Mar 16, 2022 12:00 AM

Author: University of Utah Health Communications


You’ve been cooped up inside your house and need some fresh air, so you decide to brave the winter elements and explore the outdoors. But sometimes your adventure may not turn out the way you had planned. The wilderness can be unpredictable, so it’s important to be prepared as much as possible.

Here are three myths and what you can do if you get caught in one of these situations:

Myth #1

Eating snow can help you stay hydrated if you become stranded outdoors.

Reality:

Eating snow can be both beneficial and detrimental. The water content of snow is so low, and depending where you are, the snow could be very dry. If this is the case, it could take more effort and energy to produce water.

“Snow is mostly air, especially here in Utah,” says Graham Brant-Zawadzki, MD, MA, an emergency physician in Wilderness Medicine at University of Utah Health. “You need to eat about 8 to 10 quarts of snow to meet the same amount of liquid water.”

Because snow is much colder than body temperature, your body expends energy to melt the snow you put in your mouth in order to drink it. “In the end, eating snow consumes more total body volume water than you are actually receiving,” Brant-Zawadzki says. 

What to do:

Instead of eating snow directly, find another way to melt it, such as heating the snow. For example, find a sunspot to melt the snow. Or, if you have some type of container to hold the snow, wrap some dark clothing around it and leave it in the sun to melt. Then, you can drink the liquid melted snow.

Myth #2

To treat hypothermia, you should get into a sleeping bag with another person to help your body heat up faster.

Reality:

Getting in a sleeping bag with another person, without clothes or minimal clothes like a base layer, will help transmit heat faster than being in a sleeping bag alone and completely clothed. “The reason we say ‘naked or nearly naked’ is because sleeping bags are designed to trap a layer of air around you that your body warms up and which then acts as insulation,” Brant-Zawadzki says. “If you’re wearing a lot of heavy clothes clothes together, then you’re trapping heat under your clothes and not radiating heat to that person as effectively.” This can also compress the insulative layers of the bag so that they are less efficient at maintaining heat and decrease the amount of space for air to act as insulation. Brant-Zawadzki explains those heavy clothes will hinder direct heat transfer from the warmer body to the colder body. 

What to do:

While Brant-Zawadzki says getting in a sleeping bag with another person is one way to get warm, there are other things you can do as well. You could also get warm in a sleeping bag with a heated bottle of water or another heat source.

But the best thing to do to stay warm is to use your body’s thermodynamics. “Get active, do jumping jacks, and get moving,” Brant-Zawadzki says. “If you are in a sleeping bag alone or with another person, you can keep your metabolism active by moving as much as possible to help burn calories in order to stay warm.”

Myth #3

If you get buried in an avalanche, spitting will help determine what direction to dig out.

Reality:

Spitting probably won’t help much because the snow around you would be too dense and compact. Snow is roughly one-tenth the density of water, but snow following an avalanche is at least double that—and sometimes exceeds the density of the same snow pre-avalanche due to how dense and compact it is. “The snow is no longer that fluffy powder we like to play in,” Brant-Zawadzki says. “Instead, it’s basically concrete. Even if you knew which way was up or down, the ability to dig yourself out is more or less impossible. Just being under a foot of cubic snow can translate into hundreds of kilograms weighing on your body.” 

What to do:

A better way to know which way to dig out is if you can move any part of your body, Brant-Zawadzki says. It’s probably under the least amount of snow. Another thing you can do is to try to make as much space around your head as possible. This will provide a pocket of air to help you survive longer. Brant-Zawadzki says it’s also important to move as much as you can, and as long as you can.

prevention wilderness winter survival emergency medicine wilderness medicine snow hypothermia avalanche

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