Snow safety |

Snow safety

Claire Cudahy |
red car in winter under snow and ice
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

By now most everyone has heard about the women who a few days shy of Christmas trekked 26 miles in the snow over 30 hours to try and get help for her family who was trapped on a closed road near the Grand Canyon.

Forty-six-year-old Karen Klein was a triathlete who had taken wilderness survival classes, so when the GPS detoured the family through closed Forest Service roads and their car got stuck in a ditch, Klein was the one who opted to go out in search of help.

When she ran out of food and water, she ate pine needles and drank her urine, knowing that eating snow would only hasten hypothermia. She knew she had to keep moving.

If Klein had not known crucial wilderness survival skills, it is more than likely she would not have made it out until rescuers came to find her.

But the story is also a lesson in material preparedness — something Chad Tranberg, managing director of Tahoe Jack’s Adventure Authority, says is the cornerstone of survival in winter.

“The best thing to do when you go out in the winter is to always have a survival kit with you. It could be something you keep in your car, and when you go out into the wilderness, you bring it with you,” said Tranberg, whose Zephyr Cove-based company teaches winter survival courses daily.

Recommended items for a survival kit are fire starters, a water purifier, knife or multi-tool, non-perishable food, water, compass, a spool of twine, first aid kit, and a map of the area.

In your car, keep a sleeping bag, flares, a shovel and sand or kitty litter to help with traction if your vehicle gets stuck.

“A lot of people when they get stuck in a survival situation, they immediately start making bad decisions based off of fear — things like heading off immediately and walking miles and miles trying to find help,” explained Tranberg.

“The best thing to do is stay put and sit town and think for a minute. Where am I? What do I have available with me? What are the weather conditions like? What are they going to be like? Does anybody know where I am?”

After assessing the situation, then take action.


“In the winter, the No. 1 priority is going to be shelter. In harsh elements you need to build a shelter — like a snow cave or lean-to — or find a natural cave,” said Tranberg.

“The key to building a shelter especially in winter is conserving your energy. Keep in mind the larger it is, the more it will take to keep warm.”

Pine needles are great for insulation on the floor and ceiling of the shelter.


The body can survive without food for weeks, and foraging for plants without proper knowledge presents its own set of risks.

“It’s going to be a pretty desperate go in the Sierras and Tahoe during the winter if you don’t have the skills to be able to build snares to hunt animals or to create fish traps,” said Tranberg.

You can, however, search for pine nuts inside pine cones, brew pine needles into a tea, or eat the soft layer beneath the outer bark of trees.

In the winter, melt snow for water, but do not eat it.

“It burns a lot of energy for the human body to warm it up and can lead to hypothermia as your core temperature decreases,” explained Tranberg.

Instead, melt the snow over a fire or put it in a container and hold it close to your body.


The first step in starting a fire in the snow is finding dead and dry wood. Start with a tinder of highly flammable materials like moss. If you don’t have a fire starter in your survival pack, create a spark using the friction method with two sticks or locate a flint rock to hit against the steel of a knife.

Gently blow on the spark, then as the flame grows, slowly add larger pieces of wood.


If you’re able to start a fire, then this could be the key to your rescue.

“If you do have fire making capabilities, wet fires are going to smoke a lot. Create a fire with dry tinder and place wet branches on top of that,” explained Tranberg. “You could also use a mirror to flag a plane.”

Tranberg recommends staying in place, not only to conserve energy, but to avoid missing search and rescue efforts.

“Search and rescue teams typically work different areas and shut them off as they go. If you wander around you could end up in an area they already checked off,” said Tranberg.

If you’re in a car, the best thing to do is wait it out.

“Not only is it a shelter, but you have highway patrols, airplanes, and park rangers out searching usually,” he added.


“The No. 1 thing is tell someone where you’re going,” said Tranberg.

“But if you’re stuck there for a while and nobody is coming, setting out and keeping your bearings is a huge thing. You could walk for days on end in the Sierras.”

Tranberg recommends finding a high location to get a vantage point if you don’t know where you are, or following a river or creek downstream.

“Most habitations or civilizations occur along them,” he explained.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for winter wilderness survival. If you really want to be prepared, sign up for a survival course to learn these skills firsthand. To find out more or sign up for Tranberg’s winter survival course, visit

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