Winter Survival beyond the Basics


Leave the house prepared or you may perish. Ideally, you will travel with a friend. Having someone watch your back has a very practical and psychological value. You both can spot that patch of white, which may mean frostbite on the nose or cheeks of each other, inspect the bottoms of each other’s feet, and recognize the signs of hypothermia, so treatment can begin to reverse the potentially deadly condition. However, situations are never ideal, and so you have to be prepared to survive on your own for hours or possibly days in the cold.

A previous article discussed the basics of cold weather survival. In general terms, it outlined what hypothermia is and some prevention methods. We will try not to be redundant. Instead we will talk about shelters, the need for water, and the need for food in particular high protein food and how to keep the body from sweating when it’s cold out.

Shelter is your biggest priority before dark. Winter days are short, so once you realize you will be spending the night outside, you need to get started on your shelter. Shelter and a fire before the sun sets can save your life.

If you have a tent and the proper cold weather sleeping bag, then you are all set, but what happens if you don’t have a tent or a cold weather bag. If you are lost, then stay put, get to work on a shelter, and build a signal fire.

If in a heavily forested area you can get under evergreen trees or other foliage. Spruce trees make ideal shelter locations. Knock the snow off the branches as best you can and create a snow cave under the branches near the trunk of the tree. Look for dead branches that could fall on you before settling in, because you may have to find another tree if there are a number of dead branches overhead.

Snow can be your friend. Dig down or simply move snow to create walls to break the wind and use a tarp or poncho for overhead cover by stretching and securing across the snow walls. You must have good insulation between you and the ground.

Build your fire on rocks, green branches, or aluminum foil. Place other rocks near the fire so they absorb the heat and can then help heat the enclosure. You can place the warmed rocks in your sleeping bag or in the thermal blanket or tarp you roll up in.

Melt snow for water even if you have an ample supply. Save your supply so if you have to hike about or hike out of your predicament you have water with you. Melt the snow near the fire before drinking. Cold water will lower your core body temperature.

You can become dehydrated in the winter and not be aware of it, so drink water by sipping throughout the day whether you feel thirsty or not.

Remove the outer layer of clothing as you work to put together your shelter so you do not sweat. If you feel yourself sweating then rest for a bit or remove another layer. However, be careful not to get chilled. You have to monitor your situation carefully and pay attention to details like sweating and leaving a layer off too long so you get chilled.

Eat just before sleeping because the digestive process will raise your core body temperature. Protein takes longer to digest, and so the digestive process will create more heat when its protein you are digesting.

Protein bars, jerked meats, and peanut butter is easily packed and can be eaten without preparations so make sure you have ample food when traveling in cold weather. Carry hardtack as well, and make it at home, so you always have some in your pack.

Build a separate fire for signaling during the day. Your signal fire will be in the open and you will have to create as much smoke as you can, by using pine boughs, leaves and so on, but only after you have a good base built up otherwise you could extinguish the fire. Use colored garbage bags, and make three designs in the snow to signal distress. Use a signaling mirror if you hear aircraft overhead.

Wandering around trying to find your way back will cause exhaustion, cause you to sweat more and will increase your chances of injury. Stay put, keep a fire going, and improve your shelter.

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