The phone will fail, hydration pack will freeze, and that energy bar will look and feel like a fossilized dog turd. Snow caked tennis shoes will not thaw, wet gloves will not dry, and your slick looking softshell will soak through to your T-Shirt in no time. Pressurized fuel cannisters will not burn efficiently, Bic lighters will not strike, and your space blanket will probably rip on a twig. Your pocket knife will not chop a tree down, your prescription meds will not teleport from the medicine cabinet at home into your coat pocket, and Burger King isn't right down the street; you can't have it your way.
The good news is that plenty of people have already made these mistakes so we don't have to be the next Donner Party. Avoiding an epic is easy if you understand the basic principle of winter and know how that affects your needs.
My Basic Theory of Winter Survival
Winter is a relative term, my winter is not your winter. Your summer may be my winter, or my summer could be your winter. Regardless of whether it's deep midwinter snow with high wind in alpine terrain or 42 degrees Fahrenheit and light rain in the southern Appalachians, the word winter doesn't conjure up thoughts of Corona and lime on the beach. When things go bad, they can go really bad.
There are many commercially available survival and first aid kits, think twice before committing to these options, you're allowing someone else to dictate exactly what you need. Through trial and error I have found it most prudent to pack my own bags and I almost never venture out with the exact same recipe of tools. Be ready to adjust your own recipe as you take different trips since your needs will almost never remain the same.
Keep in mind that survival gear doesn't need to be banished to a bright orange stuffsack or a fancy blue zippered pouch with a white cross on it. I like to strategically stash my extras around my pack according to the load I'm already carrying. The best survival gear is normal equipment meant for everyday use, I try to avoid 'survival' gear that is vacuum sealed, flimsy, or disposable.
Don't Rely on Emergency Beacons to Summon Help Quickly
A good municipal 911 system can have fire and medical services at your doorstep in under 10 minutes in normal workloads. In the backcountry you would be lucky to see a professional within an hour. The fastest backcountry response I remember participating in took 45 minutes from 911 call to on scene and that was due to sheer luck, everyone was in the right place at the right time, the helicopter was ready to go, it was a short flight, and it was also in July on a beautiful evening.
It's not uncommon for professional rescuers to resort to old fashioned means of access if weather or other limitations prevent an aircraft from being available to come to your aid. In these circumstances the travel time to your location could be the same or greater (if the the weather has intensified) for responders than what it took you. That may mean a 12 hour wait in a blizzard while a team skis in miles to your supposed location.
Key Questions for Packing:
Where am I heading?
What conditions will I likely encounter?
What will be at my disposal already?
What happens if I need to stop moving?
What's my mode of transportation and how does that impact my load carrying ability?
Do I feel especially uneasy - or confident - about my ability to operate in the expected environment?
Are there any special considerations - e.g. small children along, known medical conditions, livestock/pets?
1 - Where am I heading?
Survival depends largely on where you are and your ability to cope effectively in your surroundings. A big wall rock climb such as The Nose on Yosemite's El Capitan can be equally dangerous as a fair weather float trip through Montana's Missouri Breaks, or an archery hunt in Colorado's San Juan Mountains in early fall. People often think of 'where' as a state based geographical issue and take a one size fits all approach, Alaska, Montana, and California, are all big places with suprisingly similar requirements depending on your exact location within each state, know the details.
Knowing the area means knowing the routes in and out of the area and whether you would need specialized equipment to take advantage of those routes, knowledge of the prominent geographical features, where to go if you need help, and hazards unique to the area such as Brown Bears in Alaska, freedom fighters in south central Asia, and even the lowly mosquito in the Everglades.
2 - What conditions will I likely encounter?
Conditions begin with weather, if you're not already a 'man/woman of the atmosphere' go ahead and become one. Become a student of the weather. Learn the difference between an altoculmulus and a cirrostratus cloud. Learn what SWE is, and how depth hoar forms. Understand how temperature and dewpoint relate to the formation of visible mositure. Ask yourself if you could explain orographic lift to a nine year old kid and if the answer is no, learn. It's not hard.
A beautiful human trait is optimisim, unfortunately this is a curse when weather forecasting. Never underestimate how quickly weather can turn and how fierce it can become. Think twice before leaving that hard shell jacket or fleece hat at home.
3 - What will be at my disposal already?
Unless you're part of an expeditionary fighting force it really doesn't make sense to carry too much of something. I used to think about this all the time when doing search and rescue work as a Wilderness EMT; why should I carry a personal first aid kit when I have 20 pounds of professional level EMS equipment right here at my disposal? I shouldn't.
An elk hunter carrying a rifle into the woods probably doesn't have to worry about starving to death - he'll start shooting rodents long before that happens. The elk hunter as a result can afford to skimp on packing more food than he plans to eat under normal circumstances.
4 - What Happens if I Need to Stop Moving?
Broken ankle, boom; I said it. When you move you burn calories and when you burn calories you stay warm. An injury is an instant solution to being warm and happy, you'll get cold, it's inevitable. In winter weather you need a way to insulate the injured individual from the elements. This nescessity is twofold, we first need to keep out the wind and precipitation, next we need to keep the heat in. Accomplishing this is easy enough with a tarp and a sleeping bag. If you have a tent (question #3) you may forego packing the tarp.
It's not always so serious, in fact survival might not be an issue. Maybe the wind has become just enough of an annoyance that you decide to stop for a drink of warm lemonade from your thermos, some body temperature cheddar cheese from within your jacket, and an apple while you and your partner discuss options. Having the forethought to pack a tarp and a down puffy just promoted you to demigod status in the eyes of your companion(s) who will appreciate and remember the luxury well into the future.
5 - What's my mode of transportation and how does that impact my load carrying ability?
As a day hiker, 15 pounds is about the maximum of what I want to carry. On big multi-day trips that load could easily swell to 65 pounds for a person my size. The simple reality is that on foot you wouldn't be able to carry as much as you would on horseback or in a group of 10 sea kayakers.
When Rebecca - my wife - and I go mountain flying in the winter we carefully select about 50 pounds of gear solely intended for survival. The amount of survival gear on an oceanic yacht could easily reach into the tons. My point is simple. If you can carry the weight, don't skimp on the options.
6 - Do I feel especially uneasy - or confident - about my ability to operate in the expected environment?
That funny little feeling in your gut, the little voice in your head, it's trying to tell you something, listen. Mariners, aviators, and climbers have a special commonality when it comes to overconfidence, bad things happen - remember the Costa Concordia?
A lack of confidence is obviosuly not good either. Be real with yourself and know your abilities. Consider your partners, what are their abilities and vulnerabilities? Will they ask you to do something you can't do, or in the event you are incapacitated would they be able to pick up the slack?
YouTube: AH-64 Apache Crash - Overconfidence?
7 - Are there any special considerations - e.g. small children along, known medical conditions, livestock/pets?
It's easy to greet the obvious with a well laid plan, less obvious are the unique situations which we ironically encounter on a routine basis. If someone on your trip has an allergy and regularly carries an epinephrine autoinjector what happens if they have an anaphylactic reaction (not totally impossible even in winter) twelve miles from the trailhead and then 90 minutes by car to the nearest clinic. Chances are high that without supplementary medication (consult your doctor first) a sustained reaction could be fatal. Last week I was out in the Bridger Mountains in below zero tempratures with blowing snow, a family of four was out cross country skiing with very minimal equipment which is fine so long as everything goes according to plan, don't forget that small people are much more susceptible to cold injuries than adults, plan accordingly.
Evolving Your Approach
The quest for functional know how and new ideas should be as endless as your pursuit of happiness. Take time to read books that discuss in detail the skills that you may need to employ one day, we have a few choices to consider in our Bookstore.Encourage your partners to do the same. Experiment when it's safe to do so, try 'surviving' in your backyard for a night.