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Tips for Building Emergency Snow Shelters

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Buck Tilton

By Buck Tilton

Not all snow is created equal—it can be soft and dry, heavy and wet, hard as rock—but most snow can be shaped into a quick shelter and, in an emergency, a shelter may save your life.

Make Use of What the Terrain Offers

First, look around: an emergency shelter in snow-covered conditions can sometimes be found. There may be a hollow space under a downed tree, as long as the tree is held firmly in place by something other than snow. If snow supports a large tree, you could find yourself buried or squashed, or both, especially if you get a fire going. Space often lies beneath the low-hanging limbs of a large, dense evergreen. In rocky terrain, you may be able to crawl into a space created by an overhang. Some movement and shaping of snow is often required to make one of these natural shelters fit you better.

Construct Shelter out of a Snow Drift

You can dig a small snow cave in a drift, one just large enough for you to fit inside. Forget an official tunnel entrance—but if you can start low and dig up slightly before scooping out the room, you’ll trap more body heat within the finished product. Without a shovel, improvise: dig with a pot, a ski, a snowshoe, a signal mirror, a limb, even your gloved hands. If you have a pack, place it in front of the entrance hole as a door. A candle would be great, brightening the interior and adding several degrees of warmth. Remember: if you light a candle in a snow cave, you’ll need a small vent hole above it. Without a sleeping pad, you can lie on extra clothing or, if you’re in a forest, evergreen boughs.

Create a Snow Trench

In the open or without a drift, dig a trench in the snow. If possible, make it about three feet deep and as long as your body plus a few inches. Pile the snow from the trench on the windward side of the trench as a break. You can roof it with blocks—if you have the leisure time and know-how to make them. You can roof it with evergreen boughs. You can roof it with a tarp, an emergency blanket, a large garbage bag. Cover whatever roof you create with snow to add insulation, leaving an opening on one end just big enough to squirm through.

Dress Appropriately

Pace yourself as you dig. Prepare by losing a layer or two of clothing to reduce sweating, but wear a waterproof, or at least water resistant, shell to stay as dry as possible from melting snow. A damp body from either sweat or snow will make survival more problematic.

If you think people will be out searching for you, make your shelter site as visible as possible from the ground and the air by placing bright-colored clothing nearby or stomping an unusual pattern—such as H-E-L-P–in the snow. Remember when you are inside the shelter your ability to hear what is happening outside will be reduced to almost nothing. The temperatures may drop and the storms may rage, but if you construct a simple shelter–and carry basic emergency gear– you can be safe and secure in your shelter in the snow.

Recommended Gear List

Heatsheets Survival Blanket – This 2-person survival blanket retains up to 90% radiated body heat and doubles as an excellent ground cover or shelter for a snow trench. The blanket’s bright orange color, which features survival instructions printed on the exterior, makes it easy for rescue craft to spot from the sky.

Pocket Survival Pak PLUS – Includes essential tools for fire starting, food gathering and signaling – all contained in a 5 oz waterproof pouch that will fit in your breast pocket.

Buck Tilton has authored 36 books on outdoor safety, including Wilderness First Responder, which won an award for excellence in medical writing from the American Medical Writers Association. For the last 20 years, Buck has contributed hundreds of articles on wilderness safety to Backpacker. In addition to his writing and journalism, Tilton also co-founded the Wilderness Medicine Institute (now WMI of NOLS), which remains the largest school of wilderness medicine in the world.

We Don’t Make This Stuff Up….

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Question:

I really love the products you present. There are many to choose from regarding first aid. That is my problem. I am a hunter and fisherman in the state of Alabama and have never strayed from this state in for my hobbies. I know Alabama is not Africa in terms of large carnivores, but I have had some scraps with a wild hog (hawg, in Alabama), and once was pinned by several coyotes. The hog I killed bare handed, not unscathed mind you, and the coyotes I fought off with a homemade spear i fashioned out of my hunting knife and a long branch while in a pine tree. That stuff was funny then after it was over, but now that I am a father I am thinking differently.

I would like your recommendations for my needs on a medical/survival kit. What I want is three kits. One for each of my two vehicles and one major pack for my home that can be grabbed in case of an emergency like a tornado, etc. I have looked at all your products, but I am still at a loss as to which one would outfit me the best. The most diverse a group with me would be is 3 male adults, two female adults, one male child, and 2 female children. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Jeremy Smith

Answer:

Dear Jeremy,

Many of us only dream of the adventures you have. Maybe nightmare would be a better word for some of us.

I recommend the Sportsman Hunter or Outfitter Medical Kit for your two vehicles. Both of those kits have a detachable inner bag (kit) you can take with you in the field while leaving the larger kit in the truck.  I would add the QuikClot 25gram Sport to each of those kits.  This is a blood stopping dressing that works fast. I imagine a hawg or pack of coyotes could take quite a chunk out of your leg.

It sounds like you would be a great candidate for the Pocket Survival Pak. Keep this on you at all times. You could work your way out of any jam with it.

For your home I would recommend the Mountain Series Fundamentals or the Sportsman Outfitter kit. All of the kits I have recommended are ideal for either remote areas or when you are cut off from medical care by a natural disaster.

Please keep us posted on any exciting new adventures.

Be Safe,

Frank Meyer, Co-Founder/Marketing Director

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Surviving a January Night in Point Reyes Using My Pocket Survival Pak

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Dear AMK,

I am happy to report that your survival kit helped me to survive an unplanned night in Point Reyes this past January. A friend and I went hiking around Abbott’s Lagoon. At the end of the trail, we walked along the beach. It was an overcast, cold day and we didn’t realize how late it was and so it was almost sunset when we headed back towards the trail. It seemed simple enough to follow the beach along until we saw the trail that went around the lagoon. But we got completely disoriented and were not sure where to pick up the trail. We tried to follow close to the lagoon to pick up the trail but this didn’t work (In the morning we realized that had walked to a much further end of the lagoon.) We were lost. And it was already cold.

Before we left for the hike, I returned to my car to get my hat. When I went back I noticed my Survival Kit, which I usually leave in the car. I bought it after I read about the Kim family who had been trapped in the wilderness, in their car, which scared the heck out of me. I took the kit along with me as an after thought. Afterall, it was only a 4 mile hike and it was on a well marked trail in Point Reyes. I rarely bring the survival gear with me for such a short adventure.

Well, we spend thirteen hours there in the darkness as it was January. It got down to the low 20s. We were right near the ocean so we didn’t have a lot of coverage. Luckily we found a little area that was mostly protected from the harsh wind that was blowing. It took us a long time but we were able to build a fire with your kit and keep it going all that time. It’s amazing how much wood it takes to keep a fire going that long.

The sky was cloudy and at one point it started to drizzle. But that only lasted a little bit. Very early in the morning, the clouds passed and we could see the star filled sky. I’ve never felt such relief! In the morning, we were able to find our way back to the trail. We weren’t that far from it, but who knows what would have happened if we had kept wandering around the night before.

Bringing the kit was a last minute decision. I don’t know what instinct made me do that or what angel was looking out for me, but I am so thankful that I took it. I know that hypothermia in windy, cold weather can set in quickly. And there is no more vulnerable feeling than being disoriented in the wilderness at night. I am thankful that we were able to stay put for the long night and set out in the morning. The tools in your kit helped save our lives. So thank you.

Also, it says that if we use this kit, we’re eligible for a replacement. We used most of the tinder, pencil, duct tape. I’d love to get a replacement!

Thanks for the life-saving kit!

Sincerely,
Tara, Oakland Ca.

AMK Response:

Tara- Thanks for passing this story along to us.  We love to hear that our kits are helping people enjoy the outdoors safely, and it’s great that you were able to stay warm during a very challenging situation.  We’re based in Oakland and familiar with the Pt Reyes area (and its winds), so you impressed everyone in the office by being able to get a fire going in that environment.

I’ll put a package of some replacement supplies together and send it your way.

Thanks again! The Team at AMK

Survival kit in my hydration pack – best options for under $50?

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Question:

What are some good components for a survival kit to put in a medium hydration pack?

Thanks, Zach

Answer:

When I am going light and space is tight, I carry The Pocket Survival Pak and Heatsheets Bivvy. The Pocket Survival Pak has everything you need but a shelter, hence the addition of the Heatsheets Bivvy. I carry this setup whether I am backcountry skiing in the winter or mountain biking in the summer.

BE SAFE,

Frank Meyer, Marketing Director/Co-Founder

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