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Winter Survival in the Woods

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Surviving in the wintertime is much more challenging than in the summertime. Not only is there cold and snow to content with, but food is not as plentiful as it is in summertime. Making matters worse, the body needs more food in the wintertime, in order to produce heat. In ancient times, many people starved in the winter, simply because they didn’t have enough food to get them through till spring.

However, food really isn’t the major issue, at least not in a short-term survival situation. While having a supply of high-carb food would provide your body with extra energy to burn for keeping warm, most of us have enough fat reserves in our bodies to provide the necessary energy. Of course, if you’re extremely thin, you may want to make sure that you keep some energy bars in your coat pocket.

Keeping Warm

When you head into the winter wilderness, it is best to be properly layered. Hypothermia is the biggest killer in the wild, so keeping warm is the most important issue when trying to survive in the winter. That consists of three things, all of which can help keep your body warm. On the flip side of that coin, not having any of these three can make it harder to keep your body warm:

  • Shelter
  • Clothing
  • Fire

Hopefully, you’ve gone into the woods with warm clothing on, as well as taking at least a minimal survival kit with you. If not, your efforts to survive will become much harder. You’ll have to depend on the other elements to keep you warm, as your clothing may not be enough. Here are some examples of clothing that can greatly help you in any winter wilderness adventures.

  • Long underwear of polyester
  • Merino wool as a base layer
  • Water proof and windproof shell
  • Wool socks
  • Neck gaiter
  • Hat
  • pack a balaclava so you can protect your face against frostbite

You can add insulation to your clothing, if your clothing isn’t warm enough. There are two things commonly found in the woods, which make excellent insulation, when placed inside your clothing. These are dead leaves and pine branches. The trick is to make sure you use dry ones, or they will draw the heat out of your body.

Starting a Fire

Having a fire when you’re in the great outdoors during winter will exponentially improve your chances of surviving. Even if you have with you your own survival stove to warm or boil water, building a fire will keep you warm for a much longer period of time as well as dry your wet clothes in case of a torrid downpour. The smoke from your fire can also be used in alerting rescuers to your location as well as ward off dangerous animals in the woods.

Your winter survival fire doesn’t need to be big. A small fire just enough to keep you warm is ideal most especially if your supply of firewood is limited. It is very important to stretch your firewood for as long as possible most especially during survival situations.

When building your fire on snow, dig a 2 feet deep pit into the snow. Cut thick logs into the same lengths and line them at the bottom of your pit to make a solid surface to build your fire. Use any materials you can find to build your fire and focus on keeping your fire going for as long as you can.

All-Important Shelter

For the sake of surviving in the winter, your shelter needs to be able to do three things. Those are to keep you dry, keep you out of the wind and entrap the heat from your fire. Many types of shelter will do the first two, but don’t do a good job of the third one. But if you can’t entrap the heat from your fire, you’ll need a bigger fire or to sit closer to the fire, in order to keep warm.

The best shelter you can find for winter survival is a cave. Unfortunately, they are rather hard to come by. Even if you do find one, you need to proceed with caution, because caves in the wild are seldom unoccupied. That cave might very well have a hibernating bear or a pack of wolves in it.

Tents, lean-tos and other structures are limited as shelters, in that is is extremely difficult to bring the fire inside, where it can help heat the inside of the shelter. Most tents would burn down, if you tried to bring a fire inside. However, there is one simple natural shelter you may find in the wild, which will allow a fire and protect you from the elements; that’s a pine tree.

Besides being green year round, pine trees are unique in that their branches don’t grow up. The branches may start to grow up, but the weight of the branches themselves causes them to bend downwards, to the point where branches that start three or four feet off the ground may very well touch the ground.

This creates a space under the tree, which you can access and use as a shelter. You’ll have to clean out the dead branches from under that bottom row of living branches, but that is fairly easy to do. Additional branches, cut from other pine trees, can be stacked around the base of the pine, to improve the insulation and wind break that the tree you are using provides.

While the space inside your shelter won’t be very high, you should be able to sit up in it. You can also start a fire, if you keep it small. A large fire would likely light the tree itself on fire, but a small one won’t. However, even that small fire will do a lot to warm up the area inside your shelter.

Give Me Water

In winter survival situations, it is very important to stay hydrated. Being hydrated will greatly help your body cope up with hypothermia and frostbite.

With shelter to keep you warm, your mind will naturally turn to food and water. As I’ve already said, you can go for quite a while without food, but you can’t go very long without water. Fortunately, you’ll probably be surrounded by water.

If there are no creeks in the area or you cannot find any available source of water, do not panic. Snow can always be used for water, but you shouldn’t eat it. Instead, you should melt the snow and drink the warm water. This isn’t for the reason of making sure that the water you drink is pure of microscopic pathogens, but rather to help you hold in your body’s heat. You don’t need to be wasting heat trying to melt the snow and heat up the cold water in your body. Better to have warm or even hot water, to help your body keep warm.

When melting snow, it’s important to stir it. As crazy as it sounds, snow will scald over a fire if it is not stirred. That will make for some pretty bad tasting water, that you probably won’t want to drink.

Administering First Aid

If a member of your group is injured, your priority should be to stabilize their condition until help arrives. After you have stabilized the victim, get him immediately onto an insulating sleeping pad to prevent hypothermia. If possible, do not move the victim if there is no imminent danger in your location. Just make sure to keep the injured warm since rescues take much longer in the winter than the rest of the year.

Getting Rescued

Assuming there hasn’t been a collapse of society, you will hopefully be rescued from living your life under a pine tree in the woods. Before leaving to go into the woods, you should tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. That way, they can contact the appropriate authorities if you don’t make it back. Also, be aware that most rescue teams won’t show up immediately if you are in trouble. Even if the rescue teams have a fix on your location, the search and rescue operations will only start when the sun rises or any bad weather condition has passed. So, basically you will be on your own until rescue shows up.

In case you’re stranded in your vehicle before you reach your destination, the most important thing to remember is: STAY WITH YOUR CAR! You will have a higher chance of surviving when you stay with your car than going out there in the wilderness without any protection. Staying with your car will also give you better chance of being rescued. Your car will also serve as a ready-made shelter during the night.

Remember to always carry a good whistle with you, to signal any rescuers that are looking for you. A whistle can be heard from quite a distance away. If your cell phone isn’t working, that whistle will probably be the most effective means you have of attracting attention.


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