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Be prepared to be stranded on winter forest roads in Oregon

By Mark Freeman
Southern Oregon Mail Tribune
January 07, 2010

Sitting cold and wet in a car sunk deep into a mountain snowdrift with the gas light on and the lone candy wrapper long licked clean is not the time to consider how to prepare for the off chance you might get stuck in Southern Oregon's mountains this winter.

No one sets off to find that perfect Christmas tree or to explore that intriguing mountain route from the Rogue Valley to the Oregon coast expecting to turn into the target of a search-and-rescue operation.

But enough residents and visitors to the wilds of western Oregon end up that way, usually because of a string of mistakes often begun far before they headed into the mountain snow line.

"What I hear from everybody is that it won't happen to them, and they're only going on a one-day trip," says Jackson County Sheriff's Lt. Pat Rowland, who is president of the Oregon State Sheriff's Association's Search and Rescue Advisory Council.

"Well, that just happens to be the worst scenario," Rowland says. "They're not prepared."

We're not starting a Backwoods Mensa chapter here, nor do you need a string of Sherpas to pack in everything you need to escape — or comfortably survive — an accidental night or two in the woods.

A little pre-trip preparation and a lot of common sense can ensure happy returns and not some harrowing story for next year's Christmas form letter, let alone the specter of footing the bill for your own rescue.

Don't Go into the Backwoods During a Storm
This might sound a bit obvious, but check the weather before go.

And ignore the weather report for Medford, where the elevation is about 1,400 feet above sea level. A drizzle in town might mean mega-flakes in the mountains.

Go to and click on the area where you plan to go. That way, you get a forecast for that area's higher elevations.

Don't Drive a Subaru
It seems like half of the people stuck in the snow each winter are in Subarus. But it's not the automaker's fault.

You can say the same about any all-wheel-drive car. It's still a car. The fact it has power to all four wheels can give drivers a false sense of security in the snow. Sure, AWD cars are gems for traction when driving up to the Mount Ashland ski area. But that route's usually plowed. With the clearance height of a pregnant gerbil, any car can get bogged down in small snowdrifts in Miata-like fashion.

Pickups (with added weight in the bed) and SUVs with larger tires and much greater clearance rates are far better for backwoods adventures.

Carrying chains is pointless if you're unsure how to install them or whether they actually fit.

The backwoods aren't like Interstate 5's approach to the Siskiyou Summit, where you can pay some tow-truck driver $20 to put your chains on for you.

Practice installing your chains each fall on your driveway. Carry at least two bungee cords that might help keep them tight.

And use them only to get yourself out of trouble, not deeper into it. If you need chains, it's to get you down the mountain and not further into the snow.

Think Sustenance
Energy bars and water are obvious to anyone who realizes you can't survive for long by foraging for the fruit snacks and Goldfish your kids left under the backseat cushions. (Don't forget the bottled water - three quarts a day for each adult! -Robert Speik)

Figure on stowing one blanket per person, extra hats and gloves. Add rain gear (a must when lying in the snow trying to figure out how to install those tire chains that may or may not fit), along with extra coats and socks to replace wet ones.

Large orange garbage bags, with a hole cut for your head, are a good last resort against cold and rain while taking up virtually no space in the trunk.

Bring Tools
An Army surplus shovel can dig you out of the first snow drift, but a tow strap can get you pulled out of the second one two days later when some hunter stumbles upon your spun-out car in the brush. A tow strap is far more reliable than rope, and it stows easily.

Waterproof matches and fire starters are good, but a flare can get a life-saving fire started even in a storm.

Gas Up
Never head into the unknown without a full tank of gas. Wrong turns can chew up extra gallons and car heaters in stranded vehicles are worthless without the engine running.

Tell Someone Where You're Going

And not just, "We're headed to the mountains to get a Christmas tree." Tell someone what main roads you intend to traverse and give them a time when you will call them when you get home.

Doing so will greatly narrow the field on which search crews will concentrate.

For those waiting for over-due adventurers, the adage of waiting 24 hours before reporting someone missing is a farce. Report them missing earlier than later.

Read the Signs
A sign that says "Road Not Maintained for Winter Travel" really means "Turn Around and Go to a Real Highway." If you brush off the snow on a sign and it says "Road May Be Blocked by Snow Drifts Ahead," that really means "Newspapers Print Stories About People Like You in Moments Like This."

Ignore Online Maps and the GPS
Logging onto online map services or turning on your Global Positioning System shouldn't mean turning off your brain.

If the GPS says to take a road it lists as "paved" and it turns out to be a one-lane road with turnouts, turn around and try a different route.

Don't put your life solely in the hands of electronics.

"If you're driving and you don't see any other cars or people and don't see any lights, think 'Why?' " Rowland says.

Use a Map
Don't just carry it. Read it while as you're traveling so you get a better idea of where you are and where you're actually going.

If you haven't been there, you really don't know where you are.

Also, carry a compass. That way if you do figure out where you are on a map, you can use it properly to get you to safety.

When in doubt, travel toward lower elevations. At the least it might reduce your snow problems, and it often leads to better roads.

Know Your Numbers
Most high-elevation snow areas here are Forest Service lands where the roads have distinct numbering systems.

Double-digit roads are main Forest Service roads. Four-digit roads are spur roads, and the first two numbers are the same as the main road. So Road 6515 is a spur of Road 65.

Try to stay on two-digit roads. If lost, find a two-digit road and head down it. Almost always that will lead you to a highway.

Don't Leave Your Vehicle
Striking out on your own is a last resort. Doing so exposes you even more to the elements, and makes finding you that much harder for rescue crews.

"We all preach, 'Stay with the car,' " Rowland says. "That's the first thing we're looking for."

Cell Phones and GPS (together)
Don't rely on cell-phone pings to lead searchers to you, should you get stranded in the woods.

Though some cell phones can send GPS coordinates to rescuers, don't bank on it. Bring both a cell phone and a GPS, because one alone might not necessarily help you.

Carrying just a cell phone with a car charger allows you the chance of telling someone you're lost, but not where they should look for you. Carrying just a GPS might help you learn accurately —
within two inches — exactly where you might die.

Note: A friend of ours sent us the above link and we are pleased to bring you this great information in the context of our Traditional Mountaineering website. --Webmeister Speik


What can regular folks learn from Traditional Mountaineers?

1. Practice the Four Basic Responsibilities of the Backcountry Traveler.  Basic

2. Carry the new Ten Essential Systems, sized for the forecast weather and the adventure in a light day pack (in your car). This includes a map, compass and GPS and the skills to use them. In the winter, this includes enough extra insulation and waterproof clothing (easy to do in a car - add sleeping bags too) to keep you dry and warm if you become stranded. In snow, you must have a shovel and insulating pad and the skills to make a shelter (stay in your car) in the snow to avoid hypothermia and frost bite damage.  Essentials

3. Carry a fully charged digital cell phone and periodically check where it can communicate with any cell towers to assist authorities to triangulate your position from cell tower pings. (Most cell providers do not use cell phone GPS signals to locate customers under FCC E911 regulations - they use triangulation). Cold disables batteries. If the weather is cold, carry the cell phone in a pants pocket near the femoral artery. Report your UTM NAD27 coordinates, your condition, the conditions where you are and discuss your plans with SAR.  Cell Phones  If you may be out of cell tower range, carry a SPOT.  SPOT Satellite Messenger

4. Always stay found on your map and by being aware of major land features such as Mt. Bachelor. (You are on a road in your car!) If visibility starts to wane, reconfirm your bearings with your map, compass and GPS and quickly return to a known location (Cascade Lakes Highway, Mt. Bachelor, a Nordic Shelter, etc.) A GPS is the only practical way for a trained individual to navigate in a whiteout or blowing snow.  Lost Mt Hood Climbers


A suggested minimum standard news advisory for all backcountry travelers

"We would like to take this opportunity to ask our visitors to the backcountry of Oregon to plan for the unexpected.  Each person should dress for the forecast weather and take minimum extra clothing protection from a drop in temperature and possible rain or snow storm or an unexpected cold wet night out, insulation from the wet ground or snow, high carbohydrate snacks, two quarts of water or Gatorade, a map and compass and optional inexpensive GPS and the skills to use them, and a charged cell phone and inexpensive walkie-talkie radios. Carry the traditional personal "Ten Essentials Systems" in a day pack sized for the season and the forecast weather.

Visitors are reminded to tell a Responsible Person where they are going, where they plan to park, when they will be back and to make sure that person understands that they are relied upon to call 911 at a certain time if the backcountry traveler has not returned. If you become lost or stranded, mark your location and stay still or move around your marked location to stay warm. Do not try to find your way until you become exhausted, or worse yet - wet. Wait for rescuers.



"To provide information and instruction about world-wide basic to advanced alpine mountain climbing safety skills and gear, on and off trail hiking, scrambling and light and fast Leave No Trace backpacking techniques based on the foundation of an appreciation for the Stewardship of the Land, all illustrated through photographs and accounts of actual shared mountaineering adventures."

TraditionalMountaineering is founded on the premise that "He who knows naught, knows not that he knows naught", that exploring the hills and summitting peaks have dangers that are hidden to the un-informed and that these inherent risks can be in part, identified and mitigated by mentoring: information, training, wonderful gear, and knowledge gained through the experiences of others.

The value of TraditionalMountaineering to our Friends and Subscribers is the selectivity of the information we provide, and its relevance to introducing folks to informed hiking on the trail, exploring off the trail, mountain travel and Leave-no-Trace light-weight bivy and backpacking, technical travel over steep snow, rock and ice, technical glacier travel and a little technical rock climbing on the way to the summit. Whatever your capabilities and interests, there is a place for everyone in traditional alpine mountaineering.




Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can, only in part, be mitigated

Read more . . .
SPOT and DeLorme Unveil First Handheld GPS With Satellite Communicator
Snowmobiler dies in avalanche below Paulina Peak
Several drivers become stranded on Oregon winter forest roads, led their new GPS' "fastest way" settings
OpEd: Yuppie 911 devices can take the search out of Search and Rescue 
Gear grist, an article written for The Mountaineer, the monthly newsletter of The Mountaineers
Robert Speik writes: "Use your digital cell in the backcountry" for The Mountaineer
Snowboarder lost overnight near Mount Bachelor, rescued by SAR 
Woman leaves car stuck in snow near Klamath Falls, dies from exposure
Man rescued from crevasse just off South Sister climber's trail
Climbing South Sister: A Prospectus and a Labor Day near disaster
Trail runner survives fall on ice with cell phone call
Once again, hypothermia kills stranded Oregon driver
Lessons learned from the latest lost Mt. Hood climbers
Lessons learned from the latest lost Christmas tree hunters
FREE Clinic on Real Survival Strategies and Staying Found with Map, Compass and GPS together
What do you carry in your winter day and summit pack?
Why are "Snow Caves" dangerous?
Why are "Space Blankets" dangerous?
Why are "Emergency Kits" dangerous?
How can you avoid Hypothermia?
Missing climbers on Mount Hood, one dies of exposure, two believed killed in fall
Missing California family found, dad dies from exposure and hypothermia
Missing man survives two weeks trapped in snow-covered car
Missing snowmobile riders found, Roger Rouse dies from hypothermia
Olympic Champion Rulon Gardner lost on snowmobile!
Lost Olympic hockey player looses feet to cold injury 

Expert skier lost five days near resort in North Cascades without map, compass, gps or cell phone 
Mount Hood - The Episcopal School Tragedy
Mount Hood - experienced climbers rescued from snow cave
How can you learn the skills of snow camping?   Prospectus

Lost and Found
Be prepared to be stranded on winter forest roads in Oregon
Several drivers become stranded on Oregon winter forest roads led their new GPS' "fastest way" setting
Gear grist, an article written for The Mountaineer, the monthly newsletter of The Mountaineers
Robert Speik writes: "Use your digital cell in the backcountry" for The Mountaineer
Teen girls become lost overnight returning from hike to Moraine Lake
Snowboarder lost overnight near Mount Bachelor, rescued by SAR 
Woman leaves car stuck in snow near Klamath Falls, dies from exposure
Man rescued from crevasse just off South Sister climber's trail
Climbing South Sister: A Prospectus and a Labor Day near disaster
Trail runner survives fall on ice with cell phone call
Once again, hypothermia kills stranded Oregon driver
Lessons learned from the latest lost Mt. Hood climbers
Lessons learned from the latest lost Christmas tree hunters
New rescue services for all American Alpine Club Members
OpEd: Oregon requires electronic communications in the backcountry
Rescue charges in traditional alpine mountaineering
Governor establishes a Search and Rescue Task Force
Oregon Search and Rescue Statutes
Lost hiker in Oregon backcountry found with heat-sensing device in airplane
HB2509 mandates electronic locator beacons on Mt. Hood - climbers' views
Oregon HB 2509 as approved on March 28, 2007
Three hikers and a dog rescued on Mt. Hood
Motorist stuck in snow on backcountry Road 18, phones 911 for rescue
Snow stranded Utah couple leave car and die from hypothermia
Death on Mt. Hood - What happened to the three North Face climbers? 
Two climbers become lost descending Mt. Hood
Missing California family found, dad dies from exposure and hypothermia
Missing man survives two weeks trapped in snow-covered car
Missing snowmobile riders found, Roger Rouse dies from hypothermia
Lost climber hikes 6.5 miles from South Sister Trail to Elk Lake
Hiking couple lost three nights in San Jacinto Wilderness find abandoned gear
Expert skier lost five days in North Cascades without Essentials, map and compass
Climber disappears on the steep snow slopes of Mount McLaughlin
Hiker lost five days in freezing weather on Mount Hood
Professor and son elude search and rescue volunteers
Found person becomes lost and eludes rescuers for five days
Teens, lost on South Sister, use cell phone with Search and Rescue
Lost man walks 27 miles to the highway from Elk Lake Oregon
Snowboarder Found After Week in Wilderness
Searchers rescue hiker at Smith Rock, find lost climbers on North Sister
Girl Found In Lane County After Lost On Hiking Trip
Search and rescue finds young girls lost from family group
Portland athlete lost on Mt. Hood
Rescues after the recent snows
Novice couple lost in the woods
Broken Top remains confirmed as missing climber
Ollalie Trail - OSU Trip - Lost, No Map, Inadequate Clothing

 Your Essential Light Day Pack
What are the new Ten Essential Systems?
What does experience tell us about Light and Fast climbing?
What is the best traditional alpine mountaineering summit pack?
What is Light and Fast alpine climbing?
What do you carry in your day pack?      Photos?    
What do you carry in your winter day pack?       Photos?    
What should I know about "space blankets"?
Where can I get a personal and a group first aid kit?      Photos?

 Carboration and Hydration
Is running the Western States 100 part of "traditional mountaineering"?
What's wrong with GORP?    Answers to the quiz!
Why do I need to count carbohydrate calories?
What should I know about having a big freeze-dried dinner?
What about carbo-ration and fluid replacement during traditional alpine climbing?   4 pages in pdf  
What should I eat before a day of alpine climbing?

  About Alpine Mountaineering:
  The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
  Climbing Together
  Following the Leader
  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities       Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
  The Ten Essentials         Los Diez Sistemas Esenciales

  Our Leader's Guidelines:
  Our Volunteer Leader Guidelines
  Sign-in Agreements, Waivers and Prospectus     This pdf form will need to be signed by you at the trail head
  Sample Prospectus    Make sure every leader tells you what the group is going to do; print a copy for your "responsible person"
  Participant Information Form    This pdf form can be printed and mailed or handed to the Leader if requested or required
  Emergency and Incident Report Form    Copy and print this form. Carry two copies with your Essentials 
  Participant and Group First Aid Kit   
Print this form. Make up your own first aid essentials (kits) 

  About our World Wide Website:

  Map, Compass and GPS
Map, compass and GPS navigation training Noodle in The Badlands
BLM guidelines for Geocaching on public lands
Geocaching on Federal Forest Lands
OpEd - Geocaching should not be banned in the Badlands
Winter hiking in The Badlands WSA just east of Bend
Searching for the perfect gift
Geocaching: What's the cache?
Geocaching into the Canyon of the Deschutes
Can you catch the geocache?
Z21 covers Geocaching
Tour The Badlands with ONDA 
The art of not getting lost
Geocaching: the thrill of the hunt!
GPS in the news
A GPS and other outdoor gadgets make prized gifts
Wanna play?  Maps show you the way
Cooking the "navigation noodle"