Maybe it’s time to revisit some winter survival tips directed at winter in the Rockies; particularly intended for snowmobilers. The short list of necessary tools starts with the most important:
#1 – Let some reliable person know your game plan; tell them when to expect you back, give them an idea where you are going and finally tell them when to push the panic button and call for help.
#2 – Be prepared; besides the expected equipment such as beacon, probes and shovel, take a few sources for starting a fire such as a lighter. Though not always reliable, they are handy and easy to put in your pocket. Matches water proofed. A road flare. Potassium Magnate (water purification crystals) and glycerin (anti freeze). A ferocerium striker (some call them steel matches) Calcium carbide and a striker. Flint and steel. Take your pick and know how to use the resource before you have to for real.
#3 – Take an energy source, some food high in energy or a combination that provides quick energy and lasting energy. Your internal heat is as important as external heat in the long run. A space blanket should be in everyone’s pocket.
Finally, for the last item you need to survive is knowledge and understanding of what is really happening and how to cope with the situation before it becomes lethal.
Here’s the picture, you and a few friends are heading back to the parking lot at the end of a good day of riding; maybe you know the weather forecast and are expecting a storm ; maybe you didn’t check and are unaware that a storm is moving in. Doesn’t have to even be a storm; it might only be a change in weather.
You aren’t really concerned about where everyone is and are not really paying attention knowing that everyone is heading out. You are feeling pretty good about your sled, it ran great during the ride so you take a little detour over a small ridge and hit a chute you know is fun and rarely gets ridden. That’s when things go south; (pick one) you hit a tree, you get sucked into a tree well, your engine quits, regardless you are stuck and everyone else is heading in. Darkness isn’t too far off and you remember something about a weather change; potential wind, snow, or just deepening cold really doesn’t matter but in the long run it affects searchers and those who would return to help you. Of course you assess the problem and determine that you just might need help to get out; the first thought is can I do this myself, probably not but you have to make a decision: work up a sweat trying to get out, or prepare for an extended stay.
Common sense and my advice is assess your situation, look around and determine what resources you have, determine what those resources provide in the way of shelter, heat and safety including how to let others know where you are. Be realistic and don’t panic. Don’t walk away from known resources including your sled; it can provide a number of life saving tools including starting a fire if the motor still turns over. If walking out to a main trail seems feasible and you trust that your riding buddies might return soon to find you, fine but know your limitations. Can you really make it to the main trail? Are you going to use more energy than you have? Is the weather such that a little trudge thru deep snow going to put you in jeopardy because of your health? These are life saving decisions you have to make.
Hopefully you are near trees and fuel, if not it can be a cold night huddled over your snowmobile wrapped in a space blanket even if the engine starts for heat. Are there trees nearby can you make it to them without too much trouble? If not it can really be a cold night wrapped in a space blanket huddle over an emergency candle. Again assess your situation and determine what you can do with the resources you have.
If you are in the trees then it’s time to prepare for the night; snow cave? snow pit? tree well? lean to? Something to break the wind and contain some heat is needed. Choose a place for your fire, not too far from a fuel source; think about a reflector such as your space blanket or just a large tree at your back. Can searchers see your fire? Consider using your fire to signal searchers by smoke or light. A big fire can reflect light off of snow slopes quite well and good searchers will stop and look for such evidence quite often. Weather can be a factor here; searchers won’t see much in a blowing snow storm. However they might smell the smoke.
Snow is a good insulator but it’s cold. Pine boughs are better if you can get them and your snowmobile seat is a great insulator if removed. Your hood can be a great wind break but you have to determine how much energy will be spent removing them. Maybe the sled its self can be used for both; depends on how everything is situated. A clear mind is important.
Do whatever you can to advertise your location; leave sign, tracks around your “camp” branches stuck in the snow so that they are not natural. If you hear searchers looking for you make noise, burn a tree down, anything that attracts attention, after all your life depends entirely on your own actions.
We’ve covered the bare necessities need to survive, if for some reason you don’t have the small cache of resources I’ve listed, know that you can start a fire with a snowmobile providing the engine turns over. The spark plug and a gas soaked rag or piece of paper works fine. The head light or tail light with the globe broken will work very well; so many little things can be live savers if you know how to use them.
If you are in such a situation as described take every chance to improve your situation; add to your shelter, improve your signal efforts build a smokier fire, make noise if you can, sound carries very far under certain conditions. On a search one cold night I heard a stranded snowmobiler calling for help. Later when we compared his location to where I was, it was 2.6 miles over a ridge.
One last thought, I carry a survival pack; whenever I leave camp, my vehicle, my sled, horse or ATV, it goes with me. When I’m in the back country that pack is my companion; it weighs 26 lbs and can sustain me in any weather for 72 hours. I will be fairly comfortable, dry and warm. I will have drink and food enough to sustain me for an extended stay. I will be able to start a fire in almost any condition. Ironically I would probably enjoy my experience though it would put other people in harms’ way when they searched for me and that is why we need to make a few rules when we recreate with others. The one to remember is “you are responsible for the person BEHIND you. Stop wait and if they don’t show, go back for them. The one responsible for you will do the same.”