Offgrid Survival Snow Worries: 7 Survival Tips for Hiking in Winter
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When people think of winter, they think of holidays, family, snowmen, and skating. What can be a fun time can also become a disaster if you’re ill prepared. Things that seem trivial the rest of the year can become a life-or-death scenario when the mercury plunges. Sometimes a sudden emergency becomes a double whammy if it occurs during inclement weather. Did you prepare for both?
It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling by car to a mountain resort and have a breakdown, or if civil unrest has forced you to move, the time of year or location in which these events unfold can create additional complications. If you planned only for what might happen during favorable conditions, you’re only halfway there — and that may cost you more than you bargained for.
If you need to bug out on foot in frigid conditions, heed these seven recommendations so you can make it safely to your destination. As a Canadian Army veteran and outdoors enthusiast, this author learned them the hard way and reviews them every winter.
As obvious as not eating yellow snow may be, some people don’t realize that eating snow in general is a bad idea. The unsuspecting or desperate might eat snow thinking it’s a safe source of water. However, consuming snow lowers your body temperature, which has cascading effects. Your body’s internal furnace has to fire itself up to melt the snow and to warm you by using additional calories that you shouldn’t be wasting.
We’ve all been there as children — eating mouthfuls of snow only to get a brain freeze and the shivers. Instead, you should do everything in your power to warm the snow until it melts. A metal vessel (i.e. a stainless steel water bottle) and methods to make a fire can aid in this. Don’t have a lighter or ferrocerium rod? Improvise. Place the white stuff inside a container and then place that somewhere in your car’s engine compartment to warm it.
Start thinking of heat sources that won’t lower your core temperature. The warm water will let you retain your energy for more important things, like not turning into a meat Popsicle.
If part of your winter bug-out routine involves snowshoes or cross-country skis, don’t let the first time you use them be when things go haywire. When you first put a pair of snowshoes on, you’ll look like Bambi trying to walk for the first time. You need to work on your coordination and understanding of how to properly use snowshoes or skis before using them in an emergency. The first time this author slapped on some snowshoes and a rucksack, it led to smashing his knees on ice.
That old saying, “practice makes perfect” certainly applies. Start with just your regular winter clothing and some light snow to get familiar with walking or skiing. Get a feel for its texture, how much energy it takes to navigate, and how quickly you become exhausted.
Then with practice, start breaking trail in the rough stuff when you work up your endurance levels. Once you get comfortable with that, add some gear into the mix to increase weight. After all, you might be carrying a child or your other belongings. Being lost and stranded is not the time to break in your snow footwear for the first time or see if skiing is as easy as it looks on TV.
Everything in the winter takes more effort and, by proxy, more calories. What you should be looking for — and should bring with you if you plan to travel through cold environments — is calorie-dense, high-protein food. Things like power and protein bars are perfect for this. They don’t require heat, are portable, and are small and long-lasting enough that they can be eaten on the move. Forget about your girlish figure; your vanity won’t keep you alive.
Certain MREs tend to freeze in the cold and require a heat source, such as a fire or using up your precious supply of water in a ration heater. If you’re not worried about the fire aspect, freeze-dried food is a top choice when it comes to weight-to-calorie ratio. Add some boiled water and you have a warm and filling meal. They’ve been a staple of special operation forces units and mountaineers tackling Everest for many years. Although they’re generally heavier and require more work to prepare, they’re a great option for emergency food.
If you grew up in colder climates, you probably spent some time on a sled. However, we’ll bet few have thought about using it to pull supplies so you don’t have to carry them on your person. It turns out that packs aren’t always the best option when it comes to winter travel, because they require more energy to carry. We aren’t suggesting you ditch your pack, just put it in a sled. The more weight you have on your person, the harder it is to walk in snow. Pulling a sled doesn’t consume as much energy.
You need wider snowshoes to compensate for the added weight and to provide more traction. Otherwise you end up sinking further into the snow. You can attach some pipes and rope to a sled to make a harness to tug your gear behind you. The pipes will stop the sled from running over you when you start to head downhill.
The Canadian military uses toboggans to transport heavy arctic tents. And who can forget using dogs if you have the means to do so?
Just like walking in the snow, pulling items on a sled requires practice. Don’t assume it’ll be easy. Try it out with some practice runs, and maybe you can create fun games like having a race with your family. This will help you get a better idea of the difficulty required when the situation calls for it so you can prepare accordingly.
Now that you’re moving at a steady pace down a trail, you’ll likely heat up no matter how cold it is outside. Ignoring this can be fatal.
Sure, you’re warm now, but when you stop you’re in for a world of hurt. Your body sweats to cool you off through evaporation, and winter will exacerbate that matter tenfold. You should wear layers that you can remove and add as necessary during your hard slog through the snow. This will help you reduce your perspiration and make things a lot better for you when your activity level drops.
However, the opposite can also happen. You need clothing that’s warm enough that you won’t freeze to death, even while you’re active. If you’re driving down a country road in the winter with nothing more than a leather jacket, you’ll be in big trouble if you need to be outside when it’s 20 below zero. Unfortunately, this happens fairly regularly — a car gets stuck, driver goes to look for help, and ends up dead.
In December 2006, James Kim, a TechTV host, did just that. He read a map wrong during a road trip from Seattle to his home of San Francisco, resulting in him and his family being stranded in snow on a remote road. After running out of fuel and burning their tires to signal rescuers, Kim left on foot to find help, leaving his wife and kids in the car. He never returned. The family was found alive by a helicopter pilot, and James’ body was recovered days later.
Even if you’re just running out for a quick errand, try to make sure you have weather-appropriate clothes tucked away in your vehicle. You never know when you might need them.
If you’re setting out on foot into that white expanse most would call Hoth but what we call fall, winter, and spring in Canada, you’ll need a way to keep yourself warm when you’re sleeping. Packing a tent or a sleeping bag that isn’t rated for low temperatures will make you end up like Luke Skywalker without a tauntaun.
The first type of shelter you can use involves natural things, like a fallen tree or snow itself. You can tunnel into the snow, build a mini igloo, or dig under a coniferous tree’s branches to create an area that you can sleep in. A shelter will isolate you from the wind and provide air that’ll warm up with your presence and act as an insulator. (See “Snow Way Out” for a full how-to on this subject in Issue 11 of our sister publication, RECOIL.)
Another option is a tipi — yup, you can still get these. Several companies like Seek Outside and Kifaru make lightweight tipis that are easy to set up and have provisions for adding a titanium wood stove. This means you not only get to survive the night, but you might have the energy to make yourself some spruce tea before bed. The shape of a tipi allows it to withstand high winds and shrug off snow quite well.
When you’re cold and alone, you shouldn’t rely on luck. Lightning won’t set a nearby tree on fire to keep you warm — no matter how much you wish, pray, or wager bets. Instead, you need to work for it. Wintertime is comprised of unique challenges: water is frozen everywhere, tinder (not the app on your phone) is hard to find, and your dexterity will be diminished. This is why you should train no matter what the weather conditions are outside, so that you’ll be ready when the time comes.
Things like birch bark will be your best friend. It contains oils that make it largely waterproof. Those same oils produce a good hot flame when hit with a spark from a ferro rod. Do you know how to identify a birch tree? Time to start learning them by sight.
Also remember to provide extra oxygen for the fire. We like the Epiphany Outdoor Pocket Bellows for this. It allows a steady stream of oxygen to be pushed where it’s needed while being lit. This, in turn, makes the fire hotter, allowing damp or frozen wood to catch. This may be one of the last points on the list, but you can see how crucial it is to the aforementioned points.
No matter what survival scenario you may encounter, we can’t stress enough getting appropriate training and actually practicing with your gear that you might end up needing one day. Sitting around hoping to get a lucky break or figuring out the instructions for the first time is not what you want if time is a factor for your survival. Also, don’t just play with your gear in your house — use it in adverse conditions like rain, slush, or heat. These seven pointers may just help you get your family to safety instead of the morgue.
We’re all guilty of wearing shoes that aren’t appropriate for the weather. (Hey, we’re all a little vain.) That’s why we like NEOS Overshoes. They can be worn around your normal footwear, as long as they aren’t heels or something weird, and will keep your feet warm and dry. Furthermore, they work with snowshoes. www.overshoe.com
Be able to recognize the signs of hypothermia. One of the strangest ones, and a sign that you’re not doing well, is paradoxical undressing. As hypothermia progresses, you’ll start to strip off clothes no matter how cold you are. If you or a loved one suddenly has the urge to get a little sexy, start finding extra layers of clothes, some shelter, and a heat source ASAP.
* Not pictured. See “On the Cover” on page 8 of Issue 17 for full specs.
Ryan Houtekamer might be a close relative to yetis and sasquatches because he actually enjoyed winter exercises while in the Canadian Army. Ryan works on the “why use an axe when you can push the tree over” philosophy. Born and raised in Canada, he lives in a small town that has more trails near it than people living in it.