Winter Survival Tips – Part Two

In the last article about winter survival, we conveyed the necessity of being properly dressed for a survival emergency. In Part Two of this series we want to address another universal principle of winter survival.


It’s easier to stay warm and dry than it is to get warm and dry.

Picture the scenario: It’s December and you’re heading out to be with family for the Christmas holiday season. The car is loaded with gifts. Also, you are loaded down with clothes, shoes and accessories for Christmas parties, church services, etc. Your car has just slid off the road into the ditch. It’s raining/sleeting/snowing and the weather report indicates it’s going to get worse, much worse, over the next several days. There’s no other traffic as most people are staying home. There’s little to no cell phone signal, so calling a tow truck is not an option.

Like so many of us, who travel from point A to point B during the winter, the beginning and end of the journey is filled with warmth, light, friends and family. But, what we often fail to consider are the many miles of relatively empty, wooded, mountainous or just open terrain in between.

When faced with a winter survival situation, staying in your car is not necessarily the best option. Your car is a big metal object with poor insulation qualities, and there is only so much fuel in the gas tank. Staying near your car is a better option if there is enough wood for a fire and a place where you can shelter from the storm.

Emergencies require us to make choices. Do you stay in the car, running the engine for about ten minutes every hour to run the heater until the gas runs out or do you find a place close to your vehicle where you can (hopefully) start a fire and build a shelter? Or, do you do both, staying in your car until the storm is over and then seek better shelter?

Let’s continue the scenario: You know that your car is the first thing that rescuers will find after you are missed and a search is initiated. So, making a decision, you wait until a lull in the storm, you get out of your car, (You did remember to dress to survive, didn’t you?) open the trunk, dig past the presents to get your winter survival kit out, then leaving a note for your rescuers, you head to the nearest wooded area to find a windbreak and begin to prepare your shelter and get a fire started. (Note: If this scenario seems implausible the author would encourage you to read the tragic winter survival story of James Kim and his family traveling from Seattle, Washington to their home in San Francisco, California after the Thanksgiving holiday in 2006.)

Avoid hypothermia

The number one killer of people in the outdoors is hypothermia. This is where your body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit or 35 degrees Celsius. There are four stages of hypothermia and they are listed as mild, moderate, severe and profound. Needless to say, in a winter survival scenario, you want to avoid all four. Any stage of hypothermia is potentially dangerous and may bring great discomfort and suffering or even death.

Although hypothermia can be caused by several factors, being wet in a winter survival situation truly complicates the problems that the survivor faces. The key is to avoid getting wet if at all possible. If you can stay dry, it is much easier to stay warm, as your body will naturally generate heat from body fat and calories consumed. Stay sheltered in your car, under a ledge or overhang or under a large coniferous tree. Use whatever you have at hand to keep dry.

Outside of precipitation, one of your biggest enemies in winter survival is perspiration. Wet clothing will remove heat from your body approximately 25 times faster than dry clothing. Whatever you do, whether shelter building, fire starting or just walking/hiking, don’t allow yourself to begin to sweat. Sweating lowers your core temperature (as its designed to do), causes you to lose precious water from your body and makes your inner layer(s) of clothing wet. (Remember, it’s easier to stay warm and dry than it is to get warm and dry.)

Sometimes people will argue about what you need to do first in a winter survival situation. Do you start a fire or do you build a shelter? The answer is that it depends on your situation. If it is cold but dry, then a fire is what you would build first, but if there is any chance of precipitation, then the choice would be to build a shelter.

From experience, the author can affirm that it takes a long time to dry clothes by an outside fire during the winter. Also, having experienced mild to moderate hypothermia, he can also affirm that it is much easier to stay dry than to try to get dry. Fortunately, in our situation we had a backpack with dry clothes, a propane backpacking stove, water in a canteen and hot chocolate in a pouch, which took very little time to prepare. (Note: Hot chocolate is a better drink in winter survival than hot tea or coffee. Tea and coffee are diuretics and will make you lose water faster. Water is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer because it is a catalyst in metabolizing fat and digesting food to keep you warm. Also, hot chocolate is better because the fat content will help you stay warm.) Even with the dry clothes and hot chocolate, it took the better part of an hour before the symptoms of hypothermia went away.

So, if you find yourself in a winter survival situation, don’t allow yourself to get wet. Take steps to guard against the weather outside and also to ensure that you don’t heat up too much from the inside. And remember, a little preparation and planning go a long way. If at all possible, it’s best to avoid being in a winter survival situation in the first place! – by James Bender
Source: The Pathfinder Store

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