Adventure Medical Kits - Adventure Discussions
     Posts Tagged ‘Winter Hiking Tips’
Newer Entries »

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.

Buck Tilton’s Winter Survival Tips

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Buck Tilton

A simple fact towers above all others: if you aren’t prepared to survive an unexpected night outside in winter, you probably won’t. In ideally bad conditions, cold will suck out enough body heat in a couple of hours to disable you—and chill you off beyond recovery in three.

How did you get in this situation? You were backcountry skiing, or hunting, maybe hiking on a pre-snow, cold afternoon. Your story could be like CNET reporter James Kims whose drive in Oregon mountains with his family on a winter day, almost exactly four years ago, turned fatal.  You didn’t anticipate the snowfall, or the blinding wind—and wasn’t the sun supposed to be up at least another hour?

Plan Ahead & Prepare

Yes, you can predict the weather. Or at least someone can, and you can read the forecast. Leave home prepared for the worst possible conditions. If your intended route has ever had six feet of white and 40MPH winds, it could have them again while you’re there. And how do you know the record snowfall and wind speed? You chose and investigated your route well in advance of setting foot, ski or tire on it. Then you left a copy of your route, with details, in the hands of some trustworthy people. They know when you are expected back, when to call for a search, and who to call.

Personal Protection

Winter survival is all about personal protection: your clothing first, a shelter, and, in the best-case scenario, a fire. Dress like an onion—okay, something like an onion. It seems as if everyone who wanders outdoors on purpose should know this by now, but just in case: wear layers of loose-fitting clothing. The clothing needs to be synthetic (or perhaps wool) so it holds in body heat even when damp. The layers allow you to ventilate and take off clothing, then add the clothing back on, in order to control sweating. (Sweat equals wet! Stay dry to stay warm.) You also want to add layers back on before you chill off. It’s easier to save your body heat than to restore your body heat.

Snow, especially when it’s old and compacted, provides material for the protection of excellent shelters. But that’s a tale to be told later. For now, pack something—a small tarp, a small sheet of plastic, an emergency blanket —that you can erect as a wind and/or snow break. Twenty feet of strong cord will make that job easier. Add an insulating pad to sit, or better yet lie, on so you don’t lose heat into the cold ground. A piece of an old sleeping pad, cut to fit in your pack, will work fine. Or, heck, pack the whole pad.

Relatively unprepared folks have survived mighty cold nights out when they got a fire blazing, and kept it blazing. Be sure you always have two means to start a fire. At least one of those means should be waterproof. And pack a fire starter that burns even when wet. Properly dressed, with snow and wind blocked, and a fire burning, you will survive.

On Drinking and Eating

You can survive extremes of cold without a fire if you’re dressed right, sheltered, well watered and well fed. The body heat you’re striving to preserve comes from metabolism of the things you swallow. Simples sugars (say candy) burn quickly, and complex sugars (starches) more slowly. Fats burn the slowest of all, like large logs on well-made conflagration. Good metabolism requires adequate hydration—so drink up, from the water bottle. To keep the water bottle full, pack a small metal container, something in which you can melt snow.

When dawn breaks, you can follow your tracks through the snow back to your vehicle. If the tracks have disappeared under a blanket of new white, and you’re not absolutely sure which way to travel, stay put and wait for the rescue your trustworthy friends set in motion.

Recommended Gear List:

Heatsheets Survival Blanket – Made from a tough, rip-resistant vacuum metalicized Polyethylene-based material, this 2-person blanket reflects up to 90% of radiated body heat. It can also be used as a wind shelter or as a snow-trench cover.
SOL 3 – The hybrid SOL 3 kit contains essential gear repair, first aid and survival components, including a flint steel fire starter and windproof and waterproof tinder.
SOL Survival Bottle – This stainless steel BPA-free bottle, featuring hydration and water purification tips printed on its exterior, is an ideal container for liquids and can also be used for boiling water or melting snow in.

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.

Will Cross Raising Awareness for Diabetes Through Upcoming Makalu Climb

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Will Cross Raising Awareness for Diabetes Through Climbing

Will Cross Set to Climb Makalu

AMK adventure athlete Will Cross will soon attempt a climb of Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world (27,824ft), located 21 miles east of Mount Everest.

Cross will depart shortly for this monumental peak as part of his “Giant Mountain Challenge” — a quest to climb six of the highest peaks in the world.  Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 30 years ago, Cross is pursuing this latest challenge as part of his ongoing effort to demonstrate that one can lead an extraordinary life with diabetes, an incurable condition and a global pandemic.  AMK and its parent company Tender Corp. are sponsoring Cross for the climb and other expeditions he’ll be participating in throughout the year.

Along with packing a variety of AMK products , Cross will be taking along HealthiFeet, which he’ll use as part of his daily regimen to keep his feet strong and healthy during the trip. A podiatrist recommended topical cream, HealthiFeet is clinically proven to relieve foot discomfort associated with cold feet, diabetes and neuropathy. To learn more about how HeatlthiFeet works, check out this episode of “The Doctors” which recently featured the product in a segment on foot care.

Be Safe Will!

All the best from Adventure Medical Kits

Myth of the Month – Rewarming Frostbitten Body Parts

Friday, January 16th, 2009

MYTH: Rubbing a frostbitten body part is helpful for re-warming.

FACT: Do not rub, massage, or touch the frostbitten part at all.  Rapid rewarming in water temperatures of 104F – 106F is recommended if there is no chance the part will be refrozen.


Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Doug Abromeit - Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center

By Doug Abromeit – Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center

Avalanches typically kill more people in the mountains in the West than any other natural disaster, and the winter of 2007-2008 was particularly grim. Last year 36 people died – the worst on record. Two of those people were killed by avalanches off of house roofs, one was killed in a ski area and thirty-three were killed doing their thing in the backcountry — snowboarding, skiing, climbing or riding a snowmobile.

I am often asked why this past year was so bad and the short answer is that dangerous conditions existed virtually everywhere and they existed for extended periods of time. Typically one or two geographic areas will have bad avalanche conditions and the rest of the country will have relatively stable conditions, but that was not the case in 2007-2008.

Although there were many complex reasons for the spate of avalanche fatalities this past season, the weather – specifically, an unusual snowfall pattern — played a major role. In general terms, most mountainous areas started with relatively light snow fall and cold temperatures. These conditions produced a weak faceted snow layer that could not support the additional weight that was piled on top it by a subsequent series of large snow storms. The weak basal layer was analogous to the strength of potato chips; the big storm layers to the weight of a brick. Obviously potato chips have a hard time holding up a brick and so the basal layers collapsed and avalanches occurred.

The freakish weather wasn’t the only reason for the uptick in Avalanche deaths. Last winter, more people were out in the backcountry because the powder happened to be awesome just about everywhere. Technology exacerbated the situation. Because our skis, boards and snowmobiles are much better than they were just a few years ago it’s now easier and more tempting to get into steep avalanche-prone terrain.


There is only one absolutely certain way to avoid being caught in an avalanche and that is to avoid all avalanche terrain. Avalanches can only occur on slopes steeper than about 30 degrees, so if a person stays on slopes flatter than 30 degrees they are almost guaranteed to never get caught in an avalanche. But that’s easier said than done. Western mountain ranges all have an abundance of slopes steeper than 30 degrees and much of the best backcountry skiing, boarding and snowmobile riding occurs there. So if you choose to go into terrain steeper than 30 degrees – and most of us do – then you can only reduce your risk, you cannot eliminate it.

The most effective way to reduce your risk is to have the tools and skills necessary to identify avalanche terrain, assess snow stability, and carry out a fast and effective rescue if things go bad.

When you go out, along with bringing your dedication to following low-risk travel protocols, you must have a slope meter to determine slope steepness, an avalanche probe and know how to use it, a shovel, extra food, water and clothes, an emergency bivvy or blanket, and a good first aid kit. But the most important tool you can have is avalanche awareness skills. And the best way to develop those skills is to routinely read and/or listen to your local avalanche advisory provided your area has one, take an avalanche class (for information look on or go to your local outdoor shop), read books like the Avalanche Handbook and Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, watch videos like Think Like An Avalanche (available from Black Diamond mail order) and check out the Forest Service National Avalanche Center website at

There are no shortcuts; it takes time to learn how to assess avalanche danger and how to make reasonable decisions based on your assessment. I urge everyone who goes into the backcountry to take the time and make the commitment to develop your skills so you know when to say “go” and when to say “no”.

Doug Abromeit

Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center

(The NAC coordinates all the Forest Service Backcountry Avalanche Centers in the US, facilitates research, and manages the Forest Service Military Artillery for Avalanche Control Program, among its other duties)

Consumer Comment – AMK Thermo-Lite Bivvy

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Sent to us 4/25/07 from Peter, NY

I wanted to advise you of a recent accident that I had while hiking in Northern New York State. I have attached a news article from the New York State Department of Conservation. The article does not specifically mention one of your products but I want to advise you that it helped save my life. I purchased the Thermo Lite Emergency Bivy Sack at Eastern Mountain Sports, and I stayed in this shelter during my long night out. Please read the article attached and be advised that I truly can say that I was glad that I had this with me. This item along with food and staying hydrated kept my body temperature at 97 degrees for almost 18 hours while I was stuck outside, in temperatures that dropped to -23.

Got a story to share? Click here to send us a message!