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Winter Backpacking Skills


Winter backpacking can be a great way to get away from the crowds. Isolation adds to the beauty of the experience, but it also adds to the danger. When you're alone in a cold environment, it's important to know what to do in an emergency. A few basic cold weather survival skills can save your life.

Winter Fire Making Skills

Can you imagine slipping into a stream and soaking everything with you, when you are more than a day from the nearest road and it's below freezing out? What would you do if this happened? Hopefully start a fire, but can you?

Carry waterproof matches, of course, but also practice starting a fire in the cold before you go winter backpacking. Learn about tinders that work even when wet. Birch bark will burn when wet, for example, and so will sap from either pines or spruces (collect it where it oozes out and hardens). Also, since you may have only minutes before your fingers get too cold to function, speed is of the essence.

Winter Backpacking - Emergency Shelters

Most likely you'll have a tent with you, but why not learn shelter building using snow blocks? Depending on conditions, sometimes you can stomp out blocks without tools, using your feet, and then lifting them from beneath. Play around in your backyard until you get the hang of it. In a survival situation, or if the weather turns extremely cold, you can put your tent behind a wall of snow blocks, to stop the wind.

A quick survival shelter for warmth is a pile of dry leaves, grass, bracken ferns or other plants. I've collected enough dried grass from a frozen swamp in thirty minutes to make a pile several feet thick. I slept warmly in the middle of it with just a jacket, despite below freezing temperatures. Even just setting your tent up on a "mattress" of dried leaves can help insulate you from the cold ground.

Stay Dry

It's possible to be wet and yet still warm when it far below freezing, as long as you are active. As soon as you stop moving, however, you start to lose your body heat. When you get chilled through, it is difficult to get warm again. Hypothermia kills many people every year.

When you do get wet, try to get dry before you go to sleep. Change into dry clothes if you have them, and use a fire to dry any wet clothes. During the day, you may be able to hang damp clothes on your pack to dry in the sun.

Don't sweat too much. Remove and add shirts, sweaters and jackets as necessary to keep from getting too hot or too cold. Clothes damp with sweat will cause you to lose body heat fast once you stop moving. Always stay dry to stay warm.

There are dozens of other cold weather survival skills that you might want to learn. I think it makes backpacking even more interesting. Did you know that fatty foods generate heat when they digest, for example? Even though you don't need hundreds of skills and techniques, why not learn a few basics, like the ones above, before you go winter backpacking?

Visit the page "Cold Weather Survival" for more survival techniques and skills for winter backpacking.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Winter Backpacking Skills