Back in the day, when my hair was a different colour, the Seven Steps to Survival was part of the survival course that I taught. This article will discuss those steps and how I applied them in a recent survival event that I found myself in.
Simple as it may sound the first step to surviving is to identify and accept that you have a problem and that it is serious. Denial of your situation or the refusal to accept how serious it is can get you killed or injured. Without acknowledging the nature and seriousness of the situation you will not do what is necessary to survive.
It was blowing about 30-40 MPH and there were soft feathers of snowdrifts forming up to half way across the road at about a 45º angle. Suddenly there was one drift that was darker than the rest and it went all the way across the road. It was as hard as a rock. Hitting that drift threw my car sideways almost as fast as I was going forward. Immediately, I was pioneering my own road in the wilderness.
Trying to steer, once I left the roadway, was useless so I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. All I could so is to let off the gas pedal and wait to stop. Luckily the bank there was rather at a shallow angle so I wound up in a wide ditch that had filled with snow.
When the cloud of snow settled I had snow just above the grill, up to the driver’s side window, and half way up the passenger side doors. Snow had swirled around the rear effectively blocking the rear hatch.
Recognition? Yeah, that was pretty easy for me. I was traveling along one of the more lonely stretches of road in Canada. It was about ten miles from the Alaska border crossing and I had about an hour before the border closed for the night. I had not seen another car or building for a couple of hours and with the border closing in an hour there was no reason for anyone to be traveling this road until the next day. I have traveled that road many times and knew the closest help was at the border. I also knew that the most likely scenario is that the snowplow driver would be the next person down the road and he wouldn’t even show up at the equipment barn for nine or ten hours. I wasn’t walking ten miles in the summer let alone in -7 degrees Fahrenheit, in the dark, and with a 30-40 MPH wind. When you do the math that works out to a windchill of dead.
After accepting your predicament the next thing you need to do is to take an inventory. In many survival situations you only have what is on you. For me, my EDC in Canada, is a knife, two lights, a Leatherman, two coats, gloves in each coat, military surplus winter gloves, and my fur hat. Sorry, it’s Canada, no gun. I felt naked but technically I wasn’t.
The vehicle I had just packed for a three week trip so I had a pretty good idea what was aboard. Mostly it was my clothes, medical supplies, and a few odds and ends from Costco that my Mom wanted. There was also my food, water, and emergency gear. Each vehicle also gets two flashlights, a fire extinguisher, a tow strap, and a folding shovel. One of these flashlights has a flashing red light option that will come in handy.
Most of my emergency gear is in a rollup tool kit. I keep various tools like a sturdy knife, crescent wrench, vice grips, and screwdrivers. I also have three ways to start fires, large plastic bags, duct tape around the handles of a couple of the tools, a roll of quarters, a flashlight, a small water filter, space blankets and space bags.
I pack my car in what I term a “combat load” and have done so for years. What I mean by this is that my food, water, and emergency gear are all accessible from the front seat. All these years of packing this way finally paid off. First of all I couldn’t get out of the car except by crawling out of the drivers window. Second, if I had left the car it would have been life threatening in that weather. So much as walking once around the vehicle would have chilled me too much. My best option was to stay put. Staying warm was hard enough without trying to warm up after getting cold.
Your primary shelter is your clothing. I had an Army surplus fleece jacket, and an overcoat that was primarily to provide another layer and to keep the wind off my legs above the knees. Each vehicle gets two pair of gloves, just in case. I also keep basic gloves in each coat, because I live in Alaska. In the winter I also carry heavy duty winter gloves and a fur hat.
My most obvious secondary shelter was my vehicle. A snow cave would also have been a good option in my situation if I had been required to leave the vehicle for any reason. There are many expedient shelters that you might come up with depending on your location and season.
As soon as I hit the snow bank my yellow fuel light came on. Normally I don’t let my fuel get that low but it takes about half an hour to get the fifteen gallons off the rear bumper, pumped into the vehicle, and to secure the container and pump back on the rack. The plan was to top off in ten miles after clearing customs. When the light comes on I know I’ve got a good 30 miles to go. I’ve tested that in good weather but after making the thirty miles I figure there was no more to be learned by running it totally dry.
The fuel is low but I’ve got 15 gallons on the bumper. In order to re-fuel, I would have to crawl out the window, dig out the fuel door, dig out the spare tank and fuel pump, and then I’d want to put everything away. I imagine that the car would be half full of snow through the open window before I crawled back in. That wasn’t going to happen.
What I did do is to run the vehicle for ten to fifteen minutes every hour or two. That is all I should be doing in that situation anyway. With snow wrapped 360º around my vehicle the exhaust would be finding its way into the passenger compartment if I had run the engine for very long at any one time.
To give myself some space to work and some extra leg room I moved to the passengers seat. Much easier said than done. The next improvement to my shelter was to get out my space blanket sleeping bag. First I stuffed an extra jacket down on the floor then I had to get my feet into the sleeping bag. The easiest way for me to pull that off was to use my cane to push the bag down and then step into it. Once both feet were inside the bag it was just a matter of working it up till it was past my waist. That was about as far up as I could get it. The regular space blanket then was wrapped over my head and shoulders. I wasn’t going to get heat stroke but I wasn’t going to get frostbite either, which was my goal. It actually worked well enough to get some sleep. I never got cold enough to start shivering so it worked well enough.
My signal mirror and orange smoke are not appropriate for night signals so they never were deployed. Keep in mind that three of anything is a distress signal and that, in the wilderness, straight lines are not natural. Three fires might make a great night signal and three smokey fires would make a good day signal. These fires need to be widely spaced so as to be definitely three fires yet close enough to be associated. Three lines tramped in the snow but better yet the snow cleared from the ground or branches laid out on the snow in straight lines works well. The bigger, the brighter, the better.
I started out with my emergency flashers as my signal. This worked well. The red and yellow lights reflecting off the snow showed up like a neon sign. After six or seven hours I was concerned about my battery, especially in the cold. One of my vehicle flashlights has a red flashing option. It is a long rectangular light with about half of one side with LEDs. I keep a tourniquet on the passenger side sun visor. I tucked the flashlight behind the tourniquet and then flipped the visor around to the passenger window. This was quite effective and with the light right next to the window it was not particularly irritating. I was even able to go back to sleep. Nobody was going to miss this signal.
As most people here know you can go about three days without water. If it is really hot even less. IF YOU DON’T HAVE WATER, THEN DON’T EAT, it takes water to digest your food so eating without being able to replace that liquid is a really poor plan.
I carry a small water filter in my emergency kit. That isn’t going to help much in the winter but it could be a life saver through most the year and it takes little room. When I went off the road I had a large thermos of coffee, two bottles of water, and two energy drinks. All in all over a gallon. I’d already gone through about half a gallon that day.
You can go weeks without food, but who wants to.? You need food to stay healthy and to keep your energy up, especially in the winter where you are burning calories just to keep warm. Food is important. Without food you can’t survive but it is placed near the end of the list for a reason, all the items before it are more important.
I left the house with over three days worth of food. It is a three day trip. One day by car and two on a boat where there is plenty of food available should I wish to purchase it.
Winter, in Canada (with no gun) the food options are mostly limited to what I had in the vehicle. I guess I could rig a snare but I’d have had to leave the protection of my vehicle. In other scenarios, and seasons, hunting, fishing, berries, and other plants can provide sustenance and extend the provisions that you brought along.
Packing enough food for your trip and emergencies is critical, not only to your health but to your mental state.
Play? Wait a minute, I thought you were talking about survival! In order to survive you need to keep your spirits up. A poor attitude is deadlier than the cold or the heat. A game of cards, a book, or some comfort food, if you have it, can make a world of difference. Whatever you need to do to keep your spirits up is vital. Getting a fire going will do more than warm your body.
If you find yourself in a group do all you can to keep their spirits up and above all, keep your own spirits up. Your life depends on it. People that lose heart loose the will to live and they quit fighting for that life. Don’t be the person that brings people down. Jokes, stories, and celebrating the small victories, and praising the ones that pull those victories off helps raise everyones spirits.
My ordeal lasted under eleven hours so play really wasn’t much of the equation. I pulled out a book but by the time I had expended the energy and time required to settle in for the long haul, I was ready for some sleep and reading could wait. There was no radio reception and no cell phone service, even if I’d had a cell phone.
A Side Note: On the trip north the ferry broke down and I was therefore stuck for about three weeks on a one day trip. I had plenty of food, water, and a warm bunk but play was an issue. All those books on my computer got put to good use. Writing this article was another tool to keep myself entertained and my spirits up. While really not a life threatening situation the skill set applies. There is an old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” Well this had been an interesting trip. I put up a sign at the start of the passageway going down to my room,”Hotel California”. The other passengers and crew have been getting a kick out of that. Play can take many forms. The goal is to keep smiles on as many faces as possible.
The snow plow came by, as I knew they would, and the driver came over to make sure I was in the vehicle and still alive. I obviously was and was doing well. He went back to his truck and got a shovel. He then proceeded to dig me out or more accurately dig enough snow away from the door to allow me to get out. When we got to his truck he turned up the heat which was appreciated but I was alert and not overly cold. Mostly I was tired from sleeping, poorly, in the vehicle. He gave me a ride to the Canadian Customs office where they gave me a cup of warm coffee and helped me arrange to have my vehicle extracted from my personal off ramp.
Conclusion: LESSONS LEARNED
Keeping the emergency gear readily available from the front seat was crucial and worked as planned. This was the first time, and hopefully the last time, that system was put to the test.
The only loader available for hire did not have a suitable tow strap or chain. I do travel with a tow strap. It is not the first time my tow strap has been used but it is the only time that it was used to pull my own vehicle out. I’m usually the one doing the pulling. The tow strap lives on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Normally this means that I just open the driver side rear door and I have ready access to the tow strap. This time the cargo had be removed from the back of the vehicle in order to retrieve the tow strap. The new home for the tow strap is in the back of the cargo area–but that is subject to change. The tow strap was used a second time this trip, a week or so later. Luckily I’m back to pulling other people out. I like that better.
A SHTF event happens quickly. One second I’m driving through some of the most beautiful country on the face of this planet. Three seconds later I’m stuck in a snowbank implementing my survival plan. Your emergency will be different but these same steps will still apply.
While I admit to being cold I did not experience hypothermia which I guess means I passed my test. This was in no small part due to following the Seven Steps to Survival that I learned all those decades ago.
Allen a …. Thank-you for the article. It is nice to read first hand accounts of preparedness paid off. This is the goal every is striving towards.
Thank you, Allen A! This was an excellent combination of survival strategy instruction and the sharing of your personal story. So thankful for your preparedness, your reasoned thinking through the crisis, and your safe delivery.
From your post: “A SHTF event happens quickly. One second I’m driving through some of the most beautiful country on the face of this planet. Three seconds later I’m stuck in a snowbank implementing my survival plan. Your emergency will be different but these same steps will still apply.”
This is really the truth, and the emergency steps you’ve outlined offer a universality that would apply to many situations.
Go to “Wiggy’s” for tremendous quality cold weather gear.
Also “Icebreaker” for base layers.
I enjoyed reading your article – thank you. I carry a surplus military extreme cold weather sleeping bag and a Gore-Tex bivy in my car for three seasons of the year. I’ve never needed it in an emergency, but I have winter camped at -20F in it and felt toasty warm (getting out of it in the mornings wasn’t anywhere near as much fun).
Great article. I’m glad you are safe. Even though 11 hours isn’t that long, it would have long enough for some to perish from exposure and hypothermia. Your planning has served you well. Thanks for writing.
Great , great article , especially ” Recognition ” I have been in a severe train derailment , and a severe hotel fire, both cost many lives and the one thing I have noticed is that people are extremely slow to recognize the seriousness of the situation . I have even remarked to myself that these scenes play out much like a disaster movie with very few knowing what to do or when to do it .
I am no longer a large crowd person , I sit next to exists , I listen to my own intuition or gut instinct . Do not expect 90% of people to have any clue of what is going on around them…
Great article, but I want to bring up a point about your fuel management- you said your low fuel light came on indicating about 30 miles left. that suggests you had only 2 or 3 gallons left, a very low level of fuel in the tank.
The fuel pumps of most vehicles on the road are in the tank and depend on being submerged in fuel to cool the pump, if the motor of the pump is uncovered it will run hot, shortening its life. The usual failure mode is “sudden death”- it just stops and you are stranded. This has happened to several people I know who were in the habit of driving around with 1/4 tank or less.
Another thing to keep in mind is those fuel pumps typically cost $400 to $600 just for the part!
Upcountry, you are 100% correct. My fuel tank holds 20 gallons and each of my spare fuel cans holds 15 gallons. Like most cases where things go bad it was one thing compounding another. Normally I would have already stopped to refuel. I takes about a half an hour to dismount the spare fuel, top off, and rescure the container. The border closed in under an hour from my expected arrival. I had adequate fuel in the tank to reach the border where I expected to refuel after clearing customs. Things happen at the most inappropriate times. We push the limits for seemingly good reasons and most of the time we get away with it, but not always.
This was good. Having lived in the Colorado mountains for 15 years, this is a familiar scenario. However, in those days, on most roads, I could count on a vehicle passing by at least every 1/2 hour or so, in which case the tow strap/rope is your most useful asset. I can’t remember how many times I was pulled out by a passer-by or pulled somebody else out. Caution!!! get the strongest tow rope you can handle, make sure its limit exceeds your vehicle weight. The cheap 1500 pound ones are not likely to pull out your stuck 4500 pound SUV.
I really enjoyed learning many lessons from you. Thank you for sharing!
One way to provide heat in a enclosed space is a candle(makes a surprising amount of heat). Used to carry one made from candle ends melted into a tuna can with 3 wicks covered with cat food lid. This low cost tool would heat a car interior to comfortable levels well past zero F and enough light to act as a emergency beacon.
“Sorry, it’s Canada, no gun.” that’s as far as I read. you guys in canada are responsible for your own government…take care of it.