survival instruction in winter navigation

Beat the winter chills with tested survival skills

With the temperatures plummeting we should consider making some changes to our equipment choice and preparing ourselves to brace against some more demanding conditions. 

As we know our survival in the short term is all about the importance of our medical needs and maintaining core body temperature with hydration following closely. 

So what are my considerations when preparing myself and my kit for a day in the hills and woods in winter?

Firstly, I make sure I am wearing suitable clothing for the conditions that I may encounter. I’ll always check the forecast, however, I will always plan for rain. It is the UK after all! 

Below is a list of my clothing- 

On my body – Cap, Buff/neck gaiter, baselayer (wool/synthetic) wool shirt or jumper, synthetic underwear, poly cotton trousers with plenty of pockets, wool socks, leather boots. 

In my pack – Synthetic gilet, wool jacket or synthetic down jacket, full set of waterproofs, gloves x2, wool hat, silk scarf (sleeping bag liner), spare socks and base layer. 

You will notice that I wear NOTHING COTTON. Cotton when wet is a fast track to hypothermia. It will chill us rapidly due to evaporative cooling and has no place outdoors. 

I also make sure that my pack is large enough to house all my layers. This way I can organise myself and thermo regulate easily. If we sweat, we get wet, if we get wet, we get cold. 

I can now layer up and layer down when exerting myself. I can also strip wet layers and swap out for dry kit. This is incredibly important. I can also put all my layers on when static and remain warm enough to see myself through an unplanned night in the woods.

Sleeping bags are great for a planned night, however, I am just not willing to carry one in case of emergency. You can’t walk out slowly with an injury while wearing a sleeping bag but you can in a down jacket.

Wool vs Synthetic

In brief, wool is my preference when using fire as it will not melt or burn. It is also very good at insulating us when wet and is antimicrobial so won’t start to smell like synthetic clothing does. When I am in the woods I use cheap ex military Goretex as I won’t cry if I melt a hole through it. 

In the mountains I prefer the light weight option of synthetic, however, you will see me wearing a blend of both.

You don’t need to spend a bomb on your kit. The charity shops are full of woolly jumpers and gym kit is cheap as chips nowadays. Trawl for bargains and be frugal and you can be very well equipped from head to toe for the price of a top end jacket. “It’s not a fashion show” as my Dad used to say!

Now I must address this. KEEP MOVING. If you’re lost and it is now dark get your head torch on and navigate yourself to safety. Don’t sit on a rock and hope for the best. You won’t make it. 

snow sticking to a fence

So why would I remain static and spend that unplanned night in the woods or prepare for a rescue attempt?

There are only two reasons I would!

Injury/Casualty Management

This is the worst case scenario. Either we have become injured or a member of our party is now a non-mobile casualty. You must keep them warm. Sit them on their pack and insulate them from the ground. Wrap them up, remove any wet clothing and protect them from the wind. If need be, use body heat to warm them. If they are unconscious then this is when you need to lay them down in the safe airway position and monitor breathing. Again you MUST insulate them from the ground with a pad or rucksacks etc.

In the mountains I always carry a fabulous piece of kit called a Blizzard trauma blanket and a foam sleeping pad, these are added to my winter day pack and are carried as standard practice in the colder months.  

If a rescue party is looking for you make it as obvious as possible where you are. I carry a high viz vest and chem lights to aid in this.

Lastly we must address the reality of carrying a casualty over rough terrain. I’ll be frank, don’t bother. Mountain Rescue teams are BIG in numbers and are fit. When they turn up they have a purpose built stretcher, some have wheels from mountain bikes and they take turns. Even then they move slowly and get cold. Do not try to piggy back your mate or bodge a stretcher together. The risk of further injury to the casualty and possibly the group makes it a hiding to nothing.

Distance and resources dictate

If I find myself a long distance away from safety then I may well consider an impromptu overnight, this will only be after a period of planning and map study. Generally the further I am away from safety or resupply the more I carry as I will more than likely be planning to spend a few nights out. However, if I have lost my equipment, for example down a river on a canoe trip then I must consider my route selection and ask myself if I can move for that long. 

I feel confident I can cover 30 miles in a continuous effort over moderate terrain, this does not include mountains or deep snow. 

I train regularly both running and training with weighted packs over mountainous terrain so I know my limits and I can tell you with honesty, covering 30 miles is HARD but achievable with correct kit, hydration, food and a good level of fitness. 

Fitness is a seldom discussed aspect of survival, start getting after it if you don’t already.

If I am in a woodland environment I feel right at home and have a huge amount of resources around me. Fire and shelter are now achievable quickly when combined with my carried equipment. I very well may choose to spend the night as travelling at night has its inherent risks. Also, it would be quite fun and a good test, well, it would for me, but I’m a weirdo! 

So what am I carrying in regards to shelter? I have two shelter kits. One in my pocket and one in my pack. The latter is my preference!!

My pocket kit is a large mylar bivi bag that I have modified into a large sheet and strengthened. It also has very thin nylon cord and a large rubble sack. This makes for a reasonable emergency overnight. It won’t be stylish but it will get me out of the elements and keep me dry for a few hours. 

My larger kit in my pack is very lightweight and provides me with a large space to escape the weather. The Rab Siltarp is excellent!

I also have a big orange plastic bivi bag that when filled with leaves and other debris makes a very good mattress that will keep me up off the ground if I do not have my foam pad. Along with my layers I can sleep very comfortably and if I am still cold I can add wrap up like a hot potato in the trauma blanket. 

In the mountains and in very cold conditions I will always carry a foam roll mat. These are cheap and weigh hardly anything. The insulative value is huge and will save your life if you need to bed down or insulate a cold casualty. They also make a fantastic wind break when sitting on your pack and can be made into loads of things from padding pack straps to an improvised neck collar or splint. 

The woods also provide another key aspect of managing core body heat. Fire. 

ALWAYS carry the ability to light a fire when needed and regularly practise this skill. You should be able to light a fire within 20 minutes in any conditions and in both broadleaf and coniferous woodland. 

Fire = Tools. A fixed blade knife is always in my pack along with a small folding saw. Axes and large saws are just too heavy for a possible emergency. This is the difference between planned bushcraft and emergency survival. You can do a lot with a Laplander folding saw and a strong knife, if you will do it, it will do it. You don’t need that bloody great big axe!

Food

So we have dealt with shelter, both clothing and static. Our next consideration is fuel. If you have been on my courses you know my opinion on food, it is a luxury item and is not really on my radar in the short term. However, in winter this changes. 

Each calorie is like a stick on the fire of our internal furnace. We need fats and carbs to keep us warm.

When I have operated in -30 C I will eat a hot meal before bed and constantly snack throughout the day on nuts and cured fatty meat. Along with hot drinks and 3 square meals a day this keeps my furnace fired. 

Carry complex carbs, not just chocolate and boiled sweets. Nuts, Pepperami, dried fruit etc are all good. 

Also, if you can, boil water and avoid eating snow. It takes 117 calories for the body to melt a litre of snow. Drinking hot water uses zero calories to metabolise. If I have a fire I am brewing up!

Movement

One thing’s for sure in winter, it is going to be dark longer than it is going to be light so plan for that and make friends with the dark. Carry a head torch and a small torch in your pocket. Carry batteries for both. 

Get used to moving at night and if you have a fear of the dark you need to address it. Panic at night and you are heading down a dark path, quite literally. 

Pack your map and compass at all times and get out at night and do some night navigation practice. If it all goes wrong and you end up being benighted the training will pay off. You have already been here before and feel happy in the darkness. This will give you a huge psychological edge. 

Consider carrying goggles if snow is forecast. I have had some nightmarish moments with snow and hail blowing into my eyes making moving difficult and painful. I prefer clear lenses so I can use them at night and in low light. You can easily wear sunglasses under your goggles if needed. 

For the other items I carry take a look at my other blogs such as my day pack contents and what a survival instructor carries in his pockets.

With the right equipment you won’t be weighed down, but you need to keep fit so you can move with a purpose and when it all goes a bit wrong you can keep moving and stay warm. That unplanned night won’t be horrific and you will be able to sleep for a few hours. Remember that sleep is super important and we need a good 3-4 hours to enable us to make the correct decisions. 

Survive and thrive this winter and keep moving!