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Do You Know How to Survive a Blizzard or White-out?

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.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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16 Comments

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    • I remember when the deep south came to a grinding halt due to snow on all the interstates, I think in 2011? If I remember right, Georgia got hit worse than Alabama in that storm and it was a heavy snowstorm rather than a blizzard, but it had a huge impact.

          • That series of storms and cold weather is primarily remembered as very bad weather due to the impact in the deep south. That is mostly because it is so rare in the deep south. Florida even lost a huge part of its citrus crops.

            What is less remembered about that winter is the impact in the rest of the country. Because of the length of the winter and how abbreviated it made the growing season, grain crops in the mid-west failed in record numbers and the price of grains, especially for livestock, jumped enormously after that. It takes really bad weather to wipe out wheat and other crops.

            Here in Montana, that winter we had a solid week where the *high* temperature didn’t get above 0 F. We went for nearly 2 months without having the temperature getting above freezing. Here where I live, considered the ‘banana belt’ of Montana, we broke some local records when we had a temperature of -55 F…then the wind came up. The wind-chill was unbelievably cold. Grain and hay crops failed here that year, too, and that winter, many cattle and a huge number of deer and elk perished.

            In Oregon, in several towns, most of the towns were without water because of frozen pipes. Portland, Oregon, had several feet of snow. That is huge. In Portland, they routinely close schools and businesses if they get more than a half inch of snow.

            Seattle, Washington, also had large amounts of snow and freezing rain.

            The great lakes recorded ice earlier than normal and huge amounts of it. They weren’t free of ice until very late June and the lakes never got above 10 degrees below average all year. (Ice is usually gone from the Great Lakes by April or early May.)

            Some people tried to claim that all of this was caused by a polar vortex. Only, it wasn’t a polar vortex at all.

          • Woah, I had heard some of the stories, most were covered when we were without power so I never heard of all of them. Very interesting information Rex, thank you so much.

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