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Living Off the Land - Cold Weather Survival Gear

Living Off the Land - Cold Weather Survival Gear
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If you've ever had a thought about spending time in the wilderness, or if the concern has crossed your mind that a catastrophic disaster could strike during the deep cold of winter, this article may just save your life.
You already know that severe cold temperatures can kill. We've all heard the stories over the years or even had a brush with the cold ourselves.

The danger from the cold starts with frostbite and hypothermia, with frostbite over taking your extremities and even striking any exposed face and ears (in below zero temperatures common across much of the Mid West and Alaska and parts of Canada in the winter months) where either you end up in an emergency room or you simply fall asleep from the cold and die.

Being Equipped for the Cold

Being equipped for the deep cold doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Under Armor makes compression ColdGear, a thermal underwear top and bottom for physical exertion in cold winter temperatures. Though it seems to be a thin, light weight material, it's strong. It's thin size makes it a great addition to any survival kit. You can pack a top and bottom into a small container or even a zippered pocket.

In a survival emergency, in deep cold temperatures, you may be faced with a long hike through either snow or simply along a lonely road. Throw on your UnderArmour ColdGear (or already have it on if you predict a day of physical exertion) and you are ready to take on the cold (when additional layers are worn over the top of this baselayer).

2) When worn under your clothing, the non-cotton material in Under Armour ColdGear wicks away sweat from your body caused by exertion (motion and or exercise), making it a proven and reliable method for avoiding hypothermia (that can quickly be caused by sweating while wearing cotton clothing in the cold).

Final note: ColdGear can set you back $100 or more, but one outfit (can be easily washed by hand by the way, and without soap, just water) can be worn repeatedly as they are well constructed.

For any readers without the budget, Wal-Mart (at least a few Wal-Marts in regions known for cold temperatures) sells much cheaper polypropylene long underwear and a long sleeved top that may do a good job also, though I can't vouch for how much life you might get out that Wal-Mart pair. (Compare online reviews if you have any concerns.)

Polyester and Wool Long Underwear

Two important things to note about polyester long underwear or wool long underwear:

1) It will give you a huge boost in insulating power when you wear either one in your sleeping bag, giving you a comfortable night's rest when surviving (or simply camping) in the outdoors in winter months.

2) If you happen to have too many layers on and are a bit too warm in your sleeping bag, the non-cotton material in either polyester or wool will wick away sweat from your body, making it a proven and reliable method for avoiding hypothermia that can quickly be caused by sweating while wearing cotton clothing in the cold (see comments regarding Under Armour ColdGear above). However, the appropriate step to take is to simply shed 1 or 2 layers if you notice you are too warm and starting to sweat or simply notice you may start to sweat.

Choosing Your Tent

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Better think again before reaching for your summer or light-weight tent and expecting it to hold up in winter weather. Heavy winds and rain can either knock your tent over, rip off your rain fly, or saturate the floor and seams, leaving you cold, wet, and miserable - and on the brink of hypothermia.

A 3 season tent like this Coleman Hooligan storm tent can go a long way to help you stay dry should a spring or fall storm roll in. I specifically bought this tent because it's cheap and I wanted something to keep me dry in the rain and the wind. It has a unique construction, providing ventilation around the base of the tent, as well as has a decent size vestibule (area outside of your main living area that is completely covered), allowing you a place to store gear out of the rain. It is easy to set up with one large, thick pole that runs through the center.

But it's not a good tent for the deep cold. But, despite that, I like it's construction, and it's multiple uses.

Coleman Hooligan 2-Person Tent with Modifications

I made a couple modifications to my Coleman Hooligan, spending less than $50 on these mods, easily converting this 3 season tent into a winter 4 season tent.

Canvas Tarp - A Proven Winter Insulator

So, what were my modifications? I bought two cheap canvas tarps (keyword is "canvas"; these are not the more commonly sold light weight polypropylene tarps) and - with my Coleman tent's outer rain fly removed - layered these canvas tarps over each other, reaching almost completely around my Coleman's inner mesh layer. The rain fly then went over the top, and from the outside, it's not evident that I have this canvas middle layer.

Canvas traps in heat and it also serves as a thick wall to reduce any penetrating wind chill.

Canvas can be purchased that is waterproof / water resistant, but at the size I needed that was more money than I wanted to spend. So, I bought a can of Scotch Guard and proceeded to spray the first of the canvas tarps I purchased (earlier in the day and away from the tent) with Scotch Guard, before getting my canvas tarps in place for the first cold night ahead. Canvas is a proven winter insulator and used by many Alaskan hunters and others who venture outdoors in places like Montana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin where winter temperatures can be -40 degrees (that's negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit) and even colder with wind chill. In Alaska (and sometimes the Great Plains in harsh winters) you can also see -60 degree temperatures with wind chill. Without shelter or extreme cold weather clothing, you are dead at that temperature within a short period of time.

These men (and more than a few women) keep themselves warm and toasty in their canvas tents, which are commonly outfitted with small, wood stoves and pipe ventilation (canvas can burn and so most of these people are keen to fire safety and install these stoves with a few safeguards like a protective heat shield around the base of the stove and or nearby wall.)

I'm not about to throw a wood stove in my 2 person tent. That's too much heat for my tent and would take up too much space. A wood stove is not an option here.

Instead, I looked for a propane based tent heater and compared the Mr. Heater Little Buddy (retails approximately $70) to the Coleman SportCat tent heater. Reviews and product description gave Coleman ($157 retail currently) a much longer use per one 16 ounce can of propane than Mr. Heater Little Buddy, which will burn up a can of propane in 4-5 hours.

I have made one 16 ounce can of propane last 3 - 4 days at 3 - 4 hours use per day, approximately, with the Coleman SportCat (rated to burn through one can of propane in 14 - 15 hours).

So, though the Coleman is nearly $100 more, considering that a single can of propane will last nearly 3 times as long compared to Mr. Heater Little Buddy's use of propane, the Coleman is a smarter buy because you can haul a lot less propane if going out for multiple days than you would need for Mr. Heater Little Buddy.

A Note on Tent Heater Safety

What's unique about both of these heaters is that there's no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, due to the way these heaters burn on the inside of the unit. But ... to safely use either one a small amount of ventilation is needed in your tent as both of these heaters will burn up oxygen and you can be poisoned by too much carbon dioxide left in the air once that oxygen is gone.

The Importance of Ventilation

Ventilation is a good thing to have in a winter tent shelter (which is as simple as leaving a small opening where ever you can create it to allow fresh air into your tent).

You see, without ventilation, your breath (which is trapped in an enclosed tent) will turn into condensation on the walls and roof, and that in turn will turn to ice (and then snow as it falls from the walls and roof) - and now you are wet and cold and so is your gear.

With or without a tent heater, ventilation is a key element of a winter shelter. So, when either of these tent heaters calls for ventilation, it is not a bad thing.

Trust me, you will get plenty of heat (too much heat, if might seem at times, if you're using canvas tarps - described above -- as an insulating layer in your shelter), and that will help keep you warm (sometimes extremely warm) in cold winter temperatures.

A Few Tips:

1. Make Your Propane Last

Make your propane last by only running your tent heater when you are awake in the evening and then being careful to turn it off just before you go to bed.

2. Purchase a Cold Weather Sleeping Bag "System"

If you're properly prepared for the cold, you should have a cold weather sleeping bag system (which includes a bivy sack, which will help protect your inner sleeping bag layers from any outside biting chill or accident with rain or water that can happen).

One popular and proven cold weather sleeping bag system is a military patrol bag now being sold as military surplus.

These bags are made from synthetic materials - not made with a goose down filler, which can lose all insulating properties if your bag gets wet - and thus the patrol bag above is a smarter choice when faced with potentially wet and cold winter conditions. A mummy style shape, these conform better to your body than a rectangular shaped sleeping bag. More importantly, two layers of this system are equipped with drawstring cords that will pull the head of each bag around your head like a hood, leaving only your face exposed, to prevent enclosing your head within the bag while you sleep (which is bad in cold conditions - your breath will condense inside the bag and sleeping bag get wet, thus the reason for the opening left by the drawstring hood).

A look at brand name down sleeping bags can come with a price of nearly $400 for a bag that's only rated to 20 degrees. The patrol bag, on the other hand, when both inner bags are snapped together and have the outer bivy in place, are rated from -10 to -30 degrees. If a wind chill brings you to below that (let's say -40 to -50 degrees), your Under Armour ColdGear (mentioned at the top of this article), wool socks, and a wool stocking cap or fleece balaclava will work as an additional layer to defend against the cold.

3. Protect Electronics and Water Bottles

... and liquid based hygiene items by sleeping with them next to your body. In temperatures well below freezing you can wake up with a frozen water bottle and now you're not going to have anything liquid to drink. Sensitive electronics (if you have any) can be damaged by the cold (read product specs for anything you might be carrying). The solution for both is to wrap these sensitive items in a stocking cap (or wool sock) and simply place inside your sleeping bag, where your body heat will keep these items warm through the night and protect from freezing.)

4. If there's a chance of snow, create your ventilation near the top or mid-section of your tent

Ventilation along the bottom of your tent can be blocked by snow - and now you're in a sealed tent. If using a tent heater like either mentioned above, you are now in danger of oxygen depletion. During severe snowfall you may want to bring a section of curved pvc pipe and suspend it through the tent window (just about all tents have zippered windows), with the angle of the pipe pointing down so that snow cannot fall inside and potentially block the opening) and then position the pipe in place using 24 gauge wire (or 20 gauge wire) or "military spec" military spec paracord.

5. Large Pee bottle

One thing that you will not want to do is leave the confines of your tent in the middle of a freezing night to urinate, should nature call. That's a fast way to lose body heat, and it's a hassle. Keep a large bottle (you want a bottle big enough should you need it more than once that night) inside your tent that you can relieve yourself in easily. Women have a challenge as urinating in a bottle is not as easy as a man is going to have it. Seriously, though, and lucky for a lot of women who venture into the outdoors, Go Girl sells a female urination device.

6. Warning About Bottled Water

Make sure that any bottled water (or pee bottle) has a screw-top cap. In the dark of the night, after your lanterns and flashlights are off, you can knock over bottles if having to fumble around in the dark for any reason. If you spill any liquids in your tent - because of weak bottle caps that can easily pop off - that can spell disaster during the winter months. You must take excessive caution to keep your sleeping bag and evening clothing dry. Wet gear can mean a fast ticket to hypothermia - not unless you have propane and a tent heater on hand to keep you warm through the night until your gear is dry (see above).

7. Packing the Weight of Extra Gear

A tent heater and propane, as well as two canvas tarps (rolled up for transport) will mean a few more pounds than a typical backpacker is accustomed to. If there's more than one of you, have one person carry your tent and a few cans of propane, and then the other can carry your tent heater, a few more cans of propane, and those rolled up canvas tarps.

Worth mentioning here: Regarding that tent, pack along a few extra tent stakes (large nails that are sold as tent stakes can work a lot better and last a lot longer than the out of the box stakes that might come with whatever tent you buy - even the Coleman Hooligan 2 person tent mentioned above). I pack heavy duty metal stakes and an actual hammer - the claw end of a hammer can be used to break up hard soil and dig fire pits, as well as shallow impressions in the ground and even a small trench around your tent, should a torrential rain fall. A shallow trench dug around the base of your tent, and a straight trench (just a couple inches wide) leading away from it on the downside, can help keep water from pooling - and help ensure your campsite stays dry.

8. Use a Heavy Duty Space Blanket As Your Tent Floor

Purchase a strong, heavy duty space blanket that is durable and good for repeat, long term use. Use this heat reflective tarp on the floor of your tent, reflective side up. A lot of heat is lost within a tent, robbed by the cold ground underneath, and this is a reliable way to help conserve heat within your tent - whether that's body heat or, in colder temperatures, heat from a propane tent heater.

9. Concerned About Extreme Cold? Going Above and Beyond with Tent Insulation

More than a few hunters and outdoorsmen might think that some of my tips take the "../survival" out of surviving. But I would prefer to sleep comfortably in the deep cold and take a couple extra steps than spend a night cold and miserable because 50 mile per hour winds suddenly hit as a record breaking winter storm front sweeps through the area. Record breaking storms do hit and there's nothing wrong with being a bit more prepared for the worst.

Additional modifications can be made to your tent shelter than just the canvas tarps and space blanket tarps described above. A roll or 2 of Reflectix Insulation (and foil tape or just duct tape to tape 2-3 sections together in rows to go on the inside of your canvas) can be cut down to size and walls built that are the size of your tent shelter. It's a proven insulator, if used right, and may have even better properties (due to it's thickness and use ratings) than that space blanket above.

What you choose to go with is up to you - having both on hand means you're prepared to insulate more than one shelter or you simply have a back up should you find that one works better than the other, or both work better when used in conjunction. Be creative - you might surprise yourself by what you can come up with to enhance your shelter's ability to retain heat through the night.

Be sure to remember the importance of adequate ventilation for both a tent heater and to help prevent any condensation build up created by your breath while you sleep.

10. Protect Your Hands

Wool gloves can be worn inside your tent when waking up to a cold morning (keep them next to you inside your sleeping bag while you sleep), and you will of course want these outside your tent.

Choose a pair that conforms to each finger and is the right thickness that you still have use of your hands, should you have to work with any tools, cooking gear, tent zippers, paracord, etc.

An otherwise oversize glove can make using your hands for complicated tasks difficult, thus the recommendation for a good wool glove liner that conforms to your fingers, and that you can wear as a stand alone glove for a short while (a secondary outer glove should be worn when in the cold for an extended period of time, or simply a glove "system" with it's own liner). Search for mountaineering gloves or work gloves for sub zero temperatures. Expect to pay $100 - $200 but if you think you or someone you love could possibly be in the deep cold for any length of time, the investment - like a few of the items above - can each be life savers and tools for living comfortably in the deep cold of a harsh winter that might otherwise take your life. Remember, without heat and electricity, a lot of people have died from the cold over the years, and not just the elderly.

Protecting your hands in the cold is an essential to cold weather survival. Just about every task relies on the effective use of your hands. From pulling up zippers on your sleeping bag(s), to lighting your cooking tools and heating tools, or even building a fire if you have adequate materials to burn, if your hands experience frost bite or a deep chill makes using your fingers nearly impossible, follow emergency steps for getting heat and blood flowing back to your fingers before frost bite sets in.

A Few Tricks to Mention

Hand Warmers - If you lose your gloves or for any reason they're suddenly wet and no use, put two emergency hand warmers into two wool socks, and then place a sock over each hand to prevent frostbite and keep them warm for up to several hours. These are common items with skiers, snowboarders, hunters, fishermen, campers, and more than a few military personnel.

Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads - Alpine backpackers and mountaineers know that a good bed pad is essential for insulating their sleeping bag from the cold snow underneath their tent. Used with a heavy duty space blanket or roll of Reflectix insulation (or even just the heat reflector used in cars in hot climates) and your tent will retain even more inside heat.

Egg Crate Bed Padding - At Wal-Mart you can get a twin size egg crate bed pad for $20 approximately. It may not be good for backpacking as it's just a bit to bulky, but with paracord it can be trimmed down to size. If you're car camping - either sleeping in your vehicle or simply pitching your tent near your vehicle - an egg crate bed pad works as a great insulator from the cold ground - use it with your self-inflating bed pad for a layered effect.

Snow Shovel - An essential for off road driving in snowy conditions or if you have a car easily trapped by a few inches of snow. Throw this in the back of your car so you can quickly dig yourself out. Car wheels spinning? Carry 4 heavy duty floor mats commonly seen in full size trucks and throw each floor mat in front of each wheel, after you've dug yourself out with that snow shovel. If you place a floor mat directly in front of each tire your tire will have something to grip, and you can quickly drive yourself out of a bad situation. When back on firm ground, park your car and walk back for your floor mats, so you have them for a future emergency (this also can work in mud and sand - if you're stuck down on a beach for example.)

Final Word

The winter gear explorers wear into the Arctic Circle and down in Antarctica are proof that with a little money investment a person can comfortably outfit themselves for the deep cold. I have a lot of respect for the men working on oil rigs and Bering Sea fishing boats in the winter months. Freezing rain, sub zero temperatures, bitter wind chill and yet a lot of these guys are in the weather getting their work done, for hours at a time.

Know that fleece, wool, polyester, acrylic, polypropylene, nylon, the Under Armour ColdGear line and "Arctic" products made by Carhartt are all made from proven fibers and synthetics that work great in cold weather.

Think about your feet, legs, arms, torso, face, eyes (tinted ski goggles help prevent snow blindness and block bitter wind chill at the same time) and finally, your hands, possibly the most important body part to protect -- if you lose function in your hands, good luck lighting that match that you're going to need to ignite that propane in your tent heater or even just the fuel your carrying for melting water once it has froze.

If you're not familiar with Jack London's short story, To Build a Fire, you should read this one. Jack London spent a lot of time in Alaska and up around the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush and passes on a great illustration of how the winter wilderness can take your life if you're not careful, and you're not properly prepared.

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