Winter is when the training wheels come off for hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers. When all of the planning and preparation you did before your trip won’t help you get out of the jam you’re in. When your buddy hits his head on a tree skiing down a backcountry route or a big chunk of falling ice takes out your belayer. When circumstances are so out of control, that you can only survive with what’s in your pack, the knowledge in your head, and the resources you can scrounge from your surrounding environment.
Build A Shelter
Your first priority in winter is to build a shelter to get out of the elements, especially the cold and the wind, which can cause hypothermia and frostbite. If you’re in the open and everyone in your group is mobile, you need to get below treeline. Studies of winter accident reports have shown that people who get below treeline survive far more often than those that don’t. The trees will protect you from the wind and provide fuel for making a fire. If you’re pinned down by the weather or a member of your party is injured and can’t be moved, digging a snow cave, a snow pit, or a snow trench will get you out of the wind.
Start A Fire
If you’re cold or wet, building a fire will significantly improve your chances of surviving. While a stove is good for making hot drinks or melting snow, it can’t help you dry wet clothing or help keep you warm for long. The smoke from the fire can also be used to alert rescuers to your location. But building a fire in winter is much more difficult than building one the rest of the year, especially if the ground is covered with snow and the dead wood in the forest is wet. You also need to bring fire starters with you such as egg carton squares dipped in wax or Vaseline coated cotton balls.
Administer First Aid
If a member of your group is injured, you need to stabilize their condition until help can arrive. After securing the scene of an accident to make sure there no further danger or moving the victim to a safer location, you need to get an injured person onto an insulating sleeping pad as quickly as possible to prevent hypothermia from contact with the cold ground. Your immediate focus should be on stabilizing their condition, immobilizing them so they don’t harm themselves further, and keeping them warm, since rescues take much longer in winter than the rest of the year.
It’s important to stay hydrated in winter, especially in a survival situation, as a defense against hypothermia and frostbite. If you’re out of water and not near a freely running water source, you will have to melt snow for drinking water. If you don’t have a stove or cook pot to melt snow with, you can try putting snow in a water bottle and placing it in your coat to melt it. Don’t do this however until you have a fire going and can stay warm.
If you prepared for your trip properly, you left a trip plan with a trusted relative or friend who will call out Search and Rescue when you’re overdue. Be aware however that many SAR teams won’t start searching for you or launch a rescue even if they have an exact fix on your position until daylight or a bad weather event has passed. Basically, you’re on your own until they show up. If no one knows that you’re missing, you’re going to have to signal for help. Putting green wood or leaves on a hot fire will generate smoke that rescuers can see