(Continued from Part 4.)
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 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.)