Field & Stream’s Five Laws of Winter Survival

winter survival
How to make it home out of the snow.Ville Oksanen/Flickr

It happened the way it does for so many hunters who get lost. I had been following an elk track in the wilderness of Montana 's Gallatin range since dawn, and all along I thought I knew where I was, or at least in which direction I had to turn to find a trail that would take me to the truck. But the compass pinned to my jacket didn't agree, and now I was miles too far in to find my way out in the dark. For the first time since taking the track I experienced that trickling dread humans feel when the outlines of pine trees begin to blur. I was going to have to spend the night up here.

Sleeping in the wilderness is nothing new for me, but before there has always been a sleeping bag for warmth and a tent to call home. On this night, I'd be fortunate to find a dry bed of spruce needles. I was at 8,500 feet, and the zipper-pull thermometer on my jacket read 28 degrees. To survive I would need to rely on the advice I had been giving readers of this magazine for years. The question was, would it work?

It was day one of the most masochistic challenge I'd ever accepted. My editors had hatched this scheme, and their assignment had been clear. I was to head into the wilderness and hunt elk, bringing with me only the gear that I normally take on a solo day hunt in the Rockies—no sleeping bag, no tent, no extra food. After trying to become deliberately lost, I was to seek shelter when darkness fell. The second day would be for testing survival skills: making camp, signaling for help, foraging, and starting fire. After a second night under the stars I was permitted to find my way home—if I could.

Law No. 1 BE ABLE TO LIVE WITHOUT FIRE

Before leaving home,I'd assigned myself a list of survival skills. The one I dreaded most was enduring the first night without fire. I've often written that a hunter should be resourceful enough to see through a winter night without one, because in wet conditions he might have to. Over the years I've interviewed men who had survived this situation by walking in circles and, most memorably, shooting a horse and crawling inside the steaming carcass. I devoutly hoped my night would prove to be neither as sleepless nor dramatic as theirs had been.

The basin I found myself in when the moon rose was crusted with old snow and studded with enormous ponderosa pines, none of which offered cover. Much better was a belt of spruce that skirted the headwall where a creek crooked into the basin. Spruce trees, with their dense mats of overhanging branches, are one of nature's best shelters.

An old forest monarch with a spongy carpet of needle litter and nutshells scattered by generations of red squirrels was an obvious choice. I crawled under the limbs on hands and knees and scooped handfuls of duff onto this "mattress" until it resembled a rusty coffin emerging from the earth. Had it been colder, I would have spent an hour adding boughs to create a debris shelter to burrow into, in the manner of a hibernating bear. But herringbone clouds were riding the moon and it looked like snow, which would keep the temperature from falling too far. Or so I hoped.

Using my headlamp, I rummaged through the meager contents of my pack: emergency kit with fire-starting materials and medicines, water bottle, snare wire, folding saw, orange marking tape, cord, garbage bags, a 20-ounce tarp, a 20-inch square of closed-cell pad. I worked the pad under my butt, then removed the waxed paper from the last half of a peanut butter sandwich. I made it last, taking tiny bites and sipping water. When it was gone I rewrapped the crumbs for breakfast and shined the light on my thermometer. Twenty-five degrees. I took off my blaze vest and wrapped it around my thighs. Five-fifteen. This late in November, it would be 14 hours until dawn.

What I'd give, I thought, for a copy of Moby Dick.

By 8 P.M. I was ready to send Christmas cookies laced with arsenic to the editorial offices at 2 Park Avenue. Every half hour I'd been doing push-ups to stave off shivering, but there was a limit to the strain my muscles could take. What I needed was a space blanket or a vapor barrier bag to trap body warmth. I carry a tarp on my hunts instead, because of its greater versatility. Maybe I could use it to perform the same function. Spreading it flat on the pine needles, I lay down and tucked the end up over my boots, and then rolled over, double-wrapping myself like a roast of venison for the freezer. With the pack under my shoulders and the pad under my hips, I was insulated well enough from the ground. Within minutes I began to warm up, and slowly the murderous thoughts were replaced by self-congratulatory praise. I felt myself drifting off. Maybe I'd even get some sleep.

When I woke my hip was aching. I had rolled off the pack and was lying on the ground, still trussed in my plastic cocoon. I had to pee, but the only way out of the tarp was to roll back the other way—uphill. Rolling and kicking until I was free, I finally got to my knees. I was too cramped up to step away from camp to do my business like a civilized being. It wasn't until I had rewrapped myself and settled back onto the pad that I realized there was a wet spot on an inner layer of the tarp, just below my left shoulder. Too tired and too cold to care, I just lay there, inhaling a slightly acrid odor. I'd shared a bed in the back of a station wagon with a gutted deer before, but sleeping in my own urine? This was a new low.

By midnight I was sitting against the tree trunk with my knees tucked up to my chest. At 2 A.M. it was push-ups again. Sticking my hands up under my coat, I felt a crinkling in my shirt pocket. It was a scrap of newspaper I'd brought as kindling, the classified section. I switched on my headlamp. Anything to take my mind off the cold. The pet shop was offering free white rats to good homes. Also free, a "special needs" ferret and a female red heeler. In the next column there was an AKC-registered Siberian pup that cost nearly as much as my rifle, a trade I'd gladly have made right then for the fur and body heat.

At 5 A.M. I gave up. Stumbling a hundred feet down the hillside, I found a sheltered bit of flat ground under a copse of spruce trees, tucked a cotton ball drizzled with candle wax into a bird's nest of twigs, then struck the steel I carried on a thong around my neck.

Curled in a fetal position while sparks from the fire burned holes in my jacket, I finally managed an hour of dreamless sleep.

Law No. 2 STAY WHERE YOU ARE

If you are lost, YOU should usually wait for rescuers to find you instead of trying to find your own way out. Wandering aimlessly will only move you farther from the searchers'grid. Not following this advice is the most common reason that lost sportsmen wind up dead, as was the case with two young elk hunters discovered in an adjoining mountain range a few years back. I had no intention of joining their choir, so when I woke at dawn (stiff, dirty, and a little ripe, especially in the area of my left shoulder) I set about the next two tasks on my list: constructing shelter and signaling for help.

Ideally, a survival camp should be protected from wind, have a clean water source and good fuel supply, and be close to a large opening where you can construct signaling devices. An hour of exploration turned up no place better than the one I had left, which had the advantages of the creek and the open basin down the hill. Retracing my footprints in the snow, I unfolded my tarp and pitched it as a lean-to with the open front facing the ashes of my morning fire (see sidebar at left). Had I not brought the tarp, I could have built a shelter in the same shape from a framework of logs and branches, using pine boughs and leaf litter to fill in the gaps and then compressing them into waterproof shingles by overlaying more logs. That would have taken a few hours to construct but would have provided a sturdier shelter.

Dragging rotted logs and big pieces of stumps, I built a fire wall, 4 feet tall. Next I spent a solid hour breaking up downed branches and sawing both dry and green logs for fuel. One thing I wasn't going to be on my second night was cold. I heaped up pine-needle duff into a mattress, then crisscrossed pine and fir boughs over the top to a depth of a foot, needle tufts toward the middle. I wasn't about to lie on hard ground again, either.

To attract the attention of a search party, I dragged 10-foot lengths of windfall into the basin to form an SOS of block letters against the snow, hung my mesh blaze vest on a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and climbed up onto a low rise to survey the work. With the addition of a smudge fire—a hot blaze stoked with green branches to produce smoke—it would be pretty hard for a search plane to miss all the signals. I dismantled the SOS—after all, I didn't need real rescuing from anything but my hunger.

Law No. 3 LEARN TO TRAP

Although my belly was aching, I knew that in a survival situation, water outweighs the importance of food. Breaking through creek ice to reach water was easy enough, but then it wasn't so simple: The flow was too thin to submerge my bottle. I had to make do by filling the lid a few dozen times and transferring the contents. Melting some snow back at camp would be a better solution. Now it was time to collect dinner.

A squirrel that had been giving me hell all morning from the camp spruces seemed the obvious target for a meal. But he was the only companion I had, and after forming half a dozen snares from my roll of wire, I found that I didn't have the heart to set them for him. Instead, I moved a few hundred feet away, listening intently for the chirring of his neighbors.

The beauty of trapping is its efficiency. Compared to the hours of energy you expend while hunting for food, it takes little time to build and set traps. They also work as you rest. I had never snared squirrels before, but I knew the tricks would be the same ones I had learned with regard to other animals. You needed to find their trails, direct their line of travel with brush or strategically placed sticks, and scale the size of the snare to the animal's head. Besides that, you needed to set a lot of traps —this is one pursuit where numbers count. I set three snares on top of a downed log where two squirrels were racing each other. My remaining three snares went on a lodgepole stringer that I had wedged up into the crotch of a tree. Squirrels love to investigate new ways to climb.

A little farther down the basin I came across the trail of a snowshoe rabbit. I followed it until it passed through a natural bottleneck, then improvised a deadfall trap by prying a flagstone from the ground, which was not quite frozen, and whittling a trigger from dead sticks. The rabbit would surely jiggle the trigger if it passed through, but I wouldn't hold my breath—the trail was old and rabbits scarce.

I picked up my rifle and headed into the basin, marking my return route with bits of orange ribbon tied to the tufts of trees. My intent was to find a blue grouse I had flushed there yesterday. I didn't but over the next few hours managed to put up four others before one stayed on the ground long enough for me to place the blurred crosshairs above its head. It was down and thumping in a cloud of feathers as the shot echoed off the basin walls. In retrospect, I realize that I might have expended as many calories hunting the grouse as I would gain from eating it, but that didn't stop me from whistling my way back to camp.

Making a detour to check my snares, I found those on the log untouched. Two of the three on the stringer had been tripped and were hanging empty. I'd probably made the nooses too big. I pulled them all—the wilderness was hard but the heart was still soft, something that another morning without breakfast would surely remedy.

Law No. 4 MATCHES AREN'T ENOUGH

Back at camp, i hung my grouse to cool and spent a sobering hour kneeling in front of the fire wall. Even with a ready ball of kindling made from dried grass, rusted needle tufts, moss, and fine shavings of bark, it was difficult to get a fire going on snowy ground with matches alone. The fault was partly mine; my kindling ball wasn't big or dry enough, but even so the match didn't burn with much intensity or for very long, and when you are building fire on cold or wet ground you need a sustained flame. Reaching into my pocket, I adjusted my lighter to the tallest flame and flicked it. This worked better, for I could move the flame back and forth under the kindling, but how reliable would a butane flame be at 20 below zero? Matches and lighters are the gambling man's methods, granting odds little better than throwing the dice in Vegas.

Next was starting a fire with a cartridge, the sexiest method I'd heard of and one I'd always wanted to try. Tapping a bullet out of a 7mm cartridge with the back of my knife, I dumped half the powder, stuffed the neck with a piece of cloth cut from my bandanna, and fired it. In this manner I expended three cartridges before even finding the charred bit of fired cloth. On the fourth shot, firing into a tree trunk, I recovered the cloth, charred but cold. I tried once more and managed to tuck the cloth into the kindling before the edges stopped glowing. Cupping the bundle in my hands and lifting it in an attitude of prayer, I tenderly blew the kindling to life. This was an exultant moment, but I knew that in a real survival situation I'd run out of cartridges before starting a fire.

As a final exercise, I struck the magnesium-and-steel tool I had used in the morning, showering sparks onto a tinder nest of waxed cotton balls and 0000 steel wool. The flame rose strong and true. This is the most reliable fire-starting method I know, and it works in the harshest of conditions, yet how many hunters think enough about their survival to carry the ¼-ounce tool that ensures it?

Law No. 5 CONFIDENCE COUNTS

Building up the fire and spitting the grouse on a green stick, I basked in the reflected heat while my bird basted. For the last few hours I had despaired of the coming darkness, feeling small and vulnerable in the silence that had descended over the basin since I'd shot the grouse. But fire restores a man's courage when it recedes to its lowest ebb, and though this night was setting in cold—the temperature would fall to 13 degrees before morning—I felt the hard times were behind me.

I ate the breast and gnawed the stringy meat off the legs, then proceeded to suck each bone over and over again before tossing it into the fire. There was barely enough grease left on the carcass to sizzle.

After dinner, I arranged three green logs parallel to each other so that they would burn slowly, reflecting heat off the back wall of the tarp. Feeling like an ancient hunter who has rolled the stone to block the entrance to his cave, and who can at last turn his back on the struggle to survive, I lay down and closed my eyes. When I awoke I was cold and had to turn the logs and then, an hour or so later, drag in new ones. I probably tended the fire half a dozen times in 14 hours, but in the interims I was more or less comfortable.

Around dawn snow began to fall, lightly at first and then more heavily, hissing onto the embers of the fire and writing a coda to my trip. I packed my daypack and pulled the tarp, kicked down the fire wall, and scattered the ashes. On my hike down the basin I tripped the deadfall trap as well, erasing the last external evidence of my passage. I was a few pounds lighter than when I had walked in (6 pounds, to be exact), but in some ways I'd become stronger. I've often written that someone who is adequately dressed for the weather and is secure in his ability to spark fire has nothing to fear from an unexpected night in the wilderness. Now I understood those maxims in a way I really hadn't when my advice carried just the weight of ink on paper.

Was surviving more difficult than I had thought it would be? Yes, but only because I had insisted on enduring the first night without fire. Would I change anything about the way I hunt in the future as a result of this trip? Maybe. I've always gone prepared for the worst. Living close to the bone of primitive existence had instilled in me the confidence to perhaps travel a little lighter from now on. Did I still want to poison my editors? That's a tough one. Not really, but I wished I could have brought them along, if only so they might better understand the distinction between the concept for an assignment and its execution on a cold breast of snow. Twelve hours wrapped in a urine-soaked tarp on a Montana mountainside ought to do the trick.

Crossing a fresh elk track at the lower end of the basin, I turned instinctively to follow, then drew up short. The elk was heading west, the wilderness beyond rolling away in a sucking undertow, black timber waves cresting to a foreshortened horizon of falling snow. My way lay to the east, where a patch of lighter sky promised rounder edges to life—a soft bed, a hot shower, a deep-dish pizza. I fed a cartridge from the magazine into the chamber. Just one hour, I told myself, and then I'd turn around and go home.

Perhaps I hadn't learned anything, after all.

SURVIVAL SKILLS SHELTER

The ability to find or build shelter is the most important skill you bring to the wilderness. In a winter storm, you won't be able to get a fire started unless you have a sheltered place to build it. These two shelters are easy to construct and will get you through the night.

Spruce Tree Shelter

The spruce tree I camped under the first night represents the simplest as well as the most widely available natural shelter for northern hunters. It offers impenetrable overhead canopy, wind protection on the lee side of the trunk, and a dry bed of needles to sit on. If the branches are too thick to crawl under, just hack away enough to sit with your back to the trunk. A spruce's great advantage is that it stands available to save your life right now. The downside is that you can't build a warming fire without burning the tree, although you can make room for a small survival fire. If there are no spruces where you hunt, other softwoods like cedars, or even thick brush, can serve the same purpose.

Tarp Shelter

A lightweight tarp is the most versatile manmade shelter you can pack. The quickest and sturdiest way to pitch the tarp is to drape it over a log or stretched cord, one end of which is on the ground and the other raised 4 feet. You can build a small cooking or warming fire in front. A tarp pitched as an open-front lean-to is more vulnerable to the wind but will reflect heat and has the advantage of allowing you to sleep parallel to the fire for even warmth. And you can set it up in a matter of minutes by using parachute cord as a ridgepole and pinning the edges down with logs, rocks, or stakes tied to pieces of cord attached to the grommets. Orient your camp so that the wind blows parallel to the fire wall and the front of the tarp. This will keep the fire burning strong and take smoke and sparks away from your shelter, letting you sleep close to the fire.

Lessons Learned: The misery I endured on the first night was not the fault of the spruce tree, but of my stubbornly trying to persevere without fire. Wrapping myself in the tarp cut windchill and added 10 to 20 degrees of warmth to the insulative value of my clothes, but that wasn't enough. I give myself full points on the tarp shelter the second night. I judged the wind correctly, so that I was able to lie close to the fire without being bothered by smoke or sparks. —K.M.

SURVIVAL SKILLS: FIRE

If fire was just a matter of striking a match, very few hunters would die from hypothermia. To sustain anything more than a flicker, you need tinder or kindling.

Tinder. This is defined as a substance that will glow from a spark. In nature, relatively few substances qualify: among them the true tinder fungus found on living birch trees and the false, hoof-shaped tinder fungus found on dead birch and aspens. You can make "char cloth" tinder by burning pieces of old cotton jeans, then smothering the flame. Pure cotton balls, 0000 steel wool, and the lint from the trap in a clothes dryer will also glow from a spark and often catch flame, especially if it has been drizzled with candle wax.

Kindling. By contrast, kindling is a substance that will ignite from an open flame such as a match or butane lighter but is difficult to spark from a steel. The best fine kindlings in nature include dry grass, blisters of bark resin found on the trunks of pine trees, shredded poplar and birch bark, rusted needles from evergreens, and the matchstick-size twigs that quill the lower trunks of spruce trees. You can produce a fine kindling called a feather stick by shaving any dry stick until the still-attached curls of wood resemble a shock of wheat. Commercial kindlings include fire-starting pastes and paraffin cubes.

The Perfect Fire

Before putting spark to tinder or flame to kindling, collect a double handful of twigs the diameter of matchsticks, one armful of pencil-size wood, and as many thumb-size sticks as you can bear-hug.

The easiest way to start the fire using either flame or spark is with a loose ball made of very fine kindlings. With a match or lighter, hold the flame underneath the ball until it catches. Or tuck a glowing tinder into a cavity in the ball. Then raise the ball, holding it in cupped hands, and blow that kernel of heat into flame.

Once you have the kindling burning strong, push it into a loose tee-pee of small twigs, adding the rest of the fuel as the fire grows.

Kindling Bundle

A match does not produce the sustained flame necessary to reliably ignite marginal kindling, such as twigs, on damp or cold ground. However, a match can reliably ignite a kindling bundle of dry spruce branch tips held chest height above the ground.

Break off dry branch ends to a length of about 25 inches. Double back the fine tips and tie them to the larger butt ends. Cut a resin-soaked piece of bark (helpful, but not essential) and push it into the cavity where the dry twig tips aren't packed too tightly. Strike a match, protect the flame from wind, and move it slowly back and forth under the bundle.

Lessons Learned: My struggles lighting a fire with matches reinforced the lesson that tinder and fine kindling are the most important components of a survival fire. In an emergency, you don't want to have to reach farther than your pack to find it. A good woodsman knows that birch bark ignites even when damp, but unless he finds the right tree, he can die just the same. I also learned that anyone who tries to start a fire with cartridges will end up with no bullets. —K.M.

SURVIVAL SKILLS WATER AND FOOD

Hunters who become lost are in far more danger of perishing from hypothermia than from thirst or starvation. That doesn't mean staying hydrated and eating aren't important. They are, both to maintain mental health and to restore reserves of energy your body may need to call upon to survive.

Water: Melting snow is often the best way to make drinking water, but it takes a lot of snow to produce enough to stay hydrated. If you melt it by the cupful over the fire, the task will consume you for hours.

Water Bag

A garbage bag is a better solution to make a large volume of water. Stuff an undeodorized black plastic garbage bag with snow, double bag it to prevent leaks, and then hang it in the sun or set it near the fire, positioned to avoid sparks. The contents will melt continually.

Food: Foraging can use up a lot of energy. Birds, fish, and small mammals are not always abundant. Nibbling on winter sedges, roots, or bark is likely to cause intestinal cramps that more than offset the meager caloric benefits. Trapping works while you rest. Wire snares and deadfalls are the simplest and most effective traps.

Squirrel Snare

Form a loop in the snare wire by twisting it with a pencil-size stick. Pass the long end of the wire through the loop to form the snare. Attach a series of snares the size of a squirrel's head to a branch propped up against a tree.

Two-Stick Deadfall

Build this trap on active rabbit trails. Cut a shallow groove in one end of both upright sticks. Insert a trigger stick between the grooves, making sure the upright sticks do not meet at the center of the trigger. Balance the sticks as shown underneath the weight of the deadfall. Place brush or other objects to steer the rabbit toward the trap. Any jostling of the trigger should cause the whole thing to collapse.

Lessons Learned: I forgot to bring a metal cup, which would have been useful for melting snow and scooping water from shallow creeks. Also, I discovered that snaring and trapping work better in print than they do in the field. Although I think I would have been able to bridge the learning curve, it quickly became apparent that the most efficient tool for harvesting food was a bullet. A hunter who packed an accurate pistol and a block of .22 long rifle cartridges into these mountains could sustain himself on squirrels and grouse for a month or more. —K.M.