Health & Wellness

After Pennsylvania mom's frozen trek, experts share wilderness survival tips

A Pennsylvania mother who hiked 26 frozen miles for 30 hours to help her family stranded in a blizzard near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim has won admirers for her strength and determination.

Karen Klein, 47, her husband Eric, and son Isaac, 10, were on vacation when their car became stuck on a snow-blocked road.

Related: Mom who walked 26 miles in frozen wilderness to save stranded family speaks out

Klein's hike through harsh conditions to save her family — necessary because there was no cell phone service in the area — impressed adventurer Bear Grylls.

"An amazing story from this young mother, and a powerful reminder as to what people will do in a survival situation, often against the odds, in order to survive or in this case help other family members to survive," the host of "Running Wild" on NBC told TODAY via email. "She simply never gave up."

To survive the blizzard, Klein did two things that sound extreme, but may have helped save her life: She drank her urine and ate twigs for energy.

"She did what she needed to do," said NBC News medical contributor Dr. John Torres.

From her hospital bed Monday, Klein told NBC News' Steve Patterson, "I can't leave my son without a mom. I can't leave my husband without a wife."

About 5,800 people died from exposure to cold from 2010 to 2013, with most of the deaths occurring in rural western counties, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

When caught in a winter storm, it's usually recommended to stay where you are to wait for rescue.

But what if no one is coming to rescue you?

If you find yourself in a similar disaster scenario, Grylls suggested memorizing a phrase that could help you survive long enough to get to safety: Please Remember What's First.

Protection: Find protection from the elements. Extreme weather will kill you faster than anything else.

Rescue: Always be prepared for rescue. Have a signal fire or flare ready, make your trail, make your camp visible from the air.

Water: Drink whenever you find clean, fresh water; it is your most critical resource.

Food: Be prepared to eat things you might not normally eat to survive, i.e. bugs, grubs, roots and worms. They are the best survival food and much more readily available than bigger kills.

Grylls and other experts offered ways to survive being stranded in a frozen storm:

1. Stay hydrated

Klein drank urine to keep hydrated on her trek — does that really help?

Drinking urine may sound icky but staying hydrated in the cold remains important. It's a mistake to think you need less water when temperatures lower, said Torres.

“When you are dehydrated you are going to start making worse and worse decisions," he said.

Steve Dessigner, program director at Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), cautioned against drinking dehydrated urine. Instead, thaw out the snow by putting it in a container in your jacket. This makes it easier to drink without dropping body temperatures.

2. 'Will to survive'

Klein said thinking about her family kept her focused during her 26-mile hike.

“She had that will to survive," said Torres. "Find something that you want to live for."

Stranded survivors often say that thinking about loved ones kept them motivated.

“What comes up in all these stories, they have these things they care about, usually people,” Dessigner said.

3. Be careful what you eat

Klein ate aspen twigs — soft wood that contains some sugar — which kept her energy up for the 30 hours she was stranded.

“Eating aspen twigs is not a bad idea. It is not going to sustain you for long but it is going to give you a little bit of energy,” Torres said.

When stuck in the wildness, consuming something as unappetizing as twigs may be essential.

"Be prepared to eat things you might not normally eat to survive, i.e. bugs, grubs, roots and worms. They are the best survival food and much more readily available than bigger kills," said Grylls via email.

On the other hand, eating plants without knowing what they are can lead to problems.

“It is always hard to identify plants, particularly in the winter when they don’t have flowers or leaves. I would advise against eating strange plants particularly if you are not familiar with them,” said Dr. Jeremiah Escajeda, emergency physician at UPMC Mercy Hospital and UPMC Shady Side in Pittsburgh.

Most people can go without food for three weeks, so it's better to be hungry than to accidentally poison yourself with unfamiliar plants, said Dessigner.

4. Stay where you are

The Kleins made the decision to seek help because they took a detour; this probably helped because rescuers believed the blizzard would have made it difficult to find them later.

But, "in the vast majority of civilian situations, you are going to be found in 72 hours,” said Dessigner. "Your car is a decent shelter."

Often when people leave, they miss the rescuers.

"It is good advice that if you are lost, abandoned or stranded in poor weather conditions, to stay where you are and wait for rescue," Grylls said.

The most important tip: When heading out into the wilderness, tell others where you're going and when you will return. If you don't, someone will send help.

5. Stay warm

People stranded in their cars can cut the car seats and use the padding to add extra warmth. Stuffing from the car can cover shoes and pad a coat, giving extra warmth.

If you're not ready to tear up your car, do what you can to stay warm.

"Just to try to gage your own body," said Escajeda. "If you still feel cold, move around to warm up a little bit more."

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