Surviving the Cold Dark Winter, Part 1

by Mike Ruff, republished with permission

I’m not a fan of Winter, Cold, or Snow.  I live in NH, so you would think that would be a bad choice, and that I ought to move.  But contrary to popular belief, the Winters in NH are not so bad, especially if you use some common sense, and stick around in civilization where they have warm and dry places to stay.  And although it may seem to last forever, it’s really only a few months, so I promise it is survivable. Here are some tips to keep you from turning into an abandoned corpsesicle in the wilderness. First, the easy ones:

  • Stay inside!  Don’t go outside unless you have to!  Well, I know some of you don’t hate it as much as I do, and find it “pretty” (gag).  Think ahead, dress in layers, and monitor your condition–you can get pretty cold, and even injure yourself, if you aren’t paying attention.  Get in the habit of running a periodic review of your condition. Make sure you are wearing good clean socks which wick away any moisture.  I like to wear two pairs of socks if I’m going out for a long time.  Make sure you wear appropriate clothing–the object is to stay warm and dry.
  • Take care of yourself indoors as well.  If you’re not in good health, you may be weaker and more prone to cold weather injuries. Even if you’re in good health, standard maintenance issues are important–for example, make sure you stay properly hydrated.  The tendency is to not drink as much water during cold periods, so you can easily become dehydrated without realizing it.  If you notice you’re licking your lips a lot, this is a sign you’ve become dehydrated.  It can cause you to develop chapped lips–which are uncomfortable at best.  Drink plenty of water, and make sure you have some good chapstick available.  I’m a fan of Blistex and Burt’s Bees myself, but you may have your own preference.  If you have nothing else, petroleum jelly will work too; the object is to keep hydrated and seal the moisture in on your lips.
  • Avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  Many of us who hate the cold have a tendency to bunker up inside, keep the curtains closed, and essentially attempt to hibernate through the Winter.  The best thing you can do to avoid this seasonal depression is to get some sunlight and exercise.  At least allow some sun into the house, and do some laps or pushups around the house.  Even better (despite what I said above) is to bundle up, and go outside and take a 10-15 minute walk (at a minimum).  Make an effort to focus on the positive, and perhaps try to avoid reading or watching the news.  Spend time with friends.  Reduce your alcohol intake if necessary–it interferes with your sleep cycle and increases depression in many folks.  I like to spend more time cleaning and organizing, and work on indoor hobbies–I’m trying my hand at making chainmail now.
  •  If you’re spending significant time outside, and especially if you’re doing so in the “wilderness” (that is, anywhere outside a well-populated area), stay with a buddy if possible, and make sure someone back in civilization knows where you are, and how long you intend to be there, and who to contact if you aren’t back in time.  Make sure you bring: Cell phone, a couple of methods of starting a fire (e.g. matches and a lighter), and a pocket knife at an absolute minimum.
  • It’s also a good idea to bring along a thermos or two of some warm liquids such as coffee, tea, soup, hot chocolate, etc. Also, some good tinder or kindling for starting a fire (white birch bark is excellent, a good store-bought or homemade fire muffin or some such is another great choice), and a change of socks and gloves, a tarp or good poncho, and a good wool blanket are excellent things to pack along.  Some jello powder, bullion cubes, a good first aid kit, and a metal canteen cup are great as well (you can heat water in the canteen cup with a fire–melt snow if you have to).
  • Many travelers and hunters found dead of exposure are found to have had what they needed to survive on them, but they didn’t think to use it.  A Forest Ranger once told me of finding a dead hiker who had a lighter and a still warm thermos of coffee in his pack–which would have saved him if he had stopped, made a fire, had a drink of coffee, and thought before pushing on. Apparently this sort of thing is common–so the lesson is to think, think, think.  Beware: cold can make you dumb.  It interferes with thinking, so be conscious of getting “fuzzy-headed”–take it as a sign you need to get some shelter and warmth ASAP.
  • Know the symptoms of cold weather injuries, and how to treat them: