The axiom “The best way to survive a crisis situation is to never be in a crisis situation.” However, there is another axiom which simply says “S**t Happens.” We can’t have it both ways so our best bet is to create our own axiom. “If shit happens I will be as prepared as possible to deal with it.” Let’s investigate methods of staying alive in a snow blizzard.
Stranded in Your Car – An Ounce of Prevention
It’s only common sense if you are living or traveling through areas prone to heavy snowstorms you be prepared to deal with such situations. Your car should be a traveling bug out bag, tailored to address the elements most likely to be encountered. The minimum items should include:
A good quality sleeping bag, rated 10 degrees F colder than anticipated low temperatures
Layers of extra warm clothing. Bulky sweat shirts / sweat pants, easy to pull over existing clothing, sock hat, gloves, boots
Matches, lighter, fire starter stick. Prepackaged tinder log for starting fires
Metal container for melting snow into drinkable water
Candles, flashlight, solar lantern
This amount of emergency gear will easily fit into a cargo bag and thrown into your car trunk or behind the truck seat.
Steps to Take if Stuck in Snow
Check to be sure your exterior exhaust (tailpipe) is clear of snow, uncover if it is as carbon monoxide buildup inside the car will silently kill you.
Assuming you are in an isolated area, stay with the car. Call for help if you can.
Turn the car off, assess the situation, make a plan
Periodically turn the car back on in order to heat up the interior. Turn off as soon as interior is heated as to conserve fuel, especially if you were foolish enough to travel with less than half a tank of fuel.
Before restarting engine, check the tailpipe to insure melted snow, refrozen, hasn’t clogged it.
Stay hydrated, but .. Do Not eat snow. It will rob the core body of desperately needed warmth. Melt the snow into a warm liquid before drinking it, this will help warm you.
Begin to get cold … do some exercises before turning car back on. Flutter kicks, crunches, anything to increase blood flow will help heat you. And save on fuel consumption. If it only delays turning the car back on for 5 minutes. Multiply that by hours before being rescued could add several hours of car produced heat.
Depending on the situation, keep your seat belt on, as although you are stuck a passing vehicle could still hit you. Same applies to hazard lights, you don’t want to run the battery down, but you also want to draw attention to yourself.
I want to re-emphasize staying hydrated. When experiencing extreme cold you lose the thirst urge, therefore becoming dehydrated and not realizing it. Dehydration results in the body being much more susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia.
What Are You Are Trying to Avoid?
For simple minded people like myself, knowing what I’m trying to accomplish or avoid, makes solutions easier to understand the “Why” or “How” something needs to be done. Plus, knowing as much as possible about my situation allows my own creative juices to flow, I might know better than the book on how to survive my crisis. Feeling cold is actually the least important thing we’re worried about. Once I had a Marine tell me “pain was good. It meant I was still alive.” It’s what unattended cold can do to us that we’re concerned about.
Beware and Avoid Frostbite
Few people realize that, depending on weather conditions, frostbite can occur in less than one (1) minute! To me the word frostbite doesn’t convey the extreme danger you are exposed to. The body tissue actually freezes, just like that roast in the deep freezer, and dies. That’s pretty damn extreme. Parts of the body such as, earlobes, cheeks, nose tips, fingers and toes are particularly susceptible to damage because they are either exposed or the farthest away from the heart. The body will stop sending blood to extremities it deems non-vital in order to protect major organs. If you see your skin turning white, blackish, or blood blistered, get to warmth immediately. People with heart conditions and diabetes should be especially cautious as they already have restricted blood flow.
First signs of frostbite
What is Dehydration and How Can It Cause Death
The body is dependent on water to function correctly. Up to 75% of the body weight is
water found within the cells, blood vessels and in between cells. Dehydration, simply put, occurs when the body loses more water than it consumes. The body’s initial response to dehydration is to create a thirst urge in order to force the brain to order water intake. Next, urine will become concentrated and very yellow in color.
If the body’s need for water is not addressed and as water loss increases, more symptoms will become apparent.
Dry mouth … no saliva production
Eyes stop lubricating, no tear production creates irritated scratchy eyes
Muscles begin to cramp
Sweating stops which cause the body to begin overheating
Nausea and vomiting which only speeds the dehydration
Light headed especially when standing or raising
Decreased or no urine output
This situation will set off a string of events, the body compensates by increasing the heart rate and restricting blood vessels to non-vital organs, causing the skin to feel cool and clammy. This coping mechanism will eventually affect the brain, lungs, kidneys and intestines. Severe weakness and confusion will result as the brain and other organs receive less blood. Coma, organ failure, then death will occur.
Hypothermia the Sleeping Death
Hypothermia has been referred to as the sleeping death because in the later stages a person loses consciousness, appearing to go to sleep, and dies. Obviously early recognition of hypothermia becomes critical. Medically speaking hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops under 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Symptoms can be deceiving and unrelated to a novice not educated to the warning signs. The person may experience:
- Dizziness as if faint
- Confusion as if under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Extreme and uncontrollable shivering
- Loss of skin color, ash or whitewashed appearance
- Poor coordination or slurred speech
- Nail beds will turn blue
- Weird behavior. Instances have been documented that people freezing to death would take their clothes off because they felt they were too hot.
Must Learn Survival Shelters to Build
There are dozens of different types of primitive cold weather shelters that can be built and dozens more that can be improvised by using unique natural formations at your specific location. But we are going to concentrate on building the easiest and most efficient cold weather shelters possible with limited tools and limited skills. Should you possess advanced skills .. go for it … but right now I’m concerned about savings lives of the novice and the unfortunate who find themselves in harms way through no fault of their own.
Shelter One – Snow Wall
For a change. Let’s begin with the worse, yet most basic, cold weather shelter. Although it provides the least protection, there is a place for it in our shelter building arsenal. Should you become stranded on a flat plain, no trees, only a few inches of snow accumulation and ground too frozen to dig, the first concern is wind chill. Depending on velocity the wind can reduce how the cold affects the body by 10 to 60 degrees F from the actual temperature. It’s imperative to shield yourself from the wind.
The idea is to simply scoop snow into a wall, just like building a snow fort as a kid. Depending on the amount of available snow, make the wall as high as possible while maintaining integrity, preferably to where you can sit up, but at least high enough to block the wind while you are laying down.
This is a temporary, overnight or rest stop, shelter, but can increase the ambient temperature by a surprisingly high amount. Remember, do what you have to do in a survival situation.
Shelter Two – Tree Pit
Anytime you can allow nature to help with the construction by all means do so. Try to find a large tree which is buried with a few feet of snow.
Dig down to the base of the tree creating a void large enough for you to sit or lay in. Use boughs from the tree and/or surrounding trees to cover the floor and sides of the enclosure in order to insulate you from sitting or leaning directly against the snow. Finish the shelter by using boughs to cover the opening, acting as a roof. Keep the area small to retain as much heat as possible.
Shelter Three – A-Frame
Beginning with the A-frame our intended usage changes from very temporary to undetermined, which affects our quality of construction, as this may be home for a few days. The first step is to remove all the snow possible from the ground where you intend to build, as frozen ground will not melt as quickly as snow.
Typical A-Frame Construction
Begin by building the framework with tree branches, stout sticks or other suitable material. If you have a tarp, parachute or any other item you can drape over the frame, you can do that now in order to see how the structure will look, you may want to modify it and you don’t want to get too far into construction before realizing it. Or … and I suggest this, cover the entire floor with tree boughs, branches, soft plants, moss and any other insulation you can locate, without the interference of the covering.
Cover the frame with layers of boughs, always placing the branch and needles in a downward direction and build from bottom to top. Try to interweave the branches in order to strengthen the structure and to close openings. Once the entire frame is covered, begin packing a layer of snow over the exterior. Work slowly, bottom to top, creating a reasonably smooth snow roof with no openings for wind to enter or heat to escape. The thickness of the snow roof depends on the strength of the frame work, but a mere 2” to 3” of snow creates an excellent barrier. Finish the project by creating a door plug.
Shelter Four – Snow Trench
Example of Snow Trench
This shelter is aptly named because it is … a trench in the snow. This shelter is not intended to be as permanent as the A-frame may need to be, but possibly more than a night.
Begin by digging a trench deep, wide and long enough for you to lay in comfortably while keeping in mind the anticipate time you’ll be using it. You may want it tight in order to conserve heat, or a bit larger to accommodate some equipment or to relieve a claustrophobic feeling. You’ll want to line the floor with boughs and other insulation so allow for that while digging.
Place tree limbs, boughs, sticks across the top of the trench, layered for strength, and cover with snow if possible to prevent wind entering. Plug the entrance and you have a cozy, that’s real estate talk for small, shelter which will help you weather the cold.
These are four examples of emergency shelters to build if suddenly stranded in life threatening frigid conditions. As stated before, this only scratches the surface, but they will save your life.
Try to remember these basic winter weather tips:
- Cold weather shelters need to be enclosed and insulated if possible
- Snow will be the most abundant insulation material available. Use it.
- Prevent body heat loss by insulating yourself from direct contact with snow or cold ground.
- Inside a snow shelter, if you can not see your breath when exhaling, the shelter is too warm and will create melting and dripping issues. Cold is bad … wet and cold is worse.
- Ventilation is a requirement. What! You’re telling me to plug everything up tight now to leave holes. No, but one must beware of carbon monoxide poisoning. Always include a vent in your construction.
You can now identify, so you can address, the danger signals the body sends in order to prevent serious injury or death. You can build a primitive shelter which will save your life in frigid weather conditions. That’s not a bad days work.
Look for nearly ready made shelters like a downed tree.