When you think of being lost in the backcountry, you probably think in terms of wilderness or remote snowmobiling. That's not always the case.
A few years ago, three Midwestern riders left a northwoods tavern and headed to their weekend rental cottage. The two leading riders were far enough ahead of the trailing snowmobiler that he unwittingly took the wrong fork in the trail and went miles out of his way- before he realized that he was lost and quickly running out of fuel! Lost at night and out of fuel meant that his friends couldn't spot a headlight or hear an engine. He was stranded. Would you know what to do if caught deep in the backcountry?
American Snowmobiler has taken the time to report the hazards of backcountry travel and how to minimize hazards. We have written about avalanches, snow caves, first aid, frostbite, hypothermia and all the needed equipment one should pack.
After reviewing these many articles we stumbled across something- what if you are a backcountry traveler who has ventured out in the wilds unprepared? What would life be if you were lost with no cell phone, no food and no equipment? All you have is your snowmobile suit, gloves, helmet, boots and the trusty snowmobile. How can you survive? While the minus-30 degree temperatures and severe wind chill may keep you from having to fight bees or swat mosquitoes, your life is in real danger.
Based on research, training and some practical experience, we can share some of what we have learned.
Because how a snowmobile travels across the landscape defies foot travel, stranded snowmobilers are more commonplace than you think.
Riding with a buddy is an obvious rule of thumb. If you should find yourself stranded with a broken down snowmobile or without fuel, you can ride out with your buddy. If not possible, stay with your snowmobile. Do not begin walking back to the trailhead or tow-vehicle- unless you know with absolute certainty that these are within an hour's walking time or less, the terrain is flat and the snow depth is marginal. Be realistic about your physical conditioning.
Staying with your snowmobile allows spotters and rescuers to find you with greater ease. A snowmobile is easier to spot. Furthermore, search and rescue teams often times will follow a snowmobile's tracks to a desolate location. If the rider is gone, the rescue team must pick up the search again. Many times the rescuers, after chasing footprints, find a frostbit, hypothermic individual.
If your snowmobile has mirrors, break these off and use them as signaling devices.
Stay With Your Sled
There are other reasons to stay by your snowmobile. It can provide some shelter and warmth.
Regardless of how broken down or out of fuel the vehicle is, it will still give its all to save your life. For example, a ski, rear mud flap, belly pan protector (if equipped with one) or windshield can serve as a shovel. Use tools from the sled's tool kit to remove these, especially the ski(s) or mud flap. If you don't have tools, breaking off the windshield or tearing off the belly pan protector is a worthy effort.
But first, if you know a long night is approaching, look for a large tree (with a thick tree trunk) that has a wind-drift blowhole around it. If the snow is high and deep enough, it will provide protection from the wind and from frosty night temps.
With this knowledge, move to the blowhole's deepest end and using a helmet face shield, the snowmobile's windshield or a ski, begin digging out a shelter.
Contrary to popular fears, snow is where warmth is found. A snow cave will provide an insulating barrier from frigid night conditions, and if small enough, will stay at 32 to 33 degrees- warmth achieved from body temperature.
Do not overexert in constructing this cave. Conserve personal energy and limit the body's perspiration factor. Quickly dumping energy and body fluid will accelerate an already critical situation.
Once the snow cave is built, with an opening just wide enough to scoot through, use the windshield (if large enough) as a door and seal off any openings with pine boughs. If the windshield can't be used, then use the snowmobile's hood, pine boughs, tree limbs or the snowmobile seat as a door.
If a cave can't be constructed, but the blowhole is narrow and deep, build a pine bough roof over the blowhole and, if possible, cover the pine boughs with insulating snow.
If a blowhole is not available, look for deep snow on a hillside, away from an avalanche path if you're stuck in the mountains, and begin excavating the snow.
Ok, a snow cave is nice, but what about a fire? Can one be built? Yes, but with great caution for flammable materials. A snowmobile- regardless of how empty its fuel tank is- will have some residual fuel in its tank or supply lines.
Gather dry kindling and place the wood in a teepee fashion. If an extra sock, scarf, balaclava, glove or rag is available, wrap these tight around the end of an arms-length tree branch and push down inside the fuel tank. If no fuel is visible, rock the snowmobile from side to side, this will allow some fuel to touch the fabric. Disconnecting a fuel line and pouring fuel on to the fabric will also suffice.
After removing the glove, sock, rag, etc. pull some motor oil (if an oil injected motor) from the oil reservoir and place on the fabric in order to slow the burn. Place the homemade torch on top of the cylinder head. Remove a sparkplug- a spare or one from the engine- and connect to a sparkplug wire. Place this sparkplug on the torch and begin turning over the motor. With luck, the spark emanating from the electrode will touch off the fuel and oil soaked rag. If, and hopefully when this happens, use this to start your campfire.
With a fire built, consider removing wet clothing to give your body and damp clothing the chance to dry out.
If this aforementioned fire-starting procedure is successful, and if night stretches into another day or longer, consider burning the snowmobile's seat. When a snowmobile's seat is removed from the chassis and placed on a campfire, the rubber and plastic will produce a large column of black smoke. This will alert a rescue party to your location. Consider burning over a period of 2 to 4 hours, only one-quarter of the seat at a time. Accomplish this by feeding into the fire the seat in 25 percent increments and extinguishing the flame with snow after this 25
percent is met.
During a recent winter, a group of deep backcountry riders ventured far into the wilds of the Rockies. Stuck and stranded, and after a couple days waiting for the calvary, they torched their whole sleds. Their signal was received. Mmmm ... can you see me now?
A body works hard at keeping itself warm. This produces hunger and thirst. Dealing with thirst is our first concern. Eating snow will provide some relief, but overall it will lower body temperature cause more thirst due to the mouth drawing upon warm saliva to break down the frozen water.
How to acquire water in this unlucky situation takes forethought. Obviously, if a stream or lake is nearby, fetch water from this supply; provided the water is easily accessed, is exposed or has a minimal depth of ice on its surface. Take caution not to expose flesh to the water for a considerable length- minimize this at all costs, and don't slip in.
If needing to melt snow or capture free flowing water for drinking, then consider the following:
First, if the snowmobile motor will run, it will generate under hood heat. With this in mind, fill a pair of goggles with snow and place on top the cylinder head, close the hood and start the motor. In an undetermined amount of time, the snow will melt inside the goggles. Ingenuity will come to play to drink the water from the goggles. This can also work if a sock or a wrapped-up scarf is partially filled with snow and melted. Wringing the sock or scarf of its water will release the needed fluid. This may sound like an event from Fear Factor, but it will help keep you alive.
Shelter and warmth are key to staying alive. Use what you have at hand and consider all your options.
Note: Many thanks to Mike Vorachek, Idaho Falls, Idaho who has
more than 30-years experience in training and conducting search and rescue. Currently a member of the Bonneville County, Idaho, Search and Rescue, he also serves in the Army Reserves as an emergency response expert. He has logged more than 50 search and rescues of lost or injured snowmobilers.