One of the hardest things about preparing for a disaster, is that we don't know what disaster we're going to face or when it will happen. That can cause us a wide variety of problems, most notably in knowing what we're going to need. Invariably, we tend to prepare for the situation as we see it in our mind, not as it ends up being. But the two may be quite different.
I've been at this for a long time, and I'm constantly looking at what other people are doing. You never know where you're going to find a good idea. So, I read articles written by other preppers and survivalists, check out their books and scroll through YouTube videos, looking for new ideas.
One of my favorite things to look at is what people put in their bug out bag (BOB), everyday carry bag (EDC) or survival kit. Everyone has their own ideas about this, so while there's a lot I find in common, I also run into some unusual ideas from time to time, some of which are really good ideas.
But one of the things I invariably find is that few people think about winter survival, or even inclement weather. It's amazing how few people even include a rain poncho in their kits, let alone something to help them through some really rough weather. I'd hate to see what would happen to some of these people if they were trapped in the mountains, in the wintertime.
I tend to take a seasonal approach to my bags. That is, I review them at the beginning of every season, making additions that are needed for that season and removing things I might not need as much. While that's a lot of extra work, it's worth it for the added security it gives me.
Before I get into this, let me say something in general about bug out bags. Most people try to keep their BOB as light as possible. I'm in agreement with that basic idea. Every pound extra you carry will slow you down and force your body to consume more energy carrying it. But at the same time, you've got to have what you need to survive. Saving weight and dying because of it isn't a good bargain.
While I haven't done so in a long while, when I was younger I did a fair amount of backpacking. We'd typically carry a larger, heavier pack than most BOBs that I see. Things that we leave out to save space are a normal part of most packs. So, I figure if they can carry it, we can train ourselves to do so as well.
One Word... Hypothermia
A large part of the reason why I do this is that the biggest killer in the wild is hypothermia. While it's easy to think of the body temperature dropping to a dangerous level in the wintertime, this is not just a danger for the winter. Every summer there are people who die of hypothermia in the Colorado Rockies. These people fall in the water shortly before sundown, and don't make it back to warmth before the sun goes down.
Of course, it's much easier to suffer from hypothermia when it's cold outside, than when it's warm. Colder temperatures naturally suck the heat out of your body quicker. So we need to take even more care of ourselves in the wintertime, than we would have to in the summertime.
That means being ready to keep ourselves warm, no matter what. Most especially, that "what" would have to include getting wet accidentally. Falling in the water is only one way that we could get wet in the middle of winter; we could also do it by sweating. For that matter, it can even rain in the wintertime, generally when it is just above freezing temperature.
While it's important to keep ourselves warm in the summer, it's clearly much more important to do so, when the weather turns cold. Hence, the need to go through the old bug out bag, and make sure that you've got everything you need to keep yourself both dry and warm.
Our first defense against the cold is our clothing. Unlike animals, which have a coat of fur to act as insulation against the cold, mankind was created with bare skin. And while there are a few men with enough body hair to almost look like fur, it's really not enough to keep them warm.
Clothing takes the place of fur, insulating us against the cold. The thicker the clothing, the more air pockets it has, providing more insulation. But to do this, it has to be dry. That means keeping it dry from both water and perspiration. Having a layer of sweat freeze next to the skin is a sure way of getting hypothermia.
Water is a better conductor of heat than air is. So when clothing is wet, it doesn't provide the insulation that it does when it is dry. Worse than that, clothing will actually make you lose heat faster, than if you were standing there totally naked!
How fast you lose heat with wet clothing on depends on the materials that the clothing is made of. The worst is down. One of the best insulations around, when wet, a down coat will make you lose your body heat 300 times faster than if you were wearing nothing. The only type of fabric that maintains any insulation value when wet is wool, which will retain half its insulation value, even when soaking wet.
This is one place where most people fail to properly prepare. I have seen very few bug out bag lists that have any clothing on them at all. What that means, is that if the owners of those bug out bags fall in the lake in the middle of winter, they don't have anything to change into. They have to keep their wet clothes on. That mistake could prove deadly.
At a minimum, a bug out bag needs at least one change of warm, rugged clothing in the wintertime. If space allows, you might want to consider two. Fortunately, most clothing is fairly light, so this is more a question of space, than of weight.
The other reason to do this is that there's always the possibility that you might be forced to bug out at a time when you are not adequately dressed for the wild. Your professional wardrobe that you might wear in the office isn't exactly made to be rugged. It's made to be attractive. So, two changes of clothing would give you the ability to change out of those office clothes and into something more appropriate, and still have a spare set of clothing to change into, if you get wet.
Another thing to consider packing away in your bug out bag is a set of thermal underwear, especially the pants. Personally, I can hardly stand wearing them; but if it's cold enough out, they're wonderful. The extra layer of insulated fabric can make a huge difference in your ability to keep warm.
But your winter wardrobe can't stop there. You really need to have one of everything that you would wear if you were going out into the woods in the wintertime. Once again, you have to assume that you might be grabbing your bug out bag and running immediately upon returning from work. That means that you might not have the right sort of coat on. So, you need to add a warm coat, hat, gloves and a scarf to have enough clothing to keep you warm.
I realize that sounds like a lot of clothing and you might be trying to figure out how it will fit into your bug out bag. But the bulkiest part of that list won't be in your bag, it will be on your body. Specifically, I'm talking about the coat, hat, gloves and scarf.
There's one final item you'll need to add to this list, in order to have it complete; that's a good pair of boots. Good boots are essential for walking in rough terrain; more than anything, to protect your ankles. But good boots will also help keep your feet warm, which is just as important. If there is any part of your body that is prone to frostbite, it's the feet. So, you'll want to make sure that you have boots that will protect them well.
Finally, you've got to make sure that you have a rain poncho that will cover all this. That might be hard to find, especially when you put a pack on your back too. But a good poncho will go a long way towards keeping you dry, should it decide to rain. While rain isn't all that common in the wintertime, it is much more dangerous than snow.
The second method of protecting ourselves from the cold is with shelter. For most preppers, this means making a shelter out of materials available in nature. A favorite that seems to be posted on a lot of websites, is the debris shelter, made of sticks and leaves.
But making a debris shelter or any other sort of brush shelter, when the ground is covered in snow, is next to impossible. Even if most of the snow has melted off, the leaves would be wet or even frozen, meaning that it would still be impossible to make the shelter. Those sort of shelters assume that you have dry leaves to work with. In survival, any assumption is dangerous.
That's why I recommend adding an ultra- light backpacking tent to a bug out bag in the wintertime. I usually make do with nothing more than a tarp in the summer, but when winter comes, that tarp isn't enough. A good quality, but lightweight, double-walled tent is what is called for; one that has a "boat" bottom to keep water out.
Granted, this is adding weight and bulk to your bug out bag, but most tents come with a stuff sack to carry the tent and its poles in. That makes it easy to tie the tent onto the outside of your backpack, either on top or on the bottom.
There are two reasons why the tarp isn't enough in the wintertime. First of all, there's the problem of wet ground. Laying on snow, ice or wet leaves is going to mean having a wet sleeping bag or wet clothing. If your tarp is being used to make a tent, it can't protect you from the wet ground at the same time.
The other problem with a tarp is that you can't make a totally enclosed tent out of one. You end up with some part or other open, allowing the wind to blow through. But a tent is totally enclosed, once you zip up the door. Granted, some amount of air will still leak through, but not as much. So, that tent will be much warmer than rigging one up out of a tarp, even if it isn't double-walled.
While the tent alone will make a huge difference, that may not be enough. If you live in an area of the country where you have cold winters, you need to add a sleeping bag to that too. Once again, I realize that I'm adding both weight and bulk to your bug out bag, but this is a necessary addition.
High quality, down sleeping bags really weigh very little. Like the tent, they come with a stuff sack, allowing you to pack them very small. It also means that you can tie the sleeping bag to the outside of your backpack and save yourself from any lost space. With your tent on the top of the pack and your sleeping bag attached to the bottom, your pack will be larger, but it won't really affect you much.
Starting a fire in the wintertime is much harder than starting one in the summertime. There are several factors involved in this, but mostly it's due to the difficulty in finding a dry place to put the fire and dry fuel to burn. But the hardest thing to find for your fire is dry tinder that you can use to start the fire.
That's why pioneers, mountain men, explorers and even cowboys carried a tinder box with them. This small wood box contained matches, pieces of flint to strike a spark with and tinder that they gathered along the way. An experienced traveler would always be on the lookout for good tinder, adding it to their tinder box whenever they found it.
You can be sure that you'd have as much trouble finding good tinder as they did, if not more. But the advantage that you and I have over them, is that we can bring commercial tinder along with is. Not only is that more compact, but it works better than an old bird's nest or some dried grass will work.
I carry both commercial fire starting cubes and homemade fire starters made out of cotton balls and petroleum jelly. Part of the reason that I have both is that I bought some of the commercial ones to test. Since I already had them, I added some to my EDC bag and put the rest in my bug out bag. But mostly I depend on the petroleum infused cotton balls as my main fire starter/tinder for use in cold weather. The commercial ones are my backup.
But here's the part that's probably going to surprise you. I carry 50 or more of the petroleum soaked cotton balls with me, not just a few like most people. Considering that they weigh very little and take up very little space, I feel that it's worthwhile to carry a good supply along with me. That way, I'm sure to have enough.
My main igniter for my bug out bag is a butane lighter. When you compare a lighter to matches, you get much more bang for your buck out of the lighter. With care, you can get about 1,000 fires out of the average disposable lighter.
I don't carry a disposable lighter, but a rather expensive waterproof one with a piezo-electric igniter. While water really can't do a whole lot of damage to a lighter, I remember fighting with one that had fallen in the stream. But that's not the main reason for the lighter that I carry; the main reason is the piezo-electric igniter. That is constantly striking, trying to re-ignite the fuel coming out of the lighter. So, if I find myself in a windy situation (common in the winter), the lighter won't get blown out.
But, and again I say but, butane lighters don't work well in the cold. The cold weather will keep the liquid butane from turning into a gas and passing out of the lighter to ignite. That makes it about as useful as a paperweight in the middle of the woods. However, you can solve this little problem easily, by carrying the lighter inside your clothes, where your body heat will keep it nice and warm.
My secondary fire starter is a BlastMatch. This is a sparker, but unlike most sparkers , it's extremely easy to use. It also puts out a whole lot more sparks than your typical Ferro Rod will. So, it gives me more to work with, than other sparkers will. In my experience, the BlastMatch will ignite the cotton balls in one or two strokes, without fail.
Note that I've selected my tinder and my fire starters to work together. That's important, but it's something I rarely see done. People pick their favorite fires starter and their favorite tinder, but don't think about how well they work together. This is a mistake in my opinion.
One of the few good things about winter survival is that you'll probably find yourself surrounded by water. Granted, that water will probably be frozen, either as ice or snow, but it will be there. That means that you'll have to melt it in order to make it usable, but at least you'll have it available to melt.
That means you're going to need to have something you can melt snow in as well; something like a pot. Sorry, a canteen cup isn't going to be big enough. Snow loses about 90% of its volume, when you melt it for water. So if you're trying to melt it in a canteen cup, you're going to need to melt a lot of cups of snow in order to fill your canteen.
You've actually got to be careful melting snow, as it can scald. If that happens, it won't look any different, but it will definitely taste different. To avoid scalding, just make sure that you keep stirring the snow while it's melting.
Melted snow is unlikely to be inhabited by microscopic pathogens that can make you sick, especially fresh snow. But the longer the snow has sat on the ground, the more of a chance there is that it has been contaminated in some way. So like any other time, you should really purify the water you're getting from melted snow. Since you've already got it in a pot to melt it, a WAPI (water pasteurization indicator) in you bug out bag will make it so that you can purify that water, without having to bring it all the way up to a boil.
You should also change out your plastic canteens and water bottles for aluminum ones. Those plastic ones are nice in the summertime; lightweight and easy to carry. But if the water in them freezes, it will probably break the bottle. Even if it doesn't you won't have any way of melting the frozen water, other than to put the cold bottle against your skin; not a good idea.
With aluminum water bottles, you can put the whole water bottle in the fire, in order to melt the frozen water inside. All you need to do is remove the plastic or rubber cap, so it won't melt. The aluminum isn't going to melt in your little campfire. But when the water melts, you can mix in some hot cocoa or coffee right there in your water bottle.
My very first survival instructor, 40 years or so ago, used to constantly correct us that we didn't need water to survive, but rather warm water to survive. Mostly, we were talking about survival in the Colorado Rockies, where hypothermia is a serious survival issue. His reasoning was that drinking cold water means that the body has to be burning calories to warm the water. But if we drink warm water, it can add heat to our bodies.
So, unless you really like sipping on hot water, it's a good idea to carry along a goodly supply of coffee, tea, boullion or hot chocolate to flavor your warm water. These items are lightweight, compact and will add a lot of flavor to your melted snow.
Food can become a real issue in the cold. You can't count on augmenting your food stocks with what you catch in nature. The fish and animals will hardly be moving and any edible plants will probably have died off until spring.
But your body will still need food. If anything, it's going to need more food than it would in the summertime. The cold weather means that your body will be burning a lot of calories just to produce heat. If it doesn't have those calories to burn, it will either have to start consuming itself (which wouldn't be all that bad an idea for some of us) or stop providing nutrition to the extremities (which would be dangerous). Most likely, it would do a combination of the two.
So you need to make sure that the food you have in your bug out bag is high in carbohydrates and fats. The carbohydrates are what it is going to be burning for energy. But fats are like time-release carbohydrates. Since it takes longer for them to break down into simple sugars, they will give you a boost of energy about the time that the energy from the carbs runs out.
Fortunately, most high carbohydrate foods are lightweight, although they do tend to be bulky. Nevertheless, you don't want to short-change your body on this essential energy. While you can get away with that easily in warm weather, you can't when it's cold.
Another consideration for cold weather eating is that you want to be eating warm foods. This is an ideal time for soups and stews, whether they are pre-packaged or you make them yourself on the trail. Carrying along dried vegetables, jerky and some boullion makes it easy to make soup at any time. It's also much more lightweight than carrying canned soups. If you add noodles to the mix, you can turn that soup into a high carbohydrate meal, while still keeping the weight down.While we all like things like trail mix and granola bars, those are actually better for warm weather survival, than they are for winter survival. The need to keep your body warm indicates that it is always better to be eating warm food than cold food, as that offers the opportunity to give your body a little more heat.