Winter Backpacking Skills
By Steve Gillman
Winter backpacking can be a great way to get away from the
crowds. Isolation adds to the beauty of the experience, but it
also adds to the danger. When you're alone in a cold environment,
it's important to know what to do in an emergency. A few basic
cold weather survival skills can save your life.
Winter Fire Making Skills
Can you imagine slipping into a stream and soaking everything
with you, when you are more than a day from the nearest road
and it's below freezing out? What would you do if this happened?
Hopefully start a fire, but can you?
Carry waterproof matches, of course, but also practice starting
a fire in the cold before you go winter backpacking. Learn
about tinders that work even when wet. Birch bark will burn when
wet, for example, and so will sap from either pines or spruces
(collect it where it oozes out and hardens). Also, since you
may have only minutes before your fingers get too cold to function,
speed is of the essence.
Winter Backpacking - Emergency Shelters
Most likely you'll have a tent with you, but why not learn
shelter building using snow blocks? Depending on conditions,
sometimes you can stomp out blocks without tools, using your
feet, and then lifting them from beneath. Play around in your
backyard until you get the hang of it. In a survival situation,
or if the weather turns extremely cold, you can put your tent
behind a wall of snow blocks, to stop the wind.
A quick survival shelter for warmth is a pile of dry leaves,
grass, bracken ferns or other plants. I've collected enough dried
grass from a frozen swamp in thirty minutes to make a pile several
feet thick. I slept warmly in the middle of it with just a jacket,
despite below freezing temperatures. Even just setting your tent
up on a "mattress" of dried leaves can help insulate
you from the cold ground.
It's possible to be wet and yet still warm when it far below
freezing, as long as you are active. As soon as you stop moving,
however, you start to lose your body heat. When you get chilled
through, it is difficult to get warm again. Hypothermia kills
many people every year.
When you do get wet, try to get dry before you go to sleep.
Change into dry clothes if you have them, and use a fire to dry
any wet clothes. During the day, you may be able to hang damp
clothes on your pack to dry in the sun.
Don't sweat too much. Remove and add shirts, sweaters and
jackets as necessary to keep from getting too hot or too cold.
Clothes damp with sweat will cause you to lose body heat fast
once you stop moving. Always stay dry to stay warm.
There are dozens of other cold weather survival skills that
you might want to learn. I think it makes backpacking even more
interesting. Did you know that fatty foods generate heat when
they digest, for example? Even though you don't need hundreds
of skills and techniques, why not learn a few basics, like the
ones above, before you go winter backpacking?
Visit the page "Cold
Weather Survival" for more survival techniques and skills
for winter backpacking.