Backpacking in the winter can mean your footprints are the only ones around. That adds to the beauty of the backpacking experience, but can also add to the danger. By yourself and in a cold environment, it is very important to know what to do in an emergency situation. Learning some basic winter weather survival skills can save your life.
Imagine if you slipped into a stream and everything with you is now soaking wet, you are more than a day from the closest road and it is well below freezing out. What should you do? Start a fire, of course, but do you have the proper gear to do so?
Always carry waterproof matches, and practice starting a fire in winter weather conditions BEFORE you go winter backpacking. You need to know which tinders work even when they are wet. Birch bark, for example, will burn when wet, as will sap from pines and spruces. It could be only minutes before your fingers are too cold to function, so speed is of the essence.
Winter Backpacking – Survival Shelters
You will most likely have a tent with you, but you should still know how to build a shelter using snow blocks. Sometimes you can stomp out blocks without tools, using your feet, and then lift them from beneath. Take the time to play around in your backyard until you get the hang of it. In an emergency, or if the weather turns extremely cold, you may want to put your tent behind a wall of snow blocks, to stop the wind.
If it isn’t raining, a quick survival shelter for warmth is a pile of dry leaves, grass, broken ferns or other plants. You can easily gather enough in a short period of time to build a nice shelter to sleep in and on to keep you warm in the cold weather.
You can be wet and warm when it is far below freezing, as long as you stay active. The second you stop moving, however, you will start to lose your body heat. Once you get chilled through, it is difficult to get warm again. Hypothermia (a lowered body temperature) kills many people every year.
If you get wet, you want to try to get dry before you go to sleep. Put dry clothes on if you have them, and use your fire to dry any wet clothes. Earlier in the day, you may be able to hang damp clothes on your pack to dry in the sun. Often when it is coldest, the air is dryer.
Try not to sweat. Adjust your layers, removing and adding shirts, sweaters and jackets as necessary to keep from getting too hot or too cold. Sweat, and clothes damp with sweat, will cause you to lose body heat fast once you stop moving. Stay dry to stay warm.
There are many other cold weather survival skills that you may want to learn. (You can generate heat by eating fatty foods, for example.) You don’t need to know hundreds of skills and techniques, but why not learn a few basics, like the ones above, before your next winter backpacking trip?