Most snowmobilers don’t think about survival until something goes wrong.
Unfortunately most of us are not always prepared to deal with an emergency. Winter in the high country can be very inhospitable, especially if you have some sort of accident. So how do we prepare? First we need to know what the risks are.
There is no way to predict every risk involved in a snowmobile outing, but being prepared for the obvious ones will probably save you most of the time. Frostbite, hypothermia, avalanches, getting stuck, getting lost, break downs, running out of gas, crash damage and injuries are the most common risks. If you are prepared for these risks most likely you will be able to handle any unfortunate situation you got into.
Frostbite and hypothermia are both caused by cold temperatures. All snowmobilers understand they must wear warm clothes to avoid getting too cold. What we need help with though is wearing too much clothing or the wrong types of apparel.
Wearing too many clothes is as bad as not wearing enough. When we get hot and sweaty our body is cooled or chilled from the evaporative effect. This can lead to a lowering of our core temperature and hypothermia. This is further worsened by clothing that does not move moisture away from the skin. Cotton is the absolute worst fabric to wear while out in the winter time. It traps moisture and pulls the heat from our bodies. The saying “cotton kills” could not be more true. Wear layers of synthetic materials that can be taken off as you start to get too warm.
Avoid exposed skin, even if you feel warm. Exposed skin can freeze quickly, causing frostbite. Don’t try to be macho; get yourself warmed back up before you get into trouble.
The best way to survive an avalanche is to not get caught in one. Books have been written about avalanche safety. I suggest you read one or take a course to educate yourself. You need to know what to look for and what to avoid. You must also be prepared in case you do end up in an avalanche. If you don’t have an avalanche beacon, go buy one. Yes, I know they are expensive and you will probably never use them. I’d rather have one and never need it than need one and not have it.
Avalanche survival is a race against the clock. A person needs to be located and uncovered as quickly as possible. Beacons are the fastest way to locate someone. Make sure all members of your group are wearing them if you are in avalanche country. Probes are better than nothing but much too slow if you hope to find your buddy alive. You will also need a good shovel in order to dig down to the victim.
Everyone gets stuck. If you aren’t getting stuck you’re not riding. Getting stuck can be exhausting, so the better your method for getting unstuck is, the less likely you will get yourself into trouble. First of all, get some help. I’m sure your buddies will give you a hard time but they will appreciate the favor when it is them with their skis pointed up. By the way, I assume that everyone is smart enough to have someone with them—snowmobiling alone is suicide.
Use your shovel to clear snow away and out from under the belly pan. Try to get the track sitting on some packed snow, stomp down some snow next to your track and lift it onto the packed area. Having some help is very important while lifting—ruptured disks are very painful. Drive the snowmobile out slowly, trying not to spin the track. A path stomped out ahead of your machine will make getting moving again much easier. Have your buddy pull on the ski as you drive out of the hole.
Once you get moving, accelerate to build your momentum. This all takes some practice but if you don’t get it right you will get another chance to try in about six feet. If you are a frequent digger you might want to get yourself a snow bungee. Your buddies will be able to tell you if you need one.
A client once asked me if we ever stayed out at night. “Not intentionally,” I told him. “But we could if we had to.” My advice is to always make it back to the trailer before dark. Camping out in the winter is not nearly as much fun as doing it in the summer. I don’t know too many people that plan to stay out all night, it sometimes just works out that way. You might have to stay out if you get lost, have a breakdown or run out of gas. Being prepared could mean the difference between life and death. The key to survival in any situation is to identify your basic needs. Most of the time, food, water and shelter are a person’s basic needs. An injury can complicate matters but we will get to that later.
Having a good survival kit is a must for any backcountry snowmobiler and a good idea for trail riders as well. The contents of the survival kit are dictated by our basic needs. It is pretty simple to figure out that food is an important item to bring with you while snowmobiling. In addition to a good lunch you need to bring a surplus of food that is kept in reserve for emergencies only. If you ate all the food you had with you at lunch, by midnight you are going to be very hungry. Consuming calories also gives your body energy to create heat, which you will need as the temperature falls during the night.
Water is a no brainer as well. Dehydration severely limits rational thinking and good blood flow—both of which are important to surviving the night. Keeping your water from freezing can be challenging. Water bottles placed in windshield bags or a bag on the rear of the tunnel will be kept unfrozen by engine and coolant heat. In extremely cold temperatures or while stopped, the water bottles might still freeze in these places. You need to have some interior pockets on your coat that you can store some water in. Your body heat will keep the water from freezing.
I haven’t had much luck with camel back type water bags. There is just no good way to keep them from freezing up, especially in the hose and valve. Blowing air back through the valve and hose helps but I still find the valve freezes too easily to be reliable for snowmobiling. One more note about water—take more than you think you will need. Each time you exhale and a steam mist appears you are losing moisture from your body—you can’t drink too much.
A Roof Over Your Head
Shelter can be made many different ways. Your snowmobile clothing alone is your basic personal shelter. This is another reason to buy good gear. A snow cave can be dug to escape the elements but be careful you don’t complicate things by burying yourself in a collapsed cave. The safest shelter can be constructed using tree branches and pine boughs to create a lean-to. When designing and building a shelter keep in mind the placement of a fire to keep you warm. A fire is very important to surviving a night on the mountain. Not only will it provide warmth and light it will also raise your spirits. Build your shelter so that the heat from the fire will be directed toward you, while still allowing the smoke to escape.
Shelters can be constructed in various ways as long as they provides relief from wind and blowing snow and provides an area to build a fire. A stand of closely spaced trees with interwoven branches is a great place to escape the elements. One piece of advice though, knock the snow off the low hanging branches before you build your fire.
Here is a list, along with a brief explanation, of some things you should include in your survival kit:
Extra gloves, in case your primary pair get wet.
Stocking hat to keep your head warm. The majority of body heat is lost through the head.
Extra socks—see gloves.
Fire starters. A fire is very important if you hope to be somewhat comfortable through the night. I suggest compressed trioxane, available at army surplus suppliers.
Lighters/waterproof matches. Take several in case one quits working.
Space blanket. It can be used between you and snow.
Flashlight. Being able to see at night will be helpful.
First aid kit, in case you prick your finger; more on this later.
Food, you need energy to stay warm.
Water, avoid dehydration.
Rope, some kind of lightweight rope or strap can be used to build a shelter or tow a sled.
Knife or multitool—lots of uses, a must-have.
Saw. You’ll need to cut wood to burn, can also be useful if you get stuck on a tree.
Duct tape. One of the most useful things ever invented.
Bailing wire. The other most useful thing ever invented.
Shovel. To dig a cave or depression for your fire.
Signal mirror. To signal your rescue party.
Cell phone. If you can get service you will be glad you brought it. Keep it in an inside pocket, turn it off until you need it.
Two way radios—keeps your group together.
Wire ties. To hold stuff together.
Candle. Can be useful but you will probably want a much bigger fire.
Toilet paper. I think this one is obvious.
Map. Useful if lost. Preferably one of the area you are in.
Compass. Keeps you heading in the right direction.
GPS—great if you know how to use it.
There are lots more products to keep you comfortable but these will keep you alive. Put the items in a waterproof bag on your sled or in a back pack. Make sure you have available space to store your clothes as you get warm and shed layers. On warm days my clients often ask if they should leave their jacket liners at the trailer. I tell them “You may not need it now, but if we are still out at midnight you are going to want it.”
Insult To Injury
Most injuries while snowmobiling are minor. A basic first aid kit and some suck it up will get you back to the trailer. Once in a while, though, you or one of your companions might take a serious blow. This is when you need to have some first aid training and a good first aid kit. The American Medical Association can do a much better job telling you about first aid than I can but there are a few things I want to mention.
First of all, do not panic. It only makes things worse. Stay calm and assess the situation. If you can, send someone for help immediately. They need to know what the situation is and where you are. This information needs to be relayed to search and rescue as fast as possible. Cell phones can be life savers but don’t depend on them—they don’t work well in the mountains. Satellite phones are better but very expensive. If you are prone to running into hard objects, you might want to make the investment. If an injury forces you to spend the night out, it is important that the injured person stay warm. Do whatever you have to to keep their body temperature up—yes, I mean cuddle.
Crash damage or breakdowns are something all of us will have eventually. Being prepared can help get you going again. Obviously some damage or breakdowns are not repairable in the field. This is why you carry a good tow strap. Minor damage or breakdowns can be dealt with and you can still enjoy your trip. Always bring duct tape and bailing wire. You would be amazed at how much can be repaired with these two items. Some bungee cords are handy as well. A few specific items I’ve found useful include:
Windshield retainers. Most of the time the shield doesn’t break, it just pops off.
Spark plugs, of course.
Extra drive belt, I shouldn’t even have to tell you this one.
Spark plug caps. Once in awhile the contact in the caps can get crushed.
Exhaust springs. Bailing wire will do temporarily but having an extra spring when one breaks is handy.
Wire ties, many uses.
Tool kit. Pliers, wrenches, vise grips, screwdrivers, spring puller, flashlight with extra batteries, electrical tape, rag.
There are, of course, more things that are useful as well. You will figure out with experience what you need. By the end of the season my backpack is always heavier than when I started.
The best survival tool is something we all possess—our brains. If you can stay calm and rational, you can survive many adverse situations. You must think about your basic needs then act on those items. You must take action as soon as you realize you are in a bad situation; don’t wait until you are hopeless. Common sense will get you through most any scenario; think don’t panic.