I find myself a little surprised to be writing about blizzard survival with Spring just around the corner, but weather forecasts are predicting a particularly nasty blizzard for the East Coast. Strong winds and a foot of snow are possible from Maryland to Maine. March came in like a lamb, but it’s acting like a lion for those in the Northeast.
Winter storms (this one is named “Stella”) occur every year in the United States, and cause fatalities among the unprepared. 70% of deaths occur due to traffic accidents and 25% from hypothermia from being caught outside during the blizzard. With Stella’s strong winds, trees and power lines burdened with heavy snowfall may topple, causing additional hazards.
If a blizzard knocks you off the grid but you’re still in your home (a great place to be), keep everyone in an inside room, preferably without windows. The heat from several bodies will make a small space warmer.
Heat in the home can be conserved by shutting the doors of unused rooms and drawing blinds and curtains to add insulation. Stuff towels under the door to prevent loss of warmth from the room you’re using. If you’re using some form of alternative heat, however, make certain that there is reasonable ventilation. Prepare for mishaps by having a fire extinguisher handy.
Staying hydrated is important. You’d be surprised how much a family uses, so fill the bathtub with water. Plumbing might be kept from freezing by allowing faucets to drip. Stock up on non-perishable food.
Winter conditions don’t just affect people; they affect cars as well. Cold affects rubber and metal; it even decreases the battery’s efficiency. Tires become stiff and flat for the first few hundred yards. Motor oil and other lubricants become thicker at cold temperatures. This makes the engine work harder.
Therefore, vehicles that will be doing duty in extreme cold should be “winterized”. This involves switching to a lighter viscosity oil, changing to snow tires, and choosing the right (anti-freeze) ratio of coolant to water. Gas tanks should be full if at all possible.
OUTSIDE IN A BLIZZARD
You’re not a bear, so you can’t hibernate through the cold weather; you’ll have to take measures to avoid getting stranded out in the cold. Many deaths from exposure are avoidable if simple precautions are taken
The first thing that you should do before planning a day outdoors in snowy weather is consult your weather radio for the forecast. If a storm is on the way, postpone your outing until the weather improves.
Dress appropriately and in layers. Each successive layer of clothing traps warm air near your body. Wool is the best material for staying warm. Unlike cotton, wool will stay warm even if somewhat wet, and wicks perspiration away from the skin. Wet clothing will cause you to lose body core temperature faster. Mittens will keep your hands warmer than gloves.
Some people might be caught by surprise when a winter storm hits the backcountry. If you’re in the wilderness, seek some form of shelter immediately to get out of the wind. There are many types of shelters, but one can be made in a “tree well”. A tree well is the sunken area around the trunk in very deep snow. This area is relatively easy to excavate and, if the tree has low-hanging branches, should provide some protection from falling snow. Look for natural barriers nearby that may serve as windbreaks, but beware of slopes where you may be exposed to drifting snow or avalanches.
The space you dig out should be small, as small shelters take less effort to keep warm than large ones. Pack your snow “walls” well, which retains heat better and can support a makeshift roof. Place evergreen boughs and debris on the floor to protect you from the cold ground. Then add some on top to make a roof. Tarps or solar blankets may also be used for this purpose, but winds might easily blow them off. Tie rocks to the corners as weights.
If a tree well is not an option, digging a “cave” out of deep snow can serve to insulate you from the wind (think igloo). If you make a fire, be sure to have ventilation holes in your shelter. Entrances and ventilation holes should open at a 90 degree angle to the prevailing winds.
Stay hydrated but don’t eat snow. Your body must first melt it and loses heat as a result. If you don’t have fire to melt snow, put a container with it in your clothes, but not next to the skin. Hypothermia and other cold-related medical issues are covered here.
STRANDED IN THE CAR
The first question you should ask before you get in the car in cold weather is “Is this trip necessary?”. If you don’t have to leave the house in a snowstorm, don’t. Period. If you do, drive as if your life depended on it, because it does. Don’t speed, tailgate, or weave from lane to lane. Make turns slowly and deliberately, and be careful to avoid quick stops and starts
Let’s say that, despite your best efforts, you’re stuck on the road in a blizzard. Help may be on the way, but what if it isn’t? It’s important to stay calm and don’t leave the car. It’s warmer there than outside and you’re protected from the wind.
Wet snow can block up your exhaust pipes and cause carbon monoxide gas to enter the passenger compartment. You’ll need fresh air, but don’t crack a window on the side where the wind is coming from. If you’re in a group, huddle together as best you can to create a warm pocket in the car. Rub your hands, put them in your armpits, or otherwise keep moving; this will help your muscles produce heat.
Maybe you can dig yourself out, but beware of overexertion in extreme cold. You’ll sweat, and wet clothes are a main cause of hypothermia. If you have flares, use them to let others know you need help.
THE WINTER SURVIVAL CAR KIT
There are a number of items that you should always have in your car, especially in cold weather. These are meant to keep you safe if the unthinkable happens and you’re stranded without hope of rescue. Your blizzard survival car kit should contain:
- Wool blankets (for warmth; wool can stay warm even if wet)
- Spare sets of dry clothes, especially socks, hats, and mittens.
- Hard warmers or other instant heat packs (activated by shak- ing, they’ll last for hours)
- Matches, lighters, and fire starters to manufacture heat Flashlights and candles (keep batteries in backwards until you need them to extend life).
- Small multi-tool with blade, screwdrivers, pliers, etc.
- Larger combination tool like a foldable military surplus shovel (some are multipurpose and can be used as an axe or saw)
- Sand or rock salt (to give traction where needed)
- Tow chain or rope
- Starter cables (for jump starts)
- Water and food (energy bars, MREs, dehydrated soups, candies)
- Baby wipes (for hygiene purposes)
- A medical kit and medications
- Tarp and duct tape (brightly colored ones will be more visible and aid rescue)
- Metal cup or thermos (to melt snow, make soup, etc.) Noisemaker (whistle) to signal for help
- Cell phone and charger, weather radio
A March storm can be as deadly as one in January. With a plan of action, a few supplies, and a little luck, you’ll survive even in the worst blizzard.
Joe Alton, MD
Find out more about cold weather, hot weather, and many other issues in our Third Edition of the Survival Medicine Handbook, The Essential Guide for When Help is Not on the Way!