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September 18, 2014
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Winter survival

Dressing in layers, with a base layer that wicks away moisture from perspiration, is important to retaining one’s body heat.
Photo courtesy of Washington Trails Association


Record-low temperatures hit our region recently, keeping many folks indoors. For some, however, getting outdoors is a way of life, and regardless of the weather they heed the call to go hunting, fishing, hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or skiing. For others, just getting to work and back is the extent of their outdoor experience. Still, a news report recently told how one man on his way home experienced vehicle problems and began to walk the final mile to get home. He was found dead from the cold less than a hundred yards from his home. Fact: cold kills.

Being prepared for a cold weather jaunt or extended stay is step one. Stocking a “bug-out” style pack for the vehicle or wearing it when outdoors can keep essential survival gear close at hand.

Clothing is our frontline barrier to keep cold out and heat in. A saying among outdoor professionals is “cotton kills.” Never use cotton clothing as a base layer of your clothing system, because it will hold perspiration against the skin, speeding the lowering of the body’s core temperature, resulting in hypothermia.

I prefer to use a wicking base layer such as polypropylene or similar man-made material that takes the perspiration away from the skin. I use layers on top of my base to trap air between, resulting in more insulation. Layers can be shed for activity periods to prevent sweating and replaced as needed. Down or manufactured materials that offer loft will trap air to add insulation. For my emergency pack of clothing, I use a vacuum sealer to compact extra layering items; this keeps them waterproof and reduces storage space.

The same goes for footwear and socks. Wet socks can quickly lead to frostbite. I layer socks with a wicking material base and a wool or alpaca sock over that. These natural fibers keep their insulating powers even when wet. An extra pair or two should be part of your survival kit. Shoes or boots should be waterproof and contain adequate insulation. They also should not be laced or tied so tightly that they reduce circulation.

Our exterior layer should be one that helps hold heat in, while blocking wind, snow, or rain. Exterior coats should have drawstrings that allow cinching to keep air or precipitation from entering from around the neck or waist areas, and a warm hat is critical.

Maintaining your core temperature is vital to ensure survival. Chemical body heaters and those that use lighted fuel or fuel sticks can be carried in multitude for little investment and very little room or additional weight in a gear bag or pocket. These little power sources can be lit or activated by squeezing to mix components or by exposure to air. Larger ones provide up to six hours of warmth with temperatures around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Placed inside of your garment layers (never against the skin), they help maintain your critical core body temperature for many hours.

When hiking in cold weather, dehydration is a very real threat, as water is expelled with every breath. For the body to properly maintain its core temperature, it needs both high metabolic foods like chocolate and nuts, as well as liquids. Trail mix is easy to make at home, and the one shown at the right includes dry fruit, nuts, chocolate and venison jerky bits. Without food and sufficient hydration, hypothermia will set in faster, decreasing your chances of survival.

Because a lighter will not fire up in brisk winter winds or if it gets wet, my pack also includes a magnesium fire starter that works even when wet. I keep it in a small tin with cotton balls that are used as tinder to get a fire started.

Finally, I also carry a Mylar space blanket. They weigh ounces and can be huddled into to provide hours of heat retainment.

Winter can be an excellent time to enjoy the outdoors, and with a little forethought and planning, can provide a safe and unique opportunity.

[Ron Tussel is a seasoned outdoor professional and an award-winning outdoor writer and television producer. He is a past president and an active member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He resides in Bohemia, PA.]