Survive when you're snowed in

Before your next winter outing, be sure to review the Winter Activities section of the Guide to Safe Scouting

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Emergency Situation: You’re on an overnight skiing and cabin-camping trip in Utah’s notoriously snowy Wasatch Mountains when a sudden, severe storm blows in. You and your troop manage to make it to the cabin, but foot after foot of snow begins to pile up outside, making travel impossible. What do you do?


    • Don’t leave the cabin. The majority of people killed after being trapped in snowstorms are those who have wandered from shelter. Even limited shelter (car, snow, cave) offers at least some protection from the elements. And hypothermia—not snow—is your real enemy. Rest assured, there’s never been a snowstorm that went on forever. At some point the storm will blow over, and you’ll be able to get out.
    • Use blankets or towels to seal all cracks around doors and windows to preserve heat, even if the cabin has a wood-burning stove or another heat source.
    • Cover windows (also with blankets) to reduce heat loss through glass and cracks. And close off and seal any unused rooms.
    • If there’s a woodstove, keep at least a small fire going to prevent the chimney from becoming blocked with snow and ice, a potentially deadly situation if smoke backs up into the cabin. Also, keep upper and lower dampers as tightly closed as possible while still allowing enough airflow to keep the fire burning. You’ll want to preserve any wood you have, so remember: dancing fingers of flame, not a roaring inferno.
    • If you have a mobile phone, you’ll be able to call for help when the storm passes. If there’s no signal, turn off the phone to save battery power. If you don’t have a phone, prepare for the potential of being stranded for several days before you’re rescued.
    • In that case, gather all food items. These should be distributed equally. But don’t be too concerned if the amount of food doesn’t seem sufficient. You’re not likely to die of hunger in a few days—though you certainly won’t feel great.
    • If the cabin has no heat source, maintaining body temperature is your primary concern. A winter-rated sleeping bag will retain your body heat efficiently, so stay inside your bag, limiting movement outside of it as much as possible. Use space (thermal) blankets, if available. Remember that snow is a pretty good insulator (think igloo and snow cave). As the cabin becomes more covered with snow, less heat will escape.


  • Once the storm passes, keep a fire going. The smoke will help signal your location to rescuers. Leaving the cabin and venturing out into deep snow cover should be a last resort and attempted only ifA) no one is searching for you; or B) you’ve been passed multiple times during several days by rescue planes or helicopters and have not been spotted. In this situation, equip at least two adults with skis, water, and supplies and send them for help.


When caught in a blizzard while camping in snowy backcountry, there are a number of safety precautions to consider. First, be aware of what’s around you. Tree branches and boughs heavy with snow (especially wet snow) can snap easily. One that falls on your tent will, at the very least, damage it; at worst, it can cause injury. And, of course, rapid snowfall means there is an avalanche risk to consider.

  • Your tent should be pitched in an area with some wind protection but minimal danger from falling branches. Consider a rocky outcropping, but avoid any slope greater than 20 degrees, which presents an avalanche danger. If there’s snow on the ground already, build a “snow wall” a few feet high around the tent as a wind break. Pack the snow under the tent to reduce melting from your body heat.
  • Keep the roof of the tent free of snow. A winter four-season tent is typically domed with a strong aluminum frame, but even these can bend—and the nylon can rip—if enough heavy snow piles up. Make sure the interior of the tent has sufficient airflow. With, say, four feet of snow outside, you’ll need to make sure at least the tops of the windows and the skylight are clear. Remember that blizzards mean high winds, so make sure your tent is securely staked.
  • If the snow gets deep enough, consider building a snow cave, which will give you a little more room and some added protection from the weather. Don’t stray from your base camp until the snowstorm has passed. Then, call for help, or strap on the snowshoes.

Josh Piven is co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit his Web site at


3 thoughts on “Survive when you're snowed in

  1. There is no such thing as an ‘accident’ … only acts of God and tragic events. That being said, when you go on events such as described, be sure to take at least one satellite phone with recharging capability and at least one personal locator beacon (PLB.) Be sure to have left an itinerary with home base. Be sure to have brought food for an extra week, even if you have to pre-position it. For warmth, cuddle-up by putting sleeping bags next to each other, and sitting very close to each other when awake. Each participant should have matches with fire-starter, whistle, compass (and know the magnetic delineation at their location,) emergency blanket. Each participant should have done several practice drills. Study how others have survived and failed in similar situations. Carry a ‘HELP’ flag for laying on the ground or roof after the storm.

    How does your group survive when it does not make it to a cabin? The satellite phone and PLB are really essential to have!!!

  2. Taking extra precautions can make the difference in surviving the unexpected. Philmont Scout Ranch’s Search and Rescue team (PhilSAR) found and rescued a family of three after they were stranded two days in their vehicle, which was completely covered in snow. Because they took extra supplies with them (food, water, sleeping bags) they were able to survive until we were able to locate them.

    Check out their survival story at:

  3. Pingback: Survive when you’re snowed in | Alexandra Meadows

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