Health & Fitness

How to survive getting stuck out in the snow and cold

I suspect Frosty the Snowman is not in truth a jolly, happy soul. Parts of him look stiffened by frostbite, others thoroughly deadened by hypothermia. He must’ve spent a cold night out. That could also explain his frozen grin and blank stare.

In a gift-giving season, we all should understand that the very best present we can ever hope to award our loved ones is making it back home – hopefully, with all our fingers and toes intact. That means taking steps to ensure we don’t end up like Frosty.

Each winter, skiers and boarders duck under resort boundary ropes, and/or get disoriented and lost in whiteouts. Other folks, overly confident about the abilities of their SUVs, drive too far into places they should never go and bog down on remote roads.

But for people brought nose-to-nose with hostile winter conditions, a few simple measures could make all the difference between mild discomfort and full-scale disaster. Start off by admitting that it’s indeed possible to have a problem. When you do, whether or not it turns into a major problem is largely up to you.

“In general, if you’re going outdoors, you need to have a plan and you always want to let other people know about it,” says Deputy Leslie Schlag, who is a coordinator at the Office of Emergency Services for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department. “The plan tells people your destination, how long you intend to be there, and when they should notify a sheriff if they have not heard from you.”

The next measure is to make sure your most important piece of safety gear is with you, and that it’s functioning properly. Which would be: your head. If you wind up in a jam, you must fend off panic, stay calm and engage in a mighty effort to think your problem through. Take encouragement from this hoary truth: No matter how bad things get, you can always make them worse. So, don’t do that.

“Many of our searches begin when people wander outside resort boundaries, whether intentionally or not,” says Jeff DeVries, a 13-year veteran with Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue, a volunteer outfit that operates primarily in Placer County. “The bad stuff starts after they refuse to admit their mistake. If they’d just turn around and boot back up the hill, they could follow their own tracks out. Instead they stubbornly refuse to admit defeat and keep going, thinking they can ski out. Then they get exhausted, then rough weather rolls, in, then it gets dark. Now their situation is serious.”

Besides announcing your plans and keeping your head, some amazingly simple and small pieces of gear, plus a few tips on wilderness woodsmanship, can also aid in creating a positive outcome.

Basic pack

This is a kit so tiny and light, there’s no excuse for not taking it everywhere. It easily slips below the seat of your car, into a fanny pack or even a large-ish coat pocket.

▪ Five light plastic bags, like the ones you put vegetables in at a grocery store. These are cheap VBLs, vapor barrier liners. In a cold emergency, put them between boots and socks, under gloves or mittens, plus one beneath your hat. They help retain heat, and if a cold rain falls, can prevent moisture from continuously soaking those areas.

▪ Two large plastic garbage bags, big enough to go over your body. Tear neck and arm holes in one, and use it as a poncho. Stuff the other one with leaves, pine twigs (any dry material you can find) and pull it up over your lower body as a bivvy sack.

▪ Small fluid-mounted compass. Available at any outdoors store.

▪  Small LED light with a lithium battery. Found at outdoors and hardware stores.

▪ Durable chocolate or energy bar. (Swap it out for a fresh bar occasionally.)

▪  A whistle. It sure beats yelling for help.

That’s it! Roll these items up together, snap some rubber bands around the package, and it’s good to go. Oh yes, you’re already toting a water bottle, right? Because when air is dry and high and cold, and you’re exercising, it’s easy to get dehydrated. By thickening your blood, dehydration makes frostbite and hypothermia worse. So stash your full water bottle in the car or fanny pack right next to this basic emergency pack.

Medium pack

If you know you’re going off-piste, making a foray into the backcountry or risking stormy conditions, add more items to that basic pack. This will mean raising your carrying capacity to daypack size – which also lets you add more water and food, perhaps a bigger flashlight.

▪ Warmth accessories, such as liner hat, liner gloves, scarf, spare socks. But nothing in cotton. Artificial fibers are good. Wool or silk is better.

▪ Square of dense foam (cut from a sleeping pad) about 2 feet wide. This can be rolled or stuffed in a day pack. Use it as torso insulation while standing or for sitting on during an emergency.

▪ Fire-starter. It’s not always smart and not always possible to build a fire. Yet, sometimes it is. Storm matches (from an outdoors store) and steel wool, lint balls, paraffin pucks or candle stubs make a basic kit. Fire-starting tools using all-weather elements such as tungsten carbide, flint, steel and magnesium add significant capability.

▪ Mylar blanket. So-called “space-blankets” are light, windproof, heat-reflective. A 20-foot length of parachute cord can help turn one into a shelter, such as the roof of a lean-to. The red/orange side enables you to signal rescue aircraft.

▪ Folding knife. You’ll need it to segment the cord, and it can be used to slice dry shavings out of sticks (for tinder) and strip off fir twigs so you can pile them up for sitting or sleeping insulation.

▪  Bivvy sack. The cheapest and lightest bags are also made of reflective Mylar, but it’s seam-taped into a waterproof sleeping bag. Sacks of coated ripstop nylon and Gore-Tex are also available. Some add a thin insulating layer. Best of all is a sack plus a light sleeping bag.

▪ Signaling devices. Besides your red Mylar blanket and/or bivvy, bring a signaling mirror for day use, and a strobe flasher for night (many types of LED flashlights incorporate this function).

Fancy pack

To maximize your survival capability, it helps to be able to “reach out and touch” a SAR – search-and-rescue team. Your cellphone might be able to accomplish that with a 911 call. However, cell coverage in the mountains often tilts to the sketchy. If you’re down in a canyon, covered by a forest etc., it gets worse. But most smartphones have GPS capability; know how to use it to check your coordinates, in case you’re able to get a call through.

Alternatives include a PLB (personal locator beacon) or SEND (satellite emergency notification device). They’re both hand-held, battery-powered devices that communicate via satellite, not cellphone tower.

PLBs are the most robust. The simplest ones send out a “need rescue” signal. It’s keyed to your UIN (unique identification number), which is registered with a federal agency. When satellites get the signal, they inform the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which transmits your UIN info and your call for help to a local SAR (usually a sheriff’s department). The best PLBs also can send your GPS coordinates. That’s better, because with the first type, the SAR team can home in on you only within a radius of a couple miles. With the second type, it can get inside a 300-yard radius.

The more modern SEND units are not quite as powerful – they rely on satellite phone networks – yet they do enable limited, two-way communication, which allows you to modify your call for help as well as provide details about your circumstances.

More information about these units can be found online or at outdoor stores. The devices can prove important aids, but of course are not foolproof – especially when the fool is you. Activating the device in a non-emergency can make you an object of public ridicule, as well as hit you with a substantial rescue bill. In addition, batteries can run down, or these devices can be dropped or damaged. But if you need to throw a Hail Mary, they can also provide that one, significant, final option.


Your gear, such as it is, can prove only as good as the sense you demonstrate in using it. If you find yourself lost in a winter environment, consider taking the following steps:

▪  Stop moving. As soon as you know you are lost, stop. Note well, this tactic works best if you’ve notified friends and relations where you were going and the day and time you expected to be back.

▪  Seek shelter. You can keep moving enough to get out of the prevailing wind, then use natural features such as a boulder, fallen log or tree well (the dip in snow around a tree trunk, beneath the lowest branches) to protect yourself.

▪  Enhance your shelter. Use your skis or snowboard to dig out a cave or tunnel large enough to hold you – your entire body if possible, or at least enough of a niche to shelter you from clumps of snow tumbling off branches. Line its floor with twigs and boughs. Try to assemble a big enough heap to cover yourself as well. The walls and roof of a snow cave can function as a windblock and even serve as insulation, but you want no part of your body (even clothed) to touch snow or ice.

▪  Warming procedure. Shivering is a natural response to a chill; the instinctive muscular action is not useless, it’s designed to create warmth. You can help it along by clenching and relaxing your major muscles (isometrics), opening and closing hands, wiggling toes, flexing ankles. If your feet grow numb, occasionally exit your shelter to stomp around with vigor.

▪  Daylight signals. When dawn comes, strategize ways to make your location more visible to airborne or ground searchers.

▪  Stay positive. Do whatever it takes to keep your mood optimistic. Pray, sing, hold imaginary chats with friends, fantasize sunbathing on Hawaiian beaches, think about gobbling a bowl of steaming chili and taking a hot bath right after you’re rescued. Because if you don’t make it home for Christmas, for sure you’ll exit this fix well before New Year’s Eve, right?

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