You don’t have to be an expert to survive winter mishap |

You don’t have to be an expert to survive winter mishap

by Chuck Smock

Two hours may not sound like a lot of time, but 120 minutes can be the difference between life and death when you’re stranded in your car in a winter environment.

You don’t have to be a seasoned backcountry explorer to survive a winter mishap – especially if you’re in your car or truck. A healthy dose of common sense and an equal amount of preparation are your two best survival tools.

Gunnery Sgt. Alvin McNeil, a Marine for 17 years, has been teaching courses at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport for three years. His duties include instructing battalion-size groups of 500 to 600 soldiers how fight, communicate and move in a mountain environment. He also leads a medical course for the treatment of cold-weather injuries, and teaches winter survival skills to individuals in the armed forces.

For the last two years, McNeil has taught a course for Caltrans that deals with winter preparedness for motorists who travel through mountainous regions.

“What drivers should be thinking about in the winter months, in a worst-case scenario, is being able to survive in a vehicle for at least two hours,” McNeil said. “If you don’t have the necessary supplies, you could experience the loss of limb or life within a two-hour period.”

The two-hour rule is for motorists driving well-traveled roads in our area, such as highways 395, 50, 89 and 88. Obviously, if you drive rural roads that receive less traffic, you can expect to have to wait longer for help. Prepare accordingly.

n Clear exhaust pipe. The first, and most important, thing a driver must do when stranded in a vehicle in the winter is to make sure the exhaust pipe is not obstructed in any way, McNeil said. If you can’t clear the exhaust pipe, you must turn off the vehicle immediately and not turn it on again for any reason. A clogged exhaust pipe will fill a vehicle with carbon monoxide gas, which will kill the occupants.

It’s important to roll down at least one window a half-inch or so when you’re inside the car. The open window won’t allow too much heat to escape and it will provide necessary ventilation.

“The possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia and frost bite are the things you have to deal with in any survival situation,” McNeil said. “The number one killer is hypothermia, and number two is dehydration.”

McNeil suggests winter drivers carry a “survival kit” that addresses six necessities: shelter, water, food, medical, fire and signaling.

n Shelter

Assuming you’re stranded in a car or truck, and the windows haven’t been broken out by a collision or rollover, your shelter is taken care of. Whenever possible, stay with your vehicle, McNeil said. It’s easier for rescuers to locate a car than a person.

One way to help ward off hypothermia is to keep a sleeping bag or heavy blanket, preferably made of wool, in your vehicle. Avoid cotton blankets, which lose the ability to retain heat when they get wet. The old military wool blankets available in surplus stores are perfect for leaving in the trunk or behind the seat of your pickup.

McNeil said winter drivers should have two pairs of lightweight gloves at their disposal. Bulky, ski-type gloves are great for warmth, but the thinner gloves will protect your hands from the elements while allowing you to put on snow chains or do minor repairs.

It’s also a good idea to leave in your car an extra winter coat and hat as well as a pair of heavy boots – especially if you drive to work wearing dress clothes and dress shoes.

n Water

McNeil says he recommends his trainees drink six to eight quarts of water per day during strenuous maneuvers. Two to four quarts per day is probably enough for the average person stranded in a vehicle, he said.

Carrying bottled water or a canteen is the best way to make sure you’ll be able to stay hydrated during an extended stay outdoors. You can use a Zip Loc bag to collect snow to melt for drinking water in an emergency. Placing the bag between the layers of your clothing – not against your skin – will melt the snow without lowering your body temperature, McNeil said.

n Food

“You should always have some type of food in your vehicle,” McNeil said. “What you’re looking for is high carbohydrates and sugars, which will give you a quick boost of energy and help prevent hypothermia, but you need to back it up with proteins.”

Candy bars with nuts as well as trail-mix products and granola bars that feature fruits, nuts and sugars are good choices for survival kits.

n Medical

A first aid kit that contains a method to control bleeding is another important tool for winter survival. Blood loss increases the rate of dehydration and increases the risk of frostbite in the extremities, McNeil said.

Prescription medications and pain relievers can also be included in the first aid kit.

n Fire

Disposable lighters are not always reliable in extremely cold weather or when they get wet. Waterproof/weatherproof matches are OK, McNeil said, however the strikers that come with them don’t always hold up under wet conditions.

Flint and/or magnesium blocks with steel strikers are your best bet for starting a fire in an emergency, but it’s important to have a tinder product to get the fire going. McNeil says cotton balls made out of 100 percent cotton that have been rubbed with petroleum jelly are the perfect fire starter. He said the key is squeezing the excess petroleum jelly out of each cotton ball.

“If you use too much petroleum jelly, it’s hard to light and if you use too little, it burns too fast,” he said. “A perfect combination will burn for five to seven minutes.”

Candles can be used to generate heat and light inside a vehicle as long as at least one window is rolled down slightly for ventilation. Never leave a candle burning inside a vehicle when you are sleeping, McNeil warns.

n Signaling

A burning candle inside a car at night can be a good signaling device. Road flares and flashlights are also good ways to attract the attention of passing motorists at night.

Brightly colored plastic bags – orange is a good color in the winter – can be used as signal flags during the day.

McNeil is not a fan of the use of cell phones as a safety net in the outdoors.

“If you rely on it, you better be prepared to die on it,” he said. “If you rely on technology, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

McNeil said “dead zones” in mountainous areas where cell phone signals don’t work are only part of the problem. Many people won’t know exactly where they are stranded, he said. And the trauma of an accident often makes it difficult for victims to think clearly and direct searchers to their location.

Several other items that should fit in most vehicles can help you get out of a minor winter predicament, according to McNeil.

A tool kit with extra belts is a good idea for drivers with basic auto-repair knowledge.

A 25-foot length of rope, or a long chain, could be the difference between getting home safely and spending the night in a ditch. Most four-wheel drives can pull a car or truck out of a ditch or snow drift as long as one of the drivers has something to hook between the two vehicles.

And, in the event of a flat tire, a can of Fix-a-Flat may be all you need to get back on the road without the long wait for a tow truck.

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