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Experts say planning key to surviving cold when stranded

Although the Las Vegas Valley usually gets no snow, most people know that for several months every year, the white stuff is just a short ride to Mount Charleston. Only a small percentage of residents make that jaunt with any regularity, which leaves a majority with only a passing knowledge of what to do when stranded in the cold.

“The first thing you’ve got to be aware of is your ability to deal with the elements, whether it’s the heat of summer or the cold of winter,” said Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Bill Cassell, a former member of the department’s search and rescue unit. “Individuals have to recognize and operate within their own personal limits.”

Survival in the cold begins before you get there. Cassell recommends dressing in layers with a base layer of a wicking fabric that draws moisture away from your skin. Typically rayon, spandex or several other synthetic fabrics will help move moisture away from your skin.

“You still sweat when you exert yourself in the cold, and if that moisture stays next to your skin, you get cold and you get clammy,” Cassell said. “Because you’re sweating, hydration is very important. If you become dehydrated, your circulation becomes compromised and your respiration rate goes up, which increases the your intake of cold air, which drops your body temperature. The bottom line is stay hydrated.”

He recommends staying away from caffeinated beverages because they cause fluid loss.

“Carrying a bunch of hot coffee isn’t going to help,” Cassell said. “When I worked on search and rescue, I used to carry my water inside my jacket to keep it warm.”

Since the body burns a lot of calories to keep warm, carrying high-calorie snacks when in the cold is recommended.

Cassell also stressed the importance of keeping your extremities warm. Good gloves, or better yet, mittens, and warm, dry feet will go a long way toward keeping your circulation flowing and your core temperature where it should be.

“Piling on three pairs of socks probably won’t help you,” Cassell said. “If you’re wearing three pairs of heavy socks in boots that are meant for one pair, you’re probably going to cut off your circulation. You’re a lot better off with a thin, wicking sock under a warm insulating sock.”

The body can lose a lot of heat through the head, so it’s important to keep it warm and covered.

Your vehicle should be prepared and stocked for the cold weather, too.

“I always carry a lot of stuff in my vehicle,” said Terri Robertson, Nevada native and a lifelong off-highway vehicle enthusiast. “I’ve always got a shovel, a first aid kit and plenty of food and water.”

Cassell added that you should have something for cutting wood, such as a hatchet or a cable saw , and something with which to start a fire. He said travelers should always have a cellphone, a vehicle phone charger and something with which to signal.

“In a pinch, you can break off a vehicle mirror, but a $2 signal mirror can save you from having to do that,” he said. “If you’re going out in the boonies, you’ve got to take all that stuff with you.”

Robertson always carries a full-sized shovel and a good jack to get her out of most jams.

“I’ve seen people try to use those folding shovels, and they’re useless,” she said.

Robertson said one of the best things you can bring when you’re in unfamiliar territory is another vehicle.

“It’s best to have someone else traveling with you, especially if you’re traveling with children,” she said. “Also, you should always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.”

Cassell agreed that you should plan where you’re going, tell someone the plan and stick to it.

“You’ve got to empower the individuals you’ve given your plan to to call the authorities if you’re not back by a certain time,” he said.

As important a tool as a good shovel can be, you must ensure that your vehicle is reliable.

“You’ve got to make sure your vehicle is in good shape and matched to the road,” Cassell said. “You don’t take a Corvette to go off road, at least not successfully.”

Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at or 702-380-4532.