The 5 Principles of Extreme Weather Survival

Survival isn't about copying the stuff you see Bear Grylls do. Here's what should you do if you're caught outside in extreme weather.

Greenland

Andrew Yasso on polar bear patrol outside camp at night in eastern Greenland.    Photo: Chris Brinlee Jr.

I’m not going to tell you how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. If you’re looking for survival-themed fantasy, there are plenty of TV shows, books, and ridiculous knives with fishing line stored in their handles that you can waste your time and money on. Survival isn’t about copying the stuff you see Bear Grylls do. It’s about not getting to the point where you’re forced to drink your own pee. So, what should you do if you’re caught outside in extreme weather? Or if a storm hits your home or office? Well, it’s what you do ahead of time that influences how you’ll fare afterward. Here’s how to live through stuff, complete with real survival advice from Bear.

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Never Leave Home Unprepared

Read a story about survival, and you’re reading a story about someone who’s made a mistake. Almost always, that mistake is failing to adequately prepare for the conditions.

I’m reminded of the story about Karen Klein, who, along with her husband and ten-year-old son, became stranded on the North Rim of Grand Canyon after a snowstorm over Christmas. That story is titled, “Mom Drinks Pee, Eats Twigs to Survive 26-Mile Hike to Safety.”

Do you want a similar headline to become the first Google result for your name for the rest of your life? The easiest way to avoid that happening is always going to be adequately preparing for the weather conditions and other common risks you might face.

Klein attempted to go find help (never do that) and felt she had to drink urine and eat sticks (never do that either) because her family lacked appropriate clothing for the weather and had no food or water. A few blankets, a couple 99-cent jugs of water, and a box of energy bars would have meant riding out the storm in the safety of their vehicle.

You can apply this to any scenario. Headed into the mountains for a camping trip? Make sure you have adequate clothing, shelter, and the ability to make a fire and purify drinking water, should you be beset by a storm. Live in a disaster-prone area? Order a bunch of supplies on Amazon before the hurricane/earthquake/tornado/plague of locusts happens.

And don’t forget, knowledge is the most effective survival gizmo you can stock up on. Your celebrity-endorsed canteen/fire starter/survival knife combo will be no good if you don’t know how to put clean water in it, create kindling, or find dry firewood in the rain.

Want to learn more about survival preparation? Check out Cody Lundin’s book 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive.

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Check the Forecast

In February 2015, Kate Mastrosova’s husband dropped her off at the trailhead for the Presidential Traverse, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The winter weather was mild as she set out for the hike, but the rescuers who responded to her emergency beacon just a few hours later had to brave wind chills of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit to locate her body. You have to assume Mastrosova never would have attempted the traverse had she known the weather would get that bad.

Checking forecasts seems like common sense, and I bet all of us already do it to some degree. But do you understand what all the data means beyond the brief summary? Particularly in rural areas, forecasts may cover a lot of square miles, encompassing vast differences in terrain and conditions. Weather on the east side of a particular mountain at a certain elevation will most likely not be what it’s like on the other side at a different elevation.

Do you know common weather patterns in the area where you live or where you’re traveling? Have you examined the historic data to see what extremes are possible during the time of year in question? Can you read a Doppler radar map and tell which way the storm is moving, how fast, and how much precipitation it’s putting out? For some trips, it’s wise to consult tide charts, avalanche reports, or other local information as well. These days, all that is so easy to find and so easy to learn how to read that there’s no excuse.

Weather reports are just the beginning of the information available to you. You know the area you live in, right? Well, what if I asked you to travel to an address just a few miles away—without consulting Google Maps. Would you be able to do it? Not if you don’t keep a paper map around, I’d bet. The same applies to your trips outdoors. You may know an area well, but what if a river rises and cuts off the trail you’ve always taken? Do you know another way back to your car?

While I traveled in the Anza-Borrego Desert with Robert Young Pelton a couple weeks ago, he explained the area’s geological formations and how water flows over and is trapped by them. Knowing what’s under the ground can help you determine where to dig to find water. Again, this is information you should arm yourself with in areas where you live or recreate outdoors.

Information is also a dynamic thing, as demonstrated by your ability to read this article on your phone, in the bathroom. The power frequently goes out even after an average thunderstorm. A small, battery-powered AM/FM radio will give you the ability to listen to weather forecasts or emergency instructions from local authorities. In the backcountry, a new generation of satellite messengers is making it more affordable than ever to stay in touch with the outside world. If you face extreme weather, someone at home may be able to warn you of changing conditions.

Want to learn more about the risks you actually face in the real world? Robert Young Pelton’s Come Back Alive is a rational take on addressing the dangerous stuff you’ll have to deal with in reality.

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Tell Someone Before You Go

But gadgets are expensive. Want a foolproof way to make sure someone comes looking for you, should you get into trouble out of cellphone range or if you break your phone? Leave detailed travel plans, including your intended route, with a trustworthy person back home, along with explicit instructions on who to contact if you don’t return by a set day and time and what exactly to tell that authority. Many people don’t bother, but this is the simplest method for ensuring help will be on its way in the very unlikely circumstance that you might need it. Bad stuff can happen to anyone, even us tough guys.

How you communicate with loved ones at home in the event of a power outage is just as important. And again, the best way to do that is by making plans ahead of time.

Let’s say your partner works all the way across town. What should they do in the event of an earthquake or whatever potential emergencies your city faces? Should they try to walk home? Will you go get them? Should you meet in the middle? If so, where exactly? Do you both know how to get there, given the likelihood of blocked streets and other unforeseen obstacles? This doesn’t have to be much more than a 30-second conversation, but it’s an awfully important conversation to have.

Want to learn more about dealing with disasters? Cody Lundin’s second book, When All Hell Breaks Loose, is a realistic look into plausible disaster scenarios and how you can get through them comfortably.

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Be Conservative

Camping with Bear Grylls a few years ago, I asked him where he got off giving out such bad survival advice on TV every week. “Textbook survival is boring,” he explained. “You just stay where you are, don’t take risks, and wait for help to come get you. That doesn’t make for interesting television.”

There you go: that’s how to survive, straight from Bear’s mouth. But we are all guilty of ignoring the advice we know will work and making bad decisions when we’re under pressure.

I’m no different. Shortly after that trip with Bear, I went backpacking with my buddies Ty and Matt. A few days in, unexpected bad weather hit. We got soaked to the bone and were freezing cold as a result. When Ty’s dog ran off after some sort of animal, Matt and I didn’t want to wait for him to find it, so we made the awful decision for Matt to head out on his own to grab his car. Long story short, Matt got lost and was caught in a landslide, and I had to get the chief of the local fire department out of bed at midnight on Christmas Eve. Matt nearly died of hypothermia—something that was entirely avoidable.

We both learned our lesson. Last February, right before the two of us were planning to go mountain climbing in the Sierra Nevada, I dislocated my shoulder in the gym. Rather than suck it up and try to tag along with my friends, I made the difficult decision to sit that one out. Just before Matt reached the peak with the aid of another friend, he came across a crevasse he didn’t like the look of. Rather than try to leap across it or make a sketchy climb around it on highly exposed terrain, he decided to go back and try again another time.

Anywhere that’s risky or in any circumstance where help may not be readily available, it’s safe, conservative decision making that keeps you alive. You’ll live to fight again another day.

Want to learn the basics of being comfortable outdoors? It might sound silly, but there’s no better resource for simple, effective training than the Boy Scout Handbook. That’s how I learned.

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Use Common Sense

You know you’re not supposed to drive across a flooded roadway. And yet, every year, plenty of people do. You know you’re not supposed to be around water during a flash flood warning. And yet, every year, plenty of people get into trouble that way too. From the safety of your commode, it’s easy to laugh at those people and think you’ll never make those mistakes, and yet a 46-year-old college professor, triathlete, and marathon runner can still find herself in the New York Post under a headline about drinking her own pee.

How did Klein eventually get rescued? Her husband walked to the top of the hill, found a cell signal, and dialed 911. Yes, they probably should have tried that first. No, that didn’t occur to them at the time. When it’s dark, when you’re cold, when you’re scared, or when you’re hurt, it can be really hard to remember all the advice you’ve spent a lifetime reading. Often, it’s not even one big, bad decision that kills you. It’s the culmination of dozens of small ones.

When Todd Orr was viciously mauled by a grizzly bear last fall, he didn’t survive because he was tough. He survived because he remembered that between the bear spray and the pistol he was carrying, the spray was demonstrably more effective.

So let me suggest one last thing: when it’s dark, when you’re cold, and when you’re scared, take a deep breath, calm down, and try to remember what tools you have with you, what information you might remember, and what plans you made, and then ask yourself what is the safest possible decision in that scenario. Hopefully, that’ll involve staying right where you are and waiting for help to arrive.

Everyone should keep a comprehensive guide to first aid with them at all times. Phone apps are the easiest way to do that, and the one from St. John Ambulance is great.

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