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Snowbound: how to make it out alive from a winter snowstorm

Know when to start a fire.

When I was a teenager, I was snowbound for two days in the mountains of Montana in a stuck vehicle that quickly became buried.  I was grossly unprepared without food, water, tools, communications, or proper clothing.  I had a lucky break in weather, and decided to overland hike 13 miles to the nearest shelter where I was able to make contact with my parents.

Do not rely on luck.

I was stupid and lucky, without realizing at the time that even the most minor preps can make an ocean of difference in a snowbound survival scenario.  Simple preps saved a Texas family recently endured after being trapped inside their vehicle for 2 days:

Rescuers found David and Yvonne Higgins and their 5-year-old daughter Hannah clinging to each other and lethargic early Wednesday morning. The family is recovering at Miners Colfax Medical Center in Raton.

David Higgins told The Associated Press he and his wife both have pneumonia but his daughter is fine. He said he was glad to be able to talk about his ordeal because he had feared that he and his family might not be found

Higgins was able to use his cell phone to call for help, and the family passed the time by playing games.  But without cell service or a modest amount of food, water, and blankets, the outcome would likely have been disastrous for the family. 

Higgins had a simple message for travelers this winter: Throw a case of water and a sleeping bag in the car.

“It will be there if you need it,” he said. “I could see if we weren’t half as prepared as we were, it could have been a worse outcome.”

Snowstorms in Arizona?

Learning basic survival skills may seem like wasted effort to some people, but a young lady in Arizona would probably say different after surviving a week trapped in the snow.

Weinberg had two candy bars with her and told a sheriff’s deputy that she put snow in a water bottle and placed it atop the sedan she was driving so it would melt, Blair said. She wasn’t prepared for the winter conditions and did not have a heavy coat or blankets, Blair said.

Regardless of the reasons for her situation Lauren made some crucial decisions that ultimately lead to her survival. She stayed with her vehicle during the event and didn’t attempt a self rescue — a decision that proved fatal for an elderly couple earlier this month.

Lauren did not have cold weather attire or blanket so she was aware that her vehicle offered her the greatest shelter and potential for being spotted by searchers. Staying with the vehicle alone probably saved her life considering the area where she was found had over two feet of snowfall.

Additionally Lauren was aware of the dangers of eating snow for its water content. Instead she melted the snow in her water bottle and then drank the water. [TIP:  another easy method is to tuck a couple of clear freezer bags into your kit.  If the need to melt snow arises, just pile it into the bag, and let it melt.] Eating the snow would have drastically lowered her body temperature and increased the chances of hypothermia.

Here’s some thoughts to help you make it through a winter survival scenario…

  • Let someone know where you are traveling, when you intend to be there, and your route.  Stick to your plan!
  • Make a kit that contains enough food and water for everybody for at least 3 days.  Throw some blankets and extra socks in there along with a deck of cards.  Surviving can be boring.
  • If you are stuck, often your best option is to shelter in place and wait for help.
  • If you are forced to move given your own unique circumstances (not recommended), make sure you clearly mark a trail from the vehicle.  Leave a note in your vehicle stating your intention and the time you left. Be realistic about your ability to hike out of a heavy snow — what sounds like a good idea may become deadly if you don’t make your destination by nightfall.
  • Your ability to start a fire may be a critical factor in surviving in winter.  Make sure you are well-practiced and have multiple methods at your disposal. If you become cold enough to the point where you cannot touch your thumb to your pinky finger then you should start a fire.

    Sure, use the force, but have a plan.

  • Know the signs of hypothermia and stay hydrated using melted snow.
  • Don’t be afraid to slice your tauntaun open with your light saber and crawl in.

Happy Ending

After learning a lot about myself after my ordeal in the snow, I continued to hone my skills and became determined not to become a victim in a survivable situation.  Years later, I have taken over a dozen solo, multi-day backcountry trips in the same Montana wilderness that threatened me as a teenager, and have learned that snow survival can be a hardcore endeavor that is not even close to the ease and comfort of spring, summer, and fall backpacking trips.  It is not for the faint-hearted, but is incredibly rewarding in its solitude and opportunity for reflection through suffering.

The weather is becoming stranger and more unpredictable every year with 100-year severe weather events shortening to regularly occurring disasters throughout the world.  Be prepared.  Stay calm

Please remember that humans are built for adaptation even if we’ve lost many of the skills our recent ancestors took as second nature.

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