As I write this, my friends and family in New England are buckling down for what promises to be one hell of a winter storm. Parts of Massachusetts, my old stomping ground, are expected to get upwards of two feet of snow, and around eighteen million total people are currently under a “blizzard warning.” Flights in and out of the Northeast are being cancelled by the hundreds (at 7,800 and counting currently) and even Amtrack train service has halted trips into and out of the blizzard zone… from my comfortable chair in Georgia, things are starting to sound like another sequel to “Escape from New York” up there… and to be honest, I’m a little jealous (and that’s not just because I’ve already got a sweet Snake Plissken eye patch to wear).
While I hate shoveling out my car to get to work a few hours before the sun even dares show its face, there’s something about heading out on a trek into the frozen tundra – whether it’s for the sake of giving the dog some exercise or more important things like a supply run to the liquor store, adding a few feet of snow to the equation can make even tedious tasks into an adventure – and adventures into death-defying tales you can share over hot apple ciders while trying to keep your fingers from falling off. Snow and slush may make for the worst conditions to work in, but with proper preparation, they can make for the best conditions to have fun in.
I was born in upstate New York, not far from Lake Ontario, and after moving around a lot as a kid, we settled in Vermont for a time. Aside from four years in Southern California and a bit over a year now in Georgia, my wife and I have always called the wintery wonderland of New England home, and every year I worked to find new and exciting ways to risk life and limb in the pine forests of the Northeast – whether it was snowmobiling, tracking animals, diving into frozen lakes, or just going out for a bit of sub-zero camping with friends, the winter offers the opportunity to change the settings of the video game of life to ‘hard’ and see how well you fare – with increased challenges and stakes to match.
So if you’re anything like me, or just find yourself having to leave your house after a few dozen inches of snowfall, try to keep these tips in mind to stay safe and ensure you survive the storm… and any other bad situation you may run across while knee-deep in snow.
Drink more water. We tend to associate heat with thirst in our minds, so it can be easy to lose sight of your hydration needs when working or hiking in winter. Remember that just getting around in a foot or more of snow can require a good deal of exertion, making it more important than ever that you keep your body well hydrated.
With that in mind, however, never eat snow in order to hydrate yourself in a survival situation. Although it may seem like a good option to keep your fluids up, it will dramatically reduce your core temperature and leave you more susceptible to hypothermia. If you find yourself in dire need of fluids, place some snow in a sealable container and keep it between two layers of your clothing as you work. Allow your body heat to melt the snow before attempting to drink it.
Pay attention to your ankles and knees. Hiking through deep snow can be exhausting and treacherous, even if you’ve got a decent pair of snowshoes. Lifting your feet up and out of the snow and planting them again firmly takes quite a bit more effort and force than it does under normal circumstances, and all of that force is translated into your surroundings via your knee and ankle joints. In my adult life, I’ve had five surgeries on my knees and ankles alone – and I’ve still got plenty of hardware in each to remind me – so I tend to be highly aware of what the joints below my waist are up to (because I’m constantly anticipating the next time one of them explodes) but trudging through heavy snow can be murder on even the healthiest of knees.
Pay close attention to how you treat your legs as you hike – you’re counting on them to get you home. A twisted knee or ankle could strand you in the elements or at least dramatically slow you down, and you’re never more likely to twist in an unhealthy manner than when you’ve got something like snow holding your foot in place as you attempt to move about. Make intentional steps that are in line with your body’s natural angles of movement and don’t attempt to change directions mid-stride. If you begin to feel one of your joints hurting, take a short break and consider changing your stride.
Keep your fingers dry and warm. Our hands are always the most susceptible to risk in a cold environment. They’re at the ends of extremities and we rely on the sense of touch and our ability to articulate our fingers so often that we tend to take off our gloves in order to complete many normal tasks. As a result, your fingers are the most likely to suffer frostbite, which can be life threatening in a long-term survival situation (try setting traps without any fingers). For concealed carriers, your firearm will do you little good if your hands are too cold to operate the safety and trigger mechanism on your pistol – so venturing out without gloves but with your trusty Glock is about as useful in a dangerous situation as stapling a “gun free zone” sign to your jacket.
If you find yourself outside with no gloves, or ones that aren’t sufficiently warm for the environment, keep your fingers tucked into your armpits or crotch to prevent them from succumbing to frostbite. Remember, once your fingers become frostbitten, warming them only to allow them to freeze again will actually cause more tissue damage, so it’s imperative that you keep them from freezing in the first place, but if your efforts fail, get to a warm place as quickly as possible to treat your fingers without any risk of refreezing them.
Keep some fuel in the tank. If you’re working outside, make sure you’re eating enough to keep your body fueled as you work. A crashing blood sugar level can leave you tired and sluggish, making it more difficult to accomplish what you need to get done in order to survive, and even impairing your decision-making abilities. Because you’ll likely be working in more layers than usual, anticipate having to work a bit harder than the norm – and keep some snacks on you to help to recharge from time to time.
The other way to keep your fuel levels high is to take breaks. Don’t allow yourself to work too hard and develop a sweat, as that could result in freezing, and stop working before you feel like you have to if at all possible. It’s better to take longer to accomplish something safely than to burn out in your efforts and collapse into a snowbank.
Stay inside. I love going out for an adventure in the snow, but sometimes, it can be just as much fun to spend a day indoors rewatching “Alien” and cleaning my guns. If you’ve got any say in the matter, New England, take the next few days off and wait things out. It might not be as exciting, but there’s no risk of losing your trigger finger.