How to Survive in a Snowbound Vehicle
Winter storms can move in without warning, catching you unprepared.
Even when you take every precaution to avoid it, a winter storm can move in without warning, catching you unprepared and leaving you in a survival situation. Every year, lots of people get trapped in their vehicles by heavy snows.
Severe snowstorms can dump incredible amounts of snow in a short time. It’s not unusual, in the high country, for 2 to 3 feet of snow to fall overnight. If you pull off of the highway to sleep in your truck for a few hours before a hunt, you might awaken to find that your vehicle is just a bump in the snow-covered landscape, and that you’re unable to drive. Depending on how critical the use of that particular stretch of asphalt is to the local economy, it might be a long time before a snowplow comes along and someone finds you. So, what should you do if you find yourself trapped by snow?
FIRST THINGS FIRST
As in any survival situation, spend a few minutes assessing your situation, taking stock of the potential survival items at hand. Then try the simplest solutions first. If you have a cell phone or CB radio in your vehicle, call for help. The sooner you can make contact with the outside world, the faster you’ll be rescued. Amateur radio operators can call across the country or around the world and relay a message back to local authorities. (You might even want to consider becoming a HAM operator and carrying a portable transceiver in your vehicle.)
Next, take steps to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Do everything you can to prevent losing heat from your body. If you have extra clothes along, put them on. Stay inside your vehicle as much as possible to keep dry. Crawl into your sleeping bag. Drink plenty of water, and stoke up your inner fire by eating high-energy foods.
Running your vehicle’s engine to operate the heater is tempting, but futile in the long run. As soon as you turn off the engine, the vehicle’s interior will get cold almost immediately due to the lack of insulation. Moreover, there is a real danger of death by carbon monoxide poisoning from breathing in the emissions generated by the engine exhaust. Besides, if you’re going to be stuck for very long, you’re going to run out of gas anyway, so try to figure out other ways to stay warm (lighting a small candle can produce an amazing amount of heat). Just remember to crack the window open a little, so you have fresh air to breathe.
You might have to leave the vehicle for short periods to accomplish certain tasks. For example, you should clear off some snow to reveal paint or reflective surfaces so your vehicle can be seen from a search aircraft. Also, tie a piece of colorful cloth to the radio antenna to signal the first snowplow that comes your way. You might need to leave to collect some snow to melt for drinking water or to take a bathroom break. Otherwise, just be patient–you’re not going to be able to shovel your way back to civilization or hike out safely. Stay with your vehicle!
SURVIVING AN AVALANCHE
Every year, back-country skiers and snowmobilers are lost in avalanches. Not too surprising, since those folks are out looking for adventure. But when the snow slides across a road, victims include people who are simply driving along, minding their own business. Suddenly, their vehicles can be swept off the road and over the edge, following the cascade of snow to a canyon bottom.
IF YOU’RE TRAPPED
Should you become trapped in an avalanche, the situation is far more critical than just being snowbound. There may be injuries. Your vehicle may no longer be on the road, so it’s unlikely to be discovered by a plow driver. You might be buried under tons of snow that has set like concrete.
Your first priority is to assess the condition of everyone in the party and treat any injuries. If possible, make contact with the outside world. Use your cell phone or CB to call for help. Next, formulate a plan to extricate yourselves from the vehicle. You might have to dig your way out, so having a small shovel in the vehicle is important when traveling in snow country.
You’re in an avalanche path. Depending on snow conditions, another one might come at any time, so you need to get to a safe place. Snowshoes can be very helpful. If you have to fight your way through chest-deep snow, you’ll get wet, cold and exhausted very quickly. Unless you can reach help soon, hypothermia will be inevitable and death probable.
Establish a safe camp, using the items recommended in the sidebar below. These should be carried in your vehicle. The highway is the best place to camp if you can get back up to it, since it will be closer to the route rescuers will take. Establish visible signals–a fire with smoke by day and flames by night; colored panels that can be seen from search aircraft; a message stamped into the snow or laid out using evergreen boughs, reflective materials or whatever else you’ve got.
It is important to stay dry, warm, hydrated and fed. Above all, stay put. The rescue will come.
COOLING OFF Chilblain is a condition brought on by extended exposure to dry cold. The skin reddens and swells and becomes itchy and tender. Chilblain is not dangerous, but it is irritating. Treatment with zinc-oxide ointment or Vaseline petroleum jelly may help ease the discomfort.
SNOW TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Those who live where the snow is deep and winter is long know that the phrase “Don’t leave home without it” isn’t just a credit card slogan. If you travel in snow country, the following equipment should always be kept in your vehicle during winter months. Having this survival gear on hand could save your life.
SELF-RESCUE EQUIPMENT Four-wheel drive Winch High-lift jack Tow straps Shovel Tire chains Snowshoes or cross-country skis
SHELTER Tent Sleeping bags Wool blankets
CLOTHING Warm layers of wool or down Waterproof, insulated winter boots Gloves or mittens Warm hat with ear and neck protection Neoprene face mask Sunglasses
EMERGENCY FOOD High-energy foods that won’t perish or freeze: dried fruits, nuts, granola bars, candy
FIRE-STARTING EQUIPMENT Disposable lighter Waterproof matches Emergency candles Flares
COMMUNICATION Cell phone CB, FRS or HAM radio
Photo: Beige Alert