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April 17, 2014

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They survived being stranded in the bitter cold. Could you?


Cathleen Allison / AP

A group of six people arrive at Pershing General Hospital after being lost for two days in the frigid mountains near Lovelock, Nev., Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.

Group Missing in Nevada Mountains

This Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, photo provided by searcher Lucia Gonzalez shows the vehicle belonging to a family who went missing after a trip to play in the snow near Lovelock, Nev. Launch slideshow »

More than 200 rescuers feared for the worst when a couple and four children vanished this week in a bitterly cold Nevada wilderness after their Jeep flipped in soft snow and stopped running. Two days later, they were found in good condition, and a woman and child were discharged from the hospital Wednesday.

Authorities credited warm clothes and a campfire for their survival as temperatures plummeted to 16 degrees below zero.

Here is some advice by experts on avoiding similar situations and how to respond when the unexpected happens:

Should I take the trip?

AAA recommends delaying trips if especially bad weather is in the forecast. If you go, let others know your route and when you plan to return. Be cautious about roads less traveled that might not be plowed, raising the chance of getting stuck. If a road looks sketchy, retrace your steps instead of forging onward.

What should I do first if I get stranded?

Steve Howe, a wilderness guide based in southern Utah, said food helps when you are stuck but clothing and shelter are the most important things.

If you don't have a car, find another way to shelter yourself from the sky. Huddling near a tree or digging a snow cave can provide a shield from the elements.

AAA suggests tying a brightly colored cloth to an antenna to make the vehicle easier to spot.

What should I do with my cellphone?

If you have service, send text messages to reliable friends to share your plight. But Howe cautions against relying on cellphones in the wilderness. While triangulation from cellphone towers can help guide a search, as it did in Nevada, the data probably won't provide a precise location.

"It's not a five-ounce rescue package at all, period," Howe said. "You're better off with a BIC lighter."

Should I go for help?

The group in Nevada stayed in place, knowing crews would be looking. Rescuers said that was key to their safety and is recommended in almost all cases.

"Continuing to move makes it very difficult for people to find you," said Bill Romberg of Alaska Mountain Rescue.

If you feel you must venture out, consider whether you're prepared. Walking even a short distance in temperatures of 15 to 20 degrees below zero can lead to frostbite.

What can I do today to avoid the situation?

Keep extra clothing and insulation in your trunk. Even on an interstate drive, it's possible you could be stranded overnight.

Howe recommends carrying several basics — a shovel that's rugged enough to dig out a vehicle, a cigarette lighter, clothing suitable for a winter campout and blankets. Also pack water, granola bars or other high-protein snacks in the car. A small bottle of lantern fuel could also help with starting a campfire.

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