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Winter Survival on the Today Show – Good and Bad

Yesterday, NBC’s Today Show ran a piece on winter survival that was better than most, though not without its errors and critical omissions. The written article on MSNBC’s site is pretty good for what it is, Charles Horton’s survival story. The video from the Today Show can also be viewed on the same page and that’s where I found some issues.

While the advice is generally sound, the failure to mention PLBs (406 MHz Personal Locator Beacons) was an irresponsible omission, in my opinion. While there’s no doubt a cell phone and a handheld GPS are less expensive, and that they have and will save lots of folks, they cannot save you if do not have cell phone coverage. There are still many area or specific locations in otherwise good coverage areas in the wilderness where you cannot use your cell phone. A PLB doesn’t have this limitation. It at least deserved mention as an option.

Snow Trench ShelterThey spent a good deal of time discussing a snow cave and their illustration of the effectiveness of the shelter using the thermometers is excellent. Then four of them dug one, not a single person who was injured, as was the case with Horton. Their 40 minute minimum estimate of how much time it would take to make one is off by a significant factor unless you are well equipped, in good shape and have done it before. Having some buddies along is also a huge help. Alone is a lot more difficult. While they gave a 90 minute estimate on the other end of the scale, too often in such a presentation people remember only the first mention and few average people could do it in any less. It would have been better to emphasize the 90 minute estimate, and even that may be optimistic in many circumstances, and then say you can do it in as little at 40 minutes if you are experienced and in good shape, are not injured, have some assistance etc.. They didn’t even specifically mention that you need a shovel of some sort to do it efficiently (the Snow Claw is what I include in my Aviator Survival Paks because it is so efficient, compact and light weight).

A snow cave is the Taj Mahal of snow shelters, but not the only answer and not the best in some circumstances. With a group, who can share the construction effort, it makes a lot of sense. If by yourself with limited time and resources, or if injured, a simple Snow Trench Shelter is quicker and easier (shown above and in an illustration from the Pocket Survival Pak survival instructions which can be downloaded here). And, the tree well shelter that was used by Horton, but only mentioned in passing in the video, is excellent because nature has done a lot of the work for you.

Moreover, their advice to use a “space blanket ” for insulation under you is just plain bad. Tree branches, as shown, are excellent improvised insulation, but a space blanket has no insulative value in and of itself. All it will do, which is better than nothing, is keep you for getting wet if your body heat melts the snow under you. Evergreen boughs, about 9-12 inches uncompressed, are excellent insulation under you, no matter what snow shelter you use.

Finally, as noted you want to avoid getting wet as much as possible, but working hard constructing a snow shelter, especially a snow cave, can overheat you quickly. You sweat, your clothes get wet and you are in big trouble. Shed layers to keep from overheating and sweating heavily.