Chill Factor: Surviving the Icy Grips of a Blizzard

Chill Factor: Surviving the Icy Grips of a Blizzard

Wind whips around you, shooting ice and snow into your face. You’re colder than you’ve ever been, colder than you imagined was possible. The wind finds any vulnerable place in your clothing and fills it with snow. You can’t see the horizon, you can’t see five feet in front of you: it’s a perfect whiteout. If you stand still for more than a second, you can reach down and feel your boots already covered in powder, with more accumulating every second. If you take too long to get inside, you may find yourself buried alive. Once the winds die down, if you were lucky enough to find shelter, you can get to a second (or third) floor window and look out on a changed landscape. Streets, cars, even houses are totally covered in a still, white blanket. Everything is completely still, and there’s no telling how many people are outside, trapped under the snow.

What is a Blizzard?

A blizzard: A powerful, often devastating, natural phenomenon, it is a severe snowstorm with strong, sustained winds. It can last for hours or days. A peculiarly American phenomenon (or at least an American word), the blizzard is made possible by the intermingling of cold, dry air from Canada, warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and cold moist air from the West Coast. When all three air currents meet, the conditions are right for heavy wind and snow. Some of these storms, the ones called “ground blizzards,” don’t even require that it be snowing. If there’s snow on the ground and the winds are high enough, snow will whip into the air and have a similar effect. While blizzard-like events can and do happen in other places on the globe (history’s deadliest was in Iran in 1972), the U.S. is particularly prone to them. Blizzards occur most often in the Great Plains states, coastal states in the north east, and states surrounding the Great Lakes. The damage that blizzards can cause is vast, as these storms combine all the dangers of snowstorms with the violence of hurricanes. Livestock and other animals are vulnerable.  

Cars and even houses can be completely buried beneath huge snow drifts. If roofs aren’t ripped off by the terrible winds, then they can collapse under the weight of the snow. And of course, once the winds die down, all of that snow is now stuck on the ground. Depending on what time of year the blizzard struck, it may be on the ground for a long time, blocking roads and restricting travel. If the blizzard struck at an unseasonable time of year, as they sometimes do, crops may not have been fully harvested and end up destroyed.

Human life is also greatly endangered by blizzards. In a condition called “whiteout,” there is so much ambient snow being blown through the air that a person can totally lose sight of the horizon and general visibility can be reduced to practically nothing (to be considered a blizzard, visibility is no more than a quarter of a mile.) There is no shortage of stories of people who sought shelter in whiteout conditions, as close as a few dozen yards away in areas they knew well—like their own backyards—only to become disoriented and lose their way.

Due to the chilling effect of the high winds (which can often reach hurricane-level speeds), frostbite and hypothermia can occur much more quickly than in normal snowstorm conditions. Blizzards can range in size from the local all the way to country spanning. The Storm of the Century stretched all the way from Canada to Cuba. By the end of the 1972 blizzard in Iran, a section of the country the size of Wisconsin had been totally blanketed in up to 26 feet of snow. These were largely rural areas that were affected the most, with entire villages buried and no high ground to get to. All told, 4,000 people died, making it the world’s deadliest blizzard by nearly a factor of 10. 

Surviving a Blizzard

Like any disaster, the best way to survive a blizzard is to be prepared for it. Even if you’re outside and the blizzard strikes without warning, knowing a few basic rules can save your life. If the blizzard hits when you’re at home (or you’re close enough to safely get back to your home), you can run your heater or build a fire as long as any heat source can safely vent to the outside. Death by carbon monoxide poisoning is highly preventable with proper practices and monitoring. Stay fed, keeping in mind that your food supply may need to last up to four days. Even once the storm has dissipated, the roads likely will be impassable for some time, particularly in areas where blizzards are rare. Drinking water is also important: it’s easy to get dehydrated when the cold temperatures fool one’s body into not feeling thirsty. Complicating matters further, it’s easy for pipes to freeze and burst when the temperature drops precipitously. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends keeping your faucets at a steady drip, as even a tiny amount of moving water can help prevent pipes from freezing.

Just as it’s easier to weather a blizzard at home when there’s an adequate supply of emergency supplies, being trapped in your car is made much safer by taking a few precautions. In addition to a standard emergency kit (and a few road flares), people in areas where snow is common should keep a small supply of non-perishable food, bottles of water, and warm clothes. A fully charged cell phone and keeping at least a half tank of gas at all times are some other common-sense measures that are too often neglected. In terms of procedure, should the blizzard strike when you’re in your car and too far from shelter to safely get indoors, pull to the side of the road and flip on your hazards—your situation is bad enough without getting rear-ended by somebody who’s driving blind. Never leave your car during a blizzard; it’s much easier to find a car or truck on a road than it is to locate one lone person walking through a snowstorm. If you have a brightly-colored piece of cloth or plastic, you should tie it to the top of your antenna or place it in a window for greater visibility. 

If you decide to run your car, do so only for 10 minutes every hour, and ensuring that the tailpipe is clear and a window is cracked (again, it is essential to be careful about that carbon monoxide.) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommends leaving the car’s interior dome lights on at night. These will help rescuers find your vehicle even if the car’s headlights have been covered by the rising snow. Plus, the dome lights will drain the car’s battery much more slowly than keeping the headlights on all night.

Even though one naturally has less mobility when trapped in a car, it is recommended that you should exercise and change position regularly for warmth and to keep blood circulating. And, of course, staying calm is the best thing you can do, both for your over-taxed body and your state of mind. You’re less likely to make potentially life-endangering mistakes if you’re cool and calm. Once the snow has stopped falling, get out of car and raise the hood for increased visibility and wait for rescue. People have survived more than a week trapped in their cars in the snow. Historically, when families have been trapped together in the car, it’s almost always the brave soul who leaves the car to find help that perishes, while the rest of the family is eventually discovered and rescued.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between being stuck in a blizzard in the comfort of your home or car and being stuck out in the elements with just the clothes on your back. In this situation, time is the most important factor. Even if it’s not super-cold out, the wind chill can lower your body temperature almost as quickly as if you were in an ice bath. Thus, your number one priority is getting some kind of shelter from the wind.

If you’re lucky enough to be near trees or any other tall, semi-broad structure, this is where you’ll want to regroup and likely where you’ll build your lean-to or a snow cave. Any shelter is better than none, but some shelters are better than others. The likelihood that someone trapped in a blizzard has the opportunity and ability to build an emergency snow cave while the wind rages is slim. However, should you find yourself trapped in the elements and you’re foresighted enough to have brought along a camp shovel, a snow cave might be your only option, particularly if there are no visible trees, boulders, or other natural wind breaks.

Ernest Wilkinson, author of Snow Caves for Fun and Survival, long ago stopped taking tents with him when he would go camping in the Colorado mountains in the dead of winter. With just a shovel, he’d build his snow caves, learning along the way that the conventional wisdom (finding a snow bank and bending down and digging into it from the side) was a waste of time and effort. Rather, he suggests digging down into a snow bank that’s at least four feet deep before tunneling horizontally. This little hole should already provide some relief from the worst of the wind. Once the hole is dug, then it’s time to tunnel horizontally. Engineers have known for thousands of years how strong domes can be, and your emergency snow cave is no exception.

“People have survived more than a week trapped in their cars in the snow.”

The rounded roof will be able to sustain far more weight than a flat roof, which over time will sag and collapse. Once the cave is large enough for your body, the most important thing is remaining dry, or, if you’re wet already, getting dry. Anyone who’s read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” remembers that being wet is what kills in the cold. A small emergency candle should provide adequate warmth in a small cave, though if you find yourself becoming dizzy or drowsy you must vent your cave. Lighting any kind of substantial fire or camp stove inside the cave is a recipe for disaster: you’ll likely succumb to the effects of poisoning long before the heat can affect the integrity of the cave. Lastly, don’t forget to mark your cave somehow, both for rescuers to be able to find you and also to prevent anybody from trampling in your cave.


Lauren Weinberg

Lauren Weinberg is a good example of how shelter is the single most factor in surviving a blizzard. She spent nine days trapped in her car in the Flagstaff, Arizona area during the winter of 2011. During her ordeal, the nightly temperature reached near zero. She survived despite not having any blankets or heavy coat. When she was discovered by employees of the U.S. Forest Service, she was covering her legs with her car’s floor mats.

For sustenance, she had nothing but two candy bars. For water, she took snow in from the outside and waited for it to melt on the dashboard before drinking it. That simple act is what saved her life, and, other than not losing
hope, was arguably her only good decision. Eating snow is always the worst option, as it lowers the body temperature dramatically. When not in a car or other shelter, melting snow with indirect body heat is the best option. For example, a snow-filled water bottle in a coat pocket is a good idea, a snow-filled water bottle placed directly against the skin is a bad idea. Weinberg’s story also demonstrates the importance of even rudimentary preparedness.

“I could not even begin to predict how she could (survive)… you can say survival skills or a miracle, either way.”

She managed to survive with no creature comforts, but the danger and discomfort of her ordeal would have been considerably lessened if she’d had a jacket (or even better, a sleeping bag) in her trunk. Bob McDonald, one of the workers who rescued Weinberg, stated, “I could not even begin to predict how she could (survive)…” Police officer James Holmes said, “You can say survival skills or a miracle, either way.” Weinberg’s story is not one of planning and cunning overcoming a freak disaster. It’s one of extraordinary luck. Before she left (during her university’s finals week), she failed to tell anyone where she was going and indeed, had no destination in mind, planning on just going for an aimless drive. Authorities traced her via her purchases at convenience stores, but were unable to ascertain where she’d gone after. There are plenty of lessons in Weinberg’s story, the most important one being to stay with whatever shelter is available no matter what. Starvation and dehydration will almost certainly not be what kills someone; it will always be exposure.

The other lesson is that even the most basic precautions can be lifesavers. Had Weinberg sent so much as a text message to a friend or family member, her nine nights alone in the cold could have been reduced to one.

Boyd Severson

Boyd Severson’s story is proof that even an experienced outdoorsman in a familiar area can make a series of small mistakes that add up to a life-threatening situation. It was a beautiful September day in 2007, seemingly perfect weather for a nice hike up Mummy Mountain in gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Despite being unable to find a partner, he decided to make a go of it anyway. However, he very prudently sent messages to a friend as he went along, though once the weather got rougher, his phone and his Blackberry refused to connect. Severson reached the summit early in the afternoon, and from there he was able to see bad weather moving in. He began his descent, realizing too late that he’d gone the wrong direction. Visibility  decreased as the weather worsened and he tried to head back to find where he’d deviated from his path. Darkness fell, the snow increased and soon he found himself in a whiteout. With such limited visibility, the best shelter he could find was a small crevice among a few large boulders. It was here that he spent a long night. Of his experience, he says, “When my water bottles froze solid before 10 p.m., I knew not to fall asleep.” The wind chill brought the temperature down to 60 degrees below freezing.

Severson claims he never believed he was going to die, though he was worried about developing frostbite. To maximize warmth, he put on every piece of clothing he’d brought, including covering his neck and ankles with Ace bandages. He says, “I generally carry too much clothing and emergency gear, but this time I wished I’d had even more.” For warmth and to keep his blood circulating, he flexed his muscles. A search had begun the night before when he’d failed to return from his day hike. Rescue dogs, helicopters, and ground searchers were mobilized. After day broke, Severson stayed put, as he knew a search would be underway. As the day wore on, though, he decided to begin moving, knowing that “There was no way I was going to spend another night out.” Eventually he encountered rescuers on a trail and was saved. Severson’s two mistakes were going solo (which is never the best-case scenario but still something that experienced hikers do every day) and getting lost, which he blames on his reliance on his Blackberry instead of his GPS device. Once it was clear he was spending the night outdoors, however, Severson mitigated his mistakes with solid survival procedures: finding shelter and preventing frostbite by exercising his muscle groups.

The Great Blizzard of 1993

The Great Blizzard of 1993, more commonly known as The Storm of the Century, was a super-storm that ravaged the east coast of the United States. In every metric, this storm was extreme: its size and intensity were unheard of. The cyclonic storm that formed in the Gulf of Mexico reached all the way up to Canada during its peak. This storm had something for everybody: it created tornadoes, churned up the seas and induced flooding, blanketed half the country in snow, and shut down highways from the Southeast to Canada.

Southeastern states where snow was almost a foreign concept (especially in mid-March, when the storm struck) reported shocking amounts of snow. Alabama, Georgia, and Florida all received unprecedented amounts of snow, along with hurricane-force winds that cost billions in damages and left dozens dead in Florida alone. The storm was almost unimaginably widespread: a total of 26 states were affected, as well as Cuba and Canada. 

An enormous swath of the country stretching from Texas all the way to Pennsylvania suffered the terrifying phenomenon called “thundersnow,” electrical storms where the precipitation is snow instead of rain. White-out conditions were reported across half the country for the three days that the storm lasted. From Atlanta all the way up to Canada, every single airport was shut down for at least some time, stranding countless travelers. Regions that were totally unused to snow found themselves submerged under giant drifts. Roofs and decks collapsed under the weight of the snow, the total weight of which was estimated to be between 5.4 and 27 billion metric tons. While other storms in individual regions had been more severe, the Southeastern states hadn’t experienced anything remotely similar since the Great Blizzard of 1899 nearly a hundred years previous. These states saw record levels of snowfall and record temperature lows: Birmingham, Alabama recorded a low of two degrees Fahrenheit, unheard of for mid-March, when the storm struck.

It was one of the deadliest storms of the century, killing a total of 318 people. Some were crushed by collapsing roofs, some drowned at sea in extraordinarily rough conditions. Amazingly, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued a total of 235 people at sea. The storm caused the ocean to surge dangerously, Gulf waters flooding into Florida homes. Many people drowned in the storm, more than in Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo combined. Eighteen thousand homes in Florida alone were affected, either damaged or outright annihilated.

The Schoolhouse Blizzard

One of the most tragic blizzards to ever strike America was the Schoolhouse Blizzard, also known as the Children’s Blizzard. It hit the plains states, particularly Nebraska and South Dakota, on January 12th, 1888. This storm gets its grim name from the fact that many of the victims were children who got lost in the whiteouts on their way home from school. The weeks leading up to the blizzard had seen snowstorms and bitter cold visited on the Midwest. The day the blizzard struck, though, had been unusually warm. As a result, people were out and about, taking care of business that’d been suspended during the recent cold snap. Students went to school with either light jackets or no coats at all.

“This storm gets its grim name from that fact that many of the victims were children who got lost in the whiteouts on their way home from school.”

The blizzard descended while children were in school and adults were at work. Many of those who perished were trying to make their way home. In the town of Plainview, Neb., a teacher found herself out of heating fuel in her little one-room school-house. The teacher, Lois Royce, decided to lead her three students to her boarding house which was closer than a football field away. Conditions were so poor, and visibility so bad, that they got lost, and all three students tragically froze to death. Royce was the only survivor, though her feet developed frostbite and had to be amputated.

Seymour Dopp, a teacher in Pawnee City, Neb., kept his 17 students overnight in the schoolhouse, using stockpiled fuel to warm the building through the duration of the blizzard. The next morning, all his students were still safe and sound. Dopp returned home, only to discover his own daughter had suffered frostbite on her one-block journey home. Her teacher, like many others, had released the students in a panic, hoping they’d find their way home before the storm grew too severe. There were only a few instances reported of people who ventured out into the cold and survived. The most celebrated case was that of Minnie Freeman, a teacher who led her 17 students a half-mile through the blizzard to her boarding house. The story goes that, with holes being blown in the roof and the front door repeatedly being blown open, she decided that spending the night in the schoolhouse would be disastrous. She tied her students together with rope (this was later disputed by one of the students) and led them single-file through the storm to safety. Freeman was celebrated across the country, and it’s claimed some 80 hopeful suitors mailed her letters bearing marriage proposals.



Snow Shoes

If you have to be mobile outside during a blizzard, you’ll want to have these on your feet. They won’t make you any warmer, but they’ll sure get you where you’re going faster. MSR Ascent snowshoes cost a pretty penny (more than $200), but they’re highly reviewed and solidly built.

ACR PLB-375 ResQLink+ Personal Locating Beacon

Hit a button and a distress signal bearing your GPS coordinates is sent to Search and Rescue services. A built-in strobe makes it easier for rescuers to find you. You hope you never need it, but if you find yourself trapped in a blizzard, you can stay put in whatever shelter you can find with the peace of mind that you’ll soon be found. 


Goretex Bivy Cover and Carry Sack

Another Military-issue stand-by, this four-piece Bivy sack can be used in the summer or winter, keeping you toasty all the way down to negative 20 Fahrenheit. Be careful ordering online, though, some people who paid full price for new apparently received used gear, if Amazon reviews are to be believed.


Nalgene Bottle Sleeve

Staying hydrated in a blizzard is not the first concern on most people’s minds, and thus it is easy to forget how important it is. While this bottle sleeve is designed to keep water cold, if you need to melt snow for water, the sleeve will insulate the bottle so you can warm it with your body heat without having to worry about an uninsulated bottle lowering your core temperature.


UCO Stormproof Match Kit

Don’t even mess with flint and steel Boy Scout-style fire-starters. These stormproof matches, sometimes called Hurricane matches, are what you want if you need to start a fire in less than ideal conditions. You can dunk the matches in water and then light them on the included strikers the very next second. 

The North Face Steep Saiku

This glove means business. It’s bulk means you won’t be able to do fine-motor projects (good luck lighting a match while wearing these bad boys), but that bulk also means you won’t need a fire, at least not to keep your hands warm. Heavily insulated and lined with Gore-Tex, it’s well worth its $180 price tag. 



E-Tool Entrenching Shovel

Everyone who’s been in a camping store has seen the rinky-dink folding shovels that you can pick for a few bucks. Odds are if you’ve used one of those cheaper shovels, you’ve had them bend or outright snap. The E-Tool Entrenching Shovel is not one of those. For starters, it folds up tighter and is far stronger than its brethren. Like the name says, this is the tool issued by the U.S. military. If you ever find yourself forced to build a snow cave quickly, you’ll be glad you paid the 50 bucks or so that this beast costs. 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide. 

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