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How to Survive If You're Stranded in Subzero Temperatures

By: Michelle Rindels
Published: December 12, 2013

LAS VEGAS — More than 200 rescuers feared for the worst when a couple and four children vanished this week in the bitterly cold Nevada wilderness. But two days after their ill-fated trip to play in the snow Sunday, the family was found in good condition. By Wednesday, the mother and a child were released from the hospital.

Authorities said the family survived temperatures of 16 degrees below zero with warm clothes and ingenuity — they started a campfire and warmed rocks to capture heat.

(MORE: Winter Storm Electra)

Experts offer advice on avoiding similar situations, and how to respond when the unexpected happens.

What should I do first if I get stranded?

"Food helps, but it's not the top priority," said Steve Howe, a wilderness guide based in southern Utah. "In most winter survival situations, clothing and shelter are the most important things."

The lost family hunkered inside their overturned Jeep, even though the heater wasn't working. If you don't have a car, huddling near a tree or digging a snow cave can provide a shield from the elements.

AAA suggests tying a brightly colored cloth to an antenna to make the vehicle easier to spot.

Should I go for help?

The group in Nevada stayed in place, knowing crews would be looking. Rescuers said that was key to their safety and is recommended in almost all cases.

"Continuing to move makes it very difficult for people to find you," said Bill Romberg of Alaska Mountain Rescue.

If you feel you must venture out, consider whether you're prepared. Walking even a short distance in temperatures of 15 to 20 degrees below zero can lead to frostbite and amputations.

What should I do with my cell phone?

If you have service, send text messages to reliable friends to share your plight.

Rescuers in Nevada were able to use cell tower data from the lost woman's phone to narrow the search area.

But Howe cautions against relying on cell phones in the wilderness. While triangulation can help guide a search, the data probably won't provide the lost person's precise location because rural cell towers are so few and far between.

"It's not a five-ounce rescue package at all, period," Howe said. "You're better off with a BIC lighter."

What can I do today to avoid the situation?

The Nevada family was wearing snow clothes — something that travelers should keep on hand.

"It's a really good idea to keep extra clothing and insulation in your trunk. Even on an interstate drive through the northern Midwest, it's entirely possible you could be stranded overnight," Howe said.

He recommends bringing a shovel that's rugged enough to dig out a vehicle, a cigarette lighter and blankets. Pack water, granola bars or other high-protein snacks in the car. A small bottle of lantern fuel also could help start a campfire.

Should I even take the trip?

AAA recommends delaying trips if bad weather is in the forecast. If that's not possible, let others know your route, and be cautious about the road less traveled. Even though the family drove a Jeep, it flipped in soft snow and stopped running.

"Consider how remote some of these places are — consider the vehicle you're in and what can happen," said Howe.

(WATCH: What Happens to Boiling Water at -22 Degrees)

If a road looks sketchy, retrace your steps instead of forging onward.

"When things start going sideways, retreat to a position of safety," Howe said.

MORE: Photos from Winter Storm Dion

A woman walks past Independence Hall during a winter snowstorm, Dec. 10, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)


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