Cold Weather Considerations – Part 4, by JM

(Continued from Part 4.)

Sleeping

Once you’ve got your shelter set up you’ll probably want to get some sleep. You need to start with ensuring you’re as insulated from the cold ground as possible. Earlier I mentioned that if there’s snow on the ground that can actually help insulate you, since snow is mostly air. Another trick is to place leaves or pine boughs down before you lay down your tent’s ground cloth/footprint to add another layer of insulation. Next you’re going to want some kind of sleeping pad to increase your comfort and add even more insulation. Companies like Klymit make sleeping pads that have insulation built right into the pad, but you can get almost as much insulation for less money (and slightly more comfort) by using a thicker 4” inflatable pad. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a nice thick sleeping bag will allow you to skimp on the ground insulation – cold weather sleeping bags rely on loft for insulation, and when you lay down you compress all of that loft under you, significantly reducing its effectiveness.

On top of all of that insulation you’ll typically use a sleeping bag; regardless of how cold you think it’ll get I recommend you get a sleeping bag rated for at least 0°F for winter camping, if not lower. Note that cold-weather sleeping bags don’t need to be expensive – Coleman has a nice one that I’ve used for the last few years that costs less than $50. It’s a bulkier and heavier than the more expensive ones, but it works well for me. In regards to temperature ratings, there are internationally recognized standards for how the temperature comfort of sleeping bags are rated (EN and ISO), but not all vendors utilize them and I find them somewhat complicated to follow. The rule of thumb I’ve always used is that if you sleep hot, use the manufacturers rating minus 10-20°F; if you sleep cold use the rating minus 20-30°F. There are several things you can do to increase your warmth while sleeping – you can keep your long underwear and socks on, put on a fleece or puffer layer (a friend of mine actually brings fleece PJs when she camps in the winter), or wrap your sleeping bag in a mylar space blanket to help keep the heat in. You can also use heat packs, electronic hand warmers or heated rocks inside the bag to warm things up even more (don’t use anything that relies on combustion inside a sleeping bag!).

I know there are folks that prefer to use a blanket or quilt when sleeping, which I find works well down to about 50°F, but when the temperature start to drop down towards freezing I find that nothing beats a toasty mummy bag.

Somewhat related to sleeping is sitting – if you’re moving around outside you’re eventually going to get tired and want to sit down to take a rest. As I mentioned before, conduction if the most efficient form of heat transfer, and if you’re sitting on a cold rock or log your body heat will be quickly leaving through the part of you that’s in contact. Some folks bring a small foam cushion to sit on, but I prefer something that packs smaller so I bring a Klymit V Seat Cushion. It rolls up into a really small package that I keep in an outer pocket and only requires a couple of quick breaths to inflate, and the air does a nice job of insulating me from whatever I sit on.

Fire

Fire can be a critical factor in survival in winter conditions – it can warm you up, boil water to make it safe, melt snow for water, provide light, keep animals at bay and cook your food. There’s a ton of good information available on fire starters and kindling so I won’t re-hash that, but there are a few considerations for winter. First is the availability of fuel; in winter time the weight of snow tends to break off dead branches so there’s usually a good supply of firewood around, assuming it isn’t buried under the snow. If the weather’s been below freezing for any length of time dead wood tends to dry out faster, due to the lower humidity.

Starting a fire in winter can be tough, especially with high winds and blowing snow. Using tools like ferro rods, matches or Zippo lighters requires a bit of manual dexterity, which tends to be greatly reduced when your fingers are cold, so practice with your tools in a controlled environment to get used to using them safely with gloves on. You can also use newer technology like the rechargeable arc lighters, which only require you to push a button to get a flame. Be very cognizant of where your fingers are when starting a fire, especially when wearing gloves made of flammable or temperature sensitive material like fleece or nylon. I know someone who got first-degree burns on his hand when the fleece gloves he was wearing caught on fire while he was starting a fire.

You’ve probably noticed that I didn’t include the old standby Bic lighter in the list above – that’s because butane (the fuel in Bic lighters) doesn’t do well in cold environments. As the temperature drops it begins losing pressure, and around 15°F it starts turning into a gel. Zippo lighters tend to do slightly better in cold weather, but if you’re going to use either one I recommend keeping it in a pocket as close to your body as possible, or warming it in your hand before using it. I tend to cheat in the winter and bring a small liquid fuel canister with gasoline to help starts fires, since when it’s cold you usually want a nice warm fire as quickly as possible. Also, it may seem obvious, but you shouldn’t start a fire directly on top of snow, since the heat will cause the fire to sink into the snow and go out. Try to clear an area down to the ground, find some large rocks for a base, or make a fire raft – basically several thick logs close together on top of the snow to provide a platform on which to build your fire.

If you’re relying on a fire for heat you’re going to want one that burns for a long time without having to constantly feed it more wood. There are a number of different options available:

  • A regular fire with some really thick logs added to it
  • An upside-down fire, where you have thick logs on the bottom and stack smaller stuff as you move up the pile. You start the fire on the top, and it slowly burns down through the thicker material.
  • Two thick logs stacked on top of each other with a smoldering fire burning between them.
  • A log torch, which is a thick section of log that’s been split, hollowed-out, then reassembled and lit on the inside.
  • A self-feeding fire with ramps on both sides that hold additional logs. I’ve never actually tried this one, but I would think you’d have an issue with the fire climbing up the logs stored on the ramps.

I recommend that you try out some different techniques to get a feel for what works best for you. Regardless of the approach you’ll most likely need to cut some thicker wood, so I usually bring a pocket chainsaw with me. You can also take a folding pocket saw or, if you want to cut really thick pieces of wood, a folding bow saw.

One of the potential weaknesses of fires is that they send out heat omni-directionally, so if you’re sitting next to one you’re only getting part of the heat they’re producing. One way to get more heat without building a bigger fire is to have a heat reflector on the opposite of the fire from where you’re sitting or sleeping. The best option for this is to set up your fire next to a large rock or stone face, but you can also pile up rocks or logs as an alternative. While the thought of using a reflective space blanket may occur to you, keep in mind that those are typically made of mylar, which melts at a very low temperature. A camping buddy of mine brings several large folded up sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil that he sets up as a heat reflector.

One other trick I learned from one of those survivalist TV shows a few years ago that actually works is to use the radiated heat from a fire. If you have a shelter and a piece of transparent or translucent plastic sheeting, you can hang the plastic over the entrance of your shelter and build your fire 3’-4’ away. The plastic lets the heat radiated from the fire in and helps keep the warmth in and the cold out. Getting the fire the right size and the right distance away so that it gives you enough heat but doesn’t melt the plastic takes a little bit of practice.

Food and Cooking

If you recall earlier I mentioned that your body burns food to produce heat, so staying well-fed is critical to operating in cold environments. The common recommendation is that an average male in reasonable condition undertaking a moderate to high level of activity should plan on 3500-5000 calories per day. However, just like everything else cold weather can impact your ability to transport, prepare and eat food. It may seem fairly obvious, but anything that contains any form of liquid will freeze if exposed to cold enough temperatures for a long enough period of time, and frozen food is hard to eat. This includes jerky, power bars, some stuff in trail mix, MREs, etc. A few years ago during a winter hike we ran into some folks in a big hurry on their way back to the trailhead, and we asked if there was a problem. It tuned out one of their party had some power bars in his backpack for a few hours and had broken a tooth when he bit into one. One obvious exception to this problem is freeze-dried foods – heck, they even have ‘freeze’ in their name! These can usually be re-constituted by adding some hot or boiling water.

Most food will revert to being edible when thawed, but being frozen can impact the taste or consistency. For example, the US military recommends that if MREs are frozen they should be eaten immediately upon thawing and not re-frozen. Speaking of MREs, the US military actually makes something called ‘Meals, Cold Weather’ (MCW) that are specifically designed for cold weather conditions. The meals provide 4500 calories per day versus the normal 3750, they limit the protein and sodium help to reduce the risk of dehydration, and they come in white packages so they’re easier to lose in the snow.

In order to keep your food from freezing you either need to provide heat or prevent it from losing the heat it has. Smaller foodstuffs like trail mix, power bars, jerky, etc. can be kept in an inner pocket to keep it warm, and larger items can be wrapped in insulation like your sleeping bag or a blanket in your backpack. You can also put food that’s you’re worried about freezing in an insulated lunch bag, which should help in anything except the coldest weather. For those of you that are tactically inclined they even make insulated molle pouches; they’re designed for baby supplies, but they will work fine for any kind of food.

In cold weather you’re most likely going to want at least one hot meal each day. My typical approach is to eat either a couple of millennium bars or a hot granola and blueberries meal along with some hot chocolate for breakfast, munch on trail mix, jerky, cheese, chocolate, crackers and/or survival tabs throughout the day, then prepare a hot freeze-dried meal in the evening. I also carry an insulated stainless steel water bottle inside an insulated carrier that I fill up with hot chocolate or decaffeinated tea at breakfast time so I can have something hot to drink during the day.

If you do want a hot meal (and you will) you’ll need some way to cook it. I mentioned the problem with butane lighters earlier, and the same issue applies to any compressed gas camping stove – they lose pressure as they get colder. Propane handles lower temperatures slightly better than butane, but neither is a really good choice for cooking in cold weather. Better options are either an alcohol stove, since denatured alcohol doesn’t freeze until something like -170°F, or a solid fuel (tablets or wood) stove. Solid fuel tablet stoves work well for heating up small amounts of water, but I prefer a wood stove or a grill over an open fire, since trees are plentiful where I live. A nice fire can also help warm you up, and it’s a great morale booster on a dark winter night. Keep in mind that with the lack of other smells in winter time, the smell of food cooking and a fire burning will be quite noticeable for a long distance.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 5.)




18 Comments

  1. Just a thought on power bars or Clif bars or any type of snack bars that many people carry in their packs or coat pockets for a treat, if you notice these all seem to have a very shinny surface on the inside of the package which could come in very handy as a signaling device in an emergency if lost. Trekker Out

  2. On a four wheeler, ATV, I always carry several fussee railroad flares for signalling or starting a fire. Saved my life one winter at 9000 feet; hypothermic and confused, but I could start a good fire with limited intelligence and little dexterity.

  3. This is certainly a fun series. Thank you for writing it.

    In our region with evergreen trees and heavy wet snows, people often build their fire right next to the trunk. The limbs do dissipate smoke, but oftentimes the snow drops right off the limbs in big sloppy chunks right onto the fire….. or your tent, if it is under the trees. Amusing to observe it happen to others, but not so much when you fire goes out and it is your meal and gear that gets sloppy wet. Observe and thrive, friends.

    Heavy snow this week closed off one of the few winter highways through the mountains. Snow-loaded trees keep breaking off powerlines so people in those remote areas lost power for several days to a week so far.

    It has amused all prepper types to see the resident interviewed on TV saying : ‘This is hell. No power means no telephone, no internet, no news. On a scale of one to 10 this is a 10. The governor should do something.” This, as the guy was sitting in his nice warm pickup truck with his wife.

    Buddy, it horrifies ME to see you saying this and confirming there are very many dangerous people out there with your mindset, which is a very short distance from looting and pillaging others.

  4. Back in the 70s on winter exercise in Alaska, the Army used an Artic overbag over the standard Mountain bag, That way you could use one or both depending on the temps, plus an insulated air mattress. Plus a gasoline burning stove to keep the air temp in the squad tent just below freezing.

    One night in the woods at Ft Wainwright as we were all tucking into our bags, there was a “whoosh” and all the air came out of a Sergeant’s mattress. That four or five inches of air was sorely missed, even with two sleeping bags and several cardboard C-Rat boxes under him.

  5. If Bic lighters is kept close to the body, they are reliable in cold weather, but I’ve never used one to light a fire in extreme cold weather, such as -20F. If kept warm in the hand while lighting tinder, I suspect it would be fine. Mine gets hung around the neck under the shirt. It is wrapped in duct tape that can be used as tinder.

    There are also high power butane lighters that produce a very hot flame. These can heat up very cold tinder to produce a flame. Yet I have to agree that a an old fashioned zippo lighter would be best. I have also used alcohol stoves for months at a time as a primary way of cooking. European armies have used alcohol stoves for decades. They work good. Use a 90 percent concentration or higher of any kind of alchol. A home made stove is easy to make and can be made with a variety of materials. One of the simplest and smartest is the Hobo Stove. Use a 1/2 pint stain or paint can. Roll up toilet paper and fill the inside. Cover the toilet paper wick with alcohol and light. To extinguish, simply place the lid over the can. Let cool, then reseal the lid on the can for a leak proof container for transport. Unused alcohol will not be wasted. A clean burning small alcohol stove can be a life saver and heat cold hands and be used under a tarp etc. Wax stoves also work.

    BTW, a hammock with 2 closed foam pads is good enough most of the time, if the temperature is higher than 10 degrees F. Hammocks can be used in steep terrain and other usual places. To further insulate a hammock set up close to the ground, pile pine boughs under and around it.

    There are many ways for getting it done. Eat a very greasy or fatty meal before bed time to give the body hours of fuel to increase it’s temperature. Extra lard and olive oil in the meal will do. I like the MSS (military sleep system) because of the good quality and versatility for the money. It is in my price range. The gortex bivy bag may not be best if used in dry cold conditions as it retains moisture in some cases. Experiment with and with out the bivy. It is good, but certainly mediocre compared to the best bages out there. Get the best if you can. The gortex bivy can be used with any bag and allows one to stay dry even if hidden deep in the bushes. The bivy is great for BOB. I prefer a tarp, yet would compromise to stay well hidden.

    1. I used a Bic lighter last week when camping out during a heavy wet snowstorm to try to light my campfire. I lit it, got a flame, and reached down to light my tinder. It lit the tinder which, died out immediately. On the second try, a huge wet snowflake fell onto it, and extinguished the flame and doused the strike area with water. After that the lighter wouldn’t wouldn’t work. I wasn’t in an emergency situation, but that got my heart beating quickly, as my mind raced and thought, “What if that had been my only fire source?” Thankfully, it wasn’t, I had water proof matches that lit my fire after using two of them. Always have multiple ways with you to start a fire.

      Lily

      1. That is a valuable story. Gotta have fire. I may start carrying a short chunk of road flare, and a zippo lighter. A good test of fire starting skills is to run out right after a rain storm, and start a fire with only a knife and lighter. It was a realty check for myself, and good motivation to carry an excess of ways to create spark and flame located in several places on the person and in the pack. 3 Bic lighters is not excessive to carry, ferro rod, butane blow torch, char cloth, cotton balls/petroleum jelly, small candle, dryer lint, duct tape, ranger bands, alcohol wipes, fuel tabs, storm matches, fat wood, alcohol stove etc.

      2. Forgot to mention that a fire can be started under a tarp in rainy or snowy weather. And if the tarp is high enough and at a very steep angle, a tiny fire can be maintained. The problem with synthetic materials is that sparks can put a hole in them, and they can catch fire. Good old Army duct that is treated with fire retardant, makes for indestructible tarps. Reproduction heavy canvas are not treated with fire retardant, but are far more durable than the light weight sil-nylon stuff. If car camping, or using other for conveyance, the heavy canvas is unbeatable, unless of course you gotta put on your back. Another option is a 1000 denier nylon tarp. I had one custom made. These are much more puncher proof, and a little more resistant to sparks, and can be made to be versatile with all kinds of tie outs, and will not rot like canvas, or duct. However, a 9×12′ weighs 9 pounds.

      3. Avalanche Lily – as much as I dislike the idea of relying on technology too much, I’ve actually pretty much switched to one of those electronic plasma lighters I referenced above as my primary fire starter. I’ve been using it for more than a year in all kinds of weather conditions, including -10F temperatures, and it’s always come through. I still carry a bic lighter and ferro rod for backup, but I really like the plasma’s ease of use, reliability and the fact it’s easily recharged from a USB battery or a small solar panel.

  6. Just got home from the second hand store, don’t over look these places. Bought one short sleeve and two long sleeve tee’s 100% silk in excellent condition for just a little over 12 dollars total. getting ready to put them in the washer. Love these stores, never know what kinda bargain your gonna find. Trekker Out

  7. A bad idea to wrap sleeping bag with mylar ‘Space Blanket’. While it does reflect heat back, it also prevents water vapor from leaving, causing the bag to become soggy over time and reduces the bag’s rating. So be sure to zip open bag and air out during day to remove as much moisture as possible. Socks and a head cover will help you sleep warm.

    Thank you for writing this – some good thoughts and feedback read.

  8. Not sure the concept of putting things inside sleeping bag in back pack to keep from freezing. It it does not produce heat, or have heat, it can not store heat within an insulated area. In other words, it’s a cold environment, equal to the outside temps, over time.

    1. Anonymous – the logic behind wrapping things in your sleeping bag is to provide enough insulation to keep what you wrap from losing whatever heat it already has and hopefully reducing the chances of it freezing. How well it works is going to depend a lot on conditions. That’s actually one of the things the US military recommends in their cold-weather manuals for protecting MREs.

  9. Thanks for the tip about the affordable Coleman sleeping bag. I’ve been looking for a cold weather bag as mine is a summer-weight “car-camping” type of bag. This one I can actually afford! It may not be as good as some of the higher-quality expensive ones but it’s got to be better in colder weather than my present bag!

  10. Be careful using wax based products (sawdust logs, paraffin stoves) in an enclosed environment. Inhaling a lot of it can be fatal, the wax coats the inside of the lungs. OTOH, good old cheap waxed paper is some of the best tinder out there.

  11. Yep, setting your glove on fire is for real. One -20 campfire by the river, I noticed something odd. Then, I jammed my flaming mitten into the snow. The leather shell was now a withered mess. I never felt the heat through the layers of wool liners. A friend helped me find some leather to make a new one, that was never as good as the original. Sigh.

    Carry on

  12. While in the Guard, we did a winter overnight training in -20 cold. For sleeping, we first laid down visqueen as a vapor barrier. Over that we had our sleeping mat and both wool blankets folded to fit the mat. Next, we fluffed the crap out of the Extreme Cold Weather sleeping bags. Slept in long underwear and socks. Stayed warm all night, and only had a 6″ melted spot (deer bed) on the frozen ground under my hips. Other guys tried their Therm-a-rest pads and other gear, and wound up cold all night, with torso sized deer beds under them. I’ve learned the lesson of having 7 times the amount of insulation below you than above. Wish they would have taught that back in Boy Scouts.

    For in the car, I keep a 1″ neoprene pad, wool blanket, and either my military mountain bag or a 15 degree bag. The mountain bag (50 degree) can go to about 20 degrees before it gets cold.

  13. Colemans Surplus has very good thermos bottles on sale. Solid fuel bars are very good but the foil pouches puncture easily and degrade Fast. Try a mylar sheet inside the bottom of a bivy bag-no heat loss to ground,no wet spot to give up opsec(we know how many by the camp site),no excess condensation inside bag(only on bottom).

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