What looked like a tragedy turned into a tale of resilience and survival this week, as rescue teams found a family of six alive in Nevada’s Seven Troughs mountain wilderness, about 20 miles southeast of the site of the annual Burning Man festival. But this wasn’t the summer of burn; the family had been stuck for three days in sub-zero temperatures after their Jeep Wrangler had overturned. Thirty-four-year-old James Glanton and his girlfriend, 25-year-old Christina McIntee, kept their two young children and a niece and nephew of McIntee’s safe with remarkable ingenuity. A hospital official said they only suffered “a little exposure and dehydration.”
Winter has started harshly across much of North America, so we’ll be seeing more stories like this as the months progress, hopefully with similarly happy endings. There’s a lot to learn from what Glanton and McIntee pulled off, and also things to learn from what they didn’t do right. If you’re a stranded motorist in winter, here are eight steps for surviving trouble:
Stay with your vehicle. No matter how cold it gets inside, it’s still warmer than outside. The Jeep Wrangler was flipped over completely, but Glanton and McIntee never wandered away, looking for help. While it will get cold, a car will protect against wind and exposure.
Start a fire. That was the real key to the group’s safety. Glanton and McIntee removed the spare tire and ingeniously used it as a fire ring. They gathered sticks and brush and kept the heat going.
Use what’s around you. Then--and here’s the truly amazing and resourceful part--they warmed rocks in the fire, giving them to the kids to keep them warm.
Spark It Up. In other words, if you’re going into the wilderness, even for a short time, be sure you have flame sources: matches, or preferably a lighter. (Newer vehicles rarely have cigarette lighters any more.) Bring more than one, just to be safe, and keep them in different parts of the vehicle to make sure at least one stays dry and secure.
Bring Extra Food. Here’s where Glanton and McIntee faltered. They didn’t have snacks for the kids. Just because you’re in a car doesn’t mean you’re not on an expedition. When you’re traveling to remote areas, always have supplies for several days. It’s OK to bring a few perishable fruits, particularly if it’s cold out, but it’s better to pack more durable goods, like dried fruits and nuts and jerky, quick sources of protein that won’t spoil. Also, you can’t have enough drinking water with you, preferably several spare gallons.
Don’t Skimp On Supplies. When you’re traveling with kids, you spend a lot of time thinking about what electronics to bring, multiple ways to keep them distracted in the car and beyond. But when extreme weather comes into play, distractions don’t even begin to matter. Tablets and phones and DVD players pale in comparison to staying safe.
If you’re driving into a remote area, even if it’s just for the day, you need to bring extra blankets or winter fleece and probably a sleeping bag or two. Don’t depend on having to heat up rocks inside a spare tire. Other supplies to consider: A Swiss Army-style knife, a small pot for boiling water, an empty hot-water bottle, and, if possible, a flare gun.
Communicate. The family's cell phone was helpful, but authorities couldn't use it to locate them precisely. Sending text messages for help has the best chance of getting through while minimizing battery loss — but a better tip would be to tell someone when you're leaving and when you expect to arrive, ensuring there's an alarm if you fall out of reach.
Watch The Skies. Given the high level of accuracy of contemporary weather reports and the ubiquitous availability of information, there’s really no such thing as getting caught in a “freak snowstorm” or getting surprised by a cold snap. Accidents happen, but if it’s going to be 10 below zero, don’t take kids into the mountains. If at all possible, wait until the weather improves, and stay off the road. It’s always warm and dry at home.