Stranded amid winter's wrath: How to survive in the cold when no one is around to help

The lost cannot become the found, which a 72-year-old pilot discovered this week atop a frozen Manitoba lake, unless they know how to survive when winter howls its worst.

Survival tips and tricks from experts who know what to do when you're stuck in the wilderness or in the water

Members of the Canadian military are among those most adept at surviving in frigid conditions, thanks to regular training exercises. (Cpl. Valerie Villeneuve)

The lost cannot become the found, which a 72-year-old pilot discovered this week atop a frozen Manitoba lake, unless they know how to survive when winter howls its worst. 

When the engine of your aircraft sputters or your snowmobile runs out of fuel, experts say it's vital to have the means to procure shelter, water and warmth before finding a way out. 

Randy Antonio, a founding member of the Winnipeg Search and Rescue Association, teaches survival classes. He says people who relish outdoor trips in the winter can become complacent about their safety — and that's when problems can arise.

"I kind of joke around a little bit with statistics," he said, "and I'll say, statistically, that 100 per cent of the people that we rescued had no intention of getting lost or hurt that day." 

"It can't happen to me," he said of people's thinking, "but sometimes it does." 

Survival experts offer several tips on how to cope with becoming stranded in the bitter cold:

1. Plan accordingly 

No trip into the wilderness should be considered without a trusted person knowing where the explorer is heading and when they intend to get there.

"If you've gone missing and nobody's going to miss you for a day or two or three, the odds of having a good outcome are reduced significantly," said Dave Lussier, president of Search and Rescue Manitoba.

To pinpoint rescuers to their exact location, Rick Shone, who owns Wilderness Supply in Winnipeg, recommends a satellite communicator that works when cellphones will not. The device ensures a missing person's location can be communicated to the authorities immediately.  

A bathroom break turned into a missing person report for a 72-year-old pilot, who became stranded on a remote, frozen northern Manitoba lake. 3:37

An emergency kit with all the essentials is a must for any person embarking on a winter excursion.

The necessities can include, but aren't limited to, a knife, lighter, first aid equipment and dehydrated food.

"You should ask yourself if you have the equipment and experience to survive the night," said Gordon Giesbrecht, a University of Manitoba professor who is a leading researcher in hypothermia. 

2. Be protected from the elements

After you're clear of immediate danger and have addressed any injuries, you should shield yourself from the chill as soon as possible.

Dig into your survival pak for a hatchet or knife and take from your surroundings to create some kind of shelter. You can even yank pieces from the malfunctioned vehicle that got you into the wilderness to guard from the bitter cold.

It's key to start a fire in the first few hours.

Sherman Kong, who operates survival courses in Winnipeg through his company Maple Leaf Survival, said no one should count on their ability to improvise a fire from, say, two pieces of wood. He recommends people bring whatever cannot be replicated in nature, since they won't know the condition of themselves or their environment if an emergency strikes.

That's because there isn't time to waste, he said.

A team demonstrates how to use survival equipment to rescue someone who falls through the ice during an Arctic winter. (Arctic Response Canada)

"You can die much quicker from exposure than you can from dehydration and that's in extreme heat or cold, maybe you have like three hours," Kong said. "Shelter would be the first thing that you'd want to get squared away."

He added it's important to focus on warmth. 

Wear layers, forgo cotton garments which absorb water and opt for boots over shoes, experts say. 

It's a balancing act to even stay warm, Kong said. Feel free to peel back layers when sweating, but don't move excessively, as too much sweat reduces the insultating value of clothing. 

3. Food and drink not a top priority

Don't eat the snow when you're stranded and don't know when help is coming. It actually drains body heat to munch on snow, survival experts say. Rather, bring equipment to boil the snow and use that as your drinking source.

They also suggest dehydrated meal rations or energy bars to act as sustenance. Bring a snare trap as well to catch small game.

But shelter is a bigger concern than having anything to eat, Kong says, noting people can survive for relatively long periods without food and water.

"It's roughly three days without water and roughly three weeks without food," he said.  

4. Call for help 

These survival tips should be taken seriously because help will not come immediately, no matter how quickly the search begins. 

"There's always a delay in getting to you, so you need to be prepared to hunker down and take care of your own needs," Antonio said.

Without any other mechanism to alert the authorities, bring flares or use the fire you've cooked up to increase your chances of being spotted.

5. Escape the frigid water

While the immediate instinct is to escape a frigid body of water as soon as you fall in, Giesbrecht implores people to calm down first.

He said a body enters into shock, so thrashing around in the water or gasping for air doesn't help. That first minute is criticial to any chances of survival, he said.

Gordon Geisbrecht, known as Professor Popsicle, is seen plunging into the Red River in the name of ice safety awareness in 2013. (CBC)

"You start to panic and then you hyperventilate even more — it just becomes a vicious circle," Giesbrecht said. 

Once you're calm, swim back to the area where you dropped in and extend your body horizontally to drag yourself onto the ice. Giesbrecht said yanking yourself up like you're jumping out of a pool isn't practical because of the extra water you're carrying and your depleting energy. 

You only have about 10 minutes to get yourself out of the water, Giesbrecht said. After that time lapses, he advises people to hang onto the ice and wait, hopefully for a rescuer. Your arms may freeze to the ice before consciousness is lost in about an hour, he said.

6. Stay put in a stranded car

Don't go anywhere if you find yourself stranded in a vehicle.

Too many people wander away in a search for help that proves futile, Lussier said.

"They try and walk to what they think might be … a farmhouse or somewhere where they can get help and they don't make it," he said.

"And then perhaps you get back to your vehicle and your fingers are frozen and you're not even able to open up the door."

He recommends staying in your vehicle and turning it on periodically to heat up your shelter, but only if your exhaust pipe isn't covered with snow.

Inside the vehicle, always keep warm clothes, blankets and fire-starting tools in case of emergency.

7. Attitude matters

You can be as prepared as possible for surviving in the worst of elements, but it won't matter if you don't execute when it matters most.

Kong recalls a member of the military freaking out when water surrounded the cockpit of her submerged aircraft during a training exercise, yet she knew everything she needed to do to escape. 

"If you're panicking, you lose the ability to think," he said.

Kong said the necessary knowledge and equipment can only go so far without the right mindset. 

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter at CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote about rural Manitoba for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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