A Hunter's Guide to Winter Survival

The know-how, the gear, and the life-or-death decisions you must make if you have to spend the night in the woods.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Each winter, hunters across North America face a decision that will determine whether they succumb to hypothermia or survive to see another morning. They have become lost or unavoidably detained, perhaps while dressing out a big-game animal late in the day. Evening has descended. The polish has faded from the snow, and the trunks of the trees have blended together to form an impenetrable black wall. With miles left to go, they don't know where to take the next step, or whether to take one at all.

According to the search and rescue coordinators who bring in both the living and the dead from the mountains of southwestern Montana, those who perish under such circumstances follow remarkably similar patterns of behavior. Hunters lose the trail, then invariably climb to try to gain a vantage point. Still unsure, they meander in corkscrew patterns or turn in circles before panicking and plunging blindly downhill, discarding rifles, packs, and even clothing in their haste. When searchers find them, the victims are sometimes in their underwear, face down on beds of snow. Most, even before disrobing, were ill-prepared to spend even one night outdoors in cold weather.

It's not just in the Rocky Mountains that such tragedies occur. Outside Alaska, the places with the highest incidence of hypothermia fatalities are south of the Mason-Dixon line. States with vastly fluctuating day and nighttime temperatures-Virginia, Arizona, New Mexico-are at the top of the list. Hypothermia is as much a threat in the desert as it is in the mountains.

To avoid becoming a statistic, you must assume the worst. You will become lost or injured. Sweat will soak your clothing and when you stop walking, evaporative cooling will send the first shivers down your spine. Perhaps you will find it difficult to accurately touch the tip of your little finger to the opposing thumb, a sure sign that your circulation is deserting your extremities. Unless you take action, your life expectancy will dwindle to a few critical hours. What can you do to survive, or to help rescuers find you?

STOP WALKING
This is most important: When you realize you're lost, stay where you are. As Lt. Mike Tuttle, the president of the National Association for Search and Rescue, puts it: "It's much easier to hit a stationary target than a moving one." He points out that most search and rescue operations find a lost hunter or hiker within 12 to 24 hours. The sooner the victim stops walking, the quicker he'll be found.

If you panic and blunder about, you hasten hypothermia by sweating. This was the last lesson two Montana hunters learned on Halloween night in 1991. Packing an elk liver back to a trailhead in the Absaroka Mountains during a snowstorm, they lost their way, panicked, then stumbled aimlessly until it was dark, their clothes soaking with sweat. When found, their bodies were some distance from each other. The truck keys had to be cut out of one victim's frozen jeans pocket.

The second you notice any of the calling cards of panic, such as leaning your rifle against a tree trunk so that you can hike a little faster to the next vantage point, or deciding to abandon a partner to find your own way out, force yourself to stop. By staying put, you also stay dry. You can then begin to work on the next crucial step.

SEEK SHELTER
Of the body's four basic requirements-food, water, shelter, and warmth-shelter is by far the most critical for survival in a winter emergency. Hypothermia kills not so much by temperature as it does by windchill. Inuit hunters have withstood 50-below-zero storms simply by squatting down so that their sealskin parkas draped to the ice, forming a windproof teepee around their bodies. In November 1992, one 12-year-old Montana boy spent three nights huddling under a ledge in near-zero temperatures, wearing only a sweatshirt and a hunting vest he had put onackward to get more insulation against his chest. His survival was called a miracle, but there would be many other miracles if hunters put their faith in shelter rather than in the strength of their legs.

**The Tarp. **The best shelter you can carry in a pack is a 7- or 8-foot-square tarp made of coated nylon or clear plastic Visqueen (hardware stores carry rolls of the stuff), which can be draped over a log or stretched between trees to form a windbreak (see "Tarp and Snow Shelters" on pages 60¿¿¿61). A generously cut poncho with grommets also works. Pitch it in a belt of trees if possible, but avoid thickets that are full of standing dead timber, especially if a storm is approaching, so a limb won't fall on you. Also remember that creekbottoms, open ridge tops, and narrow canyons can be cold and windy. It will be warmer if you camp on the side of a hill, out of the path of the cold air that flows through the bottom.

The Natural Shelter. If you're not carrying a tarp, you have to find or make a natural shelter. A thicket, a recess under a ledge, or a hollow chopped into the massed branches of a big downfall may suffice. If you have a hatchet or folding saw, cut pine boughs (or break them off) to reinforce your shelter. A densely branched spruce tree is one of nature's best impromptu bedrooms; break off small branches so you can wedge up against the lee side of the trunk.

The Last Resort. More than one hunter has survived by crawling inside the gutted carcass of an elk or moose. In the fall of 1983, two Idaho men who couldn't get a fire started shot their horses and waited out a blizzard in the steaming body cavities. They had to climb out and walk around several times to avoid cramping, and by dawn the carcasses were growing cold, but they survived the storm.

MAKE FIRE
After securing shelter, building a fire is the next step to surviving a cold night. Everyone knows the importance of fire for warmth, for drying wet clothes, and for signaling searchers. Overlooked but just as critical is the security it provides for the lost or injured. Fire soothes frayed nerves, builds confidence, and encourages a person to stay in one place until help arrives.

Matches. Matches are okay for starting dry tinder under moderate conditions. But keep in mind that the hunters who died in the Absarokas carried matches, and searchers found places where they had tried and failed to start fires with them. Two hunters in the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho border in 1987 followed a nearly identical blueprint for disaster: Panicking after becoming lost, they separated. To start a fire, one hunter had apparently gone so far as to tap out the bullets in his cartridges, then had attempted to ignite the powder with a primer. It's a neat trick that plays better on the pages of a magazine than it did in the wilderness, where it was just another way to pass the last hours of life.

Lighter. A butane "flame-thrower" lighter such as those sold for lighting cigars will provide a stronger, longer-lasting flame than any match. But a lighter is a gadget, subject to mechanical failure. fire-starting tool. For insurance, always carry a flint and steel or magnesium and steel tool, which guarantees a hot shower of sparks under the windiest conditions. You'll get change back from a ten-spot when you go to buy one, but it's the most valuable ounce of survival equipment you can carry.

Tinder. Don't expect to find natural dry tinder where you need it. Pack paraffin cubes or other fire-starting tinder, as well as a stub of candle for a sustained flame. Cotton balls nestled in fine (No. 000) steel wool provide a good base for a spark from magnesium and steel. Char cloth, made by burning strips of old blue jeans with a candle flame, then smothering them in an airtight jar, will catch a spark from a flint and steel tool and glow. You can then fold the cloth gently in a loose ball of fine tinder, and holding it aloft in cupped hands, blow on the char cloth until a flame comes to life.

If you're caught lacking for tinder, use your ingenuity. Paper money, the coveted elk license that set you back $500, shaved body hair, and even the lint in your pockets will burn. So will hatbands and unlaminated maps. Rod Budell, a Montana hunter who was caught in a blizzard in the Little Belt Mountains in 1991, cut 4 inches off the wool tops of his hunting socks and balled them up to make the tinder he credits with saving his life.

Kindling. Collect a double handful of kindling the diameter of matchsticks (the dry twigs quilling the lower trunks of pine trees are perfect), an armful of pencil-size twigs, and as many larger sticks as you can hug to your chest. Build a simple teepee fire in a depression or some other windless site. Kick through the snow to the bare ground, or build your fire on a slab of dry wood. Ignite the teepee with the tinder, adding sticks one by one as the flames get stronger. Think large: A small fire saps its strength just drying out the ground underneath. Build a big fire from dry downfall, then lay a couple of long-burning green logs parallel to each other and relax as best as you can.

Remember: The most valuable survival tool you possess is your brain. If you ever find yourself caught in the winter wilderness and are uncertain which way to turn, stop and make shelter. Build a fire and let hypothermia lick its blue lips in the darkness beyond, where it can do you no harm. Staying put is the best way to ensure that you'll see the dawn. You can then fold the cloth gently in a loose ball of fine tinder, and holding it aloft in cupped hands, blow on the char cloth until a flame comes to life.

If you're caught lacking for tinder, use your ingenuity. Paper money, the coveted elk license that set you back $500, shaved body hair, and even the lint in your pockets will burn. So will hatbands and unlaminated maps. Rod Budell, a Montana hunter who was caught in a blizzard in the Little Belt Mountains in 1991, cut 4 inches off the wool tops of his hunting socks and balled them up to make the tinder he credits with saving his life.

Kindling. Collect a double handful of kindling the diameter of matchsticks (the dry twigs quilling the lower trunks of pine trees are perfect), an armful of pencil-size twigs, and as many larger sticks as you can hug to your chest. Build a simple teepee fire in a depression or some other windless site. Kick through the snow to the bare ground, or build your fire on a slab of dry wood. Ignite the teepee with the tinder, adding sticks one by one as the flames get stronger. Think large: A small fire saps its strength just drying out the ground underneath. Build a big fire from dry downfall, then lay a couple of long-burning green logs parallel to each other and relax as best as you can.

Remember: The most valuable survival tool you possess is your brain. If you ever find yourself caught in the winter wilderness and are uncertain which way to turn, stop and make shelter. Build a fire and let hypothermia lick its blue lips in the darkness beyond, where it can do you no harm. Staying put is the best way to ensure that you'll see the dawn.