Winter Survival Lessons for Ski Mountaineering

Post by blogger | December 18, 2009      

Unless you’re in a fairly large group (three or more) close to civilization or the parking lot, it’s a good idea to be prepared to survive a night out. If you’ve got enough clothing and a shovel, it’s possible to dig a snow cave and sit out the dark hours, but doing so is problematic because your clothing gets wet while you’re digging the cave. Nonetheless, a couple recently survived an unplanned night on Mount Rainier by using a snow cave. Outside of Aspen, another couple survived a stormy night out just yards from a hut. Due to a storm they couldn’t find the cozy shelter, and did an open bivvy in their sleeping bags which from news reports sounded marginal. And sadly, up on Mount Hood a group of three did not survive, and it’s assumed at least one person in the group ended up in an emergency bivouac somewhere on the mountain — a bivouac that obviously did not work out.

My theory has always been that having a good shovel and decent clothing could get me through nearly anything. But I do throw in a bivvy sack now and then, when I’m in a small group and our plan takes us deep into the backcountry away from an easy egress.

A snowcave may be the best of survival shelters. Some tips for digging one when you’ve got minimal gear, and surviving after you dig:

1. Find a wind swale, cornice face or treewell face where you can start digging horizontally. This saves you from burrowing like a mole and doing the extra digging required if you need to go down then sideways. Also, branching a cave from a pit means you run the risk of the pit filling back up from wind drift, and trapping you in the cave or at least making exit difficult.

2. If you find a good semi-vertical face to start digging, test and see if you can cut uniform blocks with your shovel. If so, start with a fairly large opening, and enlarge into your sleeping chamber as soon as practical. When all is ready, wall the opening back up with the blocks, leaving a small door opening.

3. In either case, be sure to make your sleeping chamber higher than the door, so it’ll trap warm air from your body and breath.

4. Before starting work, strip off ALL non-essential clothing and store so it stays dry — especially any down gear. If you have hardshell layers, wear them over nearly nothing while you’re working. Once you’re digging inside the entrance tunnel and beyond, you’ll be amazed how warm you’ll get.

5. Once in the cave for the night, place dry clothing next to skin and damp clothing on the outside. Sit on your backpack. Keep your boots on but loosen as much as possible. If you feel your feet getting cold, take the liners out of the boots and store under your clothing, then place your feet under your partner’s torso clothing. DO NOT leave your liners in your boots, as you many be borderline hypothermic in the morning, and placing your cold feet in frozen boots could cause severe frostbite.

6. If you have a stove, you’ll definitely need a ceiling vent in your cave. Be super careful about this as carbon monoxide poisoning will at best impair your judgment. If you don’t have a stove and your cave is large with an open doorway you probably don’t need a vent, but consider a small one anyhow to keep the air a bit drier and fresher. You can always plug it with a spare piece of clothing or snowball.

7. Use good judgment if you’re lost or can’t return to civilization, and don’t push into the night, but rather set up your survival camp when you’ve still got energy and perhaps daylight.

8. Always always carry a bit of extra high-calorie fat/protein food. Sitting out a night in a snowcave with a bit of cheese or jerky to keep you company can be uncomfortable but totally safe. Doing so if you haven’t eaten for hours could still result in a hypothermia situation from which you might not return.

9. If you’re warm and have food, eating snow to stay hydrated works fine. But never never eat snow if you’re even close to being chilled.

Beyond the snowcave, if you’re short on time you can simply dig a trench, lay your skis over it, and cover the skis with snow blocks. To do this right, keep the trench as small as possible so you can plug the end with a backpack or snow blocks once you’re inside. If you totally wall yourself in, it’ll be as warm as a snowcave, but so small it will be difficult to move to stay warm. In my experience, the trench works better if you have a ground cover and sleeping bags, while the snowcave works better if you’re short on gear. Though again, the main problem with snowcave building is getting wet. If you’re short on clothing, be very wary of this. Getting wet can kill you.

I should also mention that if your skiing is done below or at timberline most of the time, one of the best ways to survive a night is to simply build a large fire and hang out next to it. To do so, you need to be carrying a functional fire starting kit and know what you’re doing. Practice helps (as it does in the case of snow caves). A while back we had a good post and comment thread about winter fire starting.

Lastly, in all three examples mentioned above the protagonists had no way of communicating with civilization, and thus triggered or came close to triggering large rescue efforts. I find this amazing and tragic, as so many communication options now exist. Seriously folks, at least carry a Spot Messenger, and if you’re hut tripping and carrying a sleeping bag, throw in a bivvy sack so you can spend a night out without your sleeping bag getting soaked.

I recommend the SOL Escape Bivvy, mainly because it’s waterproof/breathable. It is of paramount importance that your bivvy be of breathable fabric. Not only will a non-breathable bivvy immerse you in cold moist air, but you’re more likely to suffocate if you fall asleep and lose your ventilation.


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23 Responses to “Winter Survival Lessons for Ski Mountaineering”

  1. KDog December 18th, 2009 11:23 am


    We carry heavy duty emergency blankets which pack down quite small and light. I have never used it and wonder if it will help at all. (other than keeping me off the snow) Have you ever used one of these? Some are even shaped like a bivy sack.

    I would dig a cave and try it out, but am afraid I won’t be able to pack it back to it’s tiny size. 😆


  2. Lou December 18th, 2009 11:30 am

    KDog, I’ve tried the blankets many times, and concluded they are nearly useless compared to any sort of sack.

  3. harpo December 18th, 2009 11:37 am

    I have any emergency bivy bag made of the same foil material as an emergency blanket that I carry in my first aid kit. It is pretty mush the same size and weight packed as the blanket.

    On longer days I will carry a BD Winter Bivy, which is made out of the same material as the Lighthouse/Hilight ect line of single wall tents which is much smaller and lighter than a standard bivy made of gore like material.

    On long days, I have my jet boil anyway to melt water (lighter than carrying 3 or more quarts of water) and will throw extra food, maybe some freeze dried, in my pack.

    I also carry extra chemical toe and hand heaters on long days, and maybe extra socks.

  4. Marcus December 18th, 2009 11:38 am

    That bag cover is worth it’s weight in gold — 7 oz, packs down to less than the size of a soda can.

    (Note from Wildsnow: Please use

  5. harpo December 18th, 2009 11:42 am

    Lou, have you had a chance to compare the new generations of PLBs from McMurdo, ACR, and SPOT? I upgraded from the 1st gen ACR PLB to the new McMurdo Fast Find and am impressed with its weight, size, and dependability.

  6. Lou December 18th, 2009 11:50 am

    Harpo, nope, I’ve not worked on a comparo. As for me personally, I’ve quit messing around and just got a sat phone. Got tired of how the beacons give a shout out for rescue but no way of giving details of situation. Seems like that will continue to be very problematic. In my opinion, Spot for example needs simple texting and a small keypad. They could just charge an arm and a leg for the texting if they wanted to, as it would be mostly for emergencies.

  7. Ron Rash December 18th, 2009 1:21 pm


    Great article and very useful tips. For day tours the bivy bag sounds great. I don’t use or suggest to people to use a bivy bag. I tried it when I was younger and I never slept and I always froze. I want to ask if people have really used bivy bags.

    This is what I suggest for day tours that might turn in to a bivy. Carry an ensolite pad or better yet a closed cell pad which might be an ensolite pad. I carry a Go Lite fly shelter that weighs less then a bivy bag and I can set it up anywhere even above tree line in high winds. Next I carry insulation, synthetic insulation. If it’s cold I carry tops and bottoms plus a light weight synthetic sleeping bag that I can get in with all of my gear on or I can put an injured client in with all of their gear on. Later in the winter when the snow is deeper tree wells are the place to bivy. They take little shoveling compared to snowcaves and quinzhees. Yes, the snow is a great insulator but you need synthetic insulation around you, down gets wet and useless in most exposed bivys and bivy bags don’t breath enough. Unbuckle your boots, put your sunglasses or goggles on for the bivy. Eat food tell jokes and go to sleep. You’ll wake up when your cold. If you have a stove cook in another snow shelter or fly shelter not the one your sleeping in or you may wake up dead.

  8. Steven December 18th, 2009 1:18 pm

    Lou, have you ever reviewed the various emergency bivies available on the market? I find lots of people carry them but never actually test them out since opening the package means you will never be able to repack them as tightly.

  9. Randonnee December 18th, 2009 2:24 pm

    To follow Ron Rash’s excellent comment, has anyone used this “ski guide tarp?”

    It looks good for lunch for a few or emergency bivy for perhaps two.

  10. Jed Porter December 18th, 2009 4:02 pm

    Just one data point, but I have spent multiple nights on ultralight alpine climbs, planned, in the Montbell “sleeping bag cover” linked to above. It’s waterproof, as breathable as these things seem to get, and at least a little more durable than mylar or the offerings made of Epic fabric. The major drawback is the drawcord opening- one must squirm down in and then somehow deal with at least a small opening near the face. I’ve rigged a poncho, a sheet of plastic, and my rain shell all as mini tarps. Nothing’s that effective, but I’ve already got the shell. So that’s what I’d recommend.

  11. BCP December 18th, 2009 9:24 pm

    I use something we call the “Hot Box”, its a wedge shaped shelter made of that super light sil/nylon fabric. Height is the width of a bolt of fabric, and length is @ 6′. The width is about 24″ at the bottom of the wedge. Vents in the corners at the top. I have slept out in it with 1 other when benighted, luxury? No. Kept us alive? Yes. And it packs down about the size of a pair of thick socks. Makes an awesome lunch shelter for 4, or somewhere to get out of the wind to have a look at the map or futz with gear in a howling storm. I don’t go touring without it!
    Best of all, if you can sew a straight line, you can make one for about $30- $40.

  12. Michael Marratt December 18th, 2009 9:35 pm

    The latest Cabela’s flyer shows the SPOT for FREE with a mail in rebate and 2 year service contract.

  13. Lou December 19th, 2009 7:16 am

    BCP, that sounds perfect!

  14. Matt Kinney December 19th, 2009 12:34 pm

    Good stuff on snow caves lou. Besides the shovel, many of us carry saws that can facilitate digging a (better) shelter. Might help to extend your avalanche probe and stick it in the snow next to your cave so you can be located a bit easier by SAR folk on the ground or in the air.

    While lou mentions that he carries more the deeper he plans to go. My experience tells me that bad things seem to happen more often within pretty close range of the trailhead. Be prepared all the time.

  15. Clyde December 19th, 2009 2:00 pm

    Sounds like BCP is describing a Zdarsky tent. Here’s a commercial one that I’ve linked to before: These were once popular in the alpine climbing world but climbers are softer now. Rando linked to the big brother version of this.

  16. Steve December 19th, 2009 5:37 pm

    A Megamid or Megalight makes a very nice short term shelter or with a bit more work a very nice 3 person overnight shelter. To see a “quick pitch” Megamid shelter (used to protect an injured person from the environment during patient care) check out:

    We use Megamids as our primary shelter for extended Sierra tours and also carry one when touring just a few miles from trailheads. These make a great shelters for lunch breaks on those days when the wind, snow or rain is coming down.

  17. John R December 20th, 2009 7:40 am

    I’ve carried an Ortovox Gemini double bivy sac for 15 years. It’s 4×6 ft and had a hood style opening so you can wear it like a poncho. I’ts lined with radiant material and has 2 ft HELP on one side. They also make a single.

  18. Christian December 20th, 2009 10:11 am

    Doing some snow-kiting, I have found that making a small iglo is the way to go in flat areas. It takes me 30 minutes to make one with just the showel. I usually try to combine it with a snow-pit. The key is to keep it small, as it gets exponentially harder the bigger it gets.
    Compared to a snow-cave I feel that the iglo is safer regarding suffucation.

  19. Bryon Powell December 20th, 2009 9:24 pm

    Bryon Powell from here. Just wanted to thank you for sharing these winter survival tips. I may not be skiing, but in exploring the snowy wilds of Yosemite NP, these could be lifesavers.

    Thanks again!

  20. Mark December 21st, 2009 12:05 am

    Did an open bivy once, and it was not great fun, although I would call it a good experience ultimately that helped me learn what small things can make survival a reality.

  21. JimC December 27th, 2009 9:19 pm

    Just a quick note:

    (Based on some of the questions, I’m not sure all your readers are aware of the differences.)

    The Spot messenger and sat phones are very different than PLBs. As you mention, Lou, the disadvantage of a PLB is that it only serves as a last ditch, emergency call for help. You can’t let folks at home know that you are okay, and you can’t provide details about your situation. For many, these are severe limitations that mean they don’t carry a PLB.

    The advantage of a PLB is that it works when you need it. Period. Signal strength and system redundancies mean that your emergency call gets out and you get found, regardless of canyon walls, tree-cover or cloud-cover. This is simply not (NOT!) the case with the Spot or a sat phone (despite what the advertising may say). Additionally, you can (and should) update your PLB profile with trip specifics (destination, number of participants, known health concerns, etc.) every time you go out so that the rescue crew isn’t walking into a completely unknown situation.

    As an aside, particularly since we’re talking about devices that people rely on for safety, Spot has continued having problems with quality control and all of the new Spot messengers are now being returned to the company for refurbishing. Oops.

  22. Jim December 5th, 2010 1:21 pm

    Thanks for great tips. Generally like as much or more on technique, safety, as on gear. Thanks.

  23. Mike Baer October 19th, 2014 12:04 pm

    I`m looking for a tow behind cargo sled with girdle hook-up to use when I`m fishhing on the ice.I`ve seen a picture of US military type looking like an enclosed pod on runners but,cannot seem to locate.Any help?

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