Where I live, half the population would trade hot summer days for year-round record snow. I’m not one of them; I can’t paddle on a frozen lake, and while I’ll fish the steelie runs and bass beds in early Spring, you can’t get me near an ice fishing hut… and not just because my guy buddies can smell worse than pike guts after they’ve been eating chili all day.
But I do love winter while it lasts. Snowshoeing’s my new jam. I’ll make a couple trips to the local (ok, 80 miles is local to me) ski hill, and last season, my pooch and I joined a training class for dog skijoring. I also like curling up with my Kindle, or listening to a good podcast with my toes pointed toward the wood stove.
I used to say, “I like winter… on my own terms”, but I learned firsthand that that’s just not the way it works. Not when you live in Montana, and not when you’ve been suckered into joining your tiny town’s version of a Search and Rescue team.
Don’t Go Out There!
Common sense dictates that you don’t set out without checking reliable weather reports. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving to town, firing up the snowmachines for a trip to the fire lookout, or trekking to the mailbox out on the main road. You check the weather so you know how many layers to throw on, what safety gear you need to bring, and whether you should leave your itinerary with someone who’ll care enough to dig you out from a snowbank or, possibly, bury you six feet under when the ground thaws.
But sometimes, someone else’s lack of common sense requires us to ignore the storm warnings and head outside in whiteout conditions: We’re the ones who get the heads-up that someone didn’t return from their snowmobile run, and we’re the ones called up to help look for the someone’s daughter’s beloved dog. Because yes, our town’s that tiny.
Or maybe the weather report was wrong, and we got ourselves caught in a blizzard. I’ve even seen high winds drive powdery snow off the hills to turn an otherwise clear, cold day into a whiteout.
If You’re In Trouble…
…Stay put. Never mind the flashy survivalist shows in which that silly man goes sliding full-speed down a mountain on his backside because “that’s where civilisation (with an “S”) always is”. No. If you can’t see where you’re going, be boring and wise, like Les Stroud, and hunker down. There’s a reason why early settlers used ropes to get from their front porches to their outhouses; you can get completely lost in fewer than a dozen steps. You can fall off a cliff or through thin ice. And you’ll burn energy and break a sweat, two things you absolutely don’t want to do in dangerous winter weather.
Speaking of water, if you happen to be one of my farty ice-fishing friends, you’ll know that it’s never “safe” to walk on ice. This guy will tell you the same thing, along with some pretty good advice for determining whether ice is safe to walk on.
Should you fall through, you’ll be glad you read this Q&A by Backpacker’s Den Mother.
Carry A Cold Weather Kit
It’s impossible to take with you everything you really, really need whenever you leave the safety of your home or vehicle. Sure, we should carry a flare gun, that ice-fishing portable hut, that woodstove… you get my point. It’s not even realistic to take a full backcountry survival kit everywhere you may be at risk of bad winter weather, but there’s never an excuse not to bring the basics:
- Electric, butane, or chemical hand warmers
- Mylar Emergency blanket or bivy
- Cell phone or two-way radio
- StarFlash Multitool: I don’t like to rely on all-in-one tools, but this signal mirror, compass, whistle, and firestarter combo belongs in every parka and day pack. The mirror’s worthless without sun, but when the storm breaks, the sun comes out, and you’re still there, you’ll be glad you have it.
- Knife: OK, multitools are good here, as well; just make sure you can access the components with ice-cold fingers or gloved hands. I prefer larger folding knives or fixed-blade sheathed knives if I think I might need to peel wet bark off of firewood or hack up some kindling.
- Basic fire starting kit and skills. Let AlaskaGranny show you how to use petroleum jelly, cotton or lint balls, and a BIC lighter to start a fire in wet weather.
- Headlamp with ultra-bright LEDs.
- Satellite messager or personal locator. Do NOT leave this at home if you’re going into the backcountry. Ever. Especially in winter, spring, fall, and summer. Get my drift?
I’m a gear hoarder. I love to stash mini-kits by my front door, in my mudroom, in my truck, or on my UTV. I can’t even carry a purse because it will end up being stuffed with chemical glow sticks, knife sharpeners, Yaktrax and Mainstay bars. But I have learned to have a core kit for my home and my truck which I can raid when I need the “agro” items. Otherwise, I have smaller “satellite” kits for grab-and-go situations. Find a system that works for you, and that you’ll use.
Chillin’ Lounge Wear
When we head out in the winter, we’re often dressed in clothing designed to keep us warm and dry when we’re sweating from exertion. We stuff our favorite breathable rain jacket in our day packs in case we need a little protection, but we tend to leave our bulky parkas at home.
Yeah, that’s really not such a hot idea.
What if you’re caught in a blizzard, or you’re injured? Without proper insulation, you’re going to freeze your tail off, even if you do have your fancy outdoor survival kit.
Here’s what’s in my “go bag” to complement my usual layered outdoor performance clothing:
- Durable, water-resistant, high-fill down coat
- Pullover fleece sweater
- Fleece-lined, water-resistant pants
- Uninsulated, waterproof “shell”-type pants
- A classic Alf Hat with ear flaps
- Neck gaiter
- Leg gaiters designed for snow
- Merino wool performance socks
- Hardcore, super-insulated, durable mittens
Don’t forget to invest in a pair of high-quality, 100% UV-blocking sunglasses to prevent snow blindness (Yes, that’s a thing!) and bring along some lightweight trekking poles if you can. I stash mine in my truck with a pair of cheap snowshoes in case I want to go for a hike, or so they’ll be there for emergency calls.
When You’re Prepared, You’re KÜHL
I think of “my own terms” differently than I used to. I learned that we can’t pick and choose when we venture outside; sometimes that choice is made for us. But I can control how well-prepared I am for a blizzard if I need to run out in an emergency or hunker down if I’m lost or disabled far away from the comfort of my cabin.
The choices you make before you step out that front door dictate your chances of survival when unexpected weather hits, which is why I don’t mess around. I invest in equipment and outdoor clothing that will keep me safe and comfortable for several seasons to come, provided my common sense—and yours—plays along.
Featured image by Asoggetti.