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Winter Survival Scenarios: Sixth Grade Winter Unit
Updated September 5, 2012
Unit goals

As residents of Minnesota we can expect to encounter a wide variety of weather conditions throughout our lives and possibly a weather related emergency as well. At no other time are knowledge and critical thinking skills more important than during a winter emergency where exposure to harsh conditions intensifies existing stressful circumstances. The goal of this unit is to help prepare the students to recognize the critical factors involved in surviving a winter related outdoor emergency.


Before your visit, please review with your students:

  • Winter emergency priorities
  • Rule of 3's
  • Ways the body loses heat
  • Wind chill
  • Hypothermia and frostbite
  • Impairments to critical decision making
  • Sample story and discussion questions
  • Survival plans and kits
  • Red Cross video "Surviving the Cold" in your library
  • Appropriate winter dress

At River Bend:

  • During the introduction we will review the above material as needed
  • Students will spent about 45 minutes role-playing a winter survival scenario.
  • We will gather the students and discuss what happened to them and any observations they made.

In the closing we will:

  • inquire about students' discoveries
  • explain further opportunities for learning about winter safety
  • remind the students of their next visit
  • talk of upcoming events at River Bend
  • invite the students to return on their own with family and friends

Back in the classroom:

  • Review any pre-trip suggestions not yet completed
  • Further explore how wintry conditions presented unique challenges but also opportunities for exploration and discovery.

Dress for Winter

Dressing right for winter is important! Boots must be worn. Also, gloves or mittens, hat, and a warm jacket should be worn. Snow pants, long underwear, and a scarf are also recommended. If you are not dressed for the weather on the day of the field trip you may be left at school!

Winter Survival Scenarios

What are your priorities during a winter emergency?

  1. Stay warm - As warm blooded creatures our bodies need to maintain a constant temperature of 98.6°F. If this can't be done, nothing else matters! This includes keeping dry, building a fire, and/or finding shelter.
  2. First Aid - Proper administration of first aid to injured persons is important.
  3. Water - We cannot go more than a few days without water. Maintaining a water supply is a top priority.
  4. Rescue/help - When lost or injured, making the best decisions regarding a rescue often makes the difference between being found dead or alive. For example, if someone is already searching for you it's easier for them to find you than for you to find them.
  5. Food - We can last over a week without food however high calorie foods, like nuts and candy, can aid us in staying warm.

Rule of 3's: You can only survive:

  • 3 minutes without oxygen
  • 3 minutes in freezing water before hypothermia sets in
  • 3 hours without shelter in extreme hot or cold conditions
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food

How does our body lose heat?

  • Radiation - Heat given off just because we are warmer than the air around us
  • Respiration - Heat lost in the air we breathe as our lungs warm the cool air
  • Conduction - Heat lost while we are in contact with cold surfaces
  • Evaporation - Heat lost by evaporating sweat on our skin
  • Convection - Heat passed on to the surrounding air to create a "micro-environment" around us

What is wind chill?

Wind chill is the apparent temperature felt on exposed skin due to the combination of air temperature and wind speed. As the temperature drops, heat is carried away from our body faster from the skin, driving down body temperature. This is frequently a main factor in frostbite on exposed skin and hypothermia.

What happens when our body loses too much heat?

Hypothermia - The lowering of our body core temperature has the following effects:

  • 98.6° F - normal temperature
  • Below 96° - muscle coordination deteriorates, shivering increases, brain dim
  • Below 93° - violent shivering, loss of ability to move muscles and to reason
  • Below 87° - lose consciousness
  • Below 78° - death

    Warning Signs: uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion. Medical care should be sought if person's temperature is below 95° F.

Frostbite - Frostbite is the medical condition whereby damage is caused to the skin and other tissues due to extreme cold. Actual ice crystals form under the skin killing cells. Frostbite usually affects exposed areas and extremities first. It appears as grayish or yellow-white spots on the skin.

What can impair our ability to make the right decisions in an emergency?

  • Hypothermia will cause disorientation, incoherence, and memory loss.
  • Alcohol will impair your ability to think clearly and reasonably, besides making you colder.
  • Snow Blindness due to extreme snow glare exposure can cause temporary or permanent blindness.
  • Fear can cause rash decision-making based on emotion rather than logic
  • Pride can cause a person to attempt a maneuver that is unreasonable
  • Thirst and Hunger can limit our ability to think clearly
  • Injury, especially to the head, can impair thinking
  • Impatience can often lead one to make unwise choices

Check out this story, think about the questions

It was during a winter break in Southern California.three college students (Trevor, Angie, and Luke) decided to take a break from college life and go for a weekend of downhill skiing at one of the popular ski resorts. The weather forecast had been for favorable weather in the city with the possibility of snow in the higher elevations for the weekend. The three decided to leave on Saturday morning to go skiing and then return at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday for dinner with some friends from school.

The first day was filled with skiing and good times, but no snowfall. They were skiing and snow boarding all day long. They enjoyed lunch together at the resort and then had a good dinner after coming in for the evening. For the three, it was a much-needed break from studying and working. They knew that the next day would bring more good skiing, but a return to the college life, so all went to bed with the idea of a full day of skiing coming soon.

On Sunday morning they got up early to get in more skiing before leaving the resort. They packed their bags and left as soon as the lifts opened up without checking the weather report. It was a warm day though with temperatures in the low 30's, just as Saturday had been. Trevor, Angie and Luke decided not to bring all of their winter clothing but simply to ski light, with just enough gear for comfort.

By noon that day they were fairly bored with the same runs they had been doing for 2 days now and the idea arose to try skiing out-of-bounds. They figured that they could enjoy the untouched snow and have fun before they left. The thought was that they could ski for another two hours and then head for home and have dinner with their friends. As they continued skiing, none of them looked at their watches as they enjoyed the good snow. None of them realized what the time was or how far they had traveled from the resort, which by this point was a good 3 miles away and on the other side of the mountain.
At 3:00, the three took a break to look at their watches and realized that they were late, and were farther away from the resort than they thought. They decided on just one more downhill run and this is when Luke went down in a fall. The fall ended up tearing the ligaments in his knee and fracturing his ankle. Angie and Trevor stopped and realized that Luke was not going to be able to travel the rest of the way back to the resort.

  1. What was their first mistake on the second day they were skiing?
  2. What should they do now that their companion can't travel?

By this point, Luke, Trevor, and Angie knew that they would not make it back in time for dinner with their friends. With Luke hurt, they did not know what to do. The decision was made that Luke would stay where he was since traveling was not advised in his condition and thus not an option. Angie and Trevor decided that they would simply hike back to the resort since they thought they were only a mile or two away at that point. They knew that they would be in trouble for going out of bounds, but wanted to get out safe and sound.
What the three of them did not know was that on the other side of the mountain, a storm had come up and was beginning to dump heavy snow, and with that snow came much colder temperatures. Also, they did not realize just how far away they were from help. They thought that they were only 2 miles away at the most, but they had actually gone roughly 4 miles from the resort.

Angie and Trevor left Luke and started out for the resort. Luke was able to use his skis to help dig and build a snow shelter though to stay warm. By this point it was close to 4:00 p.m. and the ski resort had shut down its runs and the snow was starting to fall on the other side of the mountain. The temperatures in the last hour that they had been helping Luke had fallen off at least 15 degrees. Dressed only in snow pants and a long sleeved tee shirt, Luke huddled inside of his shelter for warmth.

By 7:00 p.m. their friends in the city had not heard from them and they were late for dinner. Worried about their friends, they called the resort and found that Luke, Angie and Trevor had not checked out yet and that they had not been seen when people had come back from the slopes. At this point, no Search and Rescue (S&R) or Ski Patrol teams could be deployed to look and no one knew where to look in order to help them. The search would have to take place the next morning if they had not come back to the resort by then.

The next morning, Ski Patrol and County Search and Rescue were deployed. It turned out that one person had seen three people skiing out of bounds, so the search focused on the other side of the mountain. By 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, the S&R teams found the injured skier's snow hut because of the brightly colored skis that he had stacked outside of it. The skier was taken to the hospital immediately where it was learned that he had suffered sever hypothermia, frostbite, a broken ankle, torn ligaments in his knee, and of course, he was in shock. He would recover with time and ski the next season.

Two days later the bodies of Angie and Trevor were recovered. They had apparently hiked well into the night, getting separated in the dark and the snowfall. Their bodies were found a mile apart from each other and 2 miles from the resort. It was determined that they had both gone through severe hypothermia which combined with exposure and shock, resulted in their death.

  1. What could the three have done to minimize their risk?
  2. What were the biggest mistakes these people made?
  3. Aside from exposure, why did Angie and Trevor die?
  4. What made the difference for Luke?

Some points to consider

The STOP Plan

  • S - Stop/Stay put. If you realize that you are lost, stay where you are. The chances of being found are 70% better. In most cases you will be found within a few hours if not one day.
  • T - Think. Don't panic. If you panic, you will make poor decisions. Most people will make their situation worse if they panic. When people panic, they are more apt to wander off and try to find help for themselves.
  • O - Observe. Observe your surroundings and try to find some things that will help you out. Are there trees or brush that will help you make shelter or a fire? Where will you want to find shelter?
  • P - Plan. When you're thinking clearly, you can make a plan to survive. What will you do if you are not found within a day, within 3 days? How will you begin to acquire what you need to survive (the rule of 3's)?
Winter Survival Kits

Which of these items would be most useful to have if you found yourself in a winter survival situation and why? How would you use those items? Which items would be easy to take with you anytime you go out in to the woods, either in a backpack, or maybe even in a jacket pocket? Remember if the kit is too large, you will not want to take it with you.

Sleeping bag
Water bottle
Cell phone
1/4 Inch Dowel, 3' long
Plastic pop bottle
Heavy Duty Leaf bags
3# Coffee Can
Large chocolate bar
Spare batteries
Bright flagging tape
Glow stick
Sleeping pad
First Aid kit
Extra Socks
Compass/Maps of area
Fire Starters
2 Space blankets
100 yards of cord
Global Positioning System Unit
Dental floss
Small game or cards

Surviving a fall through the ice

Click this link for information about cold water effects and survival.

What will we do at River Bend?

The field experience at River Bend will consist of placing students in winter survival scenarios and encouraging them to make reasonable decisions. Topics will likely include the following, but may vary:

  • Breaking through ice either on foot or in a vehicle
  • Lost in the wilderness -- priorities and reading natural clues, signs, and signals
  • Isolated with an automobile
  • Winter emergency preparedness
  • Minimizing exposure to the elements
  • Minor first aid treatments

Things to do after your visit to River Bend

  • View and discuss the American Red Cross video Surviving the Cold
  • Have the students review catalogs of outdoor wear and equipment and judge the items as to their relative importance. Perhaps give them a spending limit for a weekend camp out (or home or car emergency kit) and have them select the necessities.
  • Have the students search for real-life stories of survival in the news media and discuss what went right and what went wrong.
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