The survival of the couple and four children who spent two frigid nights lost in the Nevada mountains was called "a miracle" by rescuers. But experts say it actually was a series of smart moves, including heating rocks to warm their rolled-over Jeep, that saved the group after they were stuck in the snow.
“That was a good idea,” said Dr. Zach Sturges, a Bozeman, Mont., emergency physician and faculty member at the Salt Lake City’s Intermountain Institute for Disaster Preparedness. "Rocks make a great thermal mass if you can build an outside fire to heat them and as long as they’re cleaned so they don’t give off any gases.”
The Nevada family — James Glanton, 34, his girlfriend, Christina McIntee, 25, and their two children and McIntee’s niece and nephew — also chose to stay with their overturned vehicle, a decision that made it easier for rescuers to spot them Tuesday, said Eric Larsen, a Boulder, Colo., adventurer who in 2010 led expeditions to the North Pole, the South Pole and Mount Everest. Trying to hike out of a bad situation can be more dangerous because of the risk of getting lost, frostbite or falling and injuring a leg. Even a car sitting on its roof can still provide shelter from wind, said Larsen.
After the Nevada group was rescued, a hospital official said the couple and children did not suffer frostbite but had "some exposure issues and dehydration." They are in a Lovelock hospital for observation, although doctors said they are doing well, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper.
“It’s a miracle. It really is,” Pershing County Sheriff Richard Machado said of the rescue.
An average of 1,300 people died each each year between 1999 and 2011 from exposure to natural cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not all were lost in the snow and cold — sailors and swimmers suffer hypothermia, too — but every winter sees cases of people who drive or hike their way unprepared for unexpected danger. Even a casual hike can turn disastrous if there is a sharp drop in temperature. A little basic preparation can save lives, said Larsen and Sturges. They offer tips for frigid weather travelers:
- If you are stranded in the cold, balance exertion and perspiration. Sweat — moisture of any kind — is the enemy of cold weather survival. If you’re trapped outside in very cold weather, try to minimize physical exertion,” said Sturges. “Some body movement is fine. You can walk around.”
- Be careful about proper hydration. The Nevada family had not taken water or food with them. In freezing temperatures the body wants to eliminate water, which is why you can find yourself having to urinate more often when you’re out in the cold. It’s important to compensate with proper hydration to keep the blood circulating and help prevent frostbite. Larsen advises melting snow for hydration with a flame such as matches or a lighter. Melting snow in your mouth or by holding it next to your body can cause your body to lose warmth.
- Bring high-calorie food. Chocolate and protein bars can keep energy up, said Larsen.
- Bring matches or a lighter.
- Dress in layers. If your car gets stuck and you aren’t sure when you might be rescued, put all your layers on right away. “Don’t wait to cool, and then add them,” Sturges said. “It’s better to maintain your body temperature rather than allowing it to drop and then having to raise it.” If a layer gets wet, take it off.
Relying on cell phone coverage has made people lazy about the outdoors by leading people to believe that if they get in trouble, they can just make a phone call. As the people in Nevada discovered, however, universal cell coverage is a myth, especially in back country areas, in valleys and on mountains. A simple device called a personal location beacon uses a satellite network to issue an SOS, said Larsen.
The simplest advice is the best, Sturges added: Tell somebody where you are going, how long you expect to be there, when you should be back.
Sturges, who was interviewed while taking a cold weather driving trip, said he was carrying his own emergency kit in the car. It includes a tow rope, emergency blankets, and pressure-activated heat packets.
Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”