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 wander 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 if A) 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.
Before your next winter outing, be sure to review the Winter Activities section of the Guide to Safe Scouting.
Josh Piven is co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit his Web site at joshpiven.net.