It’s getting to be that time of year again and winter is nearly upon us. You know what that means, snow. If you live in the northeast, you’ve seen your fair share of it. I’ve spent a lot of time in the cold and snow and thought I’d pass on a few things I’ve learned and seen over the years. Playing outside in a good winter snow is awesome. I love snowshoeing, ice climbing, ice skating, snow mobiling, winter camping, and just about anything that can be done outside in the winter. I’ve never understood folks who go inside at the first snow fall and stay there until spring. Why huddle under a blanket or camp out next to the wood stove when there’s so much to do outside!
Armed with years of experience in hostile winter conditions, I’ve prepared an informative list. If you’ve read this list and followed it, you’ll be better prepared than most individuals.
1. Dress for Winter
There’s a couple of ways you can be prepared for winter that will allow you to enjoy it. This first one may be a little obvious, but in order to stay warm you’ve got to dress for it. There’s a few guidelines for dressing for winter and the first one is to dress in layers. Try to dress in synthetics as much as possible, but wool is also a good material to wear. A good pair of winter boots to keep your feet warm will make your life a lot better as well. There are thousands of winter boots out there, but I’d suggest something thick and durable. I wear technical ice climbing boots and gaiters for just about everything, but I figure most people won’t want to pay $500 for a pair of boots. Shop around and find yourself something comfortable. You don’t want your gloves to be skin tight. In order to provide warmth they need to be a little loose. If your hands start to sweat take them out of the gloves if feasible. If it’s below zero you probably won’t be able to, but wet gloves suck when it gets cold.
A good coat will consist of a shell and inner liner. If I’m working hard snowshoeing, I’ll take the outer layer off and put it back on when I’m no longer working. If the temps are in the 20’s or 30’s, it’s not that big a deal unless the wind is blowing. When the temps dip below zero, you have to pay special attention to how you dress and how much you sweat. Sweat can kill you in cold weather. Be prepared to change your clothes if necessary. I usually carry an extra set of long johns in my pack, so if I sweat I can change into something dry when I stop moving.
2. Bring Snowshoes and Skis
If you’re going out in deep snow, the only way to move around is with snowshoes or skis. Deep snow is very hard to navigate. If you’re on foot, your lack of mobility could kill you.
3. Stay Hydrated
If you’re moving outside during the winter, you’re dehydrating at a summer rate. Be wary however, your thirst reflex kicks off in cold weather. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. If you’re hiking, keep that canteen handy and take a swig from time to time. A good way to monitor hydration levels is to check your urine colors. If it’s yellow, you’re getting dehydrated. The darker the yellow, the more critical it is for you to drink.
4. Don’t Underestimate the Environment
I’ve met people hiking in the winter with light clothes, no packs, and no clue. I actually had one guy ask, “Do you know how to get out of here?” We were hiking some back mountain trails and he and his son were completely lost. They had no maps, no compass, no pack, and no chance at survival if conditions deteriorated. If you do go for a hike, make sure you’re able to take care of yourself in a worst case scenario. It’s better to carry those fifteen pounds of extra gear just in case.
5. Know How to Start a Fire in the Cold and Snow
With fire and shelter, you can survive adverse conditions. Starting fires is a skill that takes practice. When you can light a fire with a lighter, begin using matches. When you’re proficient with a match, use a firesteel. Once you’ve mastered the fire steel, try making a bow drill. When you can light a fire with a fire steel or bow drill, using a lighter almost feels like cheating. Practice!
6. Don’t Overestimate Your Skill
If you’re an expert at desert survival, understand that doesn’t mean jack shit when the temp falls to -20 and you’re faced with three feet of snow. I camp out year round and try different things to see how I’d make out in an emergency. Last weekend (mid-November 2016) I spent the night in my tipi. The temps were in the high 30s and I decided to sleep with just a couple of blankets to see how I’d make out. I damned near froze my ass off because I wiggled off my sleeping mat during the night and the ground was leaching the heat out of me. Make sure you understand all the nuances of how cold weather can impact you.
7. Know How to Use Your Gear
Whatever gear you decide to carry, you must know it like the back of your hand. How will your stove fuel behave in cold weather? Did you know that your Jetboil needs a special mix of fuel in the winter in order to work properly? Same thing is true with Bic lighters. If you do get a flame in really cold weather, it’s puny. Test the integrity of your gear. When your life is on the line, you don’t want your equipment to fail.
8. Take a Map and Compass and Know How to Use Them
Terrain looks different in the winter. I’ve hiked trails in the summer and when I went back to that same trail in the winter I had a hard time finding my way. Why? When it snows, it bends the trees over and they have a tendency to cover the trail.
9. Know How to Build a Shelter
In order to prepare a camping spot, pack down the area with your snowshoes. Let it set a half hour or longer and you can make blocks for an igloo. Did I mention deep snow is hard to move around in? You can either dig a snow cave or make an igloo out of blocks that you cut from the snow. Keep your shelter small and tight and it will retain heat better. You’ll find that snow is a remarkably good insulator!
10. Be Physically Fit.
There’s a lot of heart attacks from older and middle aged men who live a sedentary lifestyle after a big snow storm. Snow can be quite heavy and the physical exertion of managing this snow can kill. Keep yourself physically fit and it won’t be an issue.
There are many factors to keep in mind when you’re outside in the winter, but if you dress warm and use common sense you can have a great time. Instead of saying, “Oh damn, winter’s almost here,” you can now say, “Alright! Winter is almost here!”
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