Just the Basics: Winter Warmth

I’m writing a series on the basics – how to get started outdoors from square one, from venturing out your back door to pursuing fish to survival. My hope is that this will be of benefit to some who’ve dreamed for years of getting out of the urban/online lifestyle so prevalent nowadays or maybe to simply inspire some young people to run wild a bit more. My hope is also that it will be a joy to share all this – drawing on much from my younger days and perhaps helping the author to recapture the sheer joy of exploration, of finding trails and diverging from the highways for a bit.

I know the woods of western Pennsylvania better than I know anywhere else so I’m going to write all of this as though I’m talking to people who live here in Pennsylvania. Most of this material, by far, will apply equally well to the rest of the eastern forest, some of it to the western forests and maybe even some to the broad plains in between.

After school I’d haul my wooden box sled along the snowmobile trail and ease it downhill on the steep drop to the lake. I wouldn’t have a lot of time on those short winter days but I thought that maybe evening was best anyway for fishing. One thing was certain: this lake would get a lot colder as soon as the sun went away.

I was thirteen then, learning to ice-fish on my own on the lake nearest my home in western Maine. Almost daily, I’d re-open old holes with an ice chisel, cut one new hole most days and set up my bucket to sit and jig. I didn’t often catch fish but I did have a lot of time to think. Much of this time was simply spent in fantasies of places I might catch fish one day and much of the time was spent in thinking about how to stay warm. A big, frozen lake in Maine seemed an appropriate place to think of such things.

So, I’ve been researching this topic for quite a while and experimenting as well, venturing out into really cold places from Newfoundland to south Florida (a winter night of sleeping on the ground) and from Washington State to Washington D.C. (also a winter night of sleeping on the ground). My opinions on all this stuff have changed and matured over the last thirty years or so and I now know what works for me and I don’t worry about the cold too much anymore. This isn’t to say the danger posed by hypothermia and frostbite aren’t real though. Here’s some of the best advice I can offer on how to avoid these.

The best warmth comes from within – from exercise. You may warm up next to a fire but you’ll get cold again quickly as soon as you leave it and there are all kinds of winter situations where fire’s impractical. Jogging around is a good way to warm up quickly in really cold situations but just walking will always warm you up in time. I often felt that it was unbearably cold outside when I was younger only to find that I was actually comfortable after only ten minutes or so of walking, especially in snow. I sometimes sleep on the lake shore while ice-fishing and I normally start the day by getting the boots on as quickly as possible after exiting the bag and jogging on the lake a bit.

A word of caution here: Don’t sweat! Sweating will leave you worse off than you were before exercising. The moisture against your skin will cool you faster than just about anything. Take it easy if you feel sweat coming on, especially if you’re not close to home, facing a day on a frozen lake perhaps. And, by the way, a hand-powered ice auger is my favorite piece of workout equipment for a quick warm-up.

It took me longer than it should have to figure this out but what you eat before heading out or while you’re out makes a world of difference. Fatty foods are key – the fattier the better. I noticed this late one fall on a walk from Georgia to Pennsylvania. Hot dogs became mandatory for me at every town stop. I could feel them burning like a furnace inside me on the cold nights in Appalachia. Sugary stuff is pretty good too for this purpose, though not as good as fat. Save the kale and carrots for a more civilized place and time or for trapping a fatty animal that you can eat.

Of course, choice of clothing is incredibly important to your plan for winter warmth. It’s well-established nowadays that your base layer should be some kind of synthetic material like rayon. These fabrics will trap less moisture against the skin, drying more quickly and transmitting moisture on to outer layers. I like to carry an extra base-layer T-shirt with me so I can change in case sweating is unavoidable. In such situations I do remove all my clothing above the waist, maybe dry in the breeze for a minute, and slip into a clean shirt. It sounds cold but it’s less so than going on in a damp T-shirt, in the long run.

The importance of dressing in layers is also common knowledge. This makes sense for at least two reasons: Insulating air is trapped between clothing layers and, for active situations, you can quickly discard layers to keep from sweating. Synthetic long underwear is nice with outer pants over these. I like synthetic here too, having grown up using blue jeans through the winter and knowing what that feels like by the end of the day – soggy or frozen or soggy and frozen all at once. Nowadays I like gore-tex or something similar in the outer shell of my pants with some sort of fleece-like lining within. In extreme conditions, I’ll add snow pants over these. Above the belt, I wear the base layer, a light long-sleeved shirt and a sweatshirt – there are many combinations that can work fine here. I like my coat to be a bit longer than average to prevent cold air from sneaking in around my waist, especially while bending repeatedly to work on things. The jacket’s shell should be wind resistant and water resistant if not waterproof. Staying dry is key and there’s nothing worse than getting caught out in winter rain without an outfit that can actually keep you dry.

Socks should be synthetic (at least the inner ones) and worn in two pairs. Your hat should be substantial and cover your ears. Choose mittens over gloves. Boots should be waterproof, at least the lowers.

Staying dry has been kind of a theme thus far and I’ll repeat it again here. As a matter of survival, think constantly about how to keep yourself dry. Don’t let snow build up where it’s going to melt on your clothes and be prepared for rain if there’s any chance at all. Winter rain sounds like a warmer condition to find yourself in than snow and it is, until you’re wet to the skin.

Also think about how to stay out of the wind or to protect yourself from it. Temperatures that would feel just fine in still air easily become unbearable with just ten mile per hour winds. This is especially pertinent if you like to spend time on frozen lakes.

If you’re going to spend time off the beaten track during winter, you’ll want to know how to construct a survival shelter that truly insulates. If you have no snow or little snow (less than a foot) on the ground, you should probably think in terms of a large fire and a reflective tarp at your back. If you do have snow though, I recommend the “quinzee” shelter which is both simple and effective. The one tool you’ll need is a snow shovel, full-size or pack size. It’s possible to build a quinzee without one but the shovel makes it much, much easier.

Start by mounding up a circular pile of snow at least five feet high at the apex. Push sticks into this pile all over its surface to a depth of twelve inches each (you’ll see). Wait about an hour, working on other things. The snow will harden and you’ll now be able to sculpt and tunnel. Cut a tunnel into the mound, preferably into the down-wind side and hollow out the interior. You’ll know that you’ve got the wall thickness about right because you’ll bump into the ends of the mysterious sticks you placed earlier. Also, the floor will ideally be higher than the ground where you’ve knelt to shovel, keeping the warmest air where you want it.

Finally, a sort of vestibule is built around the entrance using large blocks of frozen snow. Use these blocks to form two low walls on each side of the entrance. Place large sticks and progressively smaller sticks on top of these as you build a ceiling for the vestibule, finally placing evergreen boughs on top. Shovel some snow on top of this. Your quinzee should now look something like a hybrid igloo-porcupine.

Sleeping in a shelter made of snow might not sound warm but this has been how I’ve slept through my very coldest nights in the wild; six subzero nights in northwestern Minnesota. The first night, and first time I’d ever built a quinzee, the temperature bottomed out at -21. I can’t say I was toasty but I certainly survived and went on to build improved quinzees for the nights to follow.

And this brings us to the sleeping bag. Whenever practical in the winter, carry the heaviest sleeping bag practical. At least keep one in your car. A dry sleeping bag will keep you alive when all else fails. Nowadays, when I sleep out in the snow, I don’t light fires but rather focus on the bag and shelter. And, by the way, the best addition to the bag is a foam pad which will insulate you from the cold ground or snow. Also, you can combine two bags to make a warmer bag or try a sleeping bag liner to get just a little more insulating value.

Fire, of course, can keep you warm through a winter night. Fires aren’t practical though in a lot of situations and I generally don’t use them for winter camping. If you do use a fire, it needs to be larger than your average campfire to really do you much good. Little wood-burning pack stoves do next to nothing for you – I’ve tried these repeatedly. You can ward off frostbite to your fingers, while the rest of you freezes.

If you do need to use a fire, think big, especially while laying in wood. There’s generally no need for an axe or saw here. The forest almost always offers enough dead wood, standing and fallen, to get you through the night, even at official campsites where you might expect wood to be in high demand. Don’t set up a tent close to a fire. You’ll wake up to a newly ventilated tent (from sparks and embers) and probably won’t benefit a lot from the fire either. Ideally, you’ll be able to string up a tarp behind you to reflect heat back onto yourself while sleeping. Hopefully, you’ll have lain in more wood than you thought you’d need and have an ample supply for the night.

Ice-fishing can be a particularly challenging venture in terms of winter warmth. Wind is unobstructed, hands get wet, and you may plan to be out for several hours. If you intend to be stationary all day, you might as well employ one of the pop-up tent-like shelters so popular nowadays with a small gas stove inside or go fully domestic and sit in an old-time wooden shanty with holes in the floor.

I prefer mobility while ice-fishing and don’t live in an awfully cold place so I stay mobile, using no shelter at all. I move almost constantly and I generally don’t get cold. When I’m not cutting new holes or moving rapidly between holes, I sometimes just walk laps around all my holes, watching for a tip-up flag. When I’m first pulling the sled out from shore to my first destination, I put the coat on the sled to keep from sweating and to have it high and dry just in case I fall through the ice.

Getting out of the wind isn’t always possible while on a frozen lake but some places are better than others. I fished the most wind-blasted day I can remember last winter, a hurricane of crystalline snow surging eastward across the lake for hours. It was relatively easy though to see where to find the leeward side of a bay and I chose this, a place where I fished comfortably at least until I slipped and nearly broke my right arm.

This brings up another point: The situations in which you’re most in danger are situations in which you’re injured and cold simultaneously. Slips on the ice offer ample opportunity for this. You can’t run around to stay warm when your ankle’s sprained. If you fish alone in remote places, carry a water-proof bundle of flammable materials, stuff that can catch fire instantly when lit and then burn long enough to start a pile of sticks. If you can’t get yourself out this may be very necessary. The fire bundle is also a great precaution in case of a fall through the ice. When you get out, you’ll hope for instant fire.

A very general sort of tip, though not one easily followed, is just this: Don’t Panic! It may be growing dark and you may be lost out in the cold but becoming upset just won’t help. Stay calm and keep moving at a steady, though not sweaty, pace. This may mean walking or staying still to put up a shelter or collect fire wood. Even if you’re cold, you can warm yourself back up. One way to avoid panicking is to practice with the skills and materials described above. Another is to carry a survival kit.

An appropriate winter survival kit keeps the focus on warmth. And by survival kit, I mean something the size of a large hip pouch. If you’re carrying a pack or pulling a sled, you can stow much more than this. Among other things, the kit should contain a knife and paracord, both vital for shelter construction. If you can fit it, an emergency winter warmth blanket (not one of the Walmart cheapies) is nice. The capacity to start fires is vital. Wooden matches sealed in something waterproof and stowed in at least two separate places is great but you might want to include a second means of starting, whether that’s a lighter or a fero rod. Any extra space in your kit should probably be taken up with tinder materials and maybe a candle.

A change of socks is nice. Something fatty like Pemican or bacon will help a lot too and just some heavy-duty aluminum foil for cooking over your fire. Throw in one of the cheap, compact emergency blankets too. This makes a nice emergency shelter ceiling if you’re facing cold rain. A small metal mug makes a nice luxury addition as does some instant coffee. Again, having this stuff along may just give some needed peace of mind when things start to not go as planned.

A note on backpacks: They will make your back sweat, almost always, especially modern internal frame packs. If you have the choice, take a sled.

All this gear isn’t enough though. You have to be adept at using it and able to do it while the wet snow’s falling and you’ve been caught out in the dark. This only comes with practice, preferably at times when your life isn’t on the line, maybe in the field out behind your place one evening or within a snowball’s throw of the car. This winter, build a quinzee, try some different survival foods and get a feel for how fast you can travel without breaking a sweat. Make sure you’ve got a good handle on how to get an emergency fire lit, a topic that I didn’t cover here in great detail.

And don’t underestimate the value of acclimatization. Don’t expect to leave a seventy-something degree house and feel comfortable outside in twenty-something. Keep your thermostats low in the winter if you want to participate in winter outdoorsmanship, an idea that should be more and more appealing as our orchestrated energy crisis worsens anyway.

All of this should imbue you with the confidence to not only survive the winter ahead but to thrive in it and maybe actually enjoy your time out in the cold. I do.

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