SHTF blog – Modern Survival

It's Winter – Don't Go Hiking Without Proper Clothing!

It’s winter here in Maine and that means it’s pretty cold out there.  As I write this at 9:15 pm on Wednesday evening the temperature outside is 3 degrees F.  Not unusual for this time of year.

At the top of the fire tower on the summit of Old Speck.  About six years ago.
At the top of the fire tower on the summit of Old Speck. About six years ago.

I love this time of year!  Hiking, snow shoeing, winter camping, ice climbing, skating, sledding with the kids, it’s all part of the  winter experience for me.
The first time I took Mrs Jarhead on a winter mountain expedition it was -22 F.  when we left the bed and breakfast in Western Maine.  B&B?  I was going to hike partway up the mountain and camp, but the missus had no interest in that.  Regardless, we got up early and hiked to the top of the mountain and it was gorgeous.  It’s one of those hikes that stands out in my memory.
But here’s the thing – I didn’t know that mountain at all at the time.  It was a complete unknown to me, so I carried a pack with rope, sleeping bag, food, water, etc that weighed in at around 37 pounds.  We were also on snow shoes, which made the climb a little more difficult, but not as hard as if we didn’t have them.  So I carried a heavy pack and wound up not using 85% of the gear in it, which is fine.  At least I was ready in case something went wrong.
Take a minute and check out this story about a young woman who tried climbing Cadillac Mountain early on new years morning.  Here’s a brief synopsis if you don’t want to read the story:  19 year old girl from Florida and a couple of friends decided to climb Cadillac.  She’s wearing skinny jeans, a Barbie jacket and Ugg boots.  Starts to freeze.  Boy Scouts come along and give her hot chocolate and tell her to get off the mountain.  They leave and come back a half hour later and find her curled up on a rock.  Girl finally gets airlifted off the mountain.
First of all, if it wasn’t for the Boy Scout pack leader that came along she would have been frozen stiff up there.  So where did she go wrong?  Her mistakes are legion.  Here are a few:

  1. She went with inexperienced hiking companions.  They don’t say that in this in the article, but it’s obvious.
  2. She was woefully under dressed for the environment.
  3. She didn’t listen to good advice.
  4. She had no idea of what she was getting into.  If the wind is blowing 10 MPH on the ground it’s likely blowing 30 or 40 MPH at the top.  Always expect the temperature is going to be at least 20 degrees cooler at the top and I usually estimate it at 50 or 60 degrees cooler in the winter.   I’ve never been surprised or disappointed that way.
  5. It stated she was wet from the knees down pointing to the fact that she wasn’t wearing gaiters.  No surprise as I doubt they went with her skinny jeans.  Or maybe they didn’t fit properly over the furry Uggs boots.
  6. No experience in cold weather and she decides to hike to the top of a mountain in Maine in early morning hours.
  7. Didn’t know how to build a fire or have the proper gear to do so.

Honestly, she’s incredibly lucky there were many other people up there to help her out or they would have been bringing a frozen body down that mountain.  I hope she didn’t get any kind of frost bite either.
Ok, here are some of Jarhead’s rules for winter hiking and camping.

Backpack on the summit of Old Speck.
Backpack on the summit of Old Speck.

1.  Cotton kills.  If it’s cold outside and there’s a chance you’re going to get wet don’t wear cotton.  Actually, don’t wear cotton in cold weather at all.  I hope that’s clear.
2.  Dress in layers.  Capilene under garments, polypro and/or wool in the middle layers, and some kind of Gortex or other weather proof exterior.  If you’re serious about cold weather camping and hiking don’t skimp on your gear.  It’s your ass out there and you want to keep it warm and dry.  Trust me.
3.  Don’t wear tight gloves.  Your gloves should be a little loose so that there’s a small layer of air to help keep your hands warm.  I bought a $75 pair of mountaineering gloves for ice climbing that are just a smidgen too tight.  When it gets cold out my hands get cold.  They’re useless to me.
Another thought about gloves:  if you’re working in semi-cold weather, say 10 to 30 degrees, chances are good you’ll be taking your gloves off and putting them back on fairly often.  Make sure you knock the snow off your hands before you put them back in your gloves or they’ll get wet.  At very cold temps you probably won’t be taking your gloves or will have thick mitten with a light layer under them for working.
4.  Boots.  These are absolutely critical.  When I went through cold weather training we used the big “Mickey Mouse” boots and they were ok.  Not great, but ok.  There are many kinds of boots out there and I find that pac boots do a good job.  Do a Google search and check out the varieties they have out there.
My all time favorite winter boots are plastic climbing boots.  These are special mountaineering boots designed to be worn with crampons for ice climbing, but I wear them for just about any winter outdoor activity these days.  The downside is that they are horribly expensive even when they’re on sale.  If I remember correctly I paid over $400 for my Scarpas at an end of season sale online.  I got them in late spring and wasn’t able to try them on until the next winter and I was worried that I was going to hate them.  But when I finally got a chance to try them out… magic!
Me in my plastic boots just before the climb.  About six years ago.
Me in my plastic boots just before the climb. About six years ago.

I’ve hung off a an ice cliff in sub-zero temps and my feet were toasty warm.  If you have the money and the need I’d definitely recommend a pair of these boots.  I’ll write a post about these soon.
5.  Don’t sweat.  Oh, you’re going to sweat, but try and minimize it as much as possible by layering properly, wearing good clothing (no cotton!) and removing layers as needed during physical exertion.  Also, I always like to have a dry undershirt in my pack that I’ll change into immediately when I’m at my destination if the temperature is above zero degrees.  If it’s colder than that you probably haven’t been sweating very hard anyway.
6.  Always carry a pack with vital gear.  I don’t care if it’s heavy or not… if you don’t know the area and haven’t been able to talk to anybody about what to expect, too much gear is better than not enough.  You can die fast in the winter.
7.  Wear a hat.  As you all know you lose a significant amount of heat through your head.  When I’m hiking I usually stick my hat under my pack strap and then put it back on as soon as I stop.  If you’re standing around a hat and maybe a hood are good to keep you warm.
8.  Know how to make shelter in the snow or carry a shelter with you if you’re hiking in unknown territory.  Hiking after a snowstorm is very different than hiking during the summer.  The trail can be very hard to see and it’s easy to wander off and get lost.
9.  Know where you are.  Always have a map and compass, a bailout azimuth, and good idea of where you are.  A GPS doesn’t hurt either, but I still haven’t learned to trust one of them as much as I do my trusty old map and compass.
10.  Don’t bite off more than you chew and dont’ be afraid to turn back.  I’ve done this many times.  It doesn’t make you a sissy, it means you’re smart.  Evaluate the conditions, your teams capabilities or your own if you’re traveling by yourself, and if things don’t line up the way you want them to turn back.  I’ve done this before and it might make some people mad, but mad is better than dead any day.
I’ve been hiking in cold weather since I was about twelve or thirteen years.  Mostly by myself because I couldn’t get many people to go out with me, so I learned a lot about being self sufficient out there.
Have any cold weather advice?  I’ve only touched on the basics here, so feel free to throw some comments out there about cold weather hiking.
Sound off below!
-Jarhead Survivor

46 thoughts on “It's Winter – Don't Go Hiking Without Proper Clothing!

  1. All great tips. I live at 8575′ up in the Rockies and it gets cold, but it’s a dry cold, once you hit 10,000′ it is dangerous to the unprepared. I would throw in eye protection as mandatory. I live in my M-frames, but carry good goggles when out in the back country.

  2. This was a FANTASTIC article Jarhead, so much excellent information! What I like & appreciate most is it is NOT theoretical, it came from steeped experience – very impressive.
    I have done many outdoor things – surfing, cycling, running, many sports etc & understand the difference great, quality equipment can make. I have purchased an average wetsuit only to hate it & go back to buy the one 3 times as much. The difference was literally night & day. So, $400 for boots may seem like a king’s ransom but you’d pay 10 times that if you were in the middle of nowhere with feet freezing & certainly cheaper than paying for the Life Flight heilo ride like that 19 year old girl.
    When it comes to dealing with “real” cold weather, I am a complete novice. I do have a serious question but will sound stupid – not a first for me.
    Why no cotton? What is the difference between wool & cotton? To me they seem the same except cotton seems to be a more tightly weaved material.
    By the way, that tip on gloves was excellent. It amazes me how the body works buy supplying heat & how to use it & save it effectively.

    1. No cotton because it absorbs moisture and holds it against your skin (doesn’t wick). Wool can be wet and still keep you warm, cotton not so much, it suck the heat right out of your core.

    2. Thanks Jason,
      The other guys on here are right. I’ve never really studied the science behind it, but once cotton gets wet it has no insulative properties whatsoever. Have you ever got a t-shirt wet in the summer and as it dried out it cooled you down? Same thing in the winter, but worse when the temp is much colder.
      Wool will lose some of it’s insulating ability, but for the most part it will keep you warmer than cotton. Jeans, t-shirts, cotton long underwear, are all losers in a winter camping/hiking situation.

  3. EXCELLENT article! Lots of good info. Where I live in Central Oregon, we get a lot of tourists who end up in trouble. They look at the beautiful snow-covered Cascades and decide to take a hike. They have no survival equipment, get lost, and Search and Rescue tries to get to them on time. Regarding cotton kills: here’s a video that explains the difference in fabrics:
    Good job!

    1. Good video, Leon!
      Good point about polypro melting if a spark from your campfire gets on it. I’ve had several shirts do this, which is one of the reasons I went back to wool as an outer garment when it’s not raining or snowing.

  4. Great Post! Agree with everything. The one thing I have found that works better for me (previously frostbitten hands) in non technical situations is heavy wool or poly mittens coupled with a breathable outer shell and silk liner gloves over the fingers. My shells are on a tether around my neck so I can take them off as needed. The other thing that has worked well for me are the “fold back” mittens exposing the fingers. I use silk finger gloves inside these too. (I believe you had an earlier post about the ones with a magnet instead of Velcro effecting your compass?)

    1. I have a big pair of the arctic mittens like you describe, but I don’t use them that often. They are really nice though and when I have worn them my hands have always been very warm.
      Yeah, the half-gloves are pretty good too. Good memory about that magnetic glove post!

  5. my hands get cold even with the arctic mittens. I’ll try the silk liners again, but I’ve had the best results using thin wool gloves, inside the mitten liners, inside the mitten shells. (make sure thumb, and trigger finger on the shell aren’t too tight. mine need a little bit of leatherwork, before they will be “just right”) the thin wool liners also work well inside insulated “winter work gloves”.
    your wool liner gloves should fit closely, but again, not too tight. your parka should also have pockets. anything you can’t afford to lose in the snow, should be tethered. (including your keyring) if you are in an area with ponds and streams, there should be an “ice awl” in both of your parka pockets. (left and right) a magnesium fire starter would probably be a good idea too.

    1. so, guess which loudmouth internet commenter just spent fifteen minutes looking for (a) glove. (in all the wrong places)
      yeh, that would be me.

  6. Teather and/or mark…
    Like Steve above, if you don’t want to misplace something, teather it to yourself. Things that aren’t practical to be teathered (like knives) should be wrapped with brightly colored duct tape or ribbons, or anything that will make the item easy to find…
    I lost a knife one time when I set it down and some snow was accidentally kicked over it. I searched long and hard. Maybe if I had marked it with brightly colored tape around the handle I would have found it quickly. I had to make a return trip to the same spot in the summer when the snow had melted to get the knife back…

  7. good advise! where I work I am walking an average of 10 miles a day in weather from -30 to +103 on all sorts of terrain and various snow depths. In the winter for me it is impossible not to sweat, and I sweat alot. The only thing you forgot to mention is to have a change of clothes, skin side layer especially! when you get sweated up and have to stop you get cold! having the ability to get on a dry layer will make life happy again!

    1. dry layer, carried inside: “dry bag”.
      some type of backpacking stove, to produce hot soup or beverage is really helpful too.

  8. javelin sounds like you have a great job. Outside, staying in shape. What boots do you wear? I have my favorite, but I love to hear what others who actually put hard miles on them, think.

  9. Well I’m not in that great of shape. I eat too much fat and carbs and drink a little to much beer, but other than that I can walk a person into the ground.
    As for boots, I’m a little diffferent. What I wear are the Timberland White Ledge, They are uninsulated, I wear them with a polypro undersock and a heavy merino wool blend sock. They are waterproof but I seal them with Snoseal. Add in a pair of good gaiters and I’m ready to go.

  10. out here in the southern california mountains and deserts they get 4-5 deaths per year for basically the same problem…dont know what they are doing and not bringing the right clothes and gear for the situation. It got so bad 2 years ago that the national forest people closed some trails because they spent so much time conducting rescues. All of these rescues were preventable. Like everything we do in prepping, it’s a matter of learning and asking question from people with experience in whatever subject area you are talking about. The same holds true in hiking and backpacking regardless of the weather. If I went into the mountains or desert without all my gear I would start to itch all over. But unfortunately stupidity is never is short supply.

  11. Off topic a bit but beware of avalanche terrain especially in Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states. Light weight micro puff down or synthetic mid layers are awesome. Buy only outer shell jackets/pants with pit zips these are great for venting yourself and keeping the sweat factor down, soft shells are good for moderate winter temps, hard shells are best for cold days.. Good sun glasses or goggles ,you don’t want retinal burn (sun burn on your eye balls, ouch).Try Hiking with trekking poles it helps maintain 3 points of contact (quality collapsible ones are best). If your serious about winter activities buy the best quality and lightest gear you can afford. Don’t be cheap it might just kill your ass.

  12. Down here in Ky we get a “northern winter” about every 10-15 years. Camping/hikeing here in winter is WET. I love micky mouse boots cause; you stay warm when you’r wet; And EVERYTHING gets wet if you are in the wood longer than say 2-5 steps. Overnight? Dripping! and covered in sticky ,gooy , red/yellow or gray oooz. Its kinda a cross between cement and potting clay. I have broken tree limbs trying to get it off a boot. If the ground “freezes” it forms a cold layer on top like shit and axal grease. You CANNOT stand up on it. Some time I’d love to try camping in a place without standing water, and with dry wood for a campfire that didn’t come out the back of my pickup. As to gortex , ANYTHING lighter than helly hansons will last about a day TOPS- V- the saw bryers, Think green razor wire, 30-60 feet tall 1/4 inch in diam. that you cannot cut with a pair of side cutters, in thicketts that go on for 100 yards with thorns 1/2 inch long and razor edged. Gortex and nylon don’t hold up well. Shoe packs: the GD felts get wet, A LOT. They work OK if you have 5-8 felts in your pack.( the felts won’t dry for shit down here). Oh GOD! I love wool in the winter. Realy we don’t have “winter ” like y’all do a-way up north or out on the big flat, and if we get a “cold snap” (under 20f) it mostly lasts 2 weeks or less. PS the last “bad one” we had was ’93-’94 we had2 weeks of – 10f. and one night -30f. it still holds the all time 225 year record for cold and snow (16 in.) Its still the only winter I have ever used my white “bunny boots” in the 30 years I’v had ’em.

    1. Ray isn’t amazing how different our beautiful country is. I’m in the Rockies and what works best out here might leave you pissed off and soggy down there. Area specific gear is something to pay attention to. Thanks for the southern perspective.

  13. I’m out in my tent as i write this. about ten degrees. Ammo can stove is going out am tucked into my sleeping bag. Crystal clear outside and no wind. ideal camping conditions. About 8 inches of snow. all gear is working properly! Goodnight all.

  14. Oops! I forgot to mention the importance of having a good pair of sunglasses. This is a must in snowy terrain, even on cloudy days, if you want to avoid severe eye strain or in an extreme condition, snow blindness.

  15. I just wanted to say I like this site allot. Everyone seems to be pretty clear headed and the articles and comments are great. Thanks jarhead survivor and other contributors.

  16. Jarhead: thanks for the comment on my post; you made my day! (I know it doesn’t take much).
    Nor’ Country: Thanks for the feedback on the tether comment. I also tether my Swiss Army Knife to my waterproof match case. I use to have a rawhide shoelace but I recently switched to paracord. On the knife side I have a clip so I can remove it from the tether if necessary. The knife goes in my front right pocket and the match case in my left. I also have my compass tethered to another waterproof match case. I do not usually have these out together so if I drop one in the snow = no harm.
    I don’t drink coffee but a hot cup of Earl Grey with sugar is excellent! My other favorite winter drink is hot Jello. My favorite flavors are lemon-lime, cherry and orange. I find it makes a good first course to an outdoor winter meal.
    Irish DU: Great comment on the stove! I carry a large enamel cup and 2 stoves; an old Svea 123 with a small rubber pad and an Esbit pocket stove for SHTF situations.

  17. that Svea is the classic.
    we have Colemans, and a Bernzomatic, but they’re too bulky for backpacking. I’ll keep looking, maybe an MSR, or a Coleman Exponent will find me one of these days. I want something that can burn kerosene. I’d really like something that can burn alcohol, white gas, unleaded and kerosene…
    the large enamel cup is good too. (can’t get broken like a coffee mug, and you can cook in it)

      1. looking foreward to it.
        I have a Coleman “dual fuel” two burner. Dad has the white gas single burner, (40+ years old, with a space heater attachment) they now sell that one as a “dual fuel” also. they make an “Exponent” that’s similar, but more compact.
        … mostly I use a Coleman propane two burner. (still a little too bulky for bugout use)

  18. Good article.
    Jarhead, my first Whites trip of the season is end of the month… finally!
    if you bring the puffy down/synthetic jacket for stops/top of the mountain etc, try getting one to go OVER you existing clothes instead of under the outer layer. I’d explain, but will just say, try it…
    what was said about gloves rings true for outer shell jacket as well; too big means big air pockets and cold in/heat out. too small does to your body what it does to your hands with gloves, but it feels way worse.
    thin liner socks. it does the “layering” thing for the feet, but also helps on two other levels- pulls moisture away, and ultimately keeps the feet dryer. bring a spare set along with your spare boot socks. you brought spare boot socks, right?
    jackets with pit zips. you’ll know what i mean the first time you use the zips.
    a small thermos with hot coffee/chocolate does wonders for motivation once you start getting that cold feeling…
    believe it or not, sometimes stripping down so you can lose the wet base layer is the best thing you can do for yourself. I wouldn’t bother until you get to the top. strip it off, throw on your dry spare. world of difference. the hike down is a hike instead of a death march to the warmth and dryness of your car.
    gore tex and other similar wp/br fabrics are great, but… don’t wear them on your upper body unless its precipitation out if you can help it; pack it. they’re “breathable” but you still end up with a gallon of friggin sweat inside them. “breathable” just means “it lets more vapor out than plastic.” 🙂
    remember- less wet equals more warm.
    yea, spend the money. if you won’t, please do us (on the mountain) a favor and stay home until you can or will.

  19. I just happened across your site, while browsing my newsletter from Survivalcache, just wanted to stop in and say I love your blog, and especially this post in particular. You’re preaching to the choir, but I’m glad this is out there, too many people head into the bush unprepared. Thanks again buddy, you got yourself another viewer.

  20. To those asking about “why wool?”
    Wool dries from the inside out!
    That means your body stays drier…learned this from survival class I took in college years ago… hope this helps

    1. Spectre, fleece is great too. Dries quick, insulates when wet, and will burn fast if you get to close to the fire. It is typically lighter than wool, but wool won’t melt on you.

  21. Knowing this is an old blog (looks like 2013) I simply ask. Why has no one talked about the importance of a good breathing mask? As a South Dakota boy who has worked construction all his life (66 years) layering, chemical warmers, head gear, good footwear is all without thinking here in the winter. However filtering 0 degree air thru any kind of breathing mask greatly reduces the impact on your lungs and your core temp. I prefer a wool scarf myself. It was -10 with a windchill of -29 when I went out to move snow this morning. It’s warmed to 5 degrees with a -2 windchill at the cocktail hour!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *