Photo by Jen Siska

[MakeShift was a column and competition, by MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, that ran in Make: magazine for its first five years. This challenge appeared in Make: Volume 22, 2010. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

You’re an avid and experienced snowmobiler off to meet up with a friend at a remote cabin some 60 miles back in a rocky and forested wilderness. You know the terrain can be rough in spots and there’s a storm on its way, so you elect to use your older but reliable snowmobile rather than the newer one you bought just before this winter season.

Even though you get started somewhat later than planned, and the storm seems to be approaching faster than expected, you’re still making good progress. You’re nearly halfway there when you crest a rise and notice (a split second too late) a sapling jutting up in the trail. Before you can react, one of the front ski tips catches on it and sends you flying off into a snowdrift while your snowmobile crashes into a tree.

The good news is that you emerge unhurt. The bad news is that your vehicle is sufficiently damaged so that, even though the engine will still start and the gas tank’s intact, it’s no longer functional for transportation. What’s more, in your haste to get on the road, you neglected to move the emergency survival kit from your new snowmobile to this one and your cellphone has never found a signal this far out. No doubt, when you fail to arrive as expected, your friend will come looking for you. But with this wicked storm already starting to pound the area, that might not happen for another 48 hours at best. So, like it or not, you’re in for an adventure. And it’s up to you to decide what form that will take.

What You’ve Got

In addition to the winter clothing you’re wearing, you’ve got two protein bars, a bottle of water, the snowmobile’s cover, a basic repair kit consisting of some wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers, the Swiss Army knife or Leatherman tool you always carry, and the bottle of single malt scotch you were planning to share with your friend at the cabin. What you don’t have are any matches, lighters, or time because the wind is howling, the snow is flying, and visibility is dropping fast. Are we having fun yet?

Analysis and Commentary

I guess the thought of being stranded in the snowy wilds brought out the Jack London inside of you guys, because this challenge easily set the record for the longest and most detailed entries weʼve ever received. There were pages and pages of stream-of-consciousness survival stories laden with self-motivating raps about how to stave off the panic of isolation and make the best use of all the resources at your disposal. And, aside from impressing us with your literary muscles, the vast majority of you pretty much had a good grip on the situational necessities.

Most of you got that this was an eminently survivable crisis, so starting with avoiding panic and thinking clearly was indeed your best bet, as well as knowing that it was far wiser to stay put, hunker down, and tough it out rather than attempting to continue on foot, try to repair the snowmobile, or go off in search of help. In all but the most rare circumstances, your chances of surviving (and eventually being found by rescuers) are significantly increased if you remain close to the site of the mishap. Those that wander off in search of aid or another way out are almost invariably the ones that perish in the wilderness. And in this case your friend knew you were coming, so when you didnʼt arrive as expected, even if youʼre locked in by the storm for several days, itʼs only a matter of time before someone will come looking for you.

On then to surviving the storm, because that is clearly your first and most pressing problem. Again most of you realized that shelter was the key. A few of you went straight to the thought of making a fire, which is an understandable but potentially fatal mistake. The odds of getting a roaring fire going in a howling snowstorm without a shelter to protect it are slim to none, and even then, without some way to contain or reflect that heat toward you, it would be of almost no value anyway.

Add to that the fact that attempting to collect sufficient firewood in a storm could deplete much of your energy and precious body heat — if not get you lost — and that should make it evident that, at this point, fire is a luxury and by no means a necessity. Your best course of action is to create a shelter that preserves your body heat and protects you from the wind as much as possible.

Most of you seemed to know that snow is an excellent insulator and so made good use of your time by stripping the cowling or windscreen off the snowmobile to help you dig into or pile up snow for your shelter. Some of you used the snowmobile itself as the base of your windbreak while others went for constructing their windbreak and shelter behind a sizable tree or two. Either is a workable choice, depending on exactly how fast and hard the storm is coming in. If at all possible, weʼd suggest trying both; shove the snowmobile up against some trees and use it and the trees to shield you from the wind before you dig down or pile up snow to create a hollow or cave on the lee side of that mass. On paper, building elaborate shelters with intertwined evergreen branches and boughs of the same to keep you from direct contact with the ground sounds great. But in a storm, time is of the essence and those of you who went for the simplest, most compact, contained and easily constructed shelter got the most points. If you can get the seat off the snowmobile and use it or the cover to help insulate you from the ground, so much the better, but your winter clothing should help do some of that anyway, and the time/comfort equation is critical in this situation. That is, if it takes too much time and energy to make it comfortable, then itʼs the wrong way to go. This is not about comfort, remember. This is about survival.

One interesting thing that almost all of you missed was taking into account the storm itself, which is apt to dump a fair load of fresh snow on wherever and whatever youʼve made to shield yourself. Many of you got caught up with how fast or slow to consume the protein bars and your bottle of water and whether or not to drink the scotch to “warm you up,” all of which weʼll get to in a minute.

But hardly any of you took account of the fact that conditions would be changing. And, much as it might be nice to sleep through the storm, if it dumps enough snow on you and your shelter or cave, thereʼs a real danger of losing your air supply and suffocating. So unless you had an open ended shelter that precluded that, weʼd suggest you curl up with a long stick or ski from the snowmobile to periodically poke or scrape a viable air hole while you keep yourself awake singing old show tunes or telling off everyone who ever broke your heart or otherwise clogged your memory with unwanted grief. In short, we suggest you do whatever you can to stay awake and aware of whatʼs going on, at least until the worst of the storm passes. Youʼre unlikely to die of hunger or thirst for the duration of the storm, so you can dispense with all those considerations to focus on the keys to your survival: get out of the wind, preserve your body heat, and make certain you can keep breathing.

A few of you suggested periodically turning on the snowmobileʼs engine to produce some extra heat, assuming you were huddled up close to it during the storm. Thatʼs a tempting and creative thought. However, if your shelter is contained, youʼd need to make sure that the exhaust is properly vented so the carbon monoxide doesnʼt seep into your shelter and again kill your air supply, and you. So if thereʼs a way to continually check that the exhaust is clear without having to damage or unmake your shelter in the process, then it might be worth considering. But we think the dangers most likely outweigh the extra heat and so canʼt really recommend this as an option.

Assuming, then, that youʼve managed to safely, if somewhat miserably, make it through the storm (then again, you did get the chance to tell off all the jerks in your life), now you can emerge from hibernation and reassess your situation. You can also get into the beloved Jack London land of making a fire, contemplating your food and water plan, and considering the options for improving your chances of rescue. As for the booze, a celebratory sip for surviving the storm might cheer you up, but otherwise its only value might be as an accelerant for the fire. Even a few ounces of alcohol can dull your senses, dehydrate you, and otherwise act as a depressant. None of which you need now. So stay off the booze and concentrate on the things you need.

If you want to ration your food and water, thatʼs fine, but thereʼs nothing wrong with eating and drinking your fill at this point either. Youʼll need to replenish your body from the storm and have some energy to gather firewood and perhaps improve your shelter. Though you may get hungry, you can go for a week or more if necessary without food, and packing your water bottle with snow and stuffing it inside your jacket while you work will replenish your water supply until you have a fire going to provide for that as well. Many of you used the gas in the snowmobileʼs tank (or the scotch) and the engine spark plug to get a fire started. This was clever and excellent use of your resources and should work. And, cannibalizing what you can from the snowmobile to create a heat reflector, you can build a fire just outside or near the opening of your upgraded shelter to reflect heat back in and, ideally, make the next night somewhat less miserable.

As any survival expert will attest, a good fire serves many valuable functions; it will not only lift your spirits and help keep you warm, but should keep any potentially predatory animals at bay. It also makes for a good continuous activity to keep you occupied and your mind off any extraneous anxiety you might have about being abandoned out here forever. Whatʼs more, it provides the most reliable way to help your rescuers since either it, or a separately prepared fire with green boughs to produce as much smoke as possible, can produce a signal that can be spotted from both the ground and the air, which is how help will undoubtedly start looking for you.

We appreciated the idea some of you had to use the snowmobile and its wiring to try and create an extended antenna for your cell phone. Again, not a bad activity to keep you busy, and it could work to help you get a signal, but we thought that was most likely a long shot. Cellphone batteries donʼt tend to hold their charge in conditions of extreme cold and, depending on your service provider, there might be no usable GPS data to relay except that youʼre stranded, which by now your friend should already have figured out.

So we suggest focusing on maintaining your fire and preparing a good signal fire and/or other signals that might be visible from the air (like “SOS” laid out in a nearby snowfield with branches or stuff from the snowmobile). After that, feel free to honk the horn, flash the lights, try and repair the machine, and anything else you can dream up to successfully pass the time until help arrives, because at this point itʼs pretty much a waiting game. If youʼre feeling particularly tough and virile, you might start thinking about launching off in a search for food: “I beat the storm, how hard can it be to snare a critter?” We say, better to ignore that impulse. Unless youʼre likely to be here for weeks, the search for food will probably burn more calories than you can ever catch, possibly get you lost, and/or make it that much harder for rescuers to find you. Stick to the show tunes and the diatribes against your abusers or … you might actually want to take some time to count your blessings. Even marginally life-threatening situations can help refocus the priorities in our lives, you know. Why not use this opportunity to recheck yours and see if itʼs time to make some changes in your life, when youʼre not racing through the outback on a snowmobile.

Winners

MakeShift Master — Most Plausible: Erik Larsen [PDF]
MakeShift Master — Most Creative: Emily Rose Pazos [PDF]
Honorable Mention — Bill Gardner [PDF]
Honorable Mention — The students of Nathan Maertens [PDF]