Winter Tips: How to Survive Being Stranded
When temperatures plummet and snow falls thickly, most people try to stay home and avoid the frigid weather and slick roads. However, sometimes an unexpected storm strikes, cars fail or a slide-off occurs, causing even the most seasoned motorist to become stranded. In a perfect world, a passing driver happens immediately by and alerts emergency workers who rescue you quickly.
But what if help isn’t so readily available? Are you prepared to withstand below zero wind chills, for an extended period, while stuck in your car?
Winter weather survival can test the limits of human endurance and stamina. Those unprepared and untrained often succumb to the harsh circumstances. Just an hour of prep time packing a survival kit, and gaining awareness can be life saving during a frozen encounter in a stranded vehicle.
Along with basic survival (shelter, food and water) understanding first aid and prevention of dangerous cold weather conditions, such as hypothermia, frostbite and snow blindness, is essential.
Hypothermia: Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, blue lips and lack of coordination. In mild cases, hypothermia can be treated by providing warmth, consuming high caloric foods and staying hydrated. Stimulating blood flow by activity can also ease mild symptoms. Severe cases can cause complete heart and respiratory failure and death. Certain groups are at more risk. The very young and the elderly in particular, have difficulty with regulating body temperatures and are more likely to surrender to hypothermia. Those suffering dehydration or taking certain prescription medications may also be at greater peril.
Staying hydrated in the winter, even before being stranded, can greatly increase chances of survival. Keeping hydrated and warm while stranded can mean the difference between life and death. Remember, even in mild temperatures, hypothermia can occur. It is especially important to stay dry. Wet clothing can rapidly generate hypothermia. Excessive sweating can also be dangerous in cold climates. As perspiration cools it lowers the body temperature.
Dress in layers when going out in winter and keep additional layers of warm clothing in your car, including hats and gloves. Maintain a three day supply of water in your vehicle and have a means, (such as a coffee can and source of fire) to melt snow for additional water. Eating snow, though it provides hydration, lowers the body temperature and should be performed only when other sources of water aren’t available.
Frostbite: Presents with white, red or grayish-yellow cold skin. Frostbitten skin can be hard or waxy and may itch, burn or appear numb or “wooden”. In severe cases, blistering and tissue dense hardening occur. Frostbite, which is temporary or lasting skin tissue damage, most commonly affects fingers, toes, nose or ears- but it can occur to any body part exposed to temperatures of 32 degrees or less (wind chill plays a factor in this as well) . As the skin freezes, damage occurs to blood vessels, which slows the blood flow. If frostbitten skin is not quickly warmed, serious complications such as gangrene or infections can occur.
Prevent frostbite by keeping skin covered and dry. Take a scarf, ski cap, or shreds of cloth and completely cover your skin. Wear extra layers on fingers and toes. Any clothing that becomes cold and wet should be removed immediately and replaced.
Don’t rub or walk on frostbitten feet. Rubbing skin creates friction which only increases damage to tissues. If you suspect frostbite and can’t get emergency medical attention, it’s especially important to warm affected areas and re-wrap so that they will not get frostbitten further. Take an aspirin or pain reliever as you do so, it can be a painful process as numbing wears off. It’s a dangerous old wives tale to rub snow on frostbitten areas. If you have the ability to heat a small amount of melted snow, you could dip cloths in the warmed water and place on frozen skin. Don’t use hot water, however, which can injure skin further. Or, find places on your body-under arms, between thighs or on stomach where heat is focused to place frozen fingers or hands.
It’s vital to protect these areas from re-freezing. Greater damage occurs with each exposure. Make sure you have a first aid kit stocked with gauze and pain relievers in your vehicle. Minor cases of frostbite usually recover fully with early treatment, which is why warming the affected skin gently (but rapidly) is crucial. Stay calm.
Snow Blindness: Ultraviolet light causes a sunburn-like effect in the cornea. Symptoms of snow blindness are pain and tearing. Hazy vision, headaches, halos around objects or temporary vision loss may occur. These may not fully manifest until up to 12 hours after exposure. Brightly reflective snow and high altitudes can produce snow blindness. Be careful, even on cloudy days, in these areas.
Prevent snow blindness by wearing sunglasses or goggles. If you don’t have these, shade eyes as much as possible with a visor of a hat or ski mask. Treat snow blindness by resting eyes and allowing the cornea time to heal. If your first aid kit has antibiotic eye drops, apply these first. Cover eyes with patches and keep closed. Vision returns as the corneal damage repairs, typically within less than 24 hours.
Before Traveling in Winter:
Dress layered in warm, dry clothing.
Have extra clothing, sunglasses, hats, gloves, socks and a sleeping bag or blankets available.
Never leave home without a survival kit that has adequate water and high energy food.
Make certain your first aid kit has ample supplies for treating minor injuries.
Include tools, flashlights and batteries, roadside flares, matches and candles in your survival kit.
Kitty litter or sand (for traction) and shovel are essentials for winter travelers.
Take a metal container for melting and heating snow, such as a clean tin can or coffee can.
Keep well hydrated.
Tell others the route you are taking and when you will be traveling.
Charge your cell phone.
Completely cover all exposed skin.
Wear sunglasses that shield damaging ultra-violet light during the day.
Stay layered in warm, dry clothing.
Keep hydrating yourself.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine as these cause dehydrate and increase the likelihood of frostbite and hypothermia.
Keep snow cleared off exhaust pipe to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Crack a window when engine is running.
To conserve gas, only run the engine for a few moments each hour.
Clear snow off the car (including roof) to aid rescuers in finding you. Tie brightly colored bits of fabric on antennae.
Stay with your vehicle. It’s far easier for rescuers to find you, plus shelter from elements is critical.