Every year, extreme winter weather claims the lives of North Americans. Last year, two Canadian hikers were rescued by forest rangers after getting disoriented hiking through deep snow in the Adirondacks and Sgt. Mark Salesse was killed while ice climbing in Alberta, after an avalanche swept him away.
Even if you’re not an outdoor adventure enthusiast, unexpected heavy snowfall or adverse weather conditions can turn a routine winter walk or cross-country ski into a disastrous outing. When snow makes familiar surroundings seem strange, one wrong turn down a snowshoe trail can turn perilous.
Being prepared for worst-case winter scenarios in the woods is key. But there’s no need to re-watch every episode of Survivorman in preparation. Instead, learn the eight basic cold-weather survival skills below.
1. How to dress properly. To avoid overheating and excessive sweating, dress in loose layers. Bottom layers should be natural fibres, while your outer layers should be waterproof. And, as your mom always reminded you, don’t forget your hat and an extra pair of dry socks.
2. How to build a fire in winter. Staying warm and dry is your first priority. Knowing how to build a winter campfire with limited supplies will greatly increase your chances of survival.
3. How to keep warm. Trying to find your way out of a sticky situation can result in hypothermia or frostbite. Instead, avoid perspiration and conserve your energy. Stay out of the wind and if you have company, cuddle up. Engage in light activity to increase circulation and warmth.
4. How to signal distress. Orientation skills may be handy, but you’re more likely to be found if you stay in one spot. Smoke from your fire will provide a major clue, but learn how to whistle to signal distress (with three sharp blasts). Three is the magic number—you can also create three piles of leaves or three piles of rocks that can be seen from the air.
5. How to find a safe source of water. Clean, melted snow is an obvious way to stay hydrated. In the absence of snow, look for running water. If you have a way to boil water, it should be heated for three minutes in rolling boil to ensure it’s purified.
6. How to find or create shelter. When staying dry and warm is your number one concern, shelter that keeps you out of the wind and snow is key. While natural shelters such as caves or fallen trees may exist, knowing how to build a snow shelter, snow trench, or a brush shelter can save your life. Check out these step-by-step guides on how to build a snow cave and how to make a quinzhee, which is better for areas with less snow.
7. How to eat. Knowing how to find nourishment can save your life. But if we’ve taken anything from Into the Wild, it’s that learning how to identify wild mushrooms and berries is difficult. What’s really important here is knowing which snacks to pack on your next winter hike. In these situations, it’s all about the calories and fat—think shortbread, hot cocoa, cheese, butter, etc. Sure, you can’t live off this stuff all the time, but it’s sure to help keep you warm.
8. How to focus and clear your mind. Boredom and loneliness can make an already terrifying situation unbearable. Fatigue and fear can distort your thinking, cloud your mind, and prevent you from making good survival decisions. Meditation or mindfulness techniques are skills that may just help you survive the night.