Building snow caves is very different than summer camping. It’s not just the risks associated with cold temperatures or the need for quality equipment. Snow campers must also have the skills and maturity to deal with problems and survive in a hostile environment. As a Scout in our Troop said, “It’s trying to get your head around the fact that you have to keep working to build a place to spend the night. No one else is going to do it for you. It’s do or die. If you haven’t done snow camping, you can’t imagine it.”
Training helps. Discussing hypothermia and other cold-related medical conditions like frostbite is an important part of the preparation. The physiology of “freezing to death” should be clearly understood so that “buddies” can constantly monitor each other to make sure they are not getting into trouble. Causes and proper reaction to conduction, convection, respiration, radiation, and evaporation heat loss should be drilled into every young head. First aid procedures for hypothermia should be automatic.
Unfortunately, classroom knowledge of hypothermia is not enough. When the temperature actually drops below freezing, common sense is also required. But for Scouts, common sense is not always common practice. Many boys, accustomed to constant nurturing, are woefully unprepared to deal with problems on their own. However, there is no place like an unfriendly, icy wilderness to teach a camper about the consequences any failure to act appropriately.
The biggest risk on any snow camping outing is that someone will be unable to deal with the inevitable problems they will face. When the temperature is around zero and snow is falling steadily, you don’t have the luxury of doing nothing. Every man on the trip needs to keep working on their shelter while monitoring their own physical condition (and their buddy’s). Failure to act because you are not prepared is a bad option. There are serious consequences for having wet socks, frozen gloves, or ripped pants – which is a lesson learned by many first-timers.
Scouts need to be able to take care of themselves on any high adventure outing. Leaders can deal with the potential for problems by stressing preparation, good equipment, and discipline. Planning meetings, training videos, and pack checks are all necessary. Nevertheless, it’s the boy’s ability to take what he has learned and apply it that makes the difference. If Scouts don’t understand this responsibility, they are in trouble before they even leave the parking lot. Hypothermia is just around the corner.
All older Scouts know (or should know) that in the final stages of hypothermia the victim wants to go to sleep because their body is shutting down. A common remedy is for the rescuer to strip off the clothing of the freezing camper, take off their own clothing, and get under a pile of blankets or into a sleeping bag together to share body heat. Better yet, two warm and nearly naked people on either side of the victim provides maximum torso-to-torso contact and warmth according to NatureSkills website. Of course, for most teenagers, the concept of naked or “nearly naked” guys in sleeping bags is hilarious.
This kind of acute hypothermia is (thankfully) extremely rare on outings and few Scouts will ever have to take these steps. However, talking about this worst case scenario turns the abstract into an understandable event. Thinking about the end result of acute hypothermia stimulates their imagination and focuses their attention. For most Scouts, being naked is serious business.
The snow camping “pack check” is a critical moment because leaders can see which boys have been paying attention. Scouts that bring the wrong equipment or forget things will potentially place a significant burden on the group. The more items that are missing, the bigger the safety issues. So to encourage responsibility and preparation, many leaders create consequences for doing poorly. The basic concept is that everyone should have exactly everything on the pack list for that outing.
One potential consequence of poor performance at a pack check, therefore, is to make that Scout responsible for dealing with acute hypothermia. The boy with the most things missing from the pack list becomes the “designated naked guy” and must, should the situation occur, save campers suffering from acute hypothermia. The idea of undressing their friend, stripping down to their boxers in freezing conditions, and getting into a sleeping bag together should make even the most irresponsible teenager take the pack check, and the snow camping outing, more seriously.
What do you think about pack checks, snow caves, and taking responsibility for your decisions?