Winter is when the training wheels come off for hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers. When all of the planning and preparation you did before your trip won’t help you get out of the jam you’re in. When your buddy hits his head on a tree skiing down a backcountry route or a big chunk of falling ice takes out your belayer. When you fall through an ice ledge on a river soaking your winter boots and clothes or a whiteout smothers the peak you’re climbing and a winter storm blows in. When circumstances are so out of control, that you can only survive with what’s in your pack, the knowledge in your head, and the resources you can scrounge from your surrounding environment.
To begin, let’s define what a survival situation is so we’re on the same page. I’m not talking about situations where you’re uncomfortable, or worried, or behind schedule. You’re in a survival situation when there is a real threat to your life and a better than even chance that you’re NOT going to make it out alive. Where, if you don’t take appropriate actions to improve your chances of survival, you or one of your companions will assuredly die.
Winter presents some unique challenges in a survival situation. Cold temperatures can quickly lead to hypothermia or frostbite if you’re immobilized or lying on the cold ground. The wind poses a much greater danger if you’re in an exposed location than in warmer weather and water is harder to find because it’s likely frozen. If a member of your party is injured, you need to stabilize them and protect them from further injuries until help arrives, if it’s even coming.
No matter how grim your situation is, you need to focus on getting shelter, creating a heat source such as a fire, stabilize injured companions, obtain water which will help you avoid hypothermia, and help rescuers find you. Let’s examine each of these in turn.
1. Build a Shelter
Your first priority in winter is to build a shelter to get out of the elements, especially the cold and the wind, which can cause hypothermia and frostbite. If you’re in the open and everyone in your group is mobile, you need to get below treeline. Studies of winter accident reports have shown that people who get below treeline survive far more often than those that don’t. The trees will protect you from the wind and provide fuel for making a fire.
If you’re pinned down by the weather or a member of your party is injured and can’t be moved, digging a snow cave, a snow pit, or a snow trench will get you out of the wind. Snow is an excellent insulator, so make your shelter as enclosed as possible, while still providing adequate air flow. But don’t underestimate the effort required, especially if you don’t have an avalanche shovel.
2. Start a Fire
If you’re cold or wet, building a fire will significantly improve your chances of surviving. While a stove is good for making hot drinks or melting snow, it can’t help you dry wet clothing or help keep you warm for long. The smoke from the fire can also be used to alert rescuers to your location.
But building a fire in winter is much more difficult than building one the rest of the year, especially if the ground is covered with snow and the dead wood in the forest is wet. You also need to bring firestarters with you such as egg carton squares dipped in wax or vaseline coated cotton balls. You’ll have a really hard time starting a fire in winter without these. If there’s one skill you should definitely practice, it’s how to build a fire from scratch in the winter.
A winter survival fire doesn’t have to be big. In fact you want to keep it fairly small to stretch your wood as long as possible. If you have to build a fire on snow, dig a pit into the snow about 2 feet deep and line the bottom with thick logs cut to the same length. These will provide a solid surface to build your fire on. You’ll need to collect tinder to start your fire, which can be broken off the lower trunks of living trees in an emergency. Focus on building a deep bed of hot coals to begin with before adding larger pieces of wood to the fire.
Any larger pieces of wood you gather from the ground will probably be wet. You might want to consider adding a lightweight chain or pruning saw to your emergency gear kit so you can cut and processes larger branches from downed trees and add them to your fire more easily. If the wood is wet, you can split it using a pruning saw and make smaller kindling with a good knife. Building a log cabin or pyramid style fire will let the wood higher up dry while the wood below it burns. If you don’t already own Buck Tilton’s The Complete Book of Fire, it’s the definitive reference for building campfires for warmth, light, cooking, and survival.
3. Administer First Aid
If a member of your group is injured, you need to stabilize their condition until help can arrive. After securing the scene of an accident to make sure there no further danger or moving the victim to a safer location, you need to get an injured person onto an insulating sleeping pad as quickly as possible to prevent hypothermia from contact with the cold ground. Your immediate focus should be on stabilizing their condition, immobilizing them so they don’t harm themselves further, and keeping them warm, since rescues take much longer in winter than the rest of the year.
Wilderness first aid training is an indispensable skill in winter, and one you want at least one of companions to possess.
4. Melt Snow
It’s important to stay hydrated in winter, especially in a survival situation, as a defense against hypothermia and frostbite. If you’re out of water and not near a freely running water source, you will have to melt snow for drinking water. If you don’t have a stove or cook pot to melt snow with, you can try putting snow in a water bottle and placing it in your coat to melt it. Don’t do this however until you have a fire going and can stay warm. It can take rescuers a lot time to get to you, possibly days, and having water and fire will keep you alive even if you’ve run out of food.
5. Get Found
If you prepared for your trip properly, you left a trip plan with a trusted relative or friend who will call out Search and Rescue when you’re overdue. Be aware however that many SAR teams won’t start searching for you or launch a rescue even if they have an exact fix on your position until daylight or a bad weather event has passed. Basically, you’re on your own until they show up.
If no one knows that you’re missing, you’re going to have to signal for help. Putting green wood or leaves on a hot fire will generate smoke that rescuers can see. Circumstances will vary widely by locale, so you’ll probably want to bring extra communications gear like a Garmin InReach Min2 or a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger to signal for Search and Rescue assistance if you’re in remote backcountry or experiencing a bad weather event where there’s no one to see your signal fire. You can’t always count on electronics in winter, but they’re clearly a worthwhile investment when compared to an old school signal fire.
Winter Preparedness in the Backcountry
Winter is no joke for hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers and it takes a lot more than gear to ensure that you have the survival skills needed when the shit really hits the fan. My advice is to learn the essential survival skills I outlined above and to practice them this winter. This type of knowledge doesn’t become a survival skill until you use it, so it’s best to use it before you need it.
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