Spending A Night Out When SHTF | Mountain Sledder
Mountain Safety
December 12th, 2023

Spending A Night Out When SHTF

Four maintenance workers at a cell phone relay site were stuck in a raging blizzard on top of a remote mountain. Their dilapidated hut had lost its roof, forcing them to bail into small mountaineering tents. They wouldn’t be comfortable, but they had a good chance at survival because of their prior planning.

The local SAR team leader called me that same evening and was looking for experienced mountaineers to rescue the workers from the teeth of the storm. I told him no. Conditions were too dangerous, with the odds of success low and the risk of getting someone hurt unacceptable. I’d narrowly dodged my own disaster the day before, coming dangerously close to skiing off a cliff in poor visibility, trying to find a narrow mountain pass on a ridge on my way out. He didn’t like my response but ultimately conceded, and we spent the next 24 hours preparing our gear and waiting for the storm to weaken.

The Author John Barklow

Help is not guaranteed when you head into the backcountry. I learned this from living in remote Alaska for a few decades, hunting, skiing, climbing and instructing U.S. Special Operations troops. Poor weather grounds aircraft, avalanche conditions shut mountain passes and navigation becomes difficult. Rescue assets have limitations and are not superhuman. The best course of action is to always be self-sufficient.
Poor weather, sickness, injury and mechanical failures can all prevent you from returning to the trailhead as planned. There’s always a chance you’ll have to spend an unplanned night out. And the more time spent exploring the backcountry, the better the odds you’ll have to confront this reality. It becomes not a question of if, but when, something will happen, and your actions now can help decide the outcome. This approach is often the difference between having a great story to tell your buddies or possibly becoming a statistic.

A twisted ankle, broken sled, or cut on the hand is not what makes people fear for their lives and call for help in remote locations. What most often makes people concerned is exposure to the elements. They don’t carry the gear required to stay warm and dry overnight, and then get cold, start to shiver, and become hypothermic.

Clothing is your first line of defence against the elements and is the best way to combat the weather. It has allowed humans to survive outdoors, from the first caveman putting on a loin cloth, to mountaineers climbing Everest, and astronauts walking in space. Modern clothing systems provide amazing performance, managing sweat, blocking wind, and keeping you warm with limited bulk. The two key components that ensure you have your bases fully covered within a technical clothing system are your active and static layers. You should be thinking about both any time you head into the backcountry.

The Right Layering System Is Worth Every Penny


Wear the active layers while riding and moving around, generating body heat. These layers provide enough insulation and protection to stay warm and focused while not overheating, wetting out your clothing, or making you dehydrated. These pieces include your base layer, a mid-layer fleece or light synthetic insulation top, and a protective outerwear riding suit.

The biggest mistake I see people make with the active system is not wearing a proper base layer. This layer is the foundation of the clothing system, pulling moisture off the skin and into the next layer. If you find yourself chilled or damp long after exertion, you likely weren’t wearing the proper base layer.

The static system is additional insulation carried in a pack or in secondary storage on your machine. Body heat is a scarce commodity in the backcountry, so you want to be stingy with it. This layer traps body heat within the loft, keeping you warm as you cool down. These “puffy” layers, as most would think of them, are worn directly over the active system when stopped for a lunch break, reviewing the map, watching friends ride, or spending a night out under the stars. The static insulation layer is often overlooked, even when I’m teaching professional search and rescue teams.

If you’re stuck out overnight, shelter is the number one survival priority, so you should carry more than clothing to protect yourself from inclement weather; but frankly, this applies even if only stopped for a few hours riding out a storm or period of poor visibility

A tarp, a small tent, or the knowledge of how to create a snow shelter or other natural shelters like an A-frame or lean-to is imperative to your survival outdoors, especially if spending an unplanned night in the mountains. An avalanche shovel, folding tree saw, and 550 cord are great tools for constructing suitable winter shelters

Humans can only survive for approximately three days without adequate hydration, which can be exacerbated in cold, arid conditions, riding at higher altitudes, or if you start the day dehydrated. Access to water is generally not a concern in a snow-covered environment, assuming you’ve packed a small backpacking stove. With a stove, you can access an unlimited supply of water. These stoves take up little room, weigh very little in the grand scheme of things, and increase your ability to survive a night outdoors.


Plenty Of Room For Survival Essentials

Food is secondary to water, as humans can generally survive around three weeks without it. But your body is a metabolic engine that runs on calories like your machine does on gas. Food keeps you warm and feeds your brain for performance to make good decisions. Carrying a few emergency dehydrated meals, food bars, and energy chews ensures you’ll weather the situation, stay focused, and make good decisions that will get you back home.

Fire is a commodity that should not be counted on to save your life outdoors. Lack of wood above tree line, high winds, and damp conditions conspire against the ability to make an adequate fire. Once struck, most fires often provide more psychological warmth than life-saving warmth. It’s important to have the ability to make a fire by carrying a small hand saw, fixed blade knife, pre-fab tinder, and several lighters. You can even siphon gas from your sled. But fire should be considered your third priority behind clothing and shelter to survive an unplanned night out.

The winter backcountry is unforgiving of poor planning and accepts no excuses. When you enter this arena, you must be prepared for unplanned contingencies. You can’t control everything in the mountains but you can control your gear loadout and preparation. Unforced errors sting the most but also teach indelible lessons if you survive. Search and rescue teams are a tremendous resource, along with trusted friends, but they can’t always get to you in time. Being prepared to self-rescue and the self-sufficiency to survive are always best.  – JB


MS Editor’s Note:

John’s article assumes that everyone heading into the backcountry is carrying some form of satellite communication device. If you’re a backcountry rider, there are simply no excuses for not including a satellite messenger in your riding pack. They’ve become increasingly affordable and easy to use, and in our opinion, ZOLEO makes the most affordable, reliable and user friendly device on the market. Pick one up before Dec. 13th, 2023 and save up to $95.

For over two decades John has taught the skills and mindset required to survive in austere mountain environments. He has trained SAR teams and Special Operations units how to thrive in dynamic mountain conditions, developed clothing and equipment systems for the military and hunting industries, and has personally hunted, skied and climbed in some of the most remote places around the world.