So, you have decided to brave the elements. You are hiking, either on a mountainside or in a forest. It’s wintertime, and while the forecast said there may be storms brewing, it wasn’t likely, so you decided to go. And then? BAM! The skies begin to dump snow on you, and winds are terrible. You are caught right in the middle of a white-out! Not to worry, though, you WILL survive. Follow these tips and survival tactics, and the chances of you making it out are not good, but great!
Stuff You Should Take
Aside from the normal gear you would take on a winter hike, like great pants, socks (with extras!), boots, jacket, hat, etc., you will need to make sure you have some additional stuff. Before we get into that, here are a few recommendations.
Instead of a scarf, we recommend motorcycle neck warmers. They are thin, warm (obviously!) and almost always windproof and moisture wicking. You can pull them up over your face to cover your cheeks and nose as well. They are worth the money. Check out Motorcycle News for a bit more info. Also, make sure that your equipment is as top of the line as you can get, being wind and waterproof, many pockets, moisture wicking, etc. Don’t just head out in that old jacket you use to work in the yard with!
As for the additional gear, you should begin with having a fantastic backpack. It doesn’t have to be a monstrosity, but especially if you are planning on camping as well as hiking, it should be of good enough quality to be waterproof, hold a camelback water supply and a sleeping mat/bag.
Speaking of sleeping bags, get the thinnest, coldest-temperature rated one you can find. Make sure you have a couple of emergency thermal blankets. Most people say just one, but since many of them are reflective, it might be a good idea to have three or more per person. Two to keep you warm, and another as a reflective signaler. You can get oversized ones as well, and it is a VERY good idea to have at least one or two of those. Also, a small roll of something like Gorilla tape is a super handy thing to have.
Make sure you have some tools with you. It doesn’t cost you hardly any weight to have a multi-tool with you, and you should always have one of those. Also, get a roll of the highest pound test fishing line you can get. You can get 100 meters of 100-lb. test for about 3.5 ounces. Obviously, you won’t need that much, but you CAN roll it around the handle of another device, such as an emergency survival camping kit. We found a couple of types available, but check out what we mean by taking a look at this kit on Amazon.
Don’t Go Hungry
Most of us, when hiking, pack our food with us. For those of you who are hunters, you may not pack as much, but in a white-out situation, the animals are going to be hunkered down somewhere as well, so you should be packing food. While you may not have enough space in your pack for a lot, in today’s world we have super-calorific options available.
You may have to wait a few days if you are in a white-out situation, so make sure that you have enough food with you. In addition to the gourmet soup you were planning on making, you should also get some survival bars. They can be found at just about any sports store around, such as Gander Mountain, (we like the apple-cinnamon Ultimate Survival bars, but it’s your choice).
You should also think about taking a bunch of individual packets of peanut butter. Yup, you read right! It’s close to the perfect survival food, high calories, protein, the right fats. It’s awesome. You can also take powdered soups, which is a great way to fill you up and to have some variety. By the way, you did get a little mini camp stove, right? With a few extra butane sources? And a small pot kit? All weighing less than 2 pounds? We thought you did! That will be useful for filling that water bottle back up as well! Speaking of the water bottle, get a good insulated one, and keep it close to your skin or in your jacket. You don’t want the thing freezing up!
So, it has begun. The white-out is upon you. We are going to assume you are in some sort of forested area. The most common areas for white-outs, on the ground at least, are in boreal forests or taiga. They typically have a lot of pine trees, though deciduous forests with pine presence can get white-outs as well!
When the snow begins to blow hard, try to find the biggest, baddest pine tree that you can. These trees typically have large, drooping branches with an area underneath that has lots of deadwood and dead branches. It is almost always dry (pines tend to make excellent water insulators!) and there will be space for you and your group. Speaking of which, you should NEVER go hiking in such conditions alone, always head out with at least one or more other people.
Once in the pine, begin your preparations. You may be there for a few hours, or a few days, but prepare for the worst scenario. Get out your axe, and cut the deadwood branches from the trunk of the tree. Don’t worry, they are dead at that level, so you will not be hurting the tree. Make it so you can at least crouch and get around with no problem. Try to leave a few thicker, sturdy ones around shoulder level sticking out, though, as they will be needed. Clean up your ground area as best as you can. This is important, as you will be laying down a survival blanket on the ground to keep your heat from escaping that way, and you don’t want that survival blanket punctured.
Then? Use the fishing line (or twine if that’s what you brought) to make yourself a makeshift tent. Try to spread it over your head (remember the branches at shoulder level?) and use two oversized blankets if necessary (this is where the tape comes in to seal the edges together). You should now have a makeshift tent, underneath the pine, where there will be no moisture hitting you, and much less wind.
Fix the Outside
Now is the part which is difficult, but you will certainly have enough materials! You will want to mound up and pack down as much snow around the circumference of the pine as you can. Just dump it, stomp it, and start over. It doesn’t have to look pretty, but it DOES have to be at least a few feet high and right up against the lower edges of the branches, if not a little higher. This will make sure that the wind which would whip through your makeshift shelter will almost completely stop. Make sure you leave yourself an unpacked way out, though. Leave a gap about two feet wide, though you can put loose snow in it. Alternatively, you could just kick out part of the wall when you are ready to go out. Going to the bathroom is an issue as well, and, if you are up to it, make an exit out the snow wall to a nearby pine, where you can clear a small area and dig a small pit. ‘Nuff said.
Timing Is Everything
If you are going to be there for a few days, you need to check your rations and work accordingly. With your mini camp stove, you can make sure you have water, and also make soups. With the ration bars, you can up your intake of calories. The US Coast Guard recommends a minimum of 800 calories per day for survival. This is with no activity. Don’t be shy about letting the person who is working the most, especially out in the snow, have a larger share of calories.
Once the snow has more or less stopped, it is time to begin your signaling. Get out one (or as many as you have) signaling blankets, and try to find small clearings near you. Tie the blankets, reflective side up, so they are off the ground a bit and won’t get blown over by snow. It’s a REALLY good idea to see if you can find a clearing with a stump, boulder or fallen tree to make a bump in the middle of the blanket, as this will help keep it in place and snow off of it. If you have enough blankets, do this in a circular pattern around your campsite.
We don’t live in the stone age anymore, and having electronics can be the difference between life and death. No one will be able to get to you during a white-out, but they will have to know where you are after it happens. There are devices made just for this purpose, and Outdoor Gear Lab has rounded up a few good ones. Some are cheaper, some are more expensive, but there is no price on saving your life. You should have one if you are an avid hiker, anyhow. We like the ones with messaging options, because you can let people know you are okay. Also, make sure you take a small power bank with you, just in case.
Be Smart, Don’t Panic
If you are out in the elements and a storm like this starts, be smart and don’t panic. With the right tools, and/or the right knowhow, you WILL survive. For example, if you are in a deciduous forest and there aren’t many pines around? Look for a tree with a Y branching near your shoulder/head height. Cut down a smaller, yet longer tree which could make about a 10 to 15-foot-long pole you can put right into the Y notch, and then begin laying branches on the sides of the pole, beginning where the other end touches the ground and going right up to the Y tree. Get as many branches on it as you can, and begin to mound as much mulch as you can over the branches. Then pack the top of that with snow. Line the inside with your thermal blankets, and you have a super snug shelter. Good luck out there, and be safe!