snow, eat, survival
Photo by Char Beck
Stuck in the backcountry with no water but surrounded by snow.

It is a part of Winter as Christmas. Tip your head back and stick out your tongue to catch snowflakes. A few flakes of snow on your tongue is no big deal, but if you start consuming meal-sized quantities of snow, there could be problems.

So, in a survival situation, should you eat snow if you have no other access to water? The short answer is “no,” but the long answer is, “depends.”

No Snow

Consuming snow is like eating a big bowl of ice cream. It will make you cold on the inside until your body has time to convert it to body temperature. In a survival situation, that’s bad news. When you are already cold to begin with, your body has to work harder to warm up the frozen water you just ingested. That takes more energy than you will get from the water. From a survival standpoint, no, you shouldn’t directly eat snow.

Snow Chemicals

As snow falls through the sky, its intricate latticework forms net for catching pollutants that may be in the atmosphere. The most common is black carbon, or soot, released by coal-fired plants and wood-burning stoves. It’s better to wait until a few hours into the snowfall to gather your fresh catch. Snow acts like a kind of atmospheric “scrubbing brush.” The longer the snow falls, the lower the pollution levels in the air and thus in the snow.

Long-lost pesticides might also show up in snow in some places. Pesticides that were up to 50 years old were found in several U.S. national parks. However, the levels were 100 times lower than what’s deemed safe for drinking water.

However, pesticide concentrations are likely higher in backyard snow. Again, the pesticide concentrations are low and the amount of snow eaten in a handful is small, so the one-time dose is very low and not a risk to health.

Yes Snow

The depends answer comes into play if you’re dehydrated and you have no options. Consuming manageable amounts of snow (if you have no way of melting it) is a good thing if your body truly needs the liquid.

The best option in any scenario is to use body heat from activity to melt snow; you should always be planning ahead for if/when you run out of water. If you have a sealed tight container, put it in between your layers of clothing near your core and keep stirring it with something often to melt it down quicker. Snow to water ratio is about a 10 to 1, so it takes a lot of snow to get a little water.

Still, it’s better than nothing.

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