When it comes to winter survival, the first thing most people think about is trying to stay warm, and for good reason. In as little as 15 minutes in cold or wet weather the body can begin displaying symptoms of hypothermia, which will include shivering, chattering teeth and decreased fine motor skills. If not addressed, the body will continue to spiral into a deeper state of hypothermia, which could lead to unconsciousness, frostbite and potential death in as few as three hours during extreme weather.
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Nothing is worse in the winter than walking around with wet clothing or clothing that doesn’t keep you warm. Clothing is a type of shelter and it is your first line of defense against adverse conditions. The key to dressing properly is in the layers you choose. Dressing in layers allows you to remove or add clothing to thermoregulate. You certainly want to avoid sweating if at all possible, so having a layer or two to remove to keep you cooled off is a great way to stay dry and keep your body in check.
I typically dress in three layers when in the eastern woodlands. These layers include a moisture-wicking base layer comprised of wool undergarments, a mid-layer that includes a fleece top and at times bottoms, and an outer shell that is typically a wool blanket shirt, such as that offered by Lester River Bushcraft, and canvas pants, such as those offered by Duluth Trading Company. I’ll also have on some moisture-wicking socks, with wool socks over those depending on my footwear and location. Of course, I have wool gloves with mittens for more extreme weather and always a wool hat of some sort.
Wool is my preferred garment because even when it’s wet, it retains 70 percent of its insulating qualities. Not all wools are created equal, as some may irritate your skin more than others, so investigate different types of wools, such as alpaca, camel and cashmere, before discounting it all together. As far as footwear, if it’s not below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, I’ll generally just wear leather boots that have been properly waterproofed. Once temps drop into the twenties however, I’ll generally wear Muck brand boots. The company’s Arctic Pro boots are hard to beat and have served me very well in temps as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Master The Flame
Once you know you’re dressed properly, fire becomes your best friend in the winter. Not only will fire warm you and cook your food, but it will also melt snow and ice, giving you clean water to drink. A properly stocked winter fire-starter kit is an absolute necessity. You cannot depend solely on a lighter for all your fire-starting needs because they do break and fail. Having several sure-fire ways to create a raging fire allows you to dry out the marginal, wet tinder and wood you’re likely to find. I carry a 0.5-by-6-inch ferro rod on myself whenever I’m out, but I also carry a fire kit.
When it comes to survival tools, two is one and one is none. This is especially important when it comes to fire-starters. My personal fire kit contains a backup ferro rod, two lighters, two sticks of fatwood, flint and char cloth, chaga (tinder fungus), hemp twine, canvas cloth, waxed fire-starters in a tin, a 6x magnification lens, and a friction-free bow-drill block.
That might seem like a lot, but it all fits easily and nicely into my hip pouch, called a sporran. These items give me many different options for starting a fire and the ability to create more fire-starters should I exhaust one option.
For example, the tin that carries my waxed fire-starters allows me to create charred cloth or charred natural material, such as punk wood I might come across. The flint I carry is meant to be struck off the spine of my carbon-steel knife, allowing me to save the weight and space a striker would take up. The friction-free bow-drill block eliminates one troublesome piece of the bow-drill kit, increasing my odds of success when forced to make friction fire off the landscape.
Whatever items you select for your fire kit, make certain you know how they can be used in multiple ways so that the lack of a fire will not be the reason you’re in a survival situation. You can pick up all your fire-starting needs, including completed, hand-packed fire kits, at the Campcraft Adventure School.
Out Of The Elements
A good night’s rest is of vital importance in a survival situation, and it becomes even more elusive in the wintertime. Cold extremities, cold spots on your back, the call of the bathroom in the middle of the night when you finally got warm—all are things that can generally be avoided if you take the time to shelter properly. Conduction sucks heat away from your body and into the cold ground as you lie on it. Convection occurs when the cooler air circulates around your body, again wicking away heat. And heaven forbid you be wet when the wind blows, as it will suck heat away 25 times faster than normal! By combating these two forms of thermal action with our shelter construction, we will have a more comfortable and restful night’s sleep.
To prevent conduction, place at least 4 inches of compressed material between yourself and the ground you plan to sleep on. This compressed material can be anything natural, such as leaves, boughs or other debris, but once compressed, it needs to be 4 inches.
The way we do this in our Winter Survival classes at Campcraft Adventure School is to take two or three 55-gallon drum liners and fill them with debris, which makes a sort of mattress. We then take an emergency space blanket (Mylar) and construct a lean-to where the reflective side faces in. Lastly, we drape a sheet of plastic, such as a simple painter’s drop cloth, over the entire shelter. I like clear plastic as it makes it easier to keep an eye on your fire, but any color will work.
By draping the plastic over the lean-to, you create what’s called a super shelter. You are preventing convection by covering the shelter, preventing conduction with your mattress and, with the addition of a long fire placed one step in front of your shelter, you take advantage of radiant heat, which turns your shelter into a greenhouse more or less. We have achieved temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside shelters built this way in the dead of winter. Just be sure to leave a ventilation hole in your plastic or it will become extremely hot.
You are actually more likely to become dehydrated in the winter than in summer. It’s just a slower onset of dehydration due to the ambient temperature. When everything around you is damp, wet and cold, your brain fails to properly process your need for hydration at the appropriate time and delays it until you become thirstier than usual. It’s common to not drink most of the day and, once you do drink, you typically want heated beverages and drink a lot of them, which is what keeps you up going to the bathroom all night.
Set yourself on a hydration schedule by drinking at regular intervals whether or not you feel like it. This will maintain a steady state of hydration and keep you from staying up most of the night watering the plants. When you eat, ingest foods high in protein, fat and carbohydrates. Carbs get your inner fire stoked, and the fat and protein draw that out for a longer period of time.
By properly preplanning all your outings, you can avoid a survival situation all together. Take the time to gear up properly and practice your skills regularly. By doing this, the worst you will come to expect will be an inconvenient camping experience.
If you would like training in winter-specific survival skills, the Campcraft Adventure School (campcraft.us) offers in-depth training courses in the eastern woodlands and mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia on a regular basis.
Quick Fire Pit Meal Plan
The “foil wrap” is a backwoods camping favorite. The all-in-one meal is hot, nutritious and ready to eat in just 45 minutes!
- 1 potato, cut to preference
- A handful of meat, such as chicken, beef or venison
- 1 cup of broccoli
- 1 cup of carrots and onions
Season all ingredients heavily with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Also toss in a couple big dabs of butter. Wrap everything in at least three layers of foil. Place the bundle onto the coals of your fire for about 45 minutes to one hour. Remove from coals, cut open the foil and enjoy!
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.