Winter Survival In The Wilderness

How to survive sub zero winter temperatures in the wilderness, whether waiting for rescuers or having a weekend getaway.

Wherever we have snow in the Western Hemisphere, it seems we now have winter camping excursions and winter survival training. How many drivers on snowbound side roads, snowmobilers, cross country skiers, or occupants of small planes have had the training? Probably too few.

Despite a person's lack of training or experience, taking a few precautions and heeding some tips can make the difference between surviving safely, complete with all fingers and toes, or not.

The three keys to winter survival are shelter, water, and warmth. The circumstances that make the knowledge necessary may vary. It may be a vehicle break-down, a wrong turn in the bush that makes an overnight camp essential, or even a planned excursion.

If the trip is planned, this information should be unnecessary, provided one has prepared systematically. Use a checklist. Just don't make a list of items, check them off as they are packed. Not much is worse than sitting shivering on a snowbank in 10 below weather and thinking, "I had matches on my list but I left them on the kitchen table."

Two items can get a person through a winter night or two in the winter wilderness: a good knife and some dry matches or a lighter.

A snow shelter should be the first priority when faced with the onset of night or the probability of countless hours stranded in the cold. Several different kinds can be built, depending on how long one has and, of course, on experience, since some, such as igloos, require special skills and, for that matter, tools which may not be available - not everyone, for example, carries a snow saw.

If a snow shelter is to be part of a planned camping trip, practicing beforehand is advisable. At least then, if it collapses, the chastened builder can scamper inside the house and warm up before the next attempt. The winter bush does not give up many second chances.

The quickest easiest snow shelter to construct is a snow trench. Dig straight down about three feet, shoulder width and a little longer than body size, piling the snow on the windward side to form a wind break. If the snow isn't deep enough, dig to the ground and scoop up adjacent snow to provide a wall. Not to be forgotten, is that snow is a better insulator than the average tent. If materials are available for flooring, for example, extra clothing, that's great. If not, then a layer of spruce or other vegetation is a good bet. Bevelling the trench from a narrow opening provides more sleep space and the smaller opening makes for less heat loss. If possible, cover the opening.

Proper location for the snow shelter is important. Protection from any wind and level surface are both considerations. Rocks or trees can provide a break against the wind. Conifer trees are particularly good. If snow is deep enough, snow trenches and snow holes can take advantage of lower branches for extra shelter and support "" burrow underneath them.

One important caution: do not construct a shelter against metal, such as a car or snowmobile body, thinking it will provide a great windbreak. Yes, it is a great windbreak, but metal surfaces also suck up heat - their insulation value is nil.

Once the shelter is prepared, a fire should be the next priority. Dig out a small area for the fire, preferably with a shelf for sitting - one may as well be comfortable. It should be deep enough that when a person is sitting, his or her head is out of the wind. When you judge you have gathered enough tinder, kindling, and good dry pieces, gather more. It may be needed before morning, especially if the weather turns more nasty.

The good knife? What's that? Sturdy, substantial, and sharp. It may already have been the only available digging tool for the shelter; now it is required for trimming off dry kindling and sometimes larger dead tree branches. Start the fire small, tepee style, feeding it slowly, eventually with the larger pieces. This assumes the matches or lighter are available.

To this point, the exercise will have kept the person warm, if not sweating. The fire will help prevent hypothermia and dry out clothing, but it does nothing for dehydration. In these weather conditions, some experts suggest, a gallon of liquids daily is essential, even more if solid foods are unavailable.

Ideally, a nearby stream or river may be open. If not, then snow must be melted. Almost any container will do. It need not be set directly on the fire, but if close enough to not only melt the snow but heat the water, more heat calories will be obtained. If containers are unavailable, snow wrapped in cloth and placed near the fire will melt, saturating the cloth, to be sucked for the water.

Two items, three necessities: these provide an excellent start on surviving some of the worst conditions nature has to offer.

© High Speed Ventures 2011