5 Ways to Survive a Wilderness Winter Night
If you’re a backcountry hunter, then you’ve probably spent many hours thinking about what you would do if you’d have to spend a winter’s night alone in the wilderness. It’s a dreaded experience that happens more than you think. Because when we get on the trail of an elk or deer in the snow, the chances of getting completely turned around are high. Our minds think of nothing else but pursuit until we look up, realize how cold it is and long for the heater in the truck, never noticing how much time has passed.
Luckily, many major publications have realized the need for survival skills and have done a very good job of making them public knowledge. I’ve gotten lost while turkey hunting, but it was spring and I wasn’t concerned because there were roads surrounding the property. Another time, while living in Colorado as a worthless ski bum, I slipped too far down the mountain on an out-of-bounds run late in the day and couldn’t find the trail leading back out to the slopes because it was snowing hard with darkness quickly approaching. That gut-wrenching feeling is one I’ll never forget, but I survived to write about it.
And carry a backup layer just in case. That said, one of the worst things you can do is dress too heavily, exert yourself and begin to sweat. Should you feel yourself sweating and you’re not within a few minutes of the truck, stop, shed some layers and let your body heat come down a few degrees. Removing a jacket and shirt will allow the air to wick away some of the moisture to prevent freezing. Keep the layers light when you’re on the move and add them on when you sit down and begin to cool off.
Carry a Bic Lighter
A Bic lighter helped me make it through that cold Colorado night just a few years back. The reason I had a lighter in the first place was because of a recent story told to me by a friend who’d used one to save his own life on a duck hunt. It was the dead of winter in north Mississippi and he and a friend were heading back to the boat ramp around mid morning in an old flat bottom. The friend, who was driving, didn’t see the slightly submerged stump that threw them both from the boat. Luckily, they were smart enough to have had shucked their waders before getting in the boat. They swam to shore and quickly gathered firewood.
Even though the Bic lighter got wet, they were able to blow down the tube to dry the interior. Within just a few minutes, it went from only producing a spark to working as if it had never been wet. They built a large bonfire and removed all their wet clothes so they wouldn’t freeze. Once the clothes dried, they were able to walk the bank about five miles back to the boat ramp. Despite losing a couple of shotguns and some other equipment, they walked away with their lives.
For me, it was the base of a large evergreen that I called home for the night. There were a lot of dead trees around that provided an abundance of firewood. It was the one and only time I’d ever thanked the beetles for destroying so many lodgepole pines. The thickness of the evergreen’s foliage mostly kept out the falling snow and helped block the wind. Shelter could also be under a rock overhang or even on a piece of dry ground.
Don’t Sit Still Long
Don’t be idle for too long, especially if you’re not able to start a fire. Once you’ve determined what will serve as base camp for the night, spend your time walking in circles or even doing pushups – anything to keep your body temperature up. When you sit down and begin to get really cold, it becomes that much harder to get back up.
Hypothermia does strange things to the human mind. At a certain point you’ll start to believe that you’re hot rather than cold, which causes people to begin removing layers. But if you remain active through your hopefully short stay, build a fire and find shelter, hypothermia, beyond stage one, shouldn’t become an issue.
Let us all hope that we remain on the correct paths to and from our vehicles when hunting the backcountry. Be sure friends and family know where you are hunting and what time you are supposed to return. They should call local law enforcement should you not show up as planned. The more people helping you survive, the better your chances of living on to hunt another day. Hunt safe. Hunt smart.