It’s magical. The forest is flocked like a Christmas tree lot in the high-rent district of the city, but there is no city here — only the silence of wilderness. The stream is decked out with soft mounds of snow on every rock above the waterline, and along the edges are diamond chandeliers of ice dangling from every overhang. Imagine the prettiest Christmas card you ever saw — this is even better.
But all this beauty and adventure can come at a price. Winter, for all its stunning glory, can be a cruel schoolmaster, always ready to teach harsh lessons about suffering and survival. Macho attitudes swiftly wither as the windchill strips the life out of those who fail to understand that Mother Nature takes no prisoners during this season. My advice — go prepared or don’t go at all.
Preparation begins with knowledge, then grows through experience and the development of expertise in the use of relevant skills. But there’s good news, and the first part of the good news is that preparation is half the fun. The rest of the good news is that we live at a time when there is excellent winter camping equipment available at a reasonable cost. So being prepared is neither difficult nor expensive.
But even when you’re prepared, winter is a tough season for survival. You need to take care not to get into trouble, but if it happens, you need to know how to get yourself out.
Let’s take a look at a possible scenario. You leave your vehicle, intending to hike around on snowshoe for a couple of hours. The day is clear and beautiful, and you're lured on and on through the forest until you're a couple miles from your vehicle. Suddenly, the ground gives way beneath you and you realize, too late, that you're standing on a snow bridge across a stream. The next thing you know, you're hip deep in frigid water.
Another possibility — While out hiking, you are overtaken by a sudden snowstorm that blows up out of nowhere, obliterating your tracks and blinding your visibility. Suddenly, you’re lost.
Or — Your hiking buddy takes a spill and breaks his leg, a long way from the vehicle. Or perhaps you are overtaken by darkness, having lost awareness of the time and the fact that in the winter sudden nightfall seems to come in the middle of the afternoon.
These things happen every winter, and one of two outcomes will be the result — the people involve in the incident either come away with survival stories to tell, or they die. I have personally known people in both categories.
Regardless of what happens that causes you to have to survive in a winter environment, the most important things you need to do are to establish a shelter to protect yourself from the elements (wind, wet, cold), take care of any injuries, and then do everything possible to alert people that you need help.
Here are some fundamental rules that will help keep you out of trouble to begin with, or help get you out of trouble if you end up stranded in the snow.
- Never travel alone. I know, one of the best things about winter hiking is the solitude. But think of it this way — you’re going to be seeing a lot of fantastic scenery and wildlife, and it is always more fun to share those experiences. Hike silent, if you want to enjoy the quiet, but always have a hiking partner.
- Stay dry. Don’t sweat. Don’t brush up against the snow.
- Stay Warm. Don’t sit on, lie down on or touch cold objects. Stay out of the wind.
- Carry communication gear. It might be a cell phone, an FRS (Family Radio Service) radio, a GMRS (General mobile Radio Service) radio. Remember the limitations of the equipment — the cell phone may or may not work where you go hiking. FRS is good for about two miles and the more powerful GMRS signal will carry perhaps five miles (line of sight), but in both cases you need to have someone on the other end and within range who is monitoring the same frequency. It’s not very difficult to get an amateur radio operator’s license these days, and having a handheld HAM radio along for the hike might just save your cookies.
- Carry signaling equipment with you at all times. This includes a signal whistle, a mirror, methods of starting signal fires, lightweight colored cloth panels. All of that stuff is cheap. If you don’t care about cheap and just want to be able to call for help to save your life, carry a personal locator beacon (PLB). Activate and maintain your signaling efforts as soon as you realize that you are in a survival situation.
- Always leave a “flight plan” with trusted friends or relatives, detailing where you're going and when you intend to return. Then stick to your plan.
- Always be prepared to spend an unplanned night or more in the woods. Carry an emergency shelter, a Space blanket, a pocket poncho, a bivvy bag and fire-making equipment with you.
- Know how to construct a variety of expedient shelters. Snow caves can be a challenge to make (and stay dry at the same time), unless the depth and consistency of the snow are just right. Consider a tree pit shelter, in which you seek out a large tree with overhanging branches that have kept snow from collecting around the trunk. Dig out what snow is around the trunk, pile it over the branches, perhaps using your pocket poncho to help enclose the roof, and use that as a nearly ready-made natural shelter. Lacking trees, dig a trench and cover it (leaving one end open for an entrance) with your pocket poncho with snow piled along the edges to hold the “roof” taut across the trench. The snow trench is easy to build and will get you out of the wind.