How To: A Primer On Winter Emergency Skills
By Barbara Thomke
– February 6, 2011
After I spent the morning of Saturday, January 8th exploring the new world of Nordic Skating at the Lake Morey Skate-A-Thon, I was intrigued by an afternoon class offered in the Winter Skills Day series at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, Vermont called Emergency Survival and Self-Sufficiency Skills. I didn’t go to prepare myself for overnight treks in the winter wilderness, sleeping in hand crafted snow huts at 10 degrees! But I do sometimes venture into the backcountry for day-long treks on skis, so I thought it might be useful to expand my knowledge on this topic beyond what I gleaned from my Girl Scout days of yesteryore. What I learned: how to stay warm if I got lost, or what the best emergency items are best to carry along in a pack might just save me from trouble . . .
Carrying a pack of emergency supplies and checking your equipment function may be the two most important actions you can take prior to an outing. (Barbara Thomke photo)
Frank Grindrod, our instructor, a kind and gentle man, set the scene for his class of seven by showing us a video of a woman who cross-country skied alone with her dog in unknown territory, got lost, then broke through ice and fell in a river and shivered with the pooch until they were found hours later. Scary! But by the time our class was over we had a new awareness of how to take care of ourselves at home or in the woods, and had learned about the most important thing of all – being prepared. From the dozens of tips we learned, here are the top ones that I personally took with me from our class:
Outdoors – Always take with you a small kit of essentials, no matter how near or far you plan to roam, Here’s what Frank recommended:
* A signal mirror, large plastic bag as a rain protector or container for water, a magnesium striker for starting a fire and a space blanket. Why? Hypothermia (low body temperature) is the #1 winter killer.
* A tin cup to heat water in or to melt snow into water
* Extra clothing such as gloves, scarf, socks, goggles, upper body layer
* Duct tape – the universal fix-it
* A pocket knife
From 12″ of toilet paper we learned to make a wick. Using a cat food can, the cordage, and cooking oil, a small heat and light source can be created. It burned for a half hour! (Barbara Thomke photo)
At home – Frank recommended stocking up a couple of days before a storm is forecast:
* Flashlight and/or headlamps plus extra batteries. Matches and candles – the ones that burn for 9 hours that you can purchase at a camping outfitter. To increase the light effect through reflection, place a mirror behind or underneath these light sources.
* Canned and dry foods, especially lentils. Soak overnight and allow to sprout for increased protein punch and green food. Soak rice and beans overnight for quicker cooking. Store in food-grade plastic containers along with powdered milk and honey.
* A small stove and fuel.
* A crank-operated radio and a crank lantern could be called essential gear.
* Store water in food-safe plastic containers, cooking pots, and your washing machine. Because your water source may not be treated when the electricity goes out, purify water by bringing it to a ‘dancing boil’.
* Create a ‘warm room’ by draping plastic over doors and openings to trap the heat of a woodstove or other heat source – though be sure it is ventilated.
In the car – carry these items:
* A wool army/navy blanket which can be used to sleep in, as a coat, to keep an injured person warm. Wool continues to keep a body warm even if wet.
* A metal cup, duct tape and Yaktrax for traction on your feet if you walk for help.
* Water in a metal container (could be heated), or in plastic. Fill only 3/4 full to allow space for freezing.
* A bunch of asphalt shingles to provide tire traction if your car is stuck in the snow or on ice.
Visit Frank’s website for lots more good advice on this topic of how to be prepared to deal with hypothermia and other winter emergencies as well as a listing of programs and classes he offers.
Two weeks after I took this course my husband and I were on a vigorous backcountry skiing tour near our home in northern Vermont. We were only 15 minutes into the initial uphill part when the snap attachment on the kicker climbing skin of Bob’s right ski broke apart. Then the whole skin peeled off the base of his ski and lay in the snow behind him. Luckily we were able to secure the skin again with the duct tape I now carried in my pack!
“Thank you, Frank!”, I thought many times as we continued the rest of our nine mile trek without a further glitch.
P.S. I carry the duct tape wound around a pencil. The pencil can be handy to write with or punch a hole, and it makes it easy to unwind the tape. Plus, you can carry a reasonable amount without the bulk of a duct tape roll.
Editor Note: Most old hands at backcountry skiing carry duct tape in their pack emergency kit as Barbara suggests, but also wrap 25 feet of it around a ski pole just below the grip. You never know it’s there until you need it . . .