Winter Survival- Part 1, by R.C.

In this three-part series on winter survival, we will examine surviving the winter on foot, in your vehicle, and in your home. We have all seen the videos of the recent storms and how even though the news have been reporting nonstop on the dangers of winter travel, the general public is out in it woefully unprepared. If you are reading this from your warm armchair or desk, I’m probably preaching to the choir. In the past I have been a snowplow operator, a first responder, and an instructor of CPR/First Aid and wilderness first aid in the Intermountain West. In my current line of work I have to occasionally work outside, and I am an avid outdoorsman.

On Foot

Rule #1 is that when the local authorities tell you to stay off the roads and stay home, please do so. I can’t tell you how many times I was plowing snow or responding to vehicle off-the-road calls when those people probably did not need to be out in the snow. There are a couple of sayings I used to teach Boy Scouts about winter survival:

  • There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear,
  • An Eskimo can’t afford to sweat, and
  • Cotton is rotten.

There are three types of winter gear I own— work gear, hunting gear, and ski gear. Yes, you can use one for the other, but we will stay with the prepper motto “three is two, two is one, and one is none”. I could ski in my carharts and work in my ski gear, but I choose not to. YMMV.

I want to stay with the rule of three’s for layering, starting from head to toe. First is a base layer, second is an insulating layer, and third is a waterproof/windproof layer. We will start with the head; even in the winter I still wear a mesh ballcap on top of my head. This lets the heat escape from my head if I’m moving. If I slow down or start getting cold I’ll put on an ear warmer or fleece/thinsulate hat over top of my ballcap. Then I add a neck gaiter to keep heat from leaving my face and neck area. If it is raining or snowing, I will wear a waterproof boonie or put my hood up. Don’t forget sunglasses or ski/military goggles; the winter sun reflects up and can burn your eyes and exposed skin. Please don’t forget sun block and lip stuff with a high spf. Some of worst sun burns I’ve seen in scouts have been from winter outings.

The core layer is next, using the same rule of three. Start with a base layer of polypro that breathes, then an insulating layer like fleece and finally a waterproof breathable outerwear like Gore-tex or similar membrane. I keep both gloves and mittens with extra liners in my pack to mix and match to current conditions found. The beauty of a three layer system is that you can put on or take off layers as need be. By keeping your core warm and dry and not sweating much, you can spend hours outside and still be comfortable. The feet can be the most difficult part to keep warm. Again, think about three layers. Start with polypro liners, then a pair of wool blend socks, followed by waterproof boots. I use the rubber mil surplus mickey boots or a leather Gore-tex insulated boots, depending what I’m doing that day. You can carry chem toe heaters or battery heated soles as well as extra socks if you have the room in your pack.

What to carry in regards to your EDC and/or your get home bag can fill pages of this and other blogs. This is what I try to carry. I’m a big guy carrying a big pack, probably too heavy for me and most people. Yes, I have a problem, I know. On my person I always have my phone, Leatherman, rescue knife, compact .40 handgun, extra magazine, a lighter, lip stuff, paracord belt, watch, ball cap, and photogray type eye glasses. I normally wear Gore-tex boots and comfortable clothing I could hike in year round. I keep extra cash hidden away and a pen and paper to write things down so I don’t forget. I carry a small amount of first-aid supplies in my wallet; this includes knuckle band aids, small triple antibiotic, CPR barrier, and a threaded needle. I can use the needle for clothing repair, to get a splinter out, or even to pop a blister. Just heat needle, cover with triple antibiotic, poke through the blister, and leave thread sticking out boths sides covered with triple antibiotic. Then, cover with a band aid and/or moleskin. Walking in snow boots can give you blisters and hot spots. Another scout trick is to put duct tape on your heals or other parts of your feet before you start hiking. If you don’t want to pop blisters that’s fine; just stop and deal with any feet problems as they arise. I carry a small flashlight on my carabiner key chain as well as a light on my phone. I can start a fire with my bic lighter or with my small frenzel lens in my big boy wallet. The lens is also helpful for reading small print or getting splinters out. I always carry at least one camo bandana in my back pocket with my spare .40 magazine.

In winter survival your water should be carried inside your clothes, if you can. I’ll wear a small camelback-style water carrier on my back so it does not freeze, or I’ll put a couple water bottles in my pockets. Then I carry extra water in my pack with a way to treat the water as well as melt the water. I carry a stainless steel water bottle so I can melt snow or thaw out ice in my container. To melt snow, I can start a fire or use an alcohol stove, like an esbit stove, or use their fuel tabs. You should have three ways to to start a fire and three ways to treat water. Using fire to boil water and chem tabs along with neutralizing tablets or a filter, like a small Sawyer filter, will get the job done. Dehydration is deadly in the winter, so you have to force yourself to stay hydrated. The worst dehydration I’ve seen has been scouts in the winter again. Have a buddy system, if you can, and keep track of the amont water you drink. Keep track of how much you pee as well.

The winter pack can quickly get rather large. I use an ILBE camo pack that can handle bulky winter clothes and gear. Inside my pack, I carry a winter sleeping bag like a miltary sleep system with a bivy sack, and Gore-tex rain gear with suspenders, polypro base layer, a hat, and gloves in the pockets. My first aid kit is large and heavy and used as a teaching aid. For food, I carry survival bars, jerky, trail mix, and peanut butter. Think pemmican, which is how American Indians survived the winter. I also carry some oatmeal, coffee, and a couple cup-a-soup packages. I carry a headlamp, spare batteries, and an inflatable solar lantern. There is also a large belt knife and long handle tomahawk as well as a container of bear spray. I carry a tarp along with a bunch of 550 cord attached to the outside of the pack. If I feel the need, I can include my kit for food procurement, which contains snares, a fishing kit with yo-yo reels, and a slingshot with extra bands and ammo. For nav & coms, I have a compass and maps, GPS radio combo, cell phone, and small wind up radio with charger cables and a power pack to recharging my cell phone. This is another heavy kit that adds more weight. For hygiene, I carry tp and hand sanitizer along with wet wipes. If you are going to carry emergency space blankets, please don’t buy the cheap ones. Purchase higher quality bivy sack types, then put in a couple 55-gal heavy trash can liners. You can cut a slit for your face to breathe. Winter survial on foot can be a frightening experience if you are not prepared and are not familiar with cold weather environments. Here is a quick review check list for on foot wilderness survival.

  • Three layers for head, body, hands, and feet.
  • Eye protection, sun & lip stuff, first aid kit, hygiene kit.
  • Three ways to start a fire and melt and treat water.
  • Extra food and a way to cook and make warm drinks.
  • A way to shelter from the cold.
  • Three ways to defend yourself and obtain food.
  • Three ways to see in the dark.
  • Three ways to navigate and communicate.

In part 2 of winter survival, we will look at winter survival in your vehicle. Then, in part three, we will look at winter survival at home. As we have said before and we told our scouts, “Good judgment comes from experience, and alot of experience comes from bad judgment.”