Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Surviving the Cold

Rethinking Shelters

My recent trip and subsequent cold weather hiking experiences in the high mountains of Colorado this past April has  prompted me to try and stress the importance of being prepared for an emergency overnight stay in the wild.

When teaching the shelter portion of my basic survival courses one of the things that I try and impress on students is that more often than not, people that find themselves lost and forced to spend the night out in the wild, do not build shelters. This is true even when the individual that’s lost may have  survival training and should know, not only the importance of, but also how to build a shelter.

First let me explain why few people will actually  stop and build a shelter. In most instances it’s simply a combination of  human nature and then the result of circumstances. The first thing a person will refuse to recognize or  admit is that they are actually lost. In almost all cases the individual will be charging through the woods at top speed thinking that around the very next bend or over the very next hill they will walk right back into camp. This is especially true for men – and yes-  I too have been guilty. Men just can not admit to themselves that they are lost. So the result is that they continue on the move, maybe retracing what they think is their trail, until all of a sudden- it’s dark.

So here they are. It’s dark,  in the middle of nowhere and there are no suitable materials or natural shelters in sight. In most cases they don’t have a flashlight, no means to start a fire and nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. So what do they do? The only thing they can do. Curl up on the cold ground and try and survive the night.

So why do people put themselves in that kind of situation? A good question and one that’s again answered by:  it’s human nature. People just don’t think it’s going to happen to them. After all, they are just going for a short walk, the trail is well marked, it’s just over the hill, they are part Indian, any number of excuses, but mostly, it’s just plain and simple complacency and “ it can’t happen to me” mentality.

After several years of research, teaching and harping on the subject and actual dirt time experience myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how well I teach a student to build a shelter there’s a better then even chance they will never actually put that training into practice. Even when faced with the very possible and real prospect of spending the night out in the woods. Even though they have the training and know-how to build a shelter. People now-a-days are just  not wired to think that way.

So what is the solution? How do you train and prepare someone to survive one or maybe several nights out in the wild?  Teaching them to build emergency shelters is still a very valuable skill and, just maybe, might be used, especially by someone faced with their second night caught out in the open. ( I say on the second night because after that first night of lying on the ground without any type shelter people are a little more prone to consider taking the time and effort to build some protection.)  Teaching preparedness is the better option and that’s the method that I’m now focusing on.

Being prepared to spend a night outdoors is, in my opinion, the absolute best and most likely to be actually used, method one can teach. When one thinks about it, the clothes we wear are the single most effective and protective emergency shelter one can find. Modern materials have made it very possible to spend days outdoors in sub zero weather and remain comfortable, even toasty warm. Dressing and correctly using layers of the proper type of clothing  allows one to regulate the body’s core temperature. If you are getting warm and start to sweat,  you remove layers; if cold, you add layers. It’s a very effective and simple technique that is actually quite intuitive. There’s no  learning curve or training required. You do what feels right for your body.

So where is this leading and what does it mean as far as a survival situation? It’s very simple. If you are heading outdoors for a short hike, maybe doing some mountain biking or on a canoe trip there’s one simple and very easy step that you can take to prepare for a night or two outdoors. Always wear or carry with you whatever clothing you would need to spend the night outdoors. If you’re in an area where the temperatures could possibly drop down to below freezing then it’s obvious – you need sufficient clothing for those temperatures. I’m not talking about just enough clothing to keep you warm while hiking along at a brisk pace. I’m talking about being dressed well enough to weather the night curled up on a bare rock on top of a wind swept mountain – in the rain. Now that might seem like a tall order and something that would require about twenty extra pounds of clothing. Not true. It boils down to the proper selection of clothes.

For instance, I have a 100% goose down jacket that weights 8 ounces and packs into a small nylon bag that’s about the size of a grapefruit. I’ve worn that jacket alone  in 10 to 15 degree weather and stayed toasty. I also carry a light weight windbreaker and if I add that over the down jacket I’m good for below zero temperatures. For trousers this last time in Colorado I wore light weight ski pants. They are water proof, wind proof and very comfortable. I could sit in the snow with complete comfort and not worry about having wet jeans.

I don’t have the time or room in this blog to go into a complete discussion about suitable clothing for cold weather. There’s tons of good advise on the web and in thousands of books but if I were to give any advise it would be to look toward clothing designed for skiers. There is also one other little bit of advise that I always give and that is to never wear cotton. In cold weather – “cotton kills”.  Not even cotton underwear folks.

All the reasons outlined above are the reasons I’m now teaching that your Primary Shelter , the clothes that you have with you, are your most important emergency shelter. How you are dressed when you inter the woods may actually be the difference between surviving or not. I can’t stress this enough. I know that you are not going to stop and build a shelter. I know that the majority of  people “lost” in the wild never built a proper shelter. I know that no matter how many different types of shelters I teach students to build, none are as effective as being properly dressed. I know that the energy, calories burned, time and effort required to build an effective shelter are not equal , shelter wise, to the comfort of putting on a single warm sweater.

So here’s my advise on emergency shelters. Take it with you. Wear it. Actually say to yourself: “ I plan on sleeping in the woods tonight. What should I wear? ”  Thinking this way will hopefully also prompt you to tuck that Personal Emergency Survival Kit into one pocket and maybe even a large contractor’s garbage bag or two into another pocket. How  about a knife while you’re at it?

The point is –if you think you’ll just wait until it’s life or death and then build one of those nifty shelters like the Survivor Man does, good luck.  You’re going to need it.

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