Winter Outdoor Survival Lessons Learned, by Jim N.

Darkness was rapidly settling in, I was soaking wet, and the temperature was falling as fast as the snow.  There were still about 8 miles of very rough country between me and my truck and I was flat out smoked from hiking all day in deep snow at high elevation.  I realized I could not hope to navigate by headlamp the many blow down trees and steep canyon walls that separated me from my truck in my current condition.  While I realized the seriousness of my situation, I was not particularly worried and silently thanked the Lord I had practiced the skills essential to surviving in the wild and carried the appropriate gear on my back.  As I quickly went about the tasks required to set up a field expedient bivouac camp, I contemplated the many similar situations I had been through in my life were the main goal and focus was to not die.

Curled up comfortably in my emergency blanket with my face towards my fire and my back to a large log serving as a heat reflector, I realized that without the proper skills and some basic gear the situation good have been deadly.  The sounds of a distant wolf howl in the night reminded me of the thin veneer between polite society and the wild, were man is reduced to the basic necessities of survival; food, fire, and shelter.  In my experience, most people fail to realize how delicate the balance of our society is and how quickly they can be thrust into a situation where the main focus is survival.     

Not dying has frequently been a priority of mine while fighting in Iraq as an Infantry team leader and designated long range marksman, followed by a career in law enforcement in western Montana.  My love of hiking, hunting, and camping has resulted in many hours spent in the wilderness of western Montana and northern Idaho.  While enjoying these pursuits, my focus has had to frequently switch from hunting and camping to not dying.  While some of these instances were indeed emergencies caused by bad decisions and a general lack of intelligence, some of them were self induced to practice survival skills in the wild.  After surviving several life threatening situations while hunting and camping with me, many spouses of my friends no longer allow their husbands to go hunting or camping with me.  I have had to resort to marketing my frequent hunting trips as “hands on survival courses” graded on a pass or fail depending on whether they make it back alive or not.

I have an affliction that is probably encouraged from reading way too many books about Mountain Men and Native Americans that causes me to constantly push myself to the limits and test myself by surviving in the wilderness with minimal equipment in varied terrain and all kinds of weather.  Frequent trips into the wilderness to practice survival skills have resulted in a fairly good working knowledge of what actually works when the chips are down versus what just sounds good in a book read by the warmth of a fireplace.  After spending his childhood tramping around the woods with me and camping with minimal equipment, my son decided to join the Marine Corps to relax for a while.  He’s joked that after some of our hunting trips, the Marines should be a walk in the park.

There have been countless books and articles written about what to carry in your survival pack and how to survive if lost in the woods.  I don’t plan on reinventing the wheel and will not bore you with writing a field manual on the many varied tasks and skills required to survive in the wild.  I would like to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned and some of the items I always carry whenever I go into the backcountry along with a few essential skills that I’ve found to be absolutely necessary for survival.

Knowledge and skills-    
First and foremost, is acquiring the knowledge and necessary outdoor skills and then practicing them until you can do them when you are wet, cold, hungry, and tired.  Gear and gadgets won’t save your tail when the cow chips hit the fan, but proper training will.  Knowing you already posses the knowledge and skills to survive gives a person the confidence of knowing that despite being a in a tight situation, they will persevere and come out okay. The confidence gained from practiced outdoor skills allows a person to control their fear and keep it from turning into panic, which can be deadly.  I heard a saying while in the Army and have found it to be true; “people don’t rise to the occasion, they fall back on their level of training”.  It still baffles me how many people I run across who not only have untested gear in their backpack, but have never actually went out and practiced building a fire and shelter in different kinds of weather, or tried to hunt and gather food from the forest.  I can’t stress it enough; a cool head and skills developed through research and practice are more valuable than the latest fancy outdoor gear.

Clothing –
Speaking of fancy outdoor gear, the older I get and the more experience I gain, the more I prefer traditional gear and clothing, with a few notable exceptions such as Gortex and commercial fire starters.  I prefer to wear wool because of its ability to maintain warmth even when wet, and let me tell you, you are almost always wet in these types of situations.  In every serious emergency survival situation that I have been involved in, I have been wet, cold, and tired.  Survival situations hardly ever occur when it’s warm and sunny outside; it’s always when it’s cold, wet, and poor visibility.  For this reason, waterproofing yourself and your gear is essential.  I keep a Gortex rain coat in my pack for wet weather and also to cut the wind. 

Gear –
After having my pack soaked a few times, I have taken to storing everything in my pack in dry bags.  I have found that items stored in zip lock baggies will only be water resistant, not waterproof.  The friction created from items rubbing together inside the backpack over time will create small holes in the baggies that will let in water.  A good light weight alternative is to obtain a rubberized military surplus laundry bag and put the bag inside your backpack to serve as a liner.  If your pack isn’t waterproof, it doesn’t take much water to leave you with soaked gear that’s as worthless as a politician’s promise. 

I won’t go into an all inclusive list of gear I carry in my pack, but I will mention a few items that I always carry when in the woods.  Like I mentioned earlier, I’m kind of old school and I always carry a light hatchet when in the woods.  This single tool is indispensable when building shelter, gathering firewood, field dressing big game, and countless other camp chores.  I have found the weight of the hatchet to be offset by the many tasks made easier with its use.  A metal cup is always with me in my pack.  Stored inside the cup are a small folding tin stove, fuel tablets, waterproof matches, coffee, and instant oatmeal.  A headlamp with extra batteries makes gathering firewood in the dark much easier and is considered by me to be essential gear.  I have found a good quality emergency blanket to be worth its weight in gold when spending an unexpected cold night in the woods.  Don’t bother with purchasing the super thin, shiny emergency blankets that fold up to the approximate size of a postage stamp.  These blankets tear easily and are almost impossible to wrap up in without virtually disintegrating.  Keep in mind that you are in an out of your blanket many times during the night stoking the camp fire.  Pay the extra money and buy a decently reinforced emergency blanket.  A quality compass never leaves my pack unless I’m looking at it to determine how far the elk tracks I’ve been following have led me astray.  Last but certainly the most important, are fire making items.  I carry at least three methods of starting a fire along with commercial fire starting material.  Cigarette lighters, waterproof matches, magnesium and steel fire block, along with a number of “Wet Fire” fire starter tablets go with me whenever I venture into the wild. 

Fire –
I have used many different types of fire starters in all kinds of weather conditions and have settled on the “Wet Fire” brand tablets because of availability, lightness, and they will light with a spark even in wet conditions.  I used to use the old military Trioxane fuel tablets, but have recently had a hard time finding them in my area (you can still find them through on-line military surplus outlets).  There are also some homemade options for fire starter that work very well.  My best advice is to practice with several varieties and decide what works best for you.  Remember, just because you have matches and fire starter, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to start a fire in wet and windy conditions unless you’ve practiced the skill beforehand.  There are many other items you may choose to carry in your survival pack, but the aforementioned items are ones that I have used repeatedly in real life survival situations and found them to be essential in making an emergency situation survivable.

Food and Water –
Without water you’re not going to make it very far at all in a life and death situation.  I’ve had to sip water from a moose track in the mud simply to stay hydrated enough to function properly.  There is a plethora of compact lightweight water filtration systems available nowadays that are relatively cheap.  I would advise you to steer away from the systems that are not free flowing.  Trying to suck the water through some of these systems is painfully slow and does not refresh you like being able to actually drink from a bottle or cup.  I usually carry water purification tablets because they take up virtually no space in my pack and weigh almost nothing.  If you choose to go the water purification route, carry two water bottles.  With two bottles, you can have one ready to use and the other bottle can contain water that is in the process of being treated via the tablets.  I usually carry a variety of lightweight, high energy foods such as: oatmeal, jerky, power bars, trail mix, etc… 

A note on food and water; you can only carry a limited supply and if you’re in a situation for an extended period of time you will have to have already learned the skills required to obtain these resources from your surroundings.  If you haven’t already, learn to fish and hunt.  In a pinch where vital calories are needed, it’s probably better to focus your attention on hunting and fishing rather than constructing snares.  Success with snares is a numbers game.  You generally have to construct quite a few snares in order to actually catch something.  There are probably many people out there that are better trappers than me, but I just haven’t had much luck with snares in survival situations.   

Shelter –
In short; situation, terrain, weather, and time available, dictates what type of shelter to build.  A book could be written on the various types of shelters and how to construct them.  My best advice is to practice building a few, and find what types you are comfortable building and then refine those until you can build them in a hurry under severe conditions.  Location is one of the key factors in shelter construction.  Once you make the decision to stop, or the decision is made for you, locating the best place to bivouac is a critical skill that comes with time and practice.  As a general rule, stay off ridge tops and mountain peaks due to the wind and try and move uphill from creek bottoms and lakes to get more sun and warmer temperatures.  Finding a spot close to water with an abundance of easily accessible firewood is also advantageous.    

As you can see, I haven’t provided an itemized list of what to carry in a survival pack or included instructions on how to build a shelter and fire if lost in the woods.  There are many resources that have gone into great detail on these subjects and I could write an entire article on fire building alone.  I also did not address the various outdoor technological gadgets such as GPS units.  While these items are useful, anything mechanical is prone to breakage or malfunction when you need it most.  I have found that most people experience varying degrees of anxiety when they are separated from today’s technology and their creature comforts.  There is no substitute for traditional survival skills to help alleviate this anxiety and provide the confidence required to perform calmly in a bad situation.  Finally, the only way to obtain these skills and confidence is to get out and practice the tasks required to survive in the wild before you actually have to use them.