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Becoming A Lion In Winter
December 7, 2006 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Making an emergency car kit for road trips, especially in winter conditions.

How to travel safely in winter.

What to do if you're lost.

How to survive in the wilderness, according to the US Army. How to build an igloo. How to make emergency snowshoes.

equipped.org reviews personal survival kits, provides the story of five people stranded within sight of one of the US's largest cities, and blogs on the topic of emergency survival. And, last but not least, the equipped.org forums weigh in on the Kim emergency.

Requiescat in pace, James Kim.
posted by scrump (57 comments total) 116 users marked this as a favorite

 
Do not eat polar bear liver as it contains a toxic concentration of vitamin A.

Words to live by.

These are fascinating links. Nice job, scrump.
posted by psmealey at 7:53 AM on December 7, 2006


I hope nobody tries to call "double" on this -- it's worth reviewing.

Been really hyped-out on a deer hunt once. Scary. Didn't realize how much trouble I was in until after I -- with difficulty -- made it back to the truck.
posted by pax digita at 7:57 AM on December 7, 2006


Thanks, scrump. This ties in very nicely with the post I just made in the Kim thread.

The most important thing (at least in a heavily populated country, like America): make sure somebody reliable has a very, very good idea of where you might be at any given time. That way, you'll know there is at least some small chance that a rescuer can start looking in a reasonable place.

That, of course, does not apply to situations where rescue is not what's going to save you, but that's rare in America.
posted by teece at 8:27 AM on December 7, 2006


Nice post. The problem is - and in no way are my comments directed at Kim - is getting the horse to drink. F’rinstance, I do very well driving in poor weather, skills yes, but I’m still cautious. But for some reason some folks whether they have something to prove or are in a hurry, disregard the obviously dangerous conditions.
We had that big snowstorm a bit back, I’m in my (4wd) truck trudging along in the tracks behind an 18 wheeler and a person in a sports car (albeit front wheel drive) starts blazing a trail through the virgin snow - because it’s a lane even though it’s a good foot and a half under new wet snow. Well, of course the car bottomed out, got turned and hung up on the shoulder and started spinning it’s wheels. Skills don’t help if you don’t have the mentality. Fear, properly used, can be a good thing if it leads to caution. Even if you’re grizzly adams and know all the information posted here backwards, you still have to be cautious, patient and thoughtful. Every time.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:34 AM on December 7, 2006


I think the key thing is to think carefully about the decisions you make. Making one bad decision dramatically increases the likelihood of making more bad decisions. (Freedom of the Hills -- the go-to mountaineering/backcountry travel manual -- offers the example of a climbing party that continues past their pre-established turnaround time, and then hurries on the way down, making a series of worse and worse safety decisions.)

Pretty much every backcountry death due to hypothermia can be traced back to a series of poor decisions just like these. So the lesson is to think carefully when you make a decision. It's not that hard to strand yourself in the woods in the snow.

If you read the equipped.org forum, it's pretty clear that the Kims' major mistake was not turning around when they missed Highway 42. That leads them to try Bear Camp Rd., where they press on despite deteriorating conditions. One bad decision leads to many others. It's a terrible -- and avoidable -- tragedy.

So be careful and be thoughtful. If you're traveling in a remote area in winter, stick to your established plan. If you encounter trouble, turn around, do not attempt to press on through it.
posted by dseaton at 8:39 AM on December 7, 2006


Great post. Now I want a Russian Spetznaz Special Forces Survival Machete.
posted by effwerd at 8:39 AM on December 7, 2006


Fear, properly used, can be a good thing if it leads to caution.

I would argue further that fear is most often a good thing, it tells you when you are in danger, and that you should pay attention. You may choose to ignore it and push on, but only when no one else's life is at risk from your choices, or there truly is no other alternative, which I suspect is the hard part to judge.
posted by edgeways at 8:40 AM on December 7, 2006


Now I want a Russian Spetznaz Special Forces Survival Machete.

Me too. That would look great on my desk at work. I bet it would dramatically cut-down on the number of silly interruptions I get in a day.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:49 AM on December 7, 2006


Fear, properly used, can be a good thing if it leads to caution.

Amen to that. I've actually gone rock climbing with a guy who is seriously lacking in the fear department. On the surface, he's brave. But he's also very frickin' dangerous. I've only been climbing with him 3 times. He fell and broke a rib and bruised the hell out of his heels on one of those times.

I'd be nervous heading up a multi-pitch route with a guy like that, even though I kind of admire is ability to just turn his mind off and do crazy shit. Fighting my fear is always my biggest issue, but it keeps me alive.

Fear is good. Listen to it. Learn to control it, yes, but don't learn to ignore it. Ever.

And dseaton is right: your first mistake happens long before you are in major danger. It pays to really think every situation through in the wilderness.
posted by teece at 8:49 AM on December 7, 2006


A wise and pithy post (and a very extended discussion thread) on hypothermia, by Making Light's Jim Macdonald.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:49 AM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


Now if only the wilderness had WiFi access so I can look this up when I need it.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:50 AM on December 7, 2006


How to survive in the wilderness, according to the US Army:
This web site is not endorse by the U.S. government and is only provided for entertainment and knowledge only

ah, survival entertainment
posted by ioesf at 9:07 AM on December 7, 2006


Nice post, but the formatting on the front page makes my eyes hurt.
posted by NationalKato at 9:08 AM on December 7, 2006


Google Earth Images showing James Kim's Path
posted by growabrain at 9:28 AM on December 7, 2006 [2 favorites]


Damn useful post. Thank you.

And growabrain -- holy shit. What a trek.
posted by rosemere at 9:34 AM on December 7, 2006


When I spent a winter north of Montreal my friend there instructed me to always keep a candle and lighter in my car. Even though I would stick to the home-to-work highway commute on the coldest days, he said the candle was essential if I wanted to stay alive until the tow truck arrived.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:06 AM on December 7, 2006


thank you, scrump.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:09 AM on December 7, 2006


The scary thing is how you tend to find yourself deep in emergency situations almost before you know it.

Things start going wrong, often in very small increments. You push on, partly because that often solves things, eventually because of a combination of the sunken cost fallacy and denial ("Things can't be that bad, I was just at a gas station three hours ago!").

Eventually the seesaw has tilted over from everything's-OK to we-can't-get-ourselves-out-of-this. I can envision this happening with every additional mile the Kims drove up those snowy roads.

And before you know it (especially with the mental sluggishness of hypothermia, dehydration, exhaustion, etc) you're in over your head, now dependent on a) rescuers, b) safety preparations/supplies, c) reserves of strength and endurance you had no idea you possessed, and d) sheer luck.

It's a very, very slippery slope, but the slope itself can be almost imperceptible.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:15 AM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


effwerd, I asked a naval Spetsnaz about those thing. He snickered and showed me a couple of tricks with a shovel instead.
posted by pax digita at 10:29 AM on December 7, 2006


Good post, scrump. I'm a fan of Doug Ritter over at equipped.org. I hope he posts a follow-up to the James Kim thread.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:49 AM on December 7, 2006


The one thing I learned from the Kim accident: if you're going to travel through the wilderness, buy a personal locater beacon. A quick google shows the REI sells them.

These beacons completely solve the problems that led to Kim's death:

1.) Nobody will know you are lost for a few days - beacon tells them
2.) Once they know you are lost, they have no idea where you are - beacon tells them where

The beacon sends your gps location to satellites that then notify Search and Rescue teams of who you are, that you are in trouble, and where you are. For the Kim's this would have let everyone know of their situation the day they got stuck, not a week later. Not a bad deal for $500.
posted by jsonic at 10:52 AM on December 7, 2006


I grew up in the Sierra Nevadas, and my father is a bit of a survivalist nut. I could go the "city folk" route and get all pithy like the ilk I grew up with, but that helps nobody.

I've done my fair share of pulling stranded motorists out of ditches, and yelling at people for driving carelessly in bad weather conditions. I've had close friends go out on search and rescue runs, one of which earned them a trip to the hospital for exposure. All of these guides are great and all, but what matters is what people will really do. So here's my two cents if you're going to be driving in the snow:

A good rule of thumb is the snow will get deeper the higher up a hill you go.

The closer the snow is to the bottom of your vehicle, the better chance a random drift will get you.

Know your vehicle! Make sure there is wieght over you're power. That is why front wheel drive cars do so well. Every year I had to throw a stupid granite boulder in the bed of my truck to keep wieght over my power.

Proper chains, and it doesn't hurt to buy new ones every year. I've had the best luck with the cable variety. This is still valid even if you have studded tires.

Cat litter, even though it's a pain and gets everywhere.

And the "its been said a thousand times" catagory, drive according to the conditions (I feel that I'm speeding if I have my vehicle in second gear in the snow). And it's better to be a chicken and alive then dead and brave.
posted by The Power Nap at 11:14 AM on December 7, 2006


PLB for $500? If your going into serious wilderness regularly, sure.

But few are going shell out $500 for the occasional weekend drive.

I would say subscribing to one of those basic GPS systems that comes with the car when you buy it may be more affordable for most as it will be built into car payments.

And for less than $100 dollars your problems are made far less severe with a simple car kit. Everybody should have a good car kit.
posted by tkchrist at 11:25 AM on December 7, 2006


He snickered and showed me a couple of tricks with a shovel instead.

Yeah, but it doesn't have the raw weapon appeal that the machete has :). Nonetheless, that spade looks nice. And inexpensive.
posted by effwerd at 11:27 AM on December 7, 2006


The Power Nap writes "I've had the best luck with the cable variety."

This really depends on local conditions. Hardened V bar is a _lot_ better on soft compact snow and slush over ice IMO. On plain ice the cable type are OK and are easier to drive than a more aggressive chain cross link. If you car requires S-Class chains you can get them with a chain cross link. Good chains shouldn't have to be replaced every year unless you are mounting them all the time, you should get several thousand kilometres out of a set even when driven in mixed bare pavement and ice.
posted by Mitheral at 11:28 AM on December 7, 2006


I would say subscribing to one of those basic GPS systems that comes with the car when you buy it may be more affordable for most as it will be built into car payments.

Uh, no. Those car systems, like OnStar, only receive GPS data from the satellites, not transmit using them. They use cell networks to send data. The Kim's had a cell phone, but no coverage.

$500 seems like an incredibly small amount of money to pay in order to have the ability to notify rescue teams where you are that you are in trouble. It also works anywhere on the globe.
posted by jsonic at 11:38 AM on December 7, 2006


This thread puts me in mind of one of my favorite stories from This American Life, in which a pleasure cruise leaves someone stranded and bleeding within sight of lower Manhattan.

A reminder you can get lost anywhere.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:39 AM on December 7, 2006


Horace Rumpole - thanks for the link to the hypothermia discussion on Making Light. I learned a great deal. And more thanks to scrump for a very useful post.
posted by LeeJay at 11:52 AM on December 7, 2006


A folding Myerchin knife, whistle and signal mirror went on a neck lanyard. A sheath knife, ... I noticed his old Woodsman's Pal (Pro Tool Industries ed.), meant for chopping wood and the like, ... held up a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife and gave me a big smile ... Their packs boasted a huge Indian Kukhri (also spelled Kukri) and a hefty Russian Spetznaz Special Forces Survival Machete.

And yet despite their obvious usefulness, knives are still generally demonized. (My Kukhri saved my friends and I more then once when we used to go rock climbing.)
posted by quin at 11:56 AM on December 7, 2006


Mitheral,

I agree, and it's probably the cable type that needs to be replaced more often than the pure chain, as off season rusting sets in. I was just stating my own personal experience/preference.
posted by The Power Nap at 12:01 PM on December 7, 2006


Uh, no. Those car systems, like OnStar, only receive GPS data from the satellites, not transmit using them. They use cell networks to send data.

I never knew that.

$500 seems like an incredibly small amount of money to pay in order to have the ability to notify rescue teams where you are that you are in trouble.

If you anticipate needing such thing by being outdoors regularly. For instance I have a PLB and Avalanche tranciever for climbing and back-country skiing and that was a $900 dollar investment.

But if you only go once a year for a weekend outing on a what you think is a bunny-hill? You likely will not buy one unless you have money to burn.

Most people will never be able to afford PLB for casual travel. And that is what James Kim thought he was doing. Maybe he could afford it. But most people couldn't. I dunno maybe in the age of the $400 iPod people will go into debt for this stuff.

I still think a car kit is a much more versitle investment.
posted by tkchrist at 12:13 PM on December 7, 2006


A knife... any knife, is an essential tool for anywhere. Always keep one in your car, even if its a simple pocket knife.

Great stuff, scrump, and a good follow-up for yesterdays news and post.
posted by elendil71 at 12:31 PM on December 7, 2006


Those car systems, like OnStar, only receive GPS data from the satellites, not transmit using them.

Thanks, I didn't know that either. I've been wondering how OnStar transmits, but I was leaning towards thinking that a lack of universal coverage and differing standards/providers would make a cellular transmission system less likely for OnStar. I was thinking this because Saab's website shows that the 9-2x, Kim's car, is the only car in their lineup without OnStar.
posted by peeedro at 12:41 PM on December 7, 2006


If you anticipate needing such thing by being outdoors regularly. For instance I have a PLB and Avalanche tranciever for climbing and back-country skiing and that was a $900 dollar investment.
I've always felt that one possible way to look at these is that, at the very least, they'll permit your body to be recovered and buried or cremated.

I'm given to understand that deaths in which the person simply disappears are much, much harder to deal with for surviving family and friends than deaths in which a body is recovered and may be interred.
posted by scrump at 12:47 PM on December 7, 2006


Those car systems, like OnStar, only receive GPS data from the satellites, not transmit using them.

I'm pretty sure that the way it works is that the car receives the GPS signal, then when a call is initiated to OnStar, it sends that coordinate data to the operator over the cellular phone connection. (cell/gsm/whatever)

But I could be wrong.
posted by quin at 1:14 PM on December 7, 2006


Not to mention the legal problems for the survivors when there is no proof of death.
posted by Cranberry at 1:19 PM on December 7, 2006


Deputies said Kim could have left the clothing to mark his path, but it is also possible he was feeling a false sense of warmth associated with hypothermia.

Most important survival tip, there: If you're lost in the woods in winter, do not take off your pants and leave them behind. I don't understand it. He must have been half-dead, driven out of his mind by the cold or something, to start taking off his clothes and leaving them behind... yet he managed to hike another twenty miles or so. It's hard to imagine.
posted by sfenders at 1:22 PM on December 7, 2006


I've always felt that one possible way to look at these is that, at the very least, they'll permit your body to be recovered and buried or cremated.

Which is why I practice pulling the dead-man cord, curling into the avalanche pose, plus keeping both hands flippping the bird so when they find my frozen body I'll be suitably insulting.
posted by tkchrist at 1:23 PM on December 7, 2006


et he managed to hike another twenty miles or so
This may have just been hyperbole on your part, but the total distance he traveled was approximately 10 miles, not 20+.
posted by scrump at 1:36 PM on December 7, 2006


I've owned wilderness survival books & gear for many years now. I got into it when I was in the Boy Scouts, actually. Our troop did a lot of wilderness hiking & camping out in BLM land and other family unfriendly environments.
People have asked me if I'm one of those "survivalist nutjobs" because I have lots of camping gear and I own guns and have trapped rabbits & mate them into stew.

Then something like this happens, and suddenly there's a flurry of interest in survival gear. It's interesting how opinions change.

A PLB is a great idea. It may sound like something that you won't need, but when you're stuck out between "Bumfuck Nowhere" and "Boy, you got a pretty mouth" you'll be happy that you have it. I'd rather think "I'm glad I have this thing" instead of "Gee, I wish I had bought a PLB instead of yet another iPod."

Maybe one day we'll see a special iPod+PLB combo, specifically designed for hard core hikers. :)
posted by drstein at 1:41 PM on December 7, 2006


drstein writes "I own guns and have trapped rabbits & mate them into stew."

I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds even less pleasant than boiling a lobster alive.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:01 PM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


the total distance he traveled was approximately 10 miles, not 20

Ah, thanks for the correction, that sadly explains the mystery. I was guessing the scale of the map growabrain linked to based on the statement that his body was found "within five miles" of the car. It was more like one mile, and I was off by a factor of 4.
posted by sfenders at 2:05 PM on December 7, 2006


> He must have been half-dead, driven out of his mind by the cold or something, to start taking off his clothes and leaving them behind...

There's a passage in Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer in which a member of a Japanese team climbing Mount Everest recounts coming across the remnants of an Indian team that had met with disaster. One of the dying climbers had removed so much of his clothing in his death throes that he was almost completely naked.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:06 PM on December 7, 2006


I think if I knew that I was freezing to death with no hope of rescue, I might shed my clothes and hasten the process as much as possible.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2006


Card Cheat:

High altitude climbers (such as folks on Everest) have a much higher chance of doing bizarre stuff, because even before they get hypothermic, they are suffering from hypoxia (generally. It's guaranteed above 26,000 ft). Which, among other things, is like being rather drunk. The stupor of hypoxia kills many climbers before hypothermia ever has a chance. And that's in addition to being dead-tired from exertion, and being in a very dangerous place to begin with.
posted by teece at 2:51 PM on December 7, 2006


To expand on what teece said, altitude such as Everest's poses some challenges very different from those that affected James Kim.
posted by scrump at 3:05 PM on December 7, 2006


sfenders, teece, et al.,

It is common for hypothermia victims to feel overheated and remove clothing, even at low altitude. There have been a couple of relatively recent hypothermia deaths in New Hampshire's White Mountains -- guys really experienced in the back country who just got stuck in bad circumstances -- where the same thing happened.

When hypothermia victims are found in urban environments, it's often suspected that they've been sexually assaulted at first, because they may be found nearly naked
posted by dseaton at 3:42 PM on December 7, 2006


I've got one of those dinky keychain compass doodads on my day bag. Most of the time it goes unused, but it has also helped me navigate my way out of the Englischer Garten, figure out when my Cambodian guide was heading for a border other than the one I specified, and helped me get my bearings while hiking in the rockies. Of course, I never go anywhere unknown without a map and I am fortunate enough to have had a lot of training when it comes to navigation, but I still recommend one of these handy items even for amateurs.

Simplest piece of advice for those traveling with a map and compass: Before you wander off somewhere, plot a safety bearing. The concept is simple : if you travel in a general direction for a certain amount of time, your bound to hit something. An extreme example of this would be if you head east from anywhere in the continental USA, regardless of where you are eventually you'll hit the atlantic ocean, and then you at least you'll have a better idea where you are, so in this context east would be your safety bearing. All cardinal points, but East and west especially are great safety bearings because you don't even need a compass to find them as their general positions are revealed at sunrise and sunset. So if there's a highway that runs north and south through your map 20 km to the west of where you start off, then no matter where you go and get lost, just keep heading west and within a few hours you're bound to hit that highway. Yay safety bearing!
posted by furtive at 5:42 PM on December 7, 2006


People have mentioned machetes, I'd add that two of my favorite pieces of kit are a gigantic crowbar (they call them "wrecking bars" at this size), which are invaluable in removing rusted-on-rims when you're changing a tire, and a $10 machete from wally world.

My favorites:

Wrecking bar
Machete
Butane cigarette lighter
Candle (anything of decent size)
High-calorie food (snickers is fine, whatever's cheapest and palatable, MRE's are great but will make you miserable)
Decent flashlight(S): the teknolite is my favorite lately, you can find them for $10-30, a 4-LED light with emergency markers is a pretty good deal at this price.
Maps. Get a decent topo map. Kim would have probably lived had he had one.

And the usual survival kit: rope, mirror, etc.

On the more expensive side:

GPS ($100 or less, Garmin Etrex is the best cheap and cheerful one i know of)
PLB (i don't carry one, but i've had a couple credit-card-out moments in the past 24h. I'll probably get one for my next XC drive or "real" outing)

Everyone has a different list, and I know mine isn't complete, the important thing is that you have SOMETHING in your car. Honestly, a decent laser pointer could help. Just think about it a bit and toss in whatever you have room for. We're all living on the "ketchup-packets-in-the-glovebox" to "beacon-in-the-glovebox" continuum. Conceive of the fact that you might get stuck and you'll be way ahead of the curve.

My earlier moment of silence stands. The Kims didn't deserve what they got. Please think about what you might run into when you leave the house.
posted by oxonium at 6:17 PM on December 7, 2006


And water. A 24-pack of pints of water costs $5 at my gas station.
posted by oxonium at 6:18 PM on December 7, 2006


One of those red colored Gazetteers for your state should be in your vehicle at all times as well. Elevation information is important to know - my wife and I often drive around in very VERY rural Oregon and some of the forest service roads see little traffic. We have often driven for hours and not seen another human being or house, let alone another vehicle.
posted by Sukiari at 7:38 PM on December 7, 2006


My wife and I unintentionally and very stupidly made a trip over the Rockies a few years back. From black ice at highway speeds to whiteout blizzard conditions to maniacs on the road, it was the trip from hell. The Trans Canada was closed for a week while the snow crews were out dealing with all the avalanches, wrecks, foot-thick ice, etc.

I have resolved to never drive the Rockies in winter again. It just isn't worth dying to visit friends or relatives in Alberta. Conditions change in a matter of hours: there is not even a whisper of guarantee that the sunny weather report will remain true before you complete the trip.

And if I ever lose my sanity and somehow end up submitting to the pressure to make the trip, it will be with an attitude of being fully prepared to stop and motel it while conditions improve.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:54 PM on December 7, 2006


dseaton: I'm not disputing that at all, I've heard it to. It's just that Everest climbers are a bad reference point, because hypoxia makes one behave very oddly at altitude, long before the hypothermia does. Of course, hypothermia could strike first, but it's also just as common for it not to, for climbers (climbers know it's going to be freezing cold, and prepare for it as best they can; barring a nasty and unexpected storm on the summit push, climbers generally have more to worry about from altitude than cold on a mountain like Everest, assuming they don't get lost or injured. Above 26,000 feet, the human body does not adapt. You are dying above that altitude, even if the weather is nice; your life-span is measured in days at that altitude, in the best of circumstances).

Climbers can still have a normal core body temperature, and do weird shit like strip out of their clothes; decide to melt snow for drinking water by filling their sleeping bag with snow and getting in it [!], getting up in the middle of the night and exploring the side of a cliff without tying into anything, etc. I've read about climbers doing all of these things without being hypothermic, just as a result of being slightly crazy from altitude sickness. They all died, too, sadly.
posted by teece at 8:11 PM on December 7, 2006



And I'm stuck here in the sweaty tropical queensland of Australia. You all and your snow survival are making me jealous. The best way to make it through the winter is to lite your dog in fire and let him run burning around your cold tootsies.....or move to this southern hemi sweat hole.
posted by heliopod at 11:46 PM on December 7, 2006


thank you, scrump, for the excellent links and thank you everyone else for chiming in with their knowledge. This is what the hive mind does best - share knowledge and provide meaning in the face of a tragedy.

The only link I wish I had never seen in either of these threads about James Kim has nothing to do with the actual survival knowledge - it's the haunting images on the Layouscene.com site showing the Google Map. Can't get that out of my mind...
posted by rmm at 9:12 AM on December 8, 2006


Video tribute to Kim on CNET
posted by growabrain at 7:53 PM on December 9, 2006


Steps and missteps in the search.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:33 AM on December 10, 2006


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