Here’s the good news: Your plane has crashed, but you’ve managed to survive. But the bad news is that you find yourself crawling out of the wreckage in the middle of the mountainous Alaskan wilderness, where the average wintertime temperature is 20 to 30 degrees below zero, and it’s been known to dip as far down to 80 below.
You might imagine that you’re a goner. But that’s because you don’t know the real-life story of a woman named Helen Klaben, a passenger on a small plane from Fairbanks to Seattle that crashed in February 1963 in the similarly forbidding Canadian Yukon region. She suffered a broken arm in the crash, and the pilot, Ralph Flores, both suffered a broken jaw and other serious facial injuries. And as a vintage Life magazine account of the ordeal details, they had no heavy winter survival garb, and their supplies consisted of a few cans of sardines and tuna, two cans of fruit cocktail, some vitamins, toothpaste, and matches. They didn’t even have any tools, except for a hammer, a chisel and the pilot’s hunting knife. Nevertheless, 49 days later, rescuers found Klaben and Flores, who were gaunt and desperately hungry, but somehow, had managed to survive. They’d reinforced the plane’s cabin with spruce boughs to turn it into a shelter, fashioned a drinking cup from a broken light reflector so that they could drink melted snow, and avoided physical activity as much as possible, so that their bodies’ stored fat could sustain them after the food ran out.
Hopefully, you’ll never have to go through such a harrowing experience. But just to be prepared, here are some tips for surviving in the frozen northern wilderness, from the University of Alaska risk management team’s Remote Travel Safety Guide.
- Build a Snow Shelter. It may seem paradoxical, but snow can turn out to be one of your best protections against the wind and snowdrifts that you encounter in the wilderness. Build an enclosure that is about eight-inches thick, and inside, try to scrape the snow down to ground level, in order to capture radiant heat from the ground.
- Know How to Stay Warm. There are lots of different ways that your body can lose vital heat, and you have to be on guard against them all. If you’re traveling in a wilderness area, you need to pack garments that are going to block the wind. Ideally, the jacket should have a collar and a waistline drawstring that can be tightened. As much as 50 percent of body heat can be lost by radiating from the head and neck areas, so make sure you keep your hat on and your neck swathed in a scarf or turtleneck. Perspiration is another way of losing heat, so wear layers and remove them as necessary to prevent overheating. The inner layer next to your skin should be some fabric, such as polypropylene, thermax or silk, that will wick the moisture away from your skin (cotton is a no-no). A middle layer of wool or polypropylene, both of which retain heat when wet, will help you to trap air inside your clothing and insulate your body. The final outer layer should be a material such as Gore-Tex, a synthetic whose pores will allow water vapor to escape, but prevent liquid water from getting through.
- Watch For and Treat the First Signs of Frostbite. If the skin of your cheeks, ears, nose, fingers or toes redden or feel numb and tingly, you may have a precursor of frostbite, a condition in which ice crystals form in skin or deeper tissue. If this happens, heat some water to a temperature of 100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and immerse the affected areas. You also can utilize the body warmth of a companion, as long as that person isn’t excessively cooled that way. Don’t rub or massage the skin, because that will damage the tissue.
- Make Sure That You Disinfect Water Before Drinking It. You’re likely to find an abundance of frozen and liquid water sources around you. But unless you want to risk coming down with a water-borne disease such as Giardia, you need to treat the water. If you don’t have a purification kit or a water filter specially designed to filter out the microbe, ordinary household chlorine bleach—four drops per quart—will disinfect water in about 30 minutes. The most foolproof method, however is to boil water for 20 minutes.
- There’s Safety in Numbers. Don’t be like the foolhardy Alaska newbie in Jack London’s classic story “To Build a Fire,” who ignores an old-timer’s admonitions and ventures out alone on a day when the temperature is minus 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and ends up freezing to death. The University of Alaska’s risk management team suggests that you never leave your camp unless you’re with at least one other person. Also, if you head out from a downed aircraft, be sure to leave a note explaining where you’ve gone and describing the direction, so that rescuers have a better chance of finding you.
- Be Cautious About Ice. That frozen lake, river, or stream may look solid enough to cross on foot, but if you plunge through the ice, you can be in a whole lot of trouble. Don’t even think of stepping out onto it unless the temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, and check your path first with an ice chisel, pole, or another tool that you can use to tap the surface and test its solidity. If it sounds hollow when tapped, choose another route. Also remember that repeated use weakens ice, so if you’re on a route that someone else has traveled first, watch out for cracks.
- Learn How to Chase Away a Bear. Make a lot of noise, and pull your jacket up around your body, with your hands raised over your head, to make yourself bigger and more intimidating. Face the bear, and don’t run—that may invite the bear to pursue you. But if the bear actually gets close or grabs hold of you, though, you may want to lie still in a fetal position, in an effort to follow the bear into thinking that you’re already dead. As the University of Alaska guide notes: “This technique has been reported to be somewhat successful for brown bear encounters. However, it has not been reported as being very effective for aggressive black bears.”