Every winter, people die in sudden blizzards. Many, if not most of them, could have survived if they’d known what to do. In fact, many of them could have survived if they’d known what not to do.
Naturally, not putting yourself in a position where you can get caught in a blizzard or white-out is the best move. It is amazing how many people will go skiing alone, snowmobiling alone or mountain climbing in areas that are known for sudden changes in the weather. It is for this and other reasons that Mount Hood in Oregon and Mount Shasta in California claim lives so often; almost on a yearly basis.
Truth is that these are a long way from being the only locations people die from being trapped in a blizzard or white-out. People have even died on freeways in the plains states after getting caught in one of these storms. Getting caught in a car is a different story, though. You have ready-made shelter. It is much worse if you are caught hiking or out in the woods when the storm occurs, and that is the primary focus here.
It should be explained that a white-out is when the snow is falling so hard that you can’t make out the horizon and usually can’t see much more than a couple of hundred feet in any direction. A blizzard is a white-out with strong winds behind it, reducing visibility even more.
What if you are caught in a white-out or a blizzard? Sometimes this is unavoidable. You don’t need to be a highly trained survivalist in order to survive, though.
The first step in these conditions is to find shelter. That could be a group of trees, fallen logs or anything else that shelters you from the wind and snow. Hypothermia is the biggest danger and it can happen quickly, without you even being aware that it is occurring. If necessary, you can even build a make-shift shelter or dig into a snow bank, but work as fast as you can.
Do not attempt to walk out of the situation. In white-out conditions, landmarks can’t be seen and it is extremely hard to tell which direction is which, so trying to walk out during the white-out is just making a bad situation worse. Even people who have an excellent sense of direction have made this mistake. It is often a fatal error. It is far too easy to become disoriented in a white-out.
Once you have shelter, stay put. If you have the means to make a small fire to stay warm, make one. Even a plumber’s candle can produce a surprising amount of heat. It is important to keep your head and feet warm, too. Your head loses heat faster than any other portion of your body because of the blood flow and since your feet are the greatest distance from your head, when hypothermia begins (again, you may be totally unaware that hypothermia is happening), the blood circulation will begin to falter in the extremities first. If your head is cold, you will lose heat faster. If your feet are cold, they can become frost-bitten easily and quickly. A feeling of warmth or numbness in the feet is a bad sign you should be aware of.
Even extremely bad white-outs seldom last more than a few hours. Once the conditions are more favorable, you can assess the situation and decide what to do next. If you have a good shelter, you may want to remain where you are until you are found. However, if you recognize landmarks and know that you aren’t far from safety, you might be able to walk out, if you are sure that the white-out is over.
Easily the biggest mistake that many people make is to try to walk out while the white-out is happening. People have been found, frozen to death, within a few hundred feet from safety and with tracks that indicate that they were walking in circles in an attempt to get to a more secure location. It might be less comfortable to have a ramshackle shelter and to just stay put, but when the alternative is death, it is best to resign yourself to being uncomfortable for a little while.