Art of Staying Alive: 

The Winter Edition

By David Daly

With the crisp, cool air and soft falling snowflakes, winter has an atmosphere of enchantment that holds a magical place in the hearts of children and adults alike. Assuming no one froze the snowballs, snowy areas are usually peaceful and safe. But sometimes, cold environments make surviving not only challenging but deadly.

Polar and subpolar regions make up the coldest places in the world. The coldest temperature ever recorded on earth was in Antarctica. Using satellites, scientists registered a ground temperature of −135 °F in 2013. While most of us won't find ourselves lost in Antarctica, you can avoid dying in just about any winter wonderland with the right mindset and preparation.

Here are eight ways to die in the winter and tips on how to avoid them:


Cover your mouth to prevent cold air from reaching the lungs.

When internal temperatures drop, the body risks suffering hypothermia. As the body gets colder, the heart and other organs begin to have difficulty functioning correctly. Left unchecked, they will eventually stop working altogether. 


Hypothermia is a severe condition with symptoms ranging from shivering and slurred speech to shallow breathing and drowsiness. Confusion, loss of coordination, memory loss, and eventually death can occur. The human body will freeze to death if its core temperature drops to around 70 °F.


The best defense against the cold is dressing in warm clothing and staying dry. Suppose you are lost and not wearing appropriate cold-weather gear. In that case, you'll probably end up a human popsicle if you don't use alternative ways to stay warm. It is crucial to find or build a shelter as fast as you can.


It's important to keep moving. Activity will keep blood flowing, which helps to regulate body temperature. Anyone suspected of hypothermia should see a doctor as soon as possible.

The risk of an avalanche is always at its highest after a fresh snowfall. Rugged terrain, such as mountains, can quickly pile up large quantities of unstable snow. With just a little help from an earthquake or even a strong gust of wind, a wall of snow and debris can come crashing down on anyone in the avalanche's path. Staying alert is the best method to avoid death by this winter danger. 


There are two ways an avalanche can get you. First, you can fall prey to an avalanche by walking on snow that collapses under your feet, pulling you down with it. The second happens if you are below falling snow, tumbling down on top of you in a rush of crushing destruction.


Keep away from areas along mountain ridges where snow is piling up. If you must go by these areas, be careful and stay alert. Look out for cracks in the snow, as these can signify unstable snow resting on edges of terrain features. If you are unsure of the ground in front of you, probe the area with your hiking stick as you go along.


If instead, an avalanche is coming from above, quickly do whatever you can to move out of the avalanche's path. Moving swiftly may seem pretty basic, but it is the best chance you have. It's crucial to move in a direction that is away from the avalanche's primary path. Make no mistake, you will not outrun snow if the avalanche is following behind you. The avalanche will win.


If you are carrying heavy equipment and an avalanche is coming, get rid of it and run for your life. Heavy gear like hiking backpacks will slow you down. Now is the time to haul ass, and anything keeping you from being fast isn't worth your life.

If you're not able to make it out of the path of the avalanche, swim using a backstroke motion with your feet pointing towards the bottom of the mountain. Kick your legs and pull with your arms to stay on top. Once all movement stops, begin trying to determine which direction is up. If it is daytime, it will be darker the further you move away from the surface of the snow.


Once you reach the surface, raise your arm above your head and try to move side to side. This motion will create a pocket around you before the snow begins to settle. Do not get disheartened if you do not reach the surface. Chances are, you won't make it all the way to the surface. Your goal is to get as close as possible and hope for rescue.


Suffocation is a real concern, so try to open up a pocket of air in front of your face. If you create a nice size pocket, you'll have more air to breathe. Continue to try and move to the surface as snow settles but don't risk losing the air pocket you have made. Your best bet is to sit tight and conserve your energy until help arrives. 

Suppose you will be in an area with a high risk of avalanche. There is specialized safety gear such as avalanche airbags and beacons that may help you be better prepared. Pay attention to your surroundings and avoid avalanche-prone areas, especially after a fresh snowfall. Never forget, the best defense from an avalanche is not getting caught in one. 

A blizzard is a severe snowstorm and, unfortunately, not the tasty treats at Dairy Queen. Typically, snow isn't falling during a blizzard, but with winds of at least 35 mph, any loose snow on the ground is picked up and blown in all directions.


A simple hike in the woods can turn into a meeting with Jake Frost and the Grimm Reaper before you know it. Blizzards can cause you to become lost and disoriented very quickly. 


Avoid blizzards by paying attention to the weather. If it looks like bad weather is coming with winds picking up, find shelter. If there are no buildings in the area, look around for the closest thing that might offer some protection.


A great option in snowy areas is to build a tree pit shelter around the base of a tree. The natural structure of a tree will provide overhead protection from a blizzard's fury. 


To create a tree pit shelter, break off the smaller branches towards the bottom of the tree. Next, dig around the base and remove the snow around the truck until you reach the ground. Use the broken off branches to sit on to avoid the wet ground or as firewood. As soon as possible, build a fire to stay warm. While waiting for the blizzard to pass, remember to keep hydrated and eat. This will keep your strength up and will ultimately raise your body temperature.


Dehydration may seem like the least of your problems when surrounded by tons of frozen water. Still, it is a genuine threat in winter survival situations. The truth is, consuming solid ice or snow as a water source is not usually a good idea. Your body will use up a significant amount of energy to melt the ice, which can cause the body to get colder and weaker. 


Signs of dehydration include thirst, dark-colored urine, fatigue, confusion, and dizziness. If you are experiencing these symptoms, drink water, and seek professional medical attention. If no one is around to help, look for water in streams or creeks that have not frozen over. 


Always be sure to purify your water source with iodine tablets or boil out the impurities before drinking it. If all you have is snow and ice, it's better to melt the ice down before you drink it. Melted ice produces more liquid to drink with less effort than melting snow. Remember, the body can go without food for several weeks but can only last a few days at best, without water.

Photo Courtesy of Vigilante Drones


If you have ever been in the snow, you know it's your extremities, like fingers and toes, that start to get cold first. Any part of the body exposed to freezing temperatures and winds can get frostbite, which is especially true if the body part is wet. 


Frostbite is a severe condition where the surface of the skin and layers below it freeze. Initially, exposed skin turns red, and as the area becomes colder, the skin becomes very painful. The victim may begin to feel a tingling sensation or burning numbness.


As frostbite advances, the flesh will turn black and start to fall off. This leaves the area open to infection and further injury. Staying properly clothed and dry is your best defense against frostbite.

If frostbite sets in, remove clothing or jewelry from the area and place the body part in warm, not hot, water. If warm water is not available, place the area suffering from frostbite in warmer parts of your body. For example, cold fingers can go under your armpits. Do not rub skin that is frostbitten. This will make things worse. As with many dangers in winter environments, get to a doctor as soon as possible.


As if freezing or suffering the ironic death of dehydration while surrounded by frozen water wasn't enough, animals are another danger you may need to overcome. Wolves, polar bears, black bears, grizzly bears, and mountain lions are just as concerned about surviving the winter as you are. If you are not careful, you could end up a tasty snack for one of nature's creatures.


Animals can be aggressive towards humans, especially if you are far from normal civilization. Polar bears can be incredibly mean, but other bears and wolves tend to avoid people. That being said, a threatened animal will attack if it feels the need to protect itself or its territory. 


To avoid becoming dinner, keep aware of your surroundings. Look for tracks, scat, and other animal activity around you. Do not venture into caves unless you are sure of what's in them. If you are confronted by an angry animal, your reaction should depend on what type of animal you have encountered.

For bears, remember the saying, "If it's brown, lay down, and if it's black, fight back." Brown bears, and grizzly bears won't care how big you make yourself. It is best to ball up and protect yourself. When laying down, cover your vital parts like the head and the neck. It is best to stand your ground with a mountain lion. Yell and make yourself seem as big as possible.


Treat black bears and wolves like mountain lions. If you make a lot of noise and look big, they will probably leave you alone. Do not shed your backpack if you are wearing one. The pack can help to protect your back. 


Food is vital to your survival. If you go long enough without it, you'll eventually die. Finding food in the winter can be difficult, but it is possible if you know what to look for.


Plants in the polar and subpolar regions can be a good source of nutrients. The trick is to know what is edible and what will make you sick or even kill you. Some of the best plants to eat are arctic raspberries, arctic willow tree leaves, and reindeer moss. Spruce needles can be eaten or used to make a medicinal tea. Avoid consuming unknown fungus and poisonous plants such as water hemlock, bearded lichens, and baneberry fruit.


If you are near the water, fish, some crabs, clams, and some mussels are usually safe to eat. Avoid black mussels and Greenland sharks as their meat contains toxins harmful to humans. You'll also want to avoid consuming the meat of ravens, polar bears, and walruses. Although they look slow and clumsy, walrures will kick your ass.


Weather conditions can make an otherwise good day bad. When you are trying to survive in winter conditions, you must keep an eye on the weather. If conditions look like snow, rain, or lightning are coming; you may be in real danger. 


Shelter and fire are your best friends when bad weather is coming in. If there is nowhere to go in the area, you will need to build a shelter. Shelters come in many forms, from snow caves to tree pits. Make the shelter that works best for the time and resources you have around you.


If there is a lot of snow around, building a snow cave may be your best bet. Avoid building in areas where rocks or more snow may fall on you. Start by making a large pile of snow and pat it down firmly as you build it. It should be about as tall as you are.

Once finished, dig a hole deep into the mound for around five to six feet at an angle that will keep snow from coming inside your home. Once you have dug the hole, climb in, and open the deepest part to make a small space big enough to fit your body with a little extra room. If properly made, the cave can keep you up to forty degrees warmer than you would be outside.

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