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Thank you for taking the time to read through this !

I just noticed there is a chance of Blizzard (Winter Storm Jonas) in our region (NY/NJ) and I would like to take this unique opportunity and go for a short (5 hours) fun winter hike.

While current predictions (as of Thursday night) only hint at a so-called Hot Blizzard (e.g. temperatures around -5 Celsius), the windchill has a way of sucking out the warmth, so I'd like to run the plan by the local experts here and get some critique.

Here's the plan:

  • Bottom Layers: Based on experience with the Chicago blizzard, I will now take second pants (I only had one pants on me and after 2.5 hrs my legs were quite cold)
  • Boots: My new boots were proven in my 16-hour snow hike few months ago, so I take it they should be more than adequate for just 5 hours
  • Top Layers: Two regular T-shirts + long-sleeve thin shirt + long-sleeve thick shirt + wool sleeve-less vest (very warm with inner warm layer) + waterproof windbreaker jacket
  • 2 Gloves + Scarf + Skiing Cap
  • Glasses (eyes tend to water a lot, the older I get)

This is what I want to have on me (in case I loose the backpack to wind):

  • 2 small vodka shots for the instant energy boost (practically zero weight, yet pack an incredible punch, proven to override fatigue and give you the 'kick' - even when you run out of adrenaline)
  • 2 pairs of reserve gloves (it's very easy to loose them in the wind)
  • 1 reserve cap
  • cell phone
  • compass

This is what I want to put into backpack:

  • 6-8 liters of water : I love to walk against the blizzard, which takes a huge amount of energy, especially a lot of water - I'm pretty sure I'll have to consume over 1 liter per hour
  • reserve gloves/cap
  • survival kit

I've hauled an enormous amount of food with me up the snowy mountain 10 weeks ago, but did not consume anything during the 16 hour hike. Not even the Snickers bar, let alone bananas or the sandwiches I had. So, I'm thinking I probably should not carry any food for 5 hours (as the hunger would be the least of my worries, should I get stranded), correct ?

While I'm not a complete beginner, there is always room to improve - here are my prior experiences with blizzards:

  • few years ago I did a 2.5 hour hike in what was deemed 3rd worst blizzard in Chicago history, but it wasn't really that bad. I'd like to double that to 5 hours now.
  • my whole childhood, we never had a 'snow day' just because of blizzard, so we got used to walking to school in blizzard conditions since early age
  • I believe the coldest blizzard for me was -27 Celsius (only god knows the windchill), and I had to wait 1.5 hr for the bus (at that time I did not know I was actually slowly freezing on that bus stop :-) ) and then walk to school another hour against the wind (actually, it was painful, legs refusing to move).

Would you recommend adjusting the layers or taking additional items with me ?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Rory Alsop Jan 23 '16 at 13:10
  • You might think of a lightweight helmet. Small objects can get quite fast in the wind, and do a lot of ... impression. Besides, it´s a god way to make sure you don´t loose your caps. – Zsolt Szilagy Apr 6 '16 at 9:37
  • Wow, Helmet. Perhaps a full-body armour while I'm at it :) ? Seriously, I do not feel fear, least of all for my own life. I am ready to meet my maker, should he decide the time has come. I'm in peace with that for sure. This actually allows much more enjoyable travelling experiences. – BladeRunner Apr 7 '16 at 15:08
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Caveat: Heading out into a blizzard seems an easy way to get killed. Personally I'd only do it in dire situations.

Regarding your layers: Cotton stores about 27x it's weight in water. This makes it comfortable indoors or in hot weather, but it also means it will act like a swamp cooler once you're no longer throwing off enough heat to keep it warm. Materials like polyester absorb very little water, and technical garments are designed to efficiently wick away moisture.

-4°C isn't that cold, but the windchill and how fast you move also matters. If it's cold enough I'll use 100-weight fleece baselayers (similar to Patagonia's R1 or MEC's T3 grid fleece). Thin wool sweaters would probably also substitute well, or polyester long underwear.

Check army surplus sites for Gen III ECWCS or PCU layers (level 1 silkweight or level 2 gridfleece) at good prices and large sizes. The current systems were designed with input from alpinists like Mark Twight and are reasonably well thought out.

When moving hard I prefer a softshell over hardshells for breathability. Only if moving slow in the cold or facing heavy precipitation then the rainshell comes on. Your windbreaker probably would work for this.

I generally don't need any more insulation when on the move, but if you do a high-pile fleece insulating layer is good in wet conditions and also very breathable. The warmth greatly increases when worn under a rain or wind shell. Alternatives include layers like Patagonia's Nanopuff, or a thicker sweater.

Finally in my pack would be a down parka in case I was stranded. The WinterTrekking site has some good information on clothing strategies including old-school materials.

Food: Unless meals are intended, I'd likely bring a pair of energy bars and some energy gel packets.

Alcohol: I was amused to find sources claiming alcohol is a vasodilator (and thus would lower your core temperature) and others claiming it's a vasoconstrictor (and thus make you more vulnerable to frostbite). An article in Scientific American provides some resolution, saying "At intoxicating levels, alcohol is a vasodilator (it causes blood vessels to relax and widen), but at even higher levels, it becomes a vasoconstrictor, shrinking the vessels and increasing blood pressure, exacerbating such conditions as migraine headaches and frostbite." Of course, if I say on a public site like this that a few sips are unlikely to cause much problem, I'll probably get called out when some reader wanders into the snow, downs a six-pack, and turns himself into a corpsicle. That said, I don't consider alcohol to be emergency gear: if something has gone wrong I'm likely already operating at lower mental capacity, and adding vodka probably isn't going to help matters.

Water: This will vary per person; for myself I'd take two liters at most. With the amount of water you're drinking, I'd be worried about electrolyte imbalances, so carrying some packets of electrolyte replacement powder might be wise. Your body can only process about a liter per hour in the best case, and that capacity drops when exercising as blood is redirected to working muscles.

Other gear: Fire: I suggest a small cookset of canister stove, fuel, and a pot. A jetboil system would be a larger example of this; a smaller kit might include something like an Optimus Crux or Snow Peak GigaPower paired with a 600mL "pot". I wouldn't give good odds to getting a fire started inside a blizzard, but using a stove to light branches is much easier than starting with tinder. Keep a pair of Bic lights in a warm and dry place in your body.

Vision: Ski goggles with a clear or high-contrast yellow lens will keep your face a bit more comfortable. Also, a quality headlamp is good to have.

Shelter: An emergency bivvy that I can crawl into. For example, a Blizzard Bag or SOL Emergency Bivvy.

Navigation: It sounds like you're familiar with being inside a ping pong ball. I also like having a GPS as if you lose your position the compass becomes less useful.


Edit: Most of this should fit into a small pack, say about 25L. Below is a pic of some of the items. Some hiking items

The stove and fuel can should both fit in the pot (be careful of getting the can stuck). The larger sack is an extremely bulky down puffy that's more appropriate for arctic temperatures. The blue and black rolls are rain gear, the orange pouch is a 2-person emergency bivy, and the green fleece is, well, a fleece. Add a quart-sized ziplock containing a first aid kit, and a Nalgene bottle, and it should all fit. I'm leaving some items out (compass), but I think that accounts for all the large items.

  • Well, I realized only now that my experiences and requirements with cold weather (starting with water, through gloves and ending with 2 survival vodka shots) are -most obviously- vastly different and extreme to all other winter outdoor maniacs here.That being said, I clearly need to invest more into gear so that I am prepared for sudden scenarios like this one. I still do not have GPS, emergency bivvy and stove. I spent a great deal of energy and time shopping for non-cotton layers I would fit into, but so far no luck. I did not , however, consider army surplus stores. That's a great idea! – BladeRunner Jan 23 '16 at 4:36
  • OK, one more question: What kind of backpack are you people using, where you can fit stove, bivvy, 2-3 layers of clothing, and then all other survival gear, plus water, plus food. I wouldn't fit 2 layers of clothing alone into my backpack (well, maybe some thinner ones, but then nothing else). During my last hike, my backpack was only about 30-40 pounds and it was slightly uncomfortable already after just 12 hours. But I suppose 50-60 pounds should be ok for 4-5 hours. Though, especially at blizzard, I would not want to compromise my stability. This is quite hard - to strike a balance here... – BladeRunner Jan 23 '16 at 4:49
  • @BladeRunner For what I had in mind above, I'd likely use a 25L pack (~1500cu in). Total weight would be, well, certainly under 30, largely from the water. The only clothing layers in pack would be rain pants/jacket tightly rolled, puffy jacket (easily compresses), and possibly a fleece. Maybe spare dry socks. I'll see if I can get a pic of some items. – requiem Jan 23 '16 at 5:14
  • I don't know what this snowstorm is like in BladeRunner's territory, but in the DC area it has been a pussycat...so far. Lots of light, dry snow (22" on our patio table as of 16:00 EDT 01/23), but no wind and mid- 20s (F). Visibility excellent. – ab2 Jan 23 '16 at 21:46
  • @ab2 I'm back :-) First two hrs the winds weren't very strong and visibility was around 40-50 meters. Then it rapidly changed,winds finally picked up and finally started chewing my face. Visibility dropped to less than half, but still easily about 10-15 meters.So, it wasn't as strong as the Chicago blizzard. So, I can't count it as a success,as first two hrs were soft. Wading through knee-deep snow was fun. Being bored, I upgraded it with a vodka shot, which turns on 4 more cylinders for next half an hour, and it's quite fun, actually. I strongly recommend it (within your limits,obviously) ;-) – BladeRunner Jan 24 '16 at 3:01
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Drinking alcohol in a blizzard with potential for whiteout conditions is reckless, irresponsible, and possibly dangerous. Alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate, which leads to an increased rate of heat loss. A much better source of quick energy would be a food with simple carbohydrates.

  • That's correct - the blood vessels dilate and heat loss is slightly increased. But that's not going to be a problem if my layers are sufficient with additional backup in the backpack. I'm quite surprised however, how everybody seems to think that drinking one or two shots is reckless! You can't get drunk from 1 or 2 shots! Yet, they provide incredible boost when one is exhausted. I've used them in past, and they helped me tremendously, when I thought I'm not going to make it. It's like a turbo switch and then the leg muscles get to work again, even though you thought you can't anymore. – BladeRunner Jan 22 '16 at 20:24
  • Actually, I always carry a small thermos with roughly half liter of hot tea (I always drink through it during first hour) and I can guarantee you that it is not the same effect, by far :-) Just so we're on the same page here - the vodka shots are meant to be survival shots - meaning I will only take them if I run into issues and need to kick the body into second gear. As an recent example, I didn't drink them during my recent 16-hour trek even though I ran out of water during descent there (because of that steep gulley ascent that was clearly over my current skills). – BladeRunner Jan 22 '16 at 20:38
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    I would like to point out that working while consuming alcohol greatly reduces impairment. I know that sounds strange, but a shot of vodka consumed during a hike such as this is likely to be fully metabolized within 1 hour and one shot is no where near enough to cause any measurable loss of perception, judgement, or motor function. 2 shots meant to be consumed over a 5 hour hike is by no means reckless. Bringing a bottle would be, but bringing 2 to 4 oz most certainly is not reckless. – Escoce Jan 23 '16 at 18:40
  • @Escose Actually, my yesterday's first vodka shot got metabolized within 20-30 minutes. I took it right before going through an area of deeper snow (snow there was above my knees - so it was quite a workout for me) and I can tell you for sure that after 20-30 minutes there was no alcohol in my system. But, turning on additional 4 cylinders made the wading through super easy :-) Truthfully, as an additional disclaimer, my motor functions aren't impaired even after 10 shots (e.g. 0.5 liter), though the judgement is slightly adjusted after 10 shots. I wouldn't drink whole bottle outside, though. – BladeRunner Jan 24 '16 at 17:16
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tl;dr: concrete advice under the horizontal line

Agreeing with the other answers, alcohol is best left for later because it can disorientate you. And among strength, endurance, body type, environment awareness, wisdom - the last is by far the most important when surviving.

A month ago I was the closest in my life to calling Mountain Rescue (thanks god, that there was mobile coverage). A heavy fog, combined with gale and snowfall. Using a compass, a map and very tiring and slow process of digging snow pits, so that I don't get lost, I made it.

From one steel pole to the other it was, on average, less than 5 minutes (20 meters). But then there was 1 (only only only 1) pole broken off. Even though it's concrete base was not covered by the snow, it took me short of 3 hours to discover it.


  • If you wear prescription glasses, don't. Get lenses or some kind of ski mask over the glasses. It's no fun hiking with 4mm of snow/ice in front of your eyes.

  • The water you listed seems excessive to me, but this is personal. Be mindful (as I am sure you are) that (1) water will freeze if exposed to low temperatures and (2) keeping water isolated from the elements, deep in your backpack, keeps it away from you as well. Drinking a sip of water involves: taking off your backpack, taking off your gloves, securing the gloves so they don't fly away, acheaving stable position, so the wind does not tip your off, operating the backpack straps and whatnot with freezing fingers, all this in reverse. Keep most water on your body, and not in the backpack.

  • You can't use a map. It's the wind. Either get a plastic "waterproof" cover for your map or use some other method. In the above story, I was struck in the face multiple times by the plastic map cover because of the wind.

  • You must get a compass. It is probably better to have a GPS device. If nice weather can turn life-threatening, imagine what can life-threatening weather (basically where you are going) can turn into.

  • It might be beneficial to get a Mountain Rescue Insurance and observe your mobile coverage.

  • Easy food. Similar to the problem with access to water. Have 200g nuts and a wafer in your pockets.

  • Be afraid. Snowfall OR wind can obscure your footsteps in half an hour. Use your best wisdom.

Lastly, I envy you for the opportunity!

  • To add, you won't get a chance to put on your second pants. If you are cold with one pair, how are you gonna teke it off for replacement. – Vorac Jan 23 '16 at 14:48
  • Regarding freezing, yesterday was warm - only around 22 F. That is too hot for a water to freeze in just 5 hrs in a backpack. Since the wind wasn't super strong, and exercise wasn't as big as expected, I only consumed 2.25 liters, so I came back with 2.5l and they were still far from even starting to freeze. As for drinking, I got lucky and my last bought gloves allow me to open/close bottle without taking them off, which also solves the problem of getting them blown off. Yes, map is practically unusable outside of snow pit, but still good to have in a backpack, once you are lost. – BladeRunner Jan 24 '16 at 17:32
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There are many good answers here, there are also several warnings about the advisability of your journey. One of the more important things to take (that seems to have been overlooked) is your ID, drivers license, dog tags (if you were in the military). As a consideration for others it is important to make it easier for them to identify your body if/when it is found.

In the summer I canoe alone on local rivers there is always the possibility something will happen. I wear a life jacket, and keep my ID in my wallet, in a waterproof bag in my pants pocket. Death during misadventure in the outdoors means it may be days (or longer) before your body is found, it is likely to at least partially decomposed and eaten. Enough time may have passed that no one is actively looking for your remains any longer when they do find your body. The easier it is to identify your remains the likelier and sooner your family and friends will get closure.

Every morning you wake it is potentially the last time. Some activities modify the potential that you will be alive tomorrow. Doing these things is part of life, these things make the memories you take with you into your old age or your next existence (depending on how things workout and your belief system).

Personally I find that when things get really interesting, knowing that I have made reasonable attempts to address my responsibilities should I not survive, gives me one less thing to worry about and lets me concentrate on the current issues and activities.

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