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Surviving In The Woods When You’re Lost, Cold And Desperate

Editor’s note: This story is the second of two parts. Read part 1 here.

lost winter cold fire woodsIn part 1 in this series, I talked about what you should do if you are lost in the woods for most circumstances. I want to continue on that, specifically dealing with what to do if you are caught in the woods in the wintertime. Winter weather can be much more dangerous in a survival situation, so extra precautions need to be taken in order to survive.

Actually, everything I mentioned in the first part of the article applies to surviving in the winter, so don’t think of throwing that information out. What I intend to do in this part of the article is to add to that information, not replace it.

The biggest concern in wintertime is keeping warm. Prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures can sap your body’s energy reserves, just trying to keep warm. Even so, it’s much harder to keep warm in the winter, due to lowered temperatures, high winds, difficulty in finding fuel and difficulty in even starting a fire.

Preparing to Survive in the Winter

While surviving in any sort of situation is much easier if you have the right equipment and supplies with you, it’s even more important in winter. While there are ways of keeping yourself warm, even if you don’t have the right clothes with you, it’s much harder to do. So, the first part of surviving in the winter is making sure that you are prepared.

Let’s start with clothing. There are a lot of people who don’t dress appropriately for the cold weather. If you want to wear stylish clothes, that’s fine; but don’t limit yourself to just having those clothes with you. Ladies, that cute little jacket might look great, but it probably won’t keep you warm. If you’re wearing a dress or skirt, take blue jeans along, as well. Make sure you take a warm coat, a hat, some gloves and some warm boots with you. That way, if you get caught somewhere, you’ve got something warmer to put on.

Most clothing loses its insulation value if it becomes wet. Down is the worst for this, making you lose your body heat 300 times faster than if you were naked. The best clothing for retaining body heat if it gets wet is wool. Even when soaking wet, wool still retains 50 percent of its insulating value, and it is the only fabric that will. Keep that in mind when choosing between a wool stocking cap and a polyester one.

It is best to dress in layers if you are trying to keep warm in the winter. Layers provide better insulation, as well as the option of being able to take off layers if you get too warm. Your outer layer should be made of a material that blocks the wind well, or all the insulating layers below it won’t be anywhere near as effective.

The pack for anybody who wants to be fully prepared for an unexpected emergency

You’ll also need more calories to burn in the cold. Add some high carbohydrate food bars and other snacks to your everyday carry bag. Your body will be burning a lot of calories just to produce heat. While this may seem like a great time to lose weight, your body probably won’t be able to convert fat to heat quickly enough. You’re better off providing it with some other calories to burn, ensuring that there is enough energy in your body to produce the necessary heat.

Finally, you’re going to have more trouble starting a fire in the winter than you would in the summer. Dry wood and especially dry tinder is much harder to find. So, you’ll need to carry fire starters that can overcome the damp in the wood, as well as including their own tinder. Here are three that I recommend:

  • Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly – Work the petroleum jelly into the cotton ball with the back side of a spoon, until it is well-saturated. Will burn for about three minutes.
  • Dryer lint and candle wax – Dryer lint and cotton balls are almost the same thing. Make balls out of the lint and put them into the cups of a cardboard egg carton. Pour melted wax into the cups as well, soaking the lint with the wax. The wax doesn’t need to totally fill the cup, just to soak the lint. Burn time depends upon how much wax you use.
  • Black powder and nail polish remover – Put fine black powder (#FFFFg) into a bowl and cover it with oily nail polish remover. You must use the type that has acetone in it, so check the label. Knead the two together, making a putty out of it. Knead this to make a layered ball. The finished fire starter must be stored in an airtight container, as the acetone will try and evaporate out. Once dry, this fire starter loses its effectiveness. This type of fire starter will burn at over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit for over three minutes, making it great for damp wood.

Build a Shelter

Depending upon where you are, snowstorms can come upon you quickly. Mountains and trees deny you the ability to see much of the sky, so you might have a storm sneaking up on you and not be able to see it. Whenever you have the opportunity, take a good look around to make sure that you have ample warning of any weather problems that are headed your way. If it doesn’t look like you can get out in time, then use your time to prepare a shelter and hunker down. Ultimately, your survival is more important than getting home on time.

While the shelters that I mentioned in the first part of the article are all excellent, even in cold weather, you will be better served by adding to them in the winter. There are three major concerns for cold weather shelters:

  • Keeping the wind out
  • Keeping heat in
  • Acting as a heat reflector

That pine tree or deadfall may work out great, but adding a space blanket to the outside of it, so that the wind can’t get through the branches could make you a lot warmer. The space blanket acts as a heat reflector as well, helping to keep your shelter warm. Another space blanket can be spread behind your fire, so that it can reflect the heat from the fire into your shelter.

If you are using a tent for shelter, you can make it a lot warmer by insulating it. Set the tent up like normal and then cover it with boughs or debris from the forest floor. Pine boughs work extremely well for this, but anything that will create an insulating layer is good. Then, cover the insulation with another windproof layer, whether a space blanket or a tarp. By doing this, you have essentially created an insulated wall to help keep the heat from your fire inside your tent.

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The opening in your shelter must be downwind, so that the cold wind will not be blowing into your shelter. Place your fire before the opening, leaving yourself a way of escape. Don’t forget a heat reflector behind the fire; you’ll be surprised how much it will help.

Dry pine bough tips or leaves can also be put loosely inside your clothing to make an additional layer of insulation. You must use dry ones so that they don’t pack down. The idea is to create more air layers between you and the outside air. Pine boughs are excellent for this, as the needles naturally form a lot of air spaces.

Watch Your Activity

It helps to maintain yourself somewhat active in the cold, but you must be careful not to overdo it. Movement helps encourage your body’s blood flow, which is the mechanism that is used to move heat from your body’s core to the extremities. Failure to move enough can lead to frostbite.

You must be extremely careful to protect your fingers and toes from frostbite. One of the body’s defense mechanisms is to cut off or limit blood flow to the extremities when it is cold. It sacrifices those extremities to keep the core part of the body warm. The only problem is that you need those fingers and toes in order to survive.

When you are not working with your hands, make sure that they are kept warm. Gloves or mittens help some, but it is much more effective to put them inside your clothing, where they can be warmed by your body’s heat.

Watch out for excessive activity as this will burn calories that your body needs to keep warm. If you get physically tired from exertion, it makes it much easier for hypothermia to set in. Another risk from excessive movement is sweating. If you sweat in the cold, the sweat can freeze next to your skin, drawing away body heat. Even without freezing, it will make your clothing wet, reducing its insulating value.

If you have to move in the snow, there’s a very good chance that you’ll find yourself overexerting. Moving through snow, especially deep snow, is extremely difficult. If you can, make yourself some snowshoes out of thin branches and paracord. If you can’t do that, strap some boughs to the bottom of your boots. This will work for makeshift show shoes.

Final Considerations

You will have no shortage of water in the winter in most locations — that is, as long as there is snow you can melt for water. Typically, you’ll only get about one-tenth the volume of water out of snow. When melting water for snow, you must stir it, or you will scald the water, making it taste bad. Don’t drink cold water, as it will remove heat from your body. Take the time to warm it, so that it can help keep you warm.

Rescuers will have a harder time finding you in the snow. If the snow is falling, visibility will be limited. Snow also absorbs sound, meaning that gunshots and whistles won’t be heard as far away as they normally would. Searchers are aware of this and will search more carefully because of it.

Anything you can do to make yourself more visible will be to your benefit. If you have the kind of space blankets that are blaze orange on one side, make sure you put that side to the outside, as it will be very visible against the white snow. Check it every once in a while to make sure that snow hasn’t blown onto it. Reflective space blankets won’t be as effective a signal, as the reflection will be lost in the brightness of the snow.

Putting your shelter in an obvious place or one that is highly visible will help the rescuers that are searching for you. While this will make you more exposed to the wind, if you construct your shelter correctly, you can still keep the wind out.

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