Even with the best-laid plans, we may find ourselves in dangerous and undesirable situations. Maybe it’s losing power for days during a winter storm (even worse if the power company proactively cuts you off), being stranded on the road, or getting lost while hiking or camping. In these situations, particularly if they occur in the winter months, you’ll lack one extremely valuable resource: heat.
The human body can only survive if it retains heat and maintains its ability to function. Hypothermia and frostbite are real threats to those who experience prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Lucky for us, there are plenty of tales of survival of people who beat the plunging temperatures and came out on the other side.
It’s through these stories and the associated dos and don’ts, that we can prepare and equip ourselves to survive. Read on to discover three stories of people getting stranded or lost in cold temperatures, and what they did to stay warm until they were rescued. Within each story, I’ll highlight learning lessons to keep in mind for future reference...you never know when the information will come in handy.
48 Hours on a Mountain
Madison Popolizio and Blake Alois didn’t expect their hike to take more than a day when they embarked on an adventure in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
The weather conditions started out mild--the forecast was partly cloudy. However, before Madison and Blake knew it, things took a turn, and they became stranded in “near-blizzard” conditions near the top of Algonquin Peak, the state's second-highest mountain.
The next 48 hours proved to be extremely risky and difficult. At one point they slipped and started sliding down the mountain, As Madison told USA Today, "I was freezing. The fall pushed all of the snow up my jacket, into my gloves, in my boots. I was covered in snow." When she started going numb, Blake helped her keep her feet and legs warm with his bag.
Fortunately, the pair was rescued by a search party two days after they went missing. When they heard choppers above, they screamed in order to draw attention to themselves.
From this story, keep the following three tips in mind:
#1: Dress warmly: Whether hiking, camping, or traveling in the great outdoors, bear in mind that, even when it’s warm during the day, the nights can get very cold. Couple that with unexpected weather scenarios, such as rain storms or blizzards, and you’ve got an even bigger case for bringing warm clothes. Aside from jackets, hats, gloves, and warm socks, pack rain ponchos and an Emergency Blanket. Emergency Hand Warmers are a perfect additional resource to keep your extremities heated.
#2: Keep your body moving: As I shared above, Madison experienced numbness in her extremities from the cold. Another way to keep heat circulating through your body is to keep moving. Every once in a while, try to do a set of pushups or flutter kicks to get the blood flowing.
#3: Signal for help: Madison and Blake were lucky the rescue party saw them screaming for help. If you’re hiking or camping, always carry emergency flares with you. If you don’t have them, you can signal for help by building a fire, using a mirror, or making a sign with rocks.
48 Hours in a Car
In December 2013, James Glanton, his girlfriend, Christina McIntee, their two children, and her niece and nephew had a car accident, stranding them in the Nevada wilderness.
There were stuck for 48 hours in minus-21 degrees. Unfortunately, they were without extra blankets, so they had to look to other sources of heat. As the New York Post shared, “They kept warm by lighting a fire, heating rocks and placing them inside the car’s tires for insulation.”
James and Christina were somewhat prepared, as they had water, some food, and heavy winter clothing. Fortunately, emergency responders were able to locate James, Christina, and the children after 48 hours.
From this story, keep the following four tips in mind:
#1: Travel with a survival kit: James and Christina had some of the basics, but there’s more you can do when it comes to packing a survival kit wherever you go. Charles Dornford is a sergeant in the US Air Force who teaches cold weather survival to Department of Defense Personnel. He recommends keeping a winter survival kit in your car at all times. In the kit, make sure you have…
- Water and purification devices: The more hydrated you are, the warmer and more clear-headed you will be. If you run out of drinking water you can melt snow (keep a metal container in your car to collect and store it), or purify water you find from local rivers and springs using Germicidal Tablets.
- A good sleeping bag and extra warm clothes.
- A nonperishable food supply.
- Candles and matches.
- A flashlight.
- Some sort of signal light.
- A solar-powered charger for your phone.
#3: Know how to start a fire: Understanding how to build and maintain a fire is one of man’s oldest and most important survival skills. If you never got the scoop on how to start a fire, now’s the time to learn. Fortunately, there are a few additional items that can make the whole process a lot easier. For example, this Fire Disc comes in handy when you need an easy way to start a fire. Fires are also great ways to alert rescue crews to your location.
#2: Watch for carbon monoxide: If you’re traveling in your car and get stranded in colder temperatures, be mindful of the carbon monoxide risk. You may decide to turn the car on from time to time to keep it heated, but if you do so, make sure the exterior exhaust on the car is clear of snow each and every time.
#4: Don’t venture out: If you find yourself stuck or stranded in your car during a storm or other cold-weather incident, the best thing to do is stay put--unless you see a building nearby. Venturing out and braving the cold temperatures can be more dangerous to you and your family in the end. Ideally, you’ll have flares or other emergency signal devices in your survival pack. Additionally, you can turn on your car hazard lights to alert rescuers of where you are.
40 Hours in the Wilderness
In August 2018, 68-year old George Brown was attending a guided horseback journey in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness when he found himself in a harrowing situation. After pitching camp one morning, George decided to go on a solo trail run.
Despite showing a campmate his planned 8-mile route, George lost the trail as it had disappeared under debris from a recent wildfire. Next thing he knew, he lost his footing and broke his leg. He was now stranded and lost in the Montana wilderness, and as night fell, the temperature dropped into the 40s. Unprepared for the cold temperatures and only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, George got little sleep.
Luckily, George had packed snacks and water, which sustained him for those brutal 40 hours. And eventually, thanks to his persistence and determination, George was able to crawl and find his original trail, where he then flagged down a search and rescue team on horseback.
From this story, keep these three tips in mind:
#1: Stay calm: As George shared in his article in Backpacker, “I knew from survival stories I’d read that staying calm was crucial. Surely the group would notice my absence tonight and start searching in the morning. All I had to do was wait, hope, and stay alive...It was a clear choice: Submit to the cold and the pain, or commit 100 percent to survival. There was no room for negativity.”
#2: Get creative: George found a unique way to generate and preserve heat in his body. He recounts how he “held my backpack against my chest, put my face in the opening, and sealed the flap around the brim of my cap. Each breath filled the backpack with hot air to warm my body.” When your resources for warmth are limited, brainstorming creative ways to use what you can could mean the difference between life and death.
#3: Move in place to generate heat: According to Duncan Adams, the Rescue Operation Sergeant for the team that found George, continued physical activity is key in preserving and generating heat. “Physical exertion can generate heat for the body, but only as long as you have energy reserves and aren’t perspiring or in pain,” Duncan told Backpacker. If you are stranded, injured, and battling the cold, try not to remain still and stagnant. Do what you can to move your body, and you’ll be better off.
As we gear up for winter, the lowering temperatures are not to be ignored. Take the steps to prepare now for the variety of situations you may face that could compromise your access to heat.
Stay alert and use your time wisely. Those that know what’s coming are using today to prepare.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply