6 Tips for Handling Whiteout Conditions

You’re enjoying another good long day in the mountains when you realize that those friendly clouds on the horizon are getting a little too close for comfort. Before you know it, you’re enveloped in thick fog; a whiteout. Do you know what to do?

Every situation is different, but following these six tips for handling sudden whiteout conditions can help you get through the worst of it.

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1.  Stay Calm

It’s easy to panic when the sky and snow merge. Especially if you have lots of ground to cover, it can feel eerie and disorienting. You may be worried, but as with most things in the mountains it’s essential to pause, take a deep breath, and take stock of your situation.

2.  Never take Visibility for Granted

Once you’ve calmed down, you’ll remember that (thank goodness) you’ve been keeping track of landmarks all day. You know you were moving towards that fin of rock or that saddle when the storm hit, and you know what you passed along the way. Keep a running tally of landmarks and hazards, such as crevasses or terrain traps; this is your first line of defense should you lose visibility.

3.  Know your Navigation Tools

Along with landmarks, it’s a good idea to quiz yourself periodically on your cardinal directions, even in good weather. Have a good look at your map before you start moving, and store a mental snapshot of your route. Knowing your general orientation at all times makes navigating with your compass much easier, should the need arise. The topo maps app is great for phones (but be cautious of battery life), and tools like the Adventure Racing Plotter Pro can help simplify traditional map navigation.

4.  Track Your Rate of Progress

If you’ve got an altimeter watch or GPS, it can be used to track how fast you travel over different types of terrain. If you know it takes you 25 minutes to skin a mile ascending at altitude, then you can estimate how long it will take you to make it to certain landmarks, which is a good way to make sure you’re heading the way you think you are. Keep in mind that if your altimeter works on barometric pressure, it may be thrown off by an approaching low pressure storm cycle.

5.  Use Flags

If there aren’t any landmarks, you can always make some. Particularly in glacier travel or in situations where low visibility is expected, you might need to be prepared to flag your route. Maybe you’ve just got a bushel of sticks or something more formal- the point is to mark where you’ve been so you can spot the safe route for return.

6.  Be Prepared to Wait it Out

Sometimes it’s just not wise to keep moving. Maybe the terrain is too hazardous to risk getting off route, or maybe you’re running low on supplies. If you know you’re going to be in a remote enough place that a bivy might be necessary, especially one in bad weather, be sure to have emergency supplies like a lightweight stove and the Ultralite Alpini Shelter.

Whiteouts can be serious, so pay attention, be prepared, and go safely.


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The New Drift Sleeping Bag Line

As winter descends and temps begin to drop below freezing, it’s the perfect time to invest in a new sleeping bag for your 2015 adventures. Luckily, our latest line of sleeping bags will not only have you covered all winter long, but during the chilly spring months and into the cool nights of summer.

The all-new Drift Sleeping Bag line offers something for every season and all weather conditions with bags available in -10, 0, 15, 30 and 45 degree temperature ratings. The Drift bags use 850-fill DownTek™ treated down and will keep their loft and warmth even if they get wet. The DownTek™ retains the same fill power as untreated down, and the water repellent treatment adds no measurable weight.

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The Drift Sleeping Bags feature superior warmth to weight ratios thanks to high quality down and Flow Construction that uses vertical baffling to keep the down from shifting within the bag. Each bag in the Drift Line are highly compressible, and can be easily stowed away in a backpack pocket.

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A sleeping bag from the Drift line is one that you can buy and have for the rest of your life. Light-weight, solid construction and superior warmth are just a few reasons to try one out for yourself.

Watch the sleeping bags in action in our latest product video:

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Three Ways To Build An Antarctic-Grade Snow Shelter

When icy blasts and nuking snow make setting up—and sleeping in—a tent seem like less than Type-2 Fun, think about building a snow shelter instead. With snow’s natural insulating properties, no matter how gnarly conditions get outside, the inside of a well-built snow shelter will hover around or above 32 degrees. And the more people piled inside, the warmer it will get.

Snow shelters take a little more time and effort to build than setting up a tent, but a really simple one can take just a half hour to build. And if you’re setting up a base camp to stay in for more than one night, a snow shelter will stand the weather better, and keep you warmer, than the thin fabric walls of a tent. All you need is one or two lightweight shovels, some spare energy and maybe a snow saw.

Here are three different types of shelters to try on your next backcountry trip.

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Snow Trench With A Roof (1/2 hour to 2 hours)

1) If you’re in a pinch and need a quick emergency bivy, a snow trench is the fastest option. But with a little more effort, it can become a big, comfy lounge space.

2) Mark the outline of your trench on the surface, making it just slightly wider than your shoulders and a couple of feet longer than you are tall, multiplying by the number of people. Shovel out the snow—or cut out blocks with a snow saw—until it’s between waist and armpit deep. Set aside the snow blocks to use for the roof.

3) If you’re building it larger, for two or more people, cut out or build in sleeping benches on the ground. If the snow’s not deep enough, or it’s too icy or hard to keep digging, boost the shelter’s perimeter height by adding your cut-out blocks in a wall around the edges.

Snow Cave_Steve Cyr

4) If you’re in a hurry, or short on usable snow, lay your skis, poles, tent poles, or other items to span the top of your trench. Cover them with a tarp or tent fly, and then weigh it down around the edges. Insulate the top with a light layer of snow, but not enough to cave it in.

5) For a snow roof, lean snow blocks in an A-frame shape, blocking one end with a single block and staggering the leaning blocks for extra strength. Fill in gaps and holes with snow afterward, carving one three-inch-wide vent hole with a ski pole or ice axe.

Snow Mound or Quinzhee (2 to 4 hours)

1) The snow mound method might be even easier than the trench method, and can result in a round, cozy shelter perfect for more than one person.

2) Throw all your gear, backpacks, etc., in a pile where you want your shelter to be, and then shovel snow on top of the pile to bury it all.  Keep patting down the snow to keep it strong, building the pile until it’s about two feet thick all the way around.

3) Dig an entryway on the side away from the wind, digging downward first, and then back up toward the gear pile. If more than one person is helping, they can dig another temporary opening on the other side to speed the process along, and then fill it up afterward.

4) Pull all the equipment back out through the entrances and shape the inside of the shelter smoothly, deepening the floor and shaping the ceiling until you can see blue light coming through—at about a foot thick.

5) Be sure to carve out a vent hole in the leeward side of the shelter, a few inches wide.

Snow Cave (3 to 4 hours)

1) Building a snow cave requires scouting a spot where the snow is naturally sloping upward, and is nicely compacted but not too hard to shovel. It’s the simplest of all the shelters, but requires the right conditions and a little more elbow grease.

2) Dig an entrance into the snow drift, a bit wider than your shoulder width, and three feet deep, before you scoop out a level platform slightly higher than the entrance. This will keep the cold air sinking outward.

3) Keep shoveling snow out and hollowing out the ceiling until you have enough room for your gear and everyone who will sleep inside. Then don’t forget to poke a three-inch wide vent hole through the roof.

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Tips to Keep in Mind:

  1. Smoothing out bumps and irregularities on the inside will help keep melting drops from dripping down onto you as the interior temps warm.
  2. Shaping the ceiling into a contour instead of a flat roof will make is stronger, less likely to sag.
  3. A snow cave can be super strong in cold temperatures, but if it’s warming near freezing, its strength can be compromised—and the roof can collapse. Pay attention to temperatures to know whether it’s better to just set up a tent.
  4. Don’t waste time digging out the most roomy cave possible if you’re concerned about staying warm. The smaller the shelter, the warmer it will be.
  5. Carving a small channel around the base of the walls will help any melting water or condensation drip away from the floor.
  6. Keep all your tools inside through the night, in case you get snowed in.
  7. Mark the area with skis or a trekking pole to help keep potential passersby from walking on top and caving it in.
  8. For more details, check out the Snow and Winter Camping chapter of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills.


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