It all began with a month long course in winter survival back in the United States. After learning the basics of Cold Weather Survival , how to make improvised shelters, the physiology and psychology of extreme cold environments on a person and how to use some of the gear.
Trainers came in from Alaska to teach us how to survive in extreme mountain warfare. After the course, I felt as though I knew a great deal about surviving in cold weather environments. That was before I arrived in Norway, at their Norwegian Forsvaret School of Winter Warfare.
The school located in Eastern Norway is
After another few weeks of training, it became glaringly obvious that I had not known as nearly as much about cold weather survival as I had originally thought.
I was still to learn even more as I was then attached to a Norwegian Special Warfare Team.
We would make our way to a desolate and frozen mountain top, located above the arctic circle. Here the temperature ranged from a hot 2 degrees to a chilly -35 degrees.
There we would set up camp, hide our massive BV and familiarize ourselves with the local terrain.
When the exercise began we would operate behind enemy lines to relay information of enemy troop dispositions, locations and call in simulated Air and Artillery Attacks on their encampments and supply lines. All the while, hiding and evading a combined force of U.S. Marines, British Royal Marines, Norwegian and German Soldiers swarming the mountain like ants.
Here is some of what I learned in those months.
In anything that I have ever read about the topic, there is
never any mention of how to keep yourself clean in an extremely cold location.
I guess the assumption is that you’ll just boil some water and wash off with a
wet cloth. I did this first after hearing what the alternative was and found
out that it was just more agonizing than what everyone else did.
The much simpler and more comfortable thing to do is to just
undress, take a handful of snow and rub it all over your body. Everywhere.
It sounds far more terrible than it actually is. I don’t
know if the snow numbs you to it or what. The snow is hard, grainy and it
scrapes your skin clean. Afterwards, when you dry off quickly and hop back into
your clothes you are so amazingly clean and comfortable that you don’t know why
you didn’t do it in the first place.
The hot cloth method seems to just not get you as clean. Not
to mention that you are acutely aware of every other part of your body being
exposed to the cold as you drag the hot cloth across your flesh.
Snow shower method also makes it far easier to warm back up
afterwards. Instead of shivering for minutes afterwards you quickly reheat in a
matter of a couple of minutes.
What no one explains
Everyone talks about layering clothing for cold weather
survival. Beyond stating that multiple
thin layers is preferred to a few large layers very little is explained.
There is an actual method to layering clothing that will not
only keep you warm but also keep you dry. Being dry is extremely important in winter
survival, read: life and death
Never use cotton
Cotton soaks up moisture and just stays wet. Having cotton
undergarment or socks will hold onto sweat or any water from snow and ice that
it comes into contact with. So leave it at home and forget about it if you are
heading into a frozen wilderness.
It is a liability.
It’s recommended to use 3-4 layers. Each layer has a
specific purpose. It is also easy to remove layers as you heat up and become
uncomfortable or to add them on if the need arises.
layer Managing Moisture
The purpose of the first layer is to move moisture away from
your skin. A long sleeve shirt and long underwear is what you want to go with.
It should be snug but not tight, loose but not sloppy. Choosing the right
fabric is very important here as it is your first line of defense.
The important aspect to look for is the moisture wicking
feature. Determine how exactly it does this and how well. Of all the layers I
would put most emphasis on this one. In other words, if money is an object
which it probably is, do not try to save money on this layer. By the absolute
best that you can afford.
There are a number of different options that you can use:
some natural fibers such as Marino Wool or silk can be used. I personally have
never used them there are those that like them, I find that silk becomes far
too hot and smelly.
Then there are
synthetics such as polyester and nylon. There is a newer material that uses
wool infused with ceramic plates but as of right now it is extremely expensive.
However, don’t believe that this one layer will keep you
warm by itself. It simply won’t. It’s only purpose is to remove moisture away
from your body so that it doesn’t rest there and make you damp.
and 3rd layers trapping thermal energy
Depending on how cold of an environment you are planning on going to, you’ll want a second and perhaps a third layer. These are your insulating layers.
My recommendation is polypropylene and wool. Both are excellent at trapping thermal energy close to your body. Wool is better at moving moisture away from your core. But either are easily the best choice for these layers.
You want to use a medium thickness material to a thick fabric for this layer, depending on what feels more comfortable to you.
These layers trap air to both keep in body heat as well as
to keep out freezing external air.
A barrier to wetness
the 4th layer and another insulating layer if needed.
I’ll call it 4th layer for simplicity. This layer
can act as another insulating layer depending on the choice of materials. However,
the most important job for this layer is to keep wet snow, ice and frost off of
the rest of your clothing.
It could be included as part of a technical over coat and
pants or a separate piece of clothing like a light jacket and pants.
One thing to watch out for is to make sure that it is
waterproof and not water resistant. Water proof is the better of the two in
keeping out wetness. You want to try to stay with something that is also
“Breathable” as this will allow wetness from perspiration to move away from
your clothing as well.
Gore-tex is probably the best option for this. Although
there are other less expensive options such as latex or rubber.
How to test your
Before you head out to the wilderness there is a simple test
to ensure that your choice of clothing will stand up to the environment. The
last thing you want to do is find out that your gear is lacking in some
capacity after you are in a freezing environment.
Put all of your clothing on.
Drench yourself in water.
Move around in it for a half hour to an hour.
If it still feels wet after this period of time then it has
You need to reassess your purchases and try to locate the
weak link in your clothing.
This is what we did, with a little special change in
procedure. I don’t recommend you try this at home.
Basically what we did was to cut a hole in a frozen pond and
jump into it and tread water for what felt like hours but was probably 10-15
minutes. We then pulled ourselves out, took off our outer layer, changed our socks
and ran/walked around for 30-45 minutes. Our gear worked but that is because it
had been pre-selected and tested by absolute experts before hand.
You will not have this option in the wilderness more than
This system of mutually interlocking clothing works to
prevent you from becoming chilled and hypothermic and/or frost bitten.
You probably should have two pairs of gloves at least. One
pair that allows you more manual dexterity for completing tasks and one over
size mittens that can be taken off or folded back to expose your fingers. The
two layers will help to prevent frost bite.
Wool socks and a sexy
hat completes the package.
For socks, I say wool because it is an excellent insulator
and quickly dries.
Hats depend on a number of factors, however, the absolute
best is the Ushanka hat. You know it as that very stereotypical Russian looking
hat. It is incredibly warm and folds down to protect your ears as well as your
Your hat helps to keep in a tremendous amount of warmth. So
do be sure that it is adequately fitted to your head. There is nothing worse
than having a tight small hat or one that flops around your head.
Of course, if you are a more fashion oriented survivalist
you can always use a cap and hood with a scarf.
I personally prefer to have a full turtle neck as part of my
gear as it is easier just to fold down if I become too hot. Removing a scarf
and then putting it back on becomes very irritating.
Old School Tricks are
sometimes better than Advanced Technology.
One of the crazy things that I found was just how badly some advanced gear performed in comparison to very old methods in this environment. Many of the Americans bought Gore-tex lined boots for the trip.
When I met back up with them after the completion of the exercise nearly everyone who had worn Gore-tex lined boots
I myself had not been able to afford them and had used the “Cold Weather Boots” aka “Mickey Mouse Boots”. Which are these massive white plastic shoes that fit over your
After a few days of tromping around in these things like an imbecile, I asked what the other guys did. I had been a little confused as they had all worn normal leather boots.
They then explained that they were in fact normal leather boots. The only difference was that they had packed them with newspaper.
This newspaper helped to insulate the boots and prevent
blistering by soaking up sweat. I tried it, and after that day those GI issue
cold weather over-boots collected dust. Only getting an occasional hate-filled
glance from me.
Another piece of gear I found interesting was the fact that most of the guys used wooden skis. Some did use newer gear but I found it odd that he seemed a little upset that he had to use them.
When I asked why they used the wooden ones they explained. “If you those laminate fiberglass skis and they break you have a broken ski. If you break a wooden one you can repair it with a knife and still have a functioning ski.”
Mind Blown. I had never even thought of it, but it made perfect sense.
Initially when we arrived at the place that would be our home I was expecting some kind of super high tech fabric tent made from some super space age technology material.
What they busted out was a simple canvas shelter halves. Granted, it had been imbedded with wax to water proof it but I had not seen such an old material since infantry school. “How in the hell will I not freeze to death in my sleep with a shelter half covering me?” I thought.
The method was ingenious. We dug a small depression into the snow, roughly the shape of what would be the tents area. Packed whatever snow was left down hard.
On top of
I was incredibly impressed how warm the inside of the tent
was after sitting inside of it with them after only 10 minutes. It also managed
to stay this way as we rotated out in two man teams to do our reconnaissance
Food in cold weather
There is an interesting fact about cold weather. It is this, that you need far more calories than normal to operate, approaching 3000 calories. The human body does what is called Micro-tremors in a cold environment.
It isn’t the shaking that you do when you are cold. You don’t notice or feel it but your body vibrates imperceptibly to generate more heat.
I looked at the food we had brought with us and noticed that everything had this enormous fat content.
There was a can of mystery meat (which was in fact reindeer meat) that had these huge chunks of fat imbedded in it. Honestly, I ate it with such gusto that they threatened to kill me in order to have enough food left to survive.
So when putting together your food store for a cold weather
trip, make sure that you don’t worry so much about looking lean. The weather
will do that for you. Even after eating a ridiculous amount of calories per
day, I still managed to lose 8 pounds.
You want to have high calorie foods like nuts, dehydrated
fruits, chocolate. Bring high fat trail mixes with granola to snack on
regularly. Eat sever meals a day. Eat when you aren’t hungry.
As I already stated
fatty meats, like perhaps salami and other easily portable dried meats. Butter
on dried fish is an excellent source of both protein and fat, and it tastes
great. Almost like potato chips.
Cheese spreads are another great source that stores easily
and contains high amounts of calories.
Water is just as important in the cold as it is in the
desert. You don’t realize how much water you are losing from your body in the
cold. You must hydrate as often as possible because by the time you realize you
are dehydrated it could be too late.
Take snow and ice and allow it to melt or better yet boil it
and make it into a tea or some other hot beverage.
Never eat snow, as it requires your body to work harder to
process and absorb it. Hot water works best as this will quickly absorb into
your system as well as giving you a quick boost to your core body temperature.
Cover your face
Your breath comes out at a much higher temperature than surrounding air. It quickly freezes once it comes into contact with the air and forms a layer of frost on your exposed skin.
It is annoying to have to remove and knock off the frost from the inside of you face covering. Still, it is better than having to have that frozen water laying against your skin.
If you are a man don’t shave. Shaving removes the protective oily film on your skin and exposes it to the harsh air. Deal with a slight beard or a large one.
I personally find it very annoying but if you’ve ever had icy wind slash into your clean shaven face you will change your mind very quickly.
Use chapstick to cover your lips. Your lips will lose
moisture rapidly in the cold, becoming cracked, red and extremely painful.
Apply chapstick or something else religiously every few hours or face the
consequences of some very inflamed lips that hurt every time your heart beats.
For any part of your body that isn’t covered you’ll need to
use sunscreen. The light is reflected off of the snow and ice and intensifies
it’s affects. Without a covering or sunscreen you will develop a very painful
sun burn that isn’t easily dealt with. It can become so bad that you could end
up with a serious infection.
Like I just explained about sunrays bouncing from snow and
ice, this also effects your eyes. If you don’t protect them some way, either
with an improvised snow visor or sunglasses you can easily develop snow
blindness. Not only is this very painful but will bring your survivability in
the wild to zero. It is often the last
thing someone thinks about and could lead to a very bad situation.
If you have paid attention to all of the above, you won’t
need to worry about frost bite. Frost bite is for the ill equipped survivor. To
discuss frostbite her is almost pointless. The only reason I will mention it is
in the event that you, for whatever
reason, lose part of your gear and develop it.
Remove wet clothing. Don’t even try to rewarm the affected
area until you are certain that you can keep it warm. Warming it and then
letting cool/freeze again will guarantee an amputation later. Use wet heat,
like a warm wet clothe or your breath to warm the area. Don’t put it next to a
flame or heating pad.
Put guaze or cotton swabs between toes or fingers to keep
them separated. Try not to walk on a frost bitten area unless you absolutely
have to in order to survive. Seek medical attention immediately.
We crossed avalanche areas from time to time. It isn’t a
comfortable experience for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that if
you are trapped in an avalanche you are almost certainly dead. You only have a
very short window for you or rescuers to dig yourself out of it before you
So when people discuss “How to survive and avalanche” it is
But I will add it in because it seems to be popular. Even if
it is basically a death sentence.
How to survive an
Run, hop, swim toward the outer edge of the avalanche. Any
way you can try to get outside of the area by any means necessary going at a
perpendicular angle to the flow. Much like trying to escape an undertow at the
As soon as you realize that you can’t escape, roll into a
ball to minimize the chance of breaking limbs. Cup your hands over your mouth
to create as large a pocket of air as you can. Once it has stopped , Spit,
whatever direction the spit goes furiously begin digging in the opposite
direction. Keep calm and regulate your breathing so that you don’t waste
whatever precious oxygen you have available.
If you are part of a group, make sure that you have a device
on your boots that sends a signal out to rescuers. It is unobtrusive and a very
simple way for them to find you if they have the right equipment. This may be
available at your local ski shop and always be sure to let people know where you
are going to.
The best practice is to speak with local shops, outfitters,
agencies and rangers to make sure that you aren’t heading into an avalanche
area. Mark them on your maps and avoid avalanche areas like the plague. Don’t
even consider them as a part of your route. That is the best way to survive an
Otherwise, the likelihood that you will die is so high that
you may as well have your coffin chosen before you leave.
On that happy note, I will draw this to a close. Respect the
cold, it is one of the, if not the hardest environment to survive in. unlike a
woodland where food can be easily found this is an unforgiving environment
where every small mistake is compounded to dramatically lower your chance of
You must think ahead, plan and prepare. Take advantage of
every opportunity and never let your guard down.
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