In 1812, when Napoleon Bonaparte set out to invade Russia, he had conquered most of Europe and had hundreds of thousands of men at his disposal. Enter the disastrous Russian winter. The early winter caused Napoleon’s army to concur heavy losses and were nearly wiped out completely from the face of the Earth for winter survival.
This goes on to show how terrible winter conditions can be in the wilderness, without adequate preparations. Even if you’re well-equipped, sub-zero temperatures, heavy snow, and frozen lakes and rivers can pose a threat to your survival. So you need to be prepared for battling the harshest of conditions to increase your chances of survival. Not only does it require immense skill, but you also need to be wary of mistakes as every little thing can help you make it or break it. This article takes a quick look at how you can battle against nature’s forces, and be best prepared for winter survival.
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The Basics of Winter Survival
Whether you’ve got a broken down car or lost your way whilst skiing, the essence of surviving winter is just like any other. In winter conditions, one of your topmost priorities would be to stay warm and dry. Cold temperatures mean that if you’re not careful, frostbite and hypothermia can set in, which can kill you faster than you can say ‘survival’. Shelter, food, water, and fire, – all of these are important. But first, we need to take a look at preparations beforehand.
Inform Others Beforehand
Going on a skiing trip? Driving through the country for hours? Taking a hike in the woods on the outskirts? No matter where you’re going, you need to let someone know. Tell them where you’re going, the path you’re taking and how long you might be gone for – so that if things go south, they can inform the authorities.
Wear Appropriate Clothing
Your first shelter comes from your clothing, so it matters what you wear. Generally, you’re better off having several layers of light clothing than two heavy layers. This is because several layers causes good ventilation, and air works as an insulator to keep you warm. However, if you start perspiring, make sure to remove layers. Sweat makes you just as much as vulnerable to hypothermia as ice-cold water.
Wear Heavy Boots
This might seem obvious, but boots are extremely important in the snow. Toes and feet are one of the most vulnerable parts of the body. The cold will halt your blood flow in these areas first, making walking difficult. Comfortable but warm boots can make a difference.
Tents are the best shelters in winter. A good four-season waterproof, windproof winter can keep you cozy and protect you from rain and sleet. If you don’t have a tent, things would be a bit more difficult, but not to fret! You can still build your own shelter. This means that you can build yourself a snow wall, a snow cave or a quinzhee.
Scouting for a good location for your shelter is of utmost importance. Whether you’re pitching a tent or building a snow cave, remember not to do it in the mouth of a valley or canyon. These areas are more exposed to cold air, hurting your chances of staying warm or lighting a fire. You can take the help of natural resources – caves, fallen trees, pits – they can all provide a natural barrier against the cold.
Some tips and tricks to keep in mind:
- Make shelter your first priority. Insulation is a necessity in frigid temperatures.
- Make sure your tent platform is as flat as possible, to avoid annoying lumps of snow.
- Don’t sleep directly on the snow, as you would lose body heat through the ground. Make yourself a bed with boughs or leaves.
- Don’t lose your shelter. If you go out of your shelter for food or water, make sure you leave signs or signals so that you can find your way back.
You might also want to read: How To Survive An Avalanche
Food and Water
Once you’ve secured yourself a nice and cozy shelter, it’s time to look for food. Food and water are needed for energy, which can help you to carry on and stay warm. Besides, who can deny that a full tummy is a booster for motivation?
If you’ve got some energy-rich food rations packed in your backpack, now is the time to use them. But even if you don’t, there are several edibles that you can find, even in barren snowy conditions. Common examples of winter foods include rosehips, watercress, pine needles, and cattails. If you’re traveling in the mid-Atlantic region, you’re likely to find some wild onions. Foraging might turn out to be difficult and energy-consuming though. In that case, you can resort to fishing and trapping.
Winter might give you the idea that water is less of a priority, but you’re wrong. Energy-intensive tasks also mean that you’re more likely to sweat. Besides being a risk for hypothermia, sweating will also cause you to dehydrate. If lakes, ponds, and creeks are all frozen over, you can melt ice, or snow (if it comes to that), to make drinkable water.
Some tips and tricks to consider food and water are:
- Remember to disinfect or boil your water. You do not want to be sick in the middle of nowhere, alone.
- Stay hydrated, even if the supply of water is an issue. If your urine turns yellow or brown, it indicates you’re becoming dehydrated and it’s time to take a sip.
- Do not eat ice or snow directly. They are sources of water, but direct consumption is a surefire way to develop hypothermia.
Winter Survival: Fire
A third crucial element of your winter survival is fire. Fire provides you with warmth, gives off light, wards off predators and works as a signal to inhabitations for help. There are so many uses of fires that it should be a top priority when you find yourself a shelter. It’s always best to keep fire-starting materials at hands, such as a dry lint, matches or a lighter.
In case you don’t have anything to burn, there are natural sources that can work as a substitute for tinder (not the dating app, though). Dried moss and, leaf litter, and small dry twigs can be used to create a makeshift tinder and light it up. Once the flame catches on, add larger branches to keep the flame ablaze. Building a pit out of rocks around the fire can help to protect it from the chilly wind and falling snow.
When building a fire, safety is important. It’d be wise to keep these things in mind when starting a fire:
- Don’t try to burn a fire in a windy area or directly on the snow. These can lead to disastrous results.
- Keep the flame alive. Add small branches to it when it seems to die out because keeping the spark going is easier than rekindling an old flame.
Winter Survival: Protection from Animals
Often overlooked when it comes to survival in the winter, but some animals can pose a serious threat if you’re lost and stranded alone. Some animals hibernate during the winter, but many don’t. For example, there is a misconception about bears is that they hibernate during winter. And although they do go into a dormant state, bear attacks can still happen.
Since we’re already talking about bears, let’s take a look more closely. If you’re traveling in the backcountry, your best chances are running into grizzlies. Other than bear scat or bear tracks, you find large depressions with flattened leaves on the ground, congratulations! You’ve discovered a bear den. If you run into a bear, “bear” in mind to:
- Remain calm. Do not run, as they can outrun you.
- Do not climb trees. Black bears are good climbers as well.
- Respect them. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.
Getting attacked by wolves or mountain lions are even more likely, but they can still happen. Wolf tracks or a half-eaten carcass are good indications that a pack of wolves is nearby. Finding mountain lions are a bit trickier as they are often silent. When they do growl, they sound more like a giant house cat. If you ever run into a wolf pack or a mountain lion, remember the following:
- Do not run away! This makes you look like prey.
- Make yourself appear larger and scary. In the case of wolves, throwing sticks and stones might cause them to back off. For lions, only get aggressive if they attack you first.
In conclusion, when you’re trying for winter survival, you need for prioritizing your essentials. You need to plan out your moves carefully, as they’re all equally important. If you’re careful, a search party would eventually come looking for you. However by staying put and sustaining yourself, not only do you make it easier for yourself to survive, but also increase the chances of the emergency crew finding you.