Relying on technology can help you survive a blizzard and in some cases, it can make the situation worse for you, much worse. As I write this blog I can’t help but think that most of which I will say here is obvious to my Planet Analog audience. Engineers are typically more prepared than the average Joe. However, the thought that I could save one life prompts me to write about this subject. It can be very real especially with the holidays coming up. People often travel to areas of harsh weather without preparation especially if they originate in warmer climates. More than once I got off the plane in Minnesota having boarded in Arizona and forgotten my coat. At the very least, I hope a few of the little tidbits make a snow journey a more comfortable. Note that legally, I’m not advising anyone here. Instead, this blog contains some of my recollections of history as well as some presentation of how I personally prepare to spend the night below zero at eight thousand feet.
There is plenty to write about as to how our reliance on technology affects our ability to survive a snow storm. For example, we assume that we can always connect to a GPS signal and a cell phone signal. Furthermore, using Android applications such as Maps requires an internet connection. In the mountains of Colorado where I live, the valleys and elevation changes make both GPS and cell connections sketchy at best. Relying on them could result in a false sense of security. Read on.
In the early days of cell phones, a woman’s life was saved based on tracking her through her cell phone when she was caught in a blizzard on the high plains. This was in the days before smart phones so she didn’t have a GPS location through her phone. Yes she was saved however it almost didn’t occur because the rescue party was back tracing her signal by triangulating from cell towers. The reason she almost wasn’t’ saved was because her cell phone was dying. She couldn’t recharge the battery due to car being dead. Her car was dead from running the engine to keep warm while stranded in a blizzard. She had run out of gas and run the battery down to a point where it would no longer charge the phone. Her phone actually died before the rescue party arrived however they had narrowed her location down enough to locate her position prior to the phone dying completely.
Several mistakes were made in this rescue including, not having a full tank of gas, having to run the engine to stay warm (which in itself could have caused death by asphyxiation), and venturing out in a blizzard to begin with. Several things helped the situation. She stuck with the vehicle which is easier to locate and provided shelter. She had her phone with her. She began calling for help rather than waiting.
Fast forward to today. We now have GPS technology in our phones. We also have access to maps and weather. All should be well, right? Not exactly. In 2013 I spent three hours in my moving rental truck waiting for the road to clear in a Nebraska blizzard. I couldn’t get any signals as the amount of vehicles stranded overloaded the local cell towers with drivers calling and accessing the internet. The location wasn’t near any WiFi routers so those signals weren’t an option. The lesson learned was: even when you are in the range of a signal, don’t count on a getting a signal. This can be especially dangerous like it was for the two paper deliverers who were remotely stranded in New Mexico last winter. Their car was buried by the drifting snow yet they survived. I do believe they did have a signal and were rescued. It took a while so even having technology meant that they had to hunker down and survive until help arrived.
So what to do in a snow storm? The first thing I would do if I were stuck would be to try to get my GPS coordinates. If I could get them, I would text and email them to the people in my contacts that were local and could help. I would also conserve all of the battery power I had in the phone. I would use the backlight and flashlight as little as possible. Even more battery can be saved by texting instead of calling, shutting off WiFi, Bluetooth, and that power hog, the GPS signal (i.e. “location” setting). The GPS signal is so weak that a cell phone has to waste a lot of power to amplify it. Incidentally, I had won a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) award to fix that however the Air Force didn’t deem it worthy of following up for a second round. Politics and court cases aren’t the only places that big corporations overshadow the best or most accurate information.
Technology can also fail in many other ways. Our vehicles have become so sophisticated that we can’t fire the ignition or pump the fuel with the tricks of the past. Tires, believe it or not also provide a false sense of security. Recently, I was driving a friend’s BMW and one of her run flat tires blew a sidewall in the high Rockies just outside Aspen. No spare was present due to a run flat tire arrangement. So much for German engineering. Rounding up a replacement tire used up the fifty or so miles before the tire was estimated to begin to disintegrate. The nearest new tire was days away as no one carried run flats. Fortunately, someone locally on Craigslist was getting rid of three of them for $120. That was way better than the price of $385 per tire and of course we needed two of them according to the tire shop. Don’t even get me started on that scam. Nor will I comment on the sidewalls of run flat tires.
I could go on and on about technology that might help however the basic theme of this blog is to be prepared in case technology fails you. Myself I have warm clothes, blankets, sleeping bags, hats, gloves, boots, and a host of things to burn in case I get stranded. I carry gas and matches. I won’t hesitate to burn a $385 tire and threaten the atmosphere in order to send up smoke for locating me. I know people who don’t even carry boots or gloves. When their car got stuck, they had to walk in the snow in heels in neighborhoods where I live. No one stopped to assist them. Imagine that scenario in remote areas. Also, I keep food in my car such as chocolate and peanuts and other nonperishables. Some people keep canned goods as well. Food can draw bears where I live, and water can freeze so keeping these things around requires advanced planning. There are no drinkable liquids in a car. Snow does provide a water source however heating it may deplete the very heat that will keep someone alive. It’s all something to think about because where I live; it can take days before someone finds you. Depending on the depth of the snow, this could apply to many places.
As we enter the holiday and ski season, take a minute to think ahead. At the very least, forward this blog to someone who might be able to use it. I would hope that it benefits someone and makes their trip safe and comfortable. Enjoy the season.
Editor’s note : Check out this frozen tundra article as well.