACMG or IFMGA mountain or ski guide with a valid permit must lead all custodial groups. Group size must not exceed a total of 10. Travel on avalanche terrain only when the guide rates the slope specific Snow Stability as Good or Very Good.|
|Custodial Groups will not be permitted into this terrain under any conditions.|
Traveling in Class 1 (Simple) Terrain
Although there are no specific custodial permits required for leading a custodial group into Class 1 (Simple) terrain, this does not mean that anyone is capable of doing this. Leading any group into the mountains is a big responsibility, made only more obvious when leading children. Anyone who proposes to lead a group into the backcountry must have significant personal experience in the mountains, first aid training, and strong leadership skills.
Planning for emergency communications in the backcountry is important. Unlike urban regions, cellular coverage in the mountains is intermittent – at best. Most backcountry locations do not have any cell phone coverage. This means that emergency communications requires some planning.
1. Figure out if the area you are heading to has cell phone coverage. Expect this only near the highway corridors between Banff and Lake Louise, and near the Jasper townsite.
2. Consider renting a satellite phone. Although not 100% reliable, sat phones will usually work from most locations in the mountain parks, but 911 operators may be confused when you call from a sat phone – hence the backcountry numbers listed below.
Make sure the batteries are fully charged before departure, and carry a spare. Also make sure you have written down the emergency numbers and keep them with the phone.
|National Park||Emergency #||Backcountry Emergency #|
|Banff||911||403 762 4506|
|Yoho||911||403 762 4506|
|Kootenay||911||403 762 4506|
|Jasper||911||1 877 852 3100|
|Glacier||1 877 852 3100||1 877 852 3100|
|Mt. Revelstoke||1 877 852 3100||1 877 852 3100|
|Waterton Lakes||403 859 2636||403 859 2636|
When you call a 911 operator, you should state that you are in the backcountry of - - - - - - - National Park, have an emergency and require the Warden Service. They will connect you.
Being well prepared and properly equipped for backcountry travel is essential. The equipment and clothing that you bring with you on your mountain trip has a direct effect on your safety and comfort. See our Winter Backcountry Checklist for a list of clothing and equipment considerations.
Canada has a long tradition of professional mountain guiding, beginning in the late 1800's when the Canadian Pacific Railway began importing Swiss mountain guides to lead their guests into the mountains. This tradition continues today – Canada's mountain guides are certified to meet rigid international standards, and many professional mountain guides operate businesses in the National Parks. If you are a novice to the backcountry, or simply looking to learn more – consider hiring a certified, professional mountain guide.
Make sure the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) certifies your guide, and they are licensed to operate in the National Parks. Please consult this list of ACMG guiding businesses licensed in the mountain national parks.
Checking the weather forecast is another essential part of being prepared for travel in the backcountry – do this the day you are leaving. The following links will take you to weather information for each national park.
- Banff National Park
- Yoho National Park
- Kootenay National Park
- Jasper National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Mt. Revelstoke National Park
- Waterton Lakes National Park
Tracking and understanding the daily avalanche conditions is important, but also can be complex. Avalanche warnings are available for two levels of comprehension, depending on your skill level.
1. The Backcountry Avalanche Advisory is basic information, which gives a very general overview of the conditions in a particular region. This information is broadcast in the news media and is accompanied by directions on where to obtain more detailed information.
2. Public Avalanche Bulletins are what you should be reading prior to embarking on any backcountry travel. This information contains a summary of the weather and snowpack conditions, a daily rating, as well as an outlook for how things will evolve in the future. These can also be obtained at www.avalanche.ca.
Several excellent guidebooks exist which describe in detail, the many backcountry trips which are found in the mountain National Parks. These books should be consulted, along with topographic maps of any region you are planning visit. We recommend the following guidebooks.
1. Summits & Icefields, Columbia Mountains – by Chic Scott
2. Summits & Icefields, Canadian Rockies – by Chic Scott
3. Ski Trails in the Canadian Rockies – by Chic Scott
4. Ski Touring in Rogers Pass – by J.P. Kors and John Kelly
These publications and relevant topographic maps are available at local mountain specialty stores, or via the
Certified guides leading custodial groups in Class 2 (Challenging) terrain are required to have a valid custodial permit. Many guiding companies who run businesses in the National Parks already possess these permits, which are valid for the duration of the winter season – custodial groups simply need to hire a certified guide who holds this permit.
It is also possible for certified guides to obtain a custodial permit for a specific trip or date. Guides not operating businesses in the National Park will be granted short-term custodial permits, provided they are not operating for profit. These permits are available from any National Park Information Centre.
Custodial groups themselves do not require the permit, and there is no paperwork required of them – these groups simply need to ensure they are led by a certified guide who is permitted. There are no fees for these permits.