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Backcountry Survival!

Backcountry Survival!

Backcountry Survival

What you need and what you need to do.

By Jonathan Anstey

When fall sets in, the temperature plummets and everyone starts their winter preparations.  It is time to get the cover off your dusty sled and dig out your winter clothes. If you are anything like me, your pre-season service is already done.  For most people the list stops there, so before you settle back next to the roaring fire you should ask yourself, “Am I really ready?”

Many people overlook the little preparations for Old Man Winter.  Being stuck out in the country for the night, after a long hard ride, is much less enjoyable than sitting in front of the fire with a beverage in hand.  There are a few things that can make this scenario a little more comfortable to say the least, so take another look at your snowmobile and make sure that you are well prepared.

The first thing to look at is your toolkit.  Snowmobile manufactures supply you with the bare minimum, such as a plug wrench, two-sided screwdriver and a wrench to fit the basics of your snowmobile.  Sure, you can tighten a loose bolt or change a spark plug, but what if you lose a few manifold bolts or break some exhaust springs?  A few small items added to your insufficient toolkit can save you time and a broken snowmobile.  Here are some of the items that I added to my toolkit and would recommend to any serious snowmobiler:


Allen keys

Hose clamps/Zip ties

Rabbit Wire

Exhaust springs

Thumb wrench

Vice grips

Duct tape

Gas line antifreeze


Emergency/survival blanket

Water proof matches

Fire Starters


There are a couple tools that you should not be caught without while snowmobiling.  These items include an axe/saw, (I prefer an axe because it can be used to muscle those stubborn pieces back into position), and a shovel. There are several products out today that are small and light, but enough to get the job done.  You would be surprised where you can tuck a collapsible shovel.  Axes can be mounted under-hood, or to the tunnel like the more traditional types, and shovels can fit into backpacks, or even a few under-seat storage compartments.  These two items alone can provide a lot of comfort if stranded in the bush for the night, or even get you out of a jam and hopefully home.

I also suggest adding a tow strap, or at the very least, a few feet of rope.  There is very little that cannot be fixed with a bit of creativity and the resources you have around you.  I once witnessed a full rear skid rebuild with nothing more than a tow strap and a couple pieces of wood, which held up for the rest of the ride and all the way back to the trucks.

If you find yourself stranded in the wilderness, you are going to want a few snacks to keep your energy up for the long night ahead.   A few granola bars or some candy will go a long way when you are hungry.  You will need this valuable energy to stay warm, build a shelter and a fire to keep you warm.  The general rule for collecting enough firewood to last you through the night is to gather what you think you need, and then get 5 times that amount.  Sometimes a fire is enough to get you through the night, but if it’s a really cold/stormy night, and you are wet or soaked with sweat, you may need to dig-in until help arrives. 

Building a snow-shelter or quincy (snow cave) can be a daunting task, but it can also save your life if the conditions take a turn for the worst.  It may take a lot of time, but once completed, and if built correctly, it can make for a comfortable night.  The temperature inside should not drop below zero, and when a candle is added, it can bring it up to 2 or 3 degrees.  I have stayed in a few quincys for the night when temperatures were a bone chilling -25, and I was so comfortable that I actually slept in.

Here are a few tips on how to build a quincy:

Choose a location with plenty of snow.

Brush away the top layer of powder snow.

Create a pile of the lower layer snow, which is stickier.

Make the pile as big as possible with either with a shovel, snowshoe, or anything else that will help you.

Let it set for at least an hour (more if you have time).

Break off short pieces of branches and stick them in and around the pile of snow. Use them as guides when digging from the inside, being careful not to make the walls too thin.

Dig a tunnel downward and then up, making a U shape.

The top of the tunnel should be lower than the floor on the inside

Make a deep depression around where you will sleep, so that the cold air will fall down and away from your body.

Cut some green boughs and layer them on the floor to insulate against the cold snow.

Use a stick to keep a ventilation hole and remove frequently to expel any buildup of carbon monoxide. 

Never venture out without telling somebody where you are heading.  This will give the search and rescue a place to start.  If you find yourself lost or stuck in the middle of nowhere, stay put.  Searchers are highly trained and use many methods of locating lost persons (tracking being one of them), so wandering aimlessly through thick timber, or in the direction you “think is the way out” will only make it that much harder to find you.  You can also make yourself visible by adding green boughs to a fire, which in turn creates thick smoke.  Marking an X in the middle of a pond or open areas with branches, and hanging brightly colored or reflective objects in trees will also catch someone’s attention.

Last but not least, do not rely solely on your GPS.  Electronics fail and batteries run down, especially during cold winter days.  Always take extra batteries and keep them close to your body – your warmth will help hold their charge.  Batteries are no good to you when they are dead.  Always bring your map and compass, and store them in a safe, dry location, but as with anything, useless if you do not know how to use them.  Practice your map and compass skills regularly. Turn off your GPS from time to time and try navigating with this old school method, it works.

With careful planning and preparation, you can lessen the odds of being stuck out for the night, but it can still happen to you.  Use your common sense, and go with your gut.  If your sled breaks down and it seems like there is no way of fixing it, get creative and think outside the box.  You will be surprised at what can work, at least long enough to get you home.

Safe travels everyone.




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Sledworthy Magazine is Atlantic Canada's Snowmobile Magazine. Started in 2005 with the goal of creating a strong voice for the Atlantic Canadian Snowmobile scene and ensuring Atlantic Canada gets recognized throughout North America as a key player in the snowmobile industry.

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