The Invisible Winter Threat

Prevent snow blindness with homemade eye protection.

Most articles that deal with winter survival seem to cover everything except the eyes, but snow blindness is a real and debilitating threat you need to be prepared for. Be ready with a homemade eye protection.

Snow blindness is like getting a sunburn on your eye—more specifically, to the cornea.

Let’s face it: Without your eyes, you are going to be in a world of hurt in a survival situation. If you can’t see—or see well—your ability to hunt, gather water, make shelter and fire, and defend yourself will be severely limited, if not impossible. If you are in this type of situation, you are already at a disadvantage. Damage to your eyes will make it worse.

What Is Snow Blindness?

Snow blindness is like getting a sunburn on your eye—more specifically, to the cornea. It is a painful condition caused by the eye getting too much exposure to UV radiation, usually from reflected light. While snow blindness is generally associated with light reflecting off ice and snow (hence, the name), the same injury can occur with sunlight being reflected off sand and water.

Making homemade eye protection
Almost any workable material can be used to make a quick pair of snow goggles. Here, a piece of cardboard is being cut to size.

The Effects of Snow Blindness?

Any injury to the eye is a serious one. The problem with snow blindness is that the symptoms might not show up for several hours, long after the damage has been done. Those symptoms can range from minor to major, depending on the amount of exposure. Snow blindness symptoms can range from bloodshot, teary eyes to painful, gritty-feeling eyes that swell shut. The worst-case scenario? Permanent vision loss.

If you can’t see—or see well—your ability to hunt, gather water, make shelter and fire, and defend yourself will be severely limited, if not impossible.

There really isn’t much you can do to treat the effects of snow blindness. The best thing is to get into a dark place and rest. That could mean getting into a tent, cave or other type of shelter with little to no light. Try to block as much light as you can. Sometimes, just patching the eyes with some gauze will suffice. Warm, used tea bags can be used to help soothe the pain and reduce the swelling. Warm-water compresses will also work. However, no matter what you do, you will be out of commission for at least a couple days. You should seek professional medical care as soon as you realize you have a vision problem.

Once size is determined, you will need to locate where the eye slits and nose cutout will be. This can only be done by putting it up to your face.

Avoid the Problem

It is simpler and more effective to do whatever you can to avoid the problem than it is to treat it. There are plenty of really good snow goggles available, and they can be found in every outdoor store and ski shop. Even a quality pair of sunglasses will work, as long as the lenses wrap around the curvature of your face—you can get eye damage from reflected light that enters the eye from the sides, below or above sunglasses with flat lenses.

What should you do if you don’t have a good pair of sunglasses or goggles? If you are a prepper, you know the answer: Make your own eye protection. This has been done for thousands of years by the native peoples of the Arctic, and it can still be done today.

These people made goggles out of what was available. Sometimes, it was wood, or it could be ivory, bone, antler or baleen. The idea was to make a piece that would fit close to the face. To see, small slits would be made where the mask covered the eyes. These slits would allow just enough light in to see but would block most of the reflected light, thus limiting the amount of eye damage. Leather straps kept the goggles attached to the face.

Today, we have a wide variety of materials that can be used to make an emergency pair of goggles (see the sidebar on the facing page). No matter what material you use, the goal is still the same: Keep the light from damaging your eyes.

Cut the eye slits and nose notch. This is cardboard, but the process is still the same on any material.
Cut out the notch where the strap will connect to the goggles.
The author is using a shoelace for a strap, but you can use anything similar you have on hand.
The author’s homemade goggles are ready for use in the field.

Make Your Own Snow Goggles

If you are in a situation for which you need to make a pair of goggles to protect your eyes, keep in mind that you are not trying to make a fashion statement. Your goal is very simple: Protect your eyes. Once you have gathered your material, the actual process is fairly simple.

With your knife, shape the material to fit your face the best you can. This can be in the style of a mask, or you can make parts that just cover both or individual eyes, depending on the materials you have at hand. Locate where your eyes will be and cut a horizontal slit for each eye that is wide enough to see out of but still blocks most of the light.

It is simpler and more effective to do whatever you can to avoid the problem than it is to treat it.

Once you have the fit you want and the slits line up with your eyes, you will need some way to keep the goggles, or parts, on your face. Make a strap using extra shoe laces, strips of leather, paracord or even string. If you have that roll of duct tape you should always have with you, you can make straps out of that.

Now that you are ready to complete your mission, keep in mind that this is just an emergency fix. The first chance you get, make sure to secure yourself a pair of sunglasses or goggles; keep them in your pack if they’re not on your face.

The author cuts a piece of birch bark for making a set of snow goggles.
The author’s new birch bark goggles are finished and ready for use.

Eyesight is, by no means, a requirement for a fully functional life in modern peaceful environments. However, good vision is essential for survival on your own in foreign and hostile environments, where even the sighted can’t see all the threats around them. Without good vision, you will have a hard time navigating, securing food and water, and staying safe from the host of dangers a survival situation is likely to include.

Don’t succumb to the tendency we have to not value something until we no longer have it. Take the time now to make sure you have the means available to make eye protection and protect your eyes, and train yourself to take emergency action if you need to. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Modern Materials

Unlike the Arctic peoples of old, today, we have different materials available that can be used to make emergency goggles. Here is a short list of potential options you can use (and I am sure you can come up with more):

  • Duct tape—Every pack should have a roll of duct tape in it.
  • Tree bark—Elm and birch seem to work the best, and they are the easiest to work with.
  • Leather—Any piece of leather will work (for instance, the uppers on an old pair of boots).
  • Cardboard—Even a stiff piece of cardboard will do. In fact, it is probably the easiest to work with.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December, 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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