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With the way things are going in the world, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of several scenarios that could leave you stranded in the wilderness. And in the winter, these situations can become deadly in a hurry.
A closed road or car trouble in a remote area, or a wrong turn on a hike can go horribly wrong in a hurry as daylight wanes and temperatures plunge. Since frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly, you must find ways to stay warm, dry, and hydrated until help arrives or conditions allow you to find your way to safety.
This article will explore the survival basics you need to know if you’re stranded in the winter wilderness.
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Finding or Building a Shelter
If you are on foot, your first priority for winter survival is to find or create shelter. Hopefully, you have some materials, such as a tarp or plastic bags in your backpack, which you can use to make a quick, sturdy shelter. You can supplement with things you find in Mother Nature.
Here are ideas for finding the right location:
Try draping your tarp over a low branch, a large bush, or a fallen tree. Secure the outside edges with heavy rocks. If you have rope or paracord with you, you can use it to create a taller shelter. String the rope tight in the tree and then drape the tarp over the rope. You can add more insulations with leaves and branches.
This video shows three different ways to make simple tarp shelters:
Evergreen trees can provide a sturdy canopy, and they have the added bonus of having a bed of needles underneath. If there are no evergreens where you are located, look for any kind of mature tree that has a broad canopy and a thick trunk. A large bush or fallen branches might also provide some shelter. Maximize the insulation from the wind and cold by piling up fallen limbs and snow on all sides of this shelter.
This video shows you the steps for making a small tree well temporary shelter. Since you can’t build a fire inside this type of shelter, look for rocks that you can heat up in a fire and then bring inside to warm you.
You also can use a fallen tree as an emergency shelter. One advantage is that the log is off the ground and has some ready-made insulation. Tree trunks rot from the inside out, so you can dig and scoop out the wood and debris to make enough room to crawl inside. (Of course, a disadvantage of this kind of shelter is that you may find insects or other small creatures already hunkering down inside. Be careful.) Place branches in and around any openings in the log to keep the cold air out.
This video shows you how to create this type of emergency shelter:
Snow can be a useful and insulating material for building a shelter. Here’s how to build a snow trench shelter:
- Dig a narrow trench in the snow to about a mid-thigh height and a slightly wider width than the distance between your shoulders.
- Place branches and sticks (even cross-country skis) across the top of the trench to create a roof frame. Cover this frame with tarps, blankets, trash bags, or more branches.
- Cover this final roof layer with snow.
- Use leaves, evergreen boughs, newspaper, or plastic bags to pad the inside of the trench.
- Slide inside.
Here’s a video that shows how to make a snow trench shelter:
A snow cave is a way to protect yourself from the winter elements in an emergency. You’ll first need to find a large snowdrift or a steep but stable snow slope. You’ll want a shovel and, ideally, a saw to create the cave.
Here are the basic steps to follow next:
- Dig an entrance that is chest high and about 18 inches wide.
- Widen the top of the entrance in a T-shape.
- Dig into the drift to create a cave. Since the floor of the cave should be at waist level, you will be mostly digging to the sides and upward.
- Use blocks or bags of show to seal the top of the T-shaped entrance.
- Use a shovel handle or pole to pole ventilation holes in the ceiling.
- Cover what remains of the entrance with a bag of snow.
This video shows the process of building a snow cave:
Staying In Your Vehicle vs. Finding Other Shelter
If you are stranded in your vehicle in the winter, you may think it’s best to remain in your car. In some situations, you may be right. By staying inside or near your vehicle, you have a much better chance of being rescued.
Here are some ideas for making the most of this situation:
- If your car is still operating, you may want to run your heat in short intervals. However, in heavy snow, your car’s exhaust system could become blocked, causing poisonous carbon monoxide to build up inside the vehicle. Be sure to check your exhaust pipe regularly.
- If your vehicle is damaged, a snow shelter may offer better protection from the wind.
- Bundling up in a smaller space will help conserve your body heat. Use floor mats to cover yourself if necessary.
- An option to consider is building a snow shelter right next to your car, using your car as one side of the shelter.
- Tie a brightly colored cloth to your car’s antennae to make it easier to spot in the snow.
- Spell out “SOS” or “HELP” with tree boughs in the snow in an open space near your vehicle that will be visible from above.
Starting a Fire
Starting a fire in the winter can present more challenges than in warmer weather. For one thing, it is harder to find dry tinder and wood. And, for another, the ground may be frozen, making it difficult to dig a fire pit.
Here are some tips for starting a fire in the winter wilderness:
- Select a location away from your vehicle, tent, tarps, trees, and bushes that could catch fire from flying embers.
- Clear away snow and debris and dig a small hole in the ground. Surround the hole with rocks. If the ground is frozen, build up a mound of stones.
- If you do not have any tinder with you, search for dry bark, moss, lichen, twigs, or pine cones.
- Look for dry low-hanging branches from living trees or dry branches from fallen trees or standing dead trees.
- Stack kindling in a teepee-like shape and surround it with larger logs in a square shape for later burning.
- Light the tinder and gently blow into it to build up the flames. Add larger pieces of wood after the kindling catches fire.
This video shows the steps to starting a fire on the snow-covered ground:
Finding Food and Water
Once you’ve gotten your shelter secured and a fire started, it’s time to consider food and water. Dehydration is just as much a concern in cold weather as in a warm-weather survival situation.
However, since we don’t feel as thirsty when we are cold as when we are hot, we often ignore the warning signs of dehydration.
If you can find fresh running water in a creek or stream, so much the better. But, if not, you can melt ice or snow for its moisture content. Be sure to boil the water first.
Avoid eating unmelted snow. It can lower your core temperature, increasing your susceptibility to hypothermia. Snow also can contain toxic contaminants.
You can collect condensation that happens inside your shelter by angling plastic sheeting or bags on the inside of your shelter roof and placing a clean bowl underneath.
This video shows you how to obtain water in a frozen landscape:
Finding food is also a challenge in wintry conditions. This video shows how to forage wild greens and other plants in the cold weather. Here are some foraging opportunities:
- Cattails. When washed and peeled, cattail roots can be prepared like potatoes, and they have a potato-like flavor. This video shows the process.
- Acorns. After soaking acorns for three days and with three water changes to remove tannins, you can roast them or boil them.
- Rosehips. You can use Vitamin-C-rich rosehips to make a tea or a jelly.
Finally, the best way to survive being stranded in any type of weather is to prepare before heading out on your journey.
If you are traveling by car, pack an emergency kit in your vehicle. If you are traveling on foot, pack the essentials in your backpack. This article gives an overview of what should be in a winter backpack.
If you are stranded in cold weather and are unsure when your situation will improve or when help will arrive, here are the steps you should take.
- Find or build a shelter before nightfall.
- Create a fire for warmth, to melt ice for drinking water, and to cook food.
- Look for food.
- Layer clothing and blankets and huddle in a small space to conserve body heat at night.
- Use the fire’s heat to dry any wet clothing.
Another step is to remind yourself to think and stay calm. Panic can cause you to make bad and possibly dangerous decisions. You can use the mnemonic “STOP,” which stands for “Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan,” if you are faced with an emergency.
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