Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Surviving the Cold

Wrapping it up

I recent tragedy here in Florida brings to light the need for anyone that plans on spending time outdoors to have some basic survival training. A hiker on the Florida Trail died from hypothermia. The report I heard on the local news was that he was found wearing cargo shorts, a t-shirt and a light windbreaker. The temperature that night dipped down to freezing, very unusual here in FL, but none-the-less, that’s not something that should result in a death.
I’ve yet to read anywhere as to whether this unfortunate hiker carried anything to build a fire with or if he carried some sort of shelter – tent, tarp and survival blanket. It was reported that he carried a backpack with a weeks worth of supplies. I find it very hard to believe that anyone would plan for and pack for a week on a trail and not have a shelter or a means to build a fire.

With that incident in mind I’d like to point out and discuss three common mistakes or simple oversights that I often see or hear about. Number one – and this is the one everyone has the most control over, yet sadly, the one they pay the least attention to - your primary shelter. Your primary shelter, that is, your first line of defense against inclement weather, is the clothes you are wearing and/or carrying. The best advise I can give anyone venturing outdoors is to always dress as if you plan on sleeping in the woods without any kind of shelter other than the clothes on your back and that it’s going to be 20 below zero that night. If everyone would do just that alone, there would be few, if any, unfortunate deaths from hypothermia.Of course wearing the proper type of clothing is also important. Without going into a long discussion about clothes, ( that’s another blog subject ) let’s just say – in cold weather, do not wear cotton. Just remember this – “cotton kills “.

Mistakes number two and three, shelter and fire, pretty much go hand-in-hand. Our basic survival courses teach that shelter is a higher priority than fire. Some people find that this doesn’t seem like the proper order and in some cases it may not be. Your particular situation may necessitate building a quick fire right there and then and you’ll worry about a shelter later. Most often though, you’ll find that without a shelter you may not even be able to build a fire. If it’s pouring the rain and/or there’s a wind blowing– some type of shelter will be required. Now by shelter I’m talking about both something as simple as a small wind break ( your body) or just a small cover to block the rain so you can get that fire started and larger shelters you can sleep under.

Most all survival instructors strongly recommend that anyone venturing out into the woods, even on a short hike, should carry some sort of emergency shelter. What they may not all agree on is how to actually use that shelter. Let’s take something as simple as the ubiquitous Space Blanket, an emergency shelter often carried by hikers and other outdoorsman. What would be the absolutely best way to use that small piece of material to keep warm? The answer is very simple. Just wrap the blanket around your body. Folks - there is no better way.

Of course you could build a small A-frame or lean-to type of shelter with it. You could even use it as a liner inside a debris hut. All fairly good options and ones that will afford some degree of protection. The same goes for other commonly carried emergency type shelters. Large garbage bags, drum liners, ponchos, sections of plastic and small tarps all can be used for a shelter. And – if you have the time, the materials and a good location, you might end up with a descent and warm shelter. And, even if your shelter building skills are above average – I’ll bet you even money – that shelter will not be nearly as effective it would be if you used the quickest and the simplest method of just wrapping it around your body.

Here’s just a few reasons why I recommend this method above all others. Some obvious ones:

1. Quick and simple. If it starts to rain you can cover up immediately and not get wet while trying to build a shelter.
2. Very simple. Even small kids can do this. No training or extra materials needed.
3. Easy to regulate body temperature. If you’re warm, open it up, if cold. wrap tighter.
4. Very portable. If you need to move it goes with you.
5. A small candle, stove or even open fire under the cover will provide plenty of heat.
6. Windproof and water proof even in a blowing wind.
7. It also serves as your ground cloth.

What if you’re all wrapped up and are still cold? Good question and of primary importance. If there’s no other natural shelters available, like a rock cliff, downed trees etc, and it’s safe to do so – my first recommendation is to simply walk and keep walking at as fast a pace as it’s safe to do so. Walking generates heat and even in frigid conditions that may be all you need to do to stay warm. Even at night. If there’s enough light from the moon, distant lights or you have a flashlight – consider walking. Nights are almost always the coldest part of any day and the time that you are in the most danger of becoming hypothermic. Sitting around and trying to sleep at the risk of freezing is not the best option. Would you rather be tired and sleepy –or dead? Put your efforts into staying warm, not sleeping. Here’s a news flash. You’re probably not going to get any sleep anyway!

Another option, and a good one if the materials are available, make yourself a debris hut. It can be a something as simple as just piling leaves on top of you. Pile them as high and as deep as possible. The activity alone should do considerable to warm you up . Stay wrapped in your space blanket, garbage bag or whatever you’re using as your emergency shelter as much as possible and then crawl in.

If you have the fuel and something to get a fire going – do so of course. Again, stay wrapped up as much as possible. If the fire is providing enough heat and it’s safe to do so, now might be the time to get a little rest.

I do teach my students how to build simple shelters using a space blanket, poncho and sometimes even a garbage bag. I still consider those to be viable and sometimes useful survival skills, and well worth the time and effort it takes to build one. I do not teach those type of shelters as the best or only option. Each and every type of shelter will have it’s good and bad points. The circumstances will usually dictate what works best. For my money, a simple body wrap will fit the bill and offer the most protection hands down.

If that Florida Trail hiker did die from exposure and hypothermia it’s an absolute shame and to my way of thinking, completely avoidable and preventable. I can’t believe there was nothing in his backpack to at least wrap up in and I can’t believe he wouldn’t have had a means to build a fire. Let’s not let something like that happen to us. Pack those emergency blankets and at the first hint of a chill – wrap up.