Winter Survival or How to Enjoy Life Below Zero

Winter Survival or How to Enjoy Life Below Zero

As a perpetual mover in life, the stuff I find myself surrounded by tells a story. Perhaps it’s a survival of the fittest kinda story or maybe it’s just dumb luck but either way there is a collection of old maps, books, and trinkets that for some reason has trailed me like the tail of a comet, faced and defied the shearing winds that have cleaved other items from my life along the way and have ended up settling here in Pittston occupying various bookshelves, cubbies and plastic totes unceremoniously cast into the void of the attic. I don’t see it as completely random, what has made it here and what hasn’t, much of what is here has survived through utility or sentiment, but then again where is my grandpa’s fly rod and why do I still have 10 three ring binders full of outdoor related articles from magazines dating back to the JFK administration? On a similar thought, my dad never lets me forget the audacious proclamation I made in my early 20’s where I claimed I never wanted to own more than I could carry on my back; no moss grows on a rolling stone I guess.

Winter survival is a challenge. How’s that for a jarring shifting of literary gears? Too much? There’s a connection, pinky swear.

As we tuck Gashkadino-Giizis to bed and welcome December in all of it’s holiday-laden attire and spectacle, our outdoor fun time transitions from “maybe one more base layer of capeline and a wind shell” to "where are my sets of merino wool long underwear and mukluks.” The cold is no joke, but it's also no excuse to stay indoors and binge watch Game of Thrones all winter.

Author showing good winter layering and a frozen bottle of hooch at -60 degrees F

I recently listened a show on NPR where the host and guests were talking about Maine’s population, specifically how this state of ours historically has had a hard time attracting youngins’ from away. One problem they identified is the projected misconception that winters here are 6 months of cold, dark, miserable and useless time. I have heard this mythical view of intolerable harshness spoken from a negative view and have also heard the same story waxed over again and again with a certain amount of braggart's pride, mostly in conjuncture with travel north of the 45th parallel, as in 'around here is the coldest, snowiest, and toughest place to live!" (chest puffs up, 100 miles stare ensues). Maybe this is ‘lower 48 syndrome’ where we like to think that we are the most hardy of stock forgetting that at least we have, albeit short, blasts of sunlight all winter. The point is that winter isn’t that bad up here as long as you know how to enjoy it and stay safe.

OK, the grand connection to my opening paragraph: I couldn’t sleep tonight, surprise surprise, so at 2:45, on my way down to write, I grabbed off the bookshelf an article from an ancient Outside magazine that for some reason I have managed to keep with me since my undergrad schooling 10 years ago. It’s a concise 4 page article describing some basics of winter survival using an old Eskimo tale to drive the story line. As a long time survival instructor I have read countless articles and books on survival and can quickly weed out good ideas and advice from the drivel most writers include to sell copies of their writing, I guess that’s why I have kept this around: the advice is solid.

A mastery of woods tools is key to winter survival at the Jack Mountain Bushcraft Winter Woodsman course

Rule 1. The body needs to stay warm. Duh. We are displaced sub-tropical critters living well outside of our comfort zone and need to keep the air in and around our bodies tropical, say in the range of 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything less than that and we need to either retain the heat our body kicks out (shelter, clothing) or produce more heat (exercise, eating). In this article the author says proper winter attire should allow you to spend a night out without heat or shelter and that warm liquids and high energy food are not a luxury but a necessity in the winter. Agreed. I have spent days operating at -45 and colder with only a tent at night for shelter and can say with confidence that I would not be here drinking black tea at 3:58 am if it wasn’t for 5000 calorie days and a highly refined layering system of cold weather gear.

No tent, sleeping bag or food during the Frozen 48 challenge at Jack Mountain Bushcraft

Rule 2. Control your mind. Winter survival, or living for that matter, is often a matter of keeping your mind away from the doom and gloom. The cold is tough on the mind and there are countless stories of people who didn’t make it through a relatively easy survival situation because their mind got the better of them. The best conditioner for the mind is guided practice and preparation. If you know how to accomplish basic survival tasks, or better yet have the confidence to perform them because you took the time to learn and practice those skills, the better off you’ll be if you ever find yourself in the position of needing them. Leading into rule #3…

Rule 3. Don’t try to learn to swim as the boat is sinking. The author tells the story of a women who waited out a 3 day blizzard with nothing more than proper winter clothes, some salmon sticks and the confidence that she was carrying on her people’s traditional knowledge of living/surviving in the Alaskan bush in the winter. She had faith in her training and faith in her skills. Decision making is critical in those moments, so the choices you make need to be calculated and rapidly moving you towards a place of psychological and physiological stability.

Easy right? There you go, lesson over. Oh wait, except the details. Over the next few blog posts I will elaborate on winter survival culminating in a multi day Winter Survival course held at Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockland later this winter.

Winter Survival Workshop

Join registered Maine Recreation and Fishing Guide and a long time wilderness living and survival instructor, Paul Sveum for a Winter Survival Workshop this January & February! Luckily winter survival isn’t complex, it just requires the proper understanding of basic survival knowledge and some good old first hand training. This three class program will introduce you to fundamental survival knowledge that will apply to survival in all of Maine’s 4 seasons as well as cold weather specific topics such as hypothermia and frostbite. Our two evening courses will cover the psychology and physiology of winter survival, the building and use of a survival kit, proper winter clothing and gear, essential survival and bushcraft skills (to be used in depth over the weekend camp out), as well as a set of selected readings to further your understanding of what it means to keep yourself alive in the winter.

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