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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cold Weather Survival

Mt McKinley Alaska Franke Schein
[ Mount McKinley Alaska January 14th 2012 Photo: Franke Schein ]

Being afraid of extreme cold weather is a natural thing. Most people have the tendency to stay indoors next to the wood burning stove when the temperatures dip into the sub-zero ranges. But, some of us enjoy the challenges of facing the extremes—a Man against Nature challenge. Most people think that I’m nuts when they hear that I’m heading 150 miles into the Northern interior of Alaska. Sometimes I believe them too…
Nonetheless; being out there in the thick of winter is both a way to test my gear, and myself. It allows me the quiet time that I need to recharge myself, and the opportunity to get my survival mind-set used to the frigid weather.

But it starts at home through meticulous selection of the gear that I will be trusting to keep me safe…

Base Layer:
  • Fleece (Stretch) Union Suit
  • Polypropylene Socks
  • Thermax Sock Liner
  • Polypropylene T-Shirt
Mid Layer:
  • Wool Pants
  • Wool Pull-Over Sweater
  • Polar-Tec Insulated Jacket
Outer Layer:
  • Gortex Parka
  • Gortex Gaiters
  • Gortex Gloves
  • Fleece Face Mask
  • Fleece Watch Cap
  • Snow Goggles
  • Cold Weather (Bunny) Boots
The list above includes everything that I wear. It looks like a lot of clothing, but in reality, it is three layers that help to trap body heat, and keep the cold wind, as well as the wet snow from the “creeping chill” that signals the start of hypothermia.

Choosing my gear is very important. If my life will depend on a piece of equipment, or clothing, you can be assured that a lot of thought has went into it, before I lay down my money. The Parka is one such piece of gear that is essential. I don’t play around when choosing what Cold Weather Parka.
  • Snag proof Zippers
  • Multiple Inner-Pockets
  • Multiple Outer Pocket
  • Draw String Waist
  • Snow Skirt
  • Adjustable Collar That Reaches To The Nose
  • Fur Trimmed Hood
  • Nylon Sleeve Skirt: (Keeps the snow and wind off the wrists)
  • Waterproof (Not Water Resistant)
  • Armpit Venting Zippers
The multiple inner-pocket hold the survival gear that I consider essential out in the cold weather.
Extra Insulated Socks are layered in both (large) lower pockets. Having them rolled-up creates unwanted bulk, so I keep one sock in each pocket. It reduced the bulk; most times it’s easy to forget about them until they are needed.

Extra Cell-Phone Battery is stored in one of the upper zippered pockets. The battery is wrapped in wool, and then placed inside of a small zip-lock bag. The wool helps to protect the connections from snapping, and in a pinch, the wool can also be used as an emergency fire starter. The zip-lock bag can be used to melt snow for water.

A Mini-Flashlight is kept in another chest pocket. During the Alaska winter months there isn’t much daylight. The sun rises about 10:30 AM, and stats setting around 3:30 PM. By 4:30 it is already dark. Having a flashlight handy is a blessing.

Disposable Lighter & Waterproof Matches are likewise stored in a zip-lock bag inside of the Parka.

In one of the upper-pockets an Emergency Blanket rides along in case I am forced to hunker-down and get warm. I carry both the standard blanket, and the Emergency Space Bag. Both are essential survival gear that I don’t want to get separated from.

Zipper-Pull Mini-Compass and Temperature Gauge complete the ensemble. Sometimes it’s beneficial to know what the temperature is, and during darkness or white-out conditions, the little compass might help to determine travel direction. But, during a blizzard, hunkering-down is the only way to survive. It’s easy to get lost out there, or walk right off the edge of a cliff, or stumble into an ice filled stream.

A small Water Bottle that is kept half-filled rides near my chest. Keeping it half-filled insures that in the event that I fall down, the water bottle isn’t crushed, and end’s up exploding inside of the parka. Keeping it next to my chest insures that it doesn’t freeze.

A pair of Extra Gloves are not only an essential item, but a part of the survival gear. Gloves get wet, or ripped open on sharp ice. Having a spare set of gloves insures that my time out in the woods is uneventful.
Oftentimes a few granola bars, and chocolate bars are stashed away in the pockets for added energy during the arduous trek across the frozen landscape.

Peppermint candies gives a little energy boost. A few soft tissues will help to defray the “runny nose” problems that are associated with cold weather. Soft Berber Fleece works really good, as does pieces of Marino Wool from worn out clothing.


Having quality Cold Weather Boots is paramount to survival out there in the snow country. I prefer the military “Bunny” boots. They are rated to –60 below zero. Topped-off with a set of gortex gaiters to keep the snow out from the top of the boots—keeps my feet in good condition.

Tinted Snow Goggles are also a must out there. The sun reflecting off of the snow can quickly create conditions called “snow blindness”. Blowing snow, or ice-fog are likewise deflected by the goggles.

Basic Survival Equipment:
  • Rucksack/Backpack
  • Cold Weather Sleeping Bag
  • Gortex Bivy Cover
  • Sleeping (Ground) Pad
  • Folding Stove w/ Heat Tabs
  • Canteen Cup
  • Arctic Canteen, w/ Carrier
  • Eating Utensils
  • Ka-Bar Knife
  • Sharpening Steel
  • Leatherman Multi-Tool
  • Toilet Paper
  • Fire Making Kit
  • Parachute Cord
  • 8' x 8' Canvas Tarp
  • Chemical Lights
  • Chemical Heat Packs
  • 3-Piece Mess Kit
  • Individual First Aid Kit
  • Lensatic Compass
  • Waterproof Map Case
  • Lip Balm
  • Complete Change of Clothing
  • Small Thermos Bottle
  • Water Purification Tablets
  • Poncho

The one thing that I always try to keep in mind when I am out there, is that weight can be the enemy. Humping around a heavy backpack means that walking in the snow requires more effort. Minimal gear which fulfills the requirements for cold weather survival is the only way to go. The added space in the backpack is filled with extra food.

Food Supplies:
  • Instant Oatmeal
  • Instant Coffee
  • Instant Soup
  • Hot Chocolate
  • Tea Bags
  • Raisins
  • Dried Pineapples
  • M&M (Crushed) Candies and mixed with Brown Sugar
  • Emergen-C Vitamin Drink
  • Sugar Packs
  • Non-Dairy Creamer Packs
  • Salt Packs
  • Pepper Packs
  • Mountain House Freeze Dried Scrambled Eggs & Peppers
  • Mountain House Freeze Dried Chili Mac
  • Mountain House Freeze Dried Beef Stroganoff
  • MRE Wheat Bread
  • MRE Crackers
  • MRE Peanut Butter
  • MRE Jelly

Emergency Gear:
  • SPOT-Satellite “Messenger”
  • Arial Signaling Flares
  • Signaling Whistle
  • Orange Signaling Smoke Markers
  • Fluorescent Orange Marker Panel
When I am “just playing” out in the woods; there’s always a chance that I could get myself into serious trouble. Being alone out there when the temperatures are 30-50 degrees below zero, can mean death if a broken ankle, or deep laceration occurs. Having and extra cell-phone battery is alright as long as there is a signal, but most times there isn’t a tower nearby. The SPOT Satellite device works wonders. It’s easy to summon assistance. But once the search and rescue airplanes are overhead, you have to help them find you. Orange panels, smoke bombs, and signal flares will make it easier for SAR to get to you. All of these items can be wrapped inside of an old Blaze Orange hunting vest, and then secured with rubber bands.


Here in Alaska, a dirt road doesn’t mean civilization. It means that there’s a very long walk in your immediate future. It could be a twenty mile hike to the nearest paved road, or it could be well over a hundred miles—depending on what part of Alaska one is located in.

Whenever I go out into the woods, I always keep in mind that a freak storm can blow in—stranding me out there for several days. That is one reason that I always take more food than what I will actually need. A few dozen home-made fuel tabs are spread out in various pockets in my Parka, and backpack. These fuel tabs can be used for light, heat, starting fires, and cooking my food.

My cell-phone is kept in the small chest pocket of my fleece Long-John suit. The warmth of my body will keep the batteries from loosing its charge in the cold weather. Having the phone on “vibrate” means that I instantly know whenever there is a call coming in. The one flashlight that I carry is also stored inside of my parka. Cold weather is hard on electronics.

Every time that I boil water, I take the time to replace what I have used, and also take the time to refill my thermos bottle. The Thermos makes it easier to grab a hot cup of tea or coffee, without having to dig out the stove and fuel tabs. At night the thermos is tucked in the bottom of my sleeping bag. The water stays warmer inside the bag, as opposed to subjecting it to the frigid night air.

No matter what the season is, I always carry at least two firearms out there. One is a large caliber heavy-hitting magnum rifle such as either the .338 Winchester Magnum, or the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum. Both of these calibers will stop a bear, wolf, or take down a large game animal. Scopes are useless out there; they tend to get fogged-up, knocked around, and actually reduce the sight picture as well as my peripheral vision. Thick trees make the scope useless unless one is hunting out beyond 100-yards, or shooting across open tundra. Forty rounds of ammunition is the usual load-out for either rifle.

For a back-up weapon I carry the Taurus “Raging Bull” .454-Casull Magnum. This hard-hitting revolver is my last ditch weapon, and one that is easier to reach in the event I am awakened in the middle of the night. The handgun is strapped into a chest holster that also carries an additional twelve rounds of ammunition. Eight extra rounds are stored in the backpack.

Tents are heavy, and once exposed to snow and ice, quickly become unmanageable. I have found that the best way to get out from under the weather, is to use a eight foot canvas tarp. It’s relatively easy to find a couple of saplings, and bend two of them across each other in order to build a field expedient shelter-frame.

The saplings should be bent close to the ground; providing enough headroom to get into elbow position while laying down. The taller the shelter is, the harder it will be to keep it warm. Keep the shelter small, and close to the ground. The opposite end of the saplings can be driven into the snow, or heavy logs and rocks can be used to keep the frame solid. Scoop out the snow from underneath the saplings. get out of the wind as much as possible.


An Emergency space blanket is spread out across the frame. This allows heat from the stove to warm the air. Body heat will also bring the temperature up a few degrees as well. The space blanket is them covered with the canvas tarp. Combining both of these pieces of gear, will make for a comfortable night in the snow.
Pack the exposed edges of the tarp with snow. This will keep the wind out, and prevent blowing snow from entering the shelter. But leave a small doorway on one end. Snow Shoes placed up against the opening will keep the blowing snow out; but you will need to have cross-venting to keep from being suffocated by fumes from the stove.

If this shelter is properly constructed, it will maintain a moderate snow weight. The wind is the one thing that will take this shelter down. High winds will definitely turn the tarp and emergency blanket into a parachute. Build this shelter among the trees, or behind some wind-fall. Packing the edges with snow will also help to keep the shelter tied to the bent saplings. Both my canvas tarp, and the emergency space blanket has their respective para-cords already tied to the corners. I use a small stone in the corners of the emergency blanket; this allows me to have a place to knot my para-cord.

Sleeping Gear:
the one thing that cannot be minimized is the cold weather sleeping gear. head out into the bush cold weather with a cheaply made sleeping bag, and it will quickly turn into a very miserable night. Get used to the idea of running back and forth gathering firewood to stay warm—that will be the result of an inferior sleeping bag.
I like to keep an extra space blanket inside of my sleeping bag for those really cold nights. The emergency blanket helps to retain the warmth inside of the bag.

One important thing to remember about sleeping in cold weather: Unless you keep your boots and socks in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night; they will be frozen in the morning. Those heavy and wet boots will ruin the sleeping bag, and the transfer of moisture will reduce the efficiency of the bag itself. For that reason, I change my socks before calling it a night, and then slip into my sleeping bag, with the boots hanging out from the bottom. Another reason for the emergency blanket. It also makes things easier in case I have to exit the shelter to relieve myself in the middle of the night; and in case I am awakened by a predator, I’m not trapped inside of a zippered sleeping bag.

It is also necessary to have adequate insulation from the cold ground. A sleeping pad helps to eliminate the cold earth from sucking the warmth out of your body. There are several varieties available on the market. It’s simply a matter of choosing one that suits your own particular needs. I use my backpack as a headrest, and this also helps to keep my gear close to me.

Before going to sleep, I make sure that every piece of gear is repacked into my backpack. In case the wind knocks down my shelter, or I am forced to leave in a hurry; I won’t have to stop and look for my things. They are already packed.

I’ve used this shelter many times, and in all of the different seasons. This type of shelter has protected me from rain, snow, sleet, and early morning dew. It has never let me down. I've built this shelter with canvas and ponchos alike. It works in any situation, as long as the shelter is kept close to the ground, and protected from sudden wind gusts.

A single home-made fuel tab will keep the inside of this shelter toasty, even in sub-zero temperatures. The stove’s small flame quickly heats-up the shelter by reflecting from the emergency blanket. It only takes a few minutes to make it comfortable inside—even while a nasty blizzard is blowing outside of the shelter.

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