Friday, December 28, 2012

Wilderness Survival Part 4 – Getting Found…, or Not?

There are a lot of philosophies regarding wilderness survival.  Most follow the modern orthodoxy of staying put and surviving until help can find you.  This orthodoxy is the reason why we should always tell someone where we are going and when we plan to be back before heading into the wilderness.  This simple precaution does save life and limb.  This is also the reason why many trail head signs now ask that hikers sign in and out as they enter and leave the wilderness.  These are great precautions.  After all, accidents do happen and some people over estimate their wilderness abilities or under estimate the vastness and power of nature.  Challenging situations can arise.

But I am going to part from orthodoxy just a bit.  While I strongly recommend telling someone where you are going and how long you will be gone, my approach to wilderness survival—my philosophy—mandates that people know enough about living in the wilderness that they will not need to be found.  This requires skill, experience, and plenty of knowledge about the natural world.  The more we know about nature, the more nature becomes our home and our towns, roads, and houses become the other place we go to when we can’t be at home in the wild.  So, is one lost when at home?  Is one lost when he or she has everything needed to stay safely and comfortably in the woods for weeks or even months?  Clearly, we cannot carry months’ worth of food into the woods, and we may need shelter besides the tents we lug in with us.  We may need medicines.  We will need clean water and basic tools.  All of these things are provided by nature.  All that is really needed then is the skill and knowledge to know how to live in and with nature. 

The skills required to live indefinitely in the wilderness are not gained by only reading a blog or a book.  They don’t come from wishful desire to commune with nature.  These skills come from dedication and practice actually living in the woods.  But once these skills are gained, then is one ever lost in the woods?  Granted, accidents can and do happen.  But the more we understand nurturing nature, the less dangerous she becomes. 

So, what does this have to do with getting found?  In brief, you likely will not need to get found if your skill set is adequate not to only deal with challenges in the wild, but to thrive in the wild.  This is no Man vs. Wild or Survivorman episode.  Rather this is an approach that will help you to avoid getting into the situations they create for those shows.  I promote humans harmonizing with nature.  If the situations get too tough, the fellows in those survivor shows either get help or hike out to their pick up location.  Show over.  Disaster averted.  You may not have those options.  A wilderness expert will need to avoid life-threatening situations when at all possible, and understand that there is no film crew or safety team to fall back on. 

But what if you need to get found? 
  • Don’t think that help will find you in time.  If the weather is harsh, the odds are not great.  You must be able to create reliable shelter to use while you wait, and even be able to do so when injured.  If you are not injured, then you likely will not need to be found anyway!
  • Understand that natural shelters all share the same challenge of being excellent camouflage since they are made from the natural materials at hand.  They not only blend in, but they hide people effectively from search efforts.
  • If you need to be found, then you will need to first create your shelter, and then take action to help search parties find you.

Ways to help others find you:

  • Place brightly colored items like clothing or a piece of tarp in open areas near your shelter where they can be seen from the air and from a great horizontal distance.  Use a sapling or a stick to make a flag.
  • Use logs or stones to spell out a giant SOS in a meadow near your shelter.
  • Build a fire and then create LOTS of smoke by adding wet leaves or pine needles to the fire.  Use a blanket to create “smoke signals”.  Simple puffs of interrupted smoke indicate the need for help.
  • Make a lot of noise.  Whistles are good.  Three gun shots can be heard for miles.  Bang on a log with a large stick.  Morse code for SOS is three shorts, three longs, and three shorts (. . . - - - . . .).  And if you spell it backwards, searchers will forgive you for misspelling and still get the message!  Make noise every few minutes.
  • Try to be in a place where you will be seen and heard. 
  • Movement attracts attention.  Wave your flag.
  • Use a shiny surface to reflect sunlight in the direction of help.  You can use Morse code and SOS this way too.  Reflected sunlight can be spotted for many miles in open country.  That cell phone may not have service, but it does have a shiny screen!
  • Stay put.  If you really need to be found, then don’t wander around.  Get yourself to a prominent, open spot, make a shelter, and create plenty of signals for searchers to find.
  • Teach these skills to your children.  Small kids especially tend to hide from searchers.  They hear yelling from strangers, and that is a fearful thing when lost and worried about getting in trouble!  Tell your kids how to get found and be sure they understand that they will not be in trouble for being found!

But prevention is the best solution.  Make wise decisions in the wilderness.  Know how to thrive with nature.  Avoid situations where you will need to be found.  The real fun is learning how NOT to be found when living in the woods. 

Let me be frank.  You should not get yourself into situations you can’t get out of.  Build your skill set.  Know what you are doing.  Learn the integrity of true self-reliance.  Keep in mind that if you need to be rescued, you will be placing the safety and well-being of many others at risk.  This is selfish and short-sighted.  Don’t be nuisance.  Learn to thrive in nature and don’t be stupid.  Believe me.  You don’t want to ever NEED to be found.  But if you do, then make a reliable shelter and take steps to make the search party’s work as simple as possible.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Wilderness Survival - Part 3.5: Snow Caves!

More on Shelter – Snow Caves 

Entire books could be written about natural shelters.  Rubbish huts, wigwams, rock shelters, lean-tos, dug outs, various log huts, thatched and grass shelters, snow caves, and on and on.  Many of these shelters take quite a lot of time to construct.  For long term living in the wilderness, these are great.  But for emergency shelters, one needs something that can be thrown together quickly in poor conditions.  These are the types of shelters we will focus on for our wilderness survival series.  Again, when it comes to survival, think small, dry, insulated and quick.

Since it is winter (or will be in four days), a discussion of snow caves seems timely.  Snow is a wonderful construction medium.  From it one can build shelters as simple as a hole in a drift through mound caves, a-frames, and igloos all the way to ice castles.  These shelters can be surprisingly warm.  But which of these work when time is limited, darkness is falling and a blizzard is moving in?  How can an overdue adventurer create a life-saving shelter in a minimum of time to get through a surprise night in the wilderness?  Most snow shelters take a lot of time to make and they are all dependent on snow conditions.

For winter adventures, one should plan to spend a minimum of a couple of hours building a snow shelter, and they often take longer than that.  But when time is minimal and shelter is critical, we need a faster solution.

Perhaps the fastest is a simple hole in a snow drift.  This solution may save your life, but it can be cramped, wet, and quite cool.  On the other extreme might be igloos which can take several hours to build, but can last for months and provide plenty of room and stability. 

The Snow Mound Cave

For a medium-fast solution, a snow mound cave may suffice.  I have spent many a winter’s night in these shelters, and have found them warm, quiet, and a little spooky.  These caves depend on snow conditions for stability and some adventurers have died when their poorly built cave collapsed and buried them in their mummy bags.  Not a nice way to go.  When snow conditions are good and there is enough time to make sure the cave is stable, then snow mound caves do provide excellent shelter.  Let’s explore this one in a little more detail.

Snow mound caves can be dug in a snow drift or in a mound piled up for this purpose.  They can only be trusted when the snow is of the right nature to consolidate.  I have had multiple caves collapse on me while under construction because the snow was either too cold and fluffy or had already morphed into sugar snow (hard ice crystals that act more like marbles than snowballs).  If you cannot easily form a quick snowball from the snow, then it will be a challenge to use for a snow mound cave.  For best success, a mound should be built out of non-sugar snow, packed thoroughly layer on layer and then allowed to sit to consolidate for at least an hour before being hollowed out.  This takes a lot of time and only works in emergencies when that time is available.  After hollowing out a cave, heating the cave on the inside and then allowing it to re-freeze will help its stability significantly.  Keep in mind that if you use a drift, you will not know how well packed the snow is.  It might sag down on you or worse during the night.  Also, drifts form in high-wind areas, which are not the best places to build any sort of shelter.

Critical components of a mound cave are:

  • A door a bit lower than your sleeping level.  This allows a pocket of warm air to build up above the door where you will be sleeping.
  • An air vent the size of your arm at the peak of the cave.  This air vent will keep the air fresh and literally save your life.  People can suffocate in snow caves.  This is critical!
  • Walls and ceiling a couple of feet thick or thicker to provide insulation and stability.
  • Room enough to sit up, crawl around, and stretch out for sleeping
  • A door that opens sideways to the dominant winds.  If it is pointed toward the wind, it will act like a wind tunnel and steal your heat.  If it is pointed away from the wind, it could drift completely closed and provide challenges in getting back out.  By pointing the door perpendicular to the wind (or just slightly downwind), the door should not catch the wind nor drift up.
  • The floor of the cave must have a dry tarp or plenty of leaves or pine boughs to keep you from getting soaked by the snow floor.  You will need an insulated sleeping pad to stay warm unless you have a thick pile of leaves or limbs.
  • I usually use a backpack to “close the door” and a candle can be really nice for light and also for heat.

Even on frigid, stormy nights, a properly built snow shelter will maintain temperatures in the 50's just from body heat alone.  This may not seem like the tropics, but it is warmer than a tent, and downright cozy with a winter sleeping bag.

After being warmed all night by body heat, your cave will support many times your body weight, and should last for weeks.
A shortcut to building a mound cave is to dig down into the snow, pile up your packs, and then cover them with about four feet of snow.  Pack the snow as you cover the packs.  Leave the mound to consolidate for an hour or so.  When you come back, dig a low door, and pull the packs out.  This will provide a head start on hollowing out the cave.

Another tip is to bring a complete change of clothes all the way down to the undies.  You will likely get quite wet from sweat and snow while digging out the cave.  Changing into dry clothes is critical for staying warm.

 The A-Frame Snow Cave

The A-frame cave offers some advantages over a mound snow cave, but it is more dependent on the right snow conditions and is not as roomy, making only enough space for one or maybe two people in the best of conditions.  Advantages include being able to build one of these caves without a shovel.  These can be built using only a stick or snow ski for cutting snow.  Also, these caves are lighter, not likely to collapse, and not seriously dangerous if they do.  This shelter is faster to build than a mound cave, and therefore better in emergencies—IF snow conditions allow for it.

To build an A-Frame Snow Shelter, start by packing down a trench of snow about twice as wide as you are and more than twice as long.  Then leave the trench to allow the snow to consolidate.  Even well stomped Champaign powder might consolidate given enough time and the right temperatures.  Warmer snows should pack nicely.  Sugar snow is nearly hopeless for attempting this type of shelter.  Once the trench is firm, cut snow blocks out of the packed floor of the trench using a stick or ski as long as the width of the trench and at least a foot thick and wide.  Once you have cut two, place them on end on opposite sides of the top of the trench and lean them together to form an “A” shaped roof.  Continue making rows of these “A”s until your roof is about a third longer than you are tall.  Then pack any holes in the blocks with plenty of snow and cap the upper end.  Cover the floor of the cave with a tarp and/or pine boughs or leaves.  Make a couple of large blocks for a door.  Be sure to have an arm-sized air hole in the peak of the roof.  The same rules about orienting the door to the wind apply. 

I have used this style of cave a few times, but have found it difficult to build if the snow is too cold to pack well.

The Tarp Trench Snow Shelter

This type of snow shelter is fast and easy to build.  It requires cordage, a tarp, and anchors to hold the tarp in place.  These shelters are warmer than a tent, but not as warm as other snow shelters, and they depend on having enough snow depth to work.  To build one of these, tie cord or rope taut between two trees a couple of feet above the snow.  Then dig a trench about ½ the width of your tarp and a bit longer than you are tall.  The trench should be about three feet deep.  Cover the trench with the tarp over the rope, and anchor the tarp edges in the snow using cord and long sticks or snow anchors.  Then shovel a significant amount of snow on the lower edges of the tarp to seal it up and hold it down.  Use snow blocks to close the head of the tarp and to make a door for the foot.  Again, line the trench with another tarp and insulating materials.

The Tarp Trench Snow shelter is more susceptible to wind noise and wind failure.  However, there is no real concern about collapse, and they can be built in minutes rather than hours.  If time is of the essence, and you have a tarp on hand (after all, it is winter and you would never head into the wilderness without a tarp in the winter, right?), then this life-saving shelter might be your best bet. 

All of these shelters depend in degree on the snow conditions.  If there is not enough snow to build a snow shelter, then opt for a rubbish hut.  In all cases, the key is to start your shelter early – before you need it.  Don’t wait until you are battling hypothermia to get started.  Build the shelter while you are still warm, then relax knowing that the night will pass safely if not comfortably.

With all of these options, choose a location that is sheltered from the wind to build, and one that has plenty of snow.

These snow caves are a lot of fun to build, and if built correctly, a lot of fun to sleep in.  Try making some without planning on spending the night and experiment with different types of designs to accommodate varying snow depths and types.  Get out there with your kids teach them these basic skills.  Nature provides.  Enjoy it!

Please comment with your own snow cave tips.  Do you have any funny snow cave anecdotes to share?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wilderness Survival - Part 3, Shelter

Once one has calmed one’s nerves and relaxed (see part 2 of this series), the next imperative for wilderness survival is shelter.  The reality is that hypothermia kills quickly.  Hypothermia in simple terms is just a cold body.  I am not talking about cool skin or a mild case of the shivers.  Hypothermia means that heat is leaving your body faster than your body can replace it.  If this goes on for very long at all, weird things start to happen. 

According to Wikipedia, these are the stages of hypothermia.


Symptoms of mild hypothermia may be vague[13] with sympathetic nervous system excitation (shivering, hypertension, tachycardia, tachypnea, and vasoconstriction). These are all physiological responses to preserve heat.[14] Cold diuresis, mental confusion, as well as hepatic dysfunction may also be present.[15] Hyperglycemia may be present, as glucose consumption by cells and insulin secretion both decrease, and tissue sensitivity to insulin may be blunted.[16] Sympathetic activation also releases glucose from the liver. In many cases, however, especially in alcoholic patients, hypoglycemia appears to be a more common presentation.[16] Hypoglycemia is also found in many hypothermic patients because hypothermia often is a result of hypoglycemia.[17]


Low body temperature results in shivering becoming more violent. Muscle mis-coordination becomes apparent.[18][19][20] Movements are slow and labored, accompanied by a stumbling pace and mild confusion, although the victim may appear alert. Surface blood vessels contract further as the body focuses its remaining resources on keeping the vital organs warm. The victim becomes pale. Lips, ears, fingers and toes may become blue.


As the temperature decreases further physiological systems falter and heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure all decreases. This results in an expected HR in the 30s with a temperature of 28 °C (82 °F).[15]
Difficulty in speaking, sluggish thinking, and amnesia start to appear; inability to use hands and stumbling is also usually present. Cellular metabolic processes shut down. Below 30 °C (86 °F), the exposed skin becomes blue and puffy, muscle coordination becomes very poor, walking becomes almost impossible, and the person exhibits incoherent/irrational behavior including terminal burrowing or even a stupor. Pulse and respiration rates decrease significantly, but fast heart rates (ventricular tachycardia, atrial fibrillation) can occur. Major organs fail. Clinical death occurs. Because of decreased cellular activity in stage 3 hypothermia, the body will actually take longer to undergo brain death.[citation needed]

Paradoxical undressing

Twenty to fifty percent of hypothermia deaths are associated with paradoxical undressing. This typically occurs during moderate to severe hypothermia, as the person becomes disoriented, confused, and combative. They may begin discarding their clothing, which, in turn, increases the rate of heat loss.[21][22]
Rescuers who are trained in mountain survival techniques are taught to expect this; however, some may assume incorrectly that urban victims of hypothermia have been subjected to a sexual assault.[23]
One explanation for the effect is a cold-induced malfunction of the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body temperature. Another explanation is that the muscles contracting peripheral blood vessels become exhausted (known as a loss of vasomotor tone) and relax, leading to a sudden surge of blood (and heat) to the extremities, fooling the person into feeling overheated.[23]

Terminal burrowing

An apparent self-protective behaviour known as terminal burrowing, or hide-and-die syndrome,[24] occurs in the final stages of hypothermia. The afflicted will enter small, enclosed spaces, such as underneath beds or behind wardrobes. It is often associated with paradoxical undressing.[25]

I told you it was weird.  So, first you shiver, then you get disoriented, then you stumble, your lips turn blue, you start slurring your words, and then you can’t think straight.  You start to walk like a zombie, and then you start thinking that the solution is to take off all your clothes.  Huh?  Take off your clothes because you are freezing to death.  Ugh.  Next comes the terminal burrowing.  Wait! Rewind!  Terminal burrowing?!!  How about live-saving burrowing!  That needs to start way, way back in the “I might not get to the car in time so I think I will build a shelter” phase.  This will eliminate the rest of the symptoms.

I had a friend who died outside of her half built snow cave.  Terminal burrowing.  This is no joke.  What is shelter, really?  What does it look like in the wilderness?  If people would just burrow BEFORE they are freezing to death, then they would not freeze!

The simplest shelter does not seem like shelter at all.  The first shelter is simply insulation.  The animals have fur and feathers that they fluff up to stay warm.  Being the nearly hairless human kind, we can’t fluff up our hair.  Oh we try.  That is what goose bumps are for.  But with our limited hair follicles, goose bumps don’t quite cut the bill.  We need to use our gray matter rather than our fur.  If you don’t have enough layers on (you should have planned for that with a fleece and shell in the pack), then it is time to stuff it.  Stuff your clothes with lots and lots of light, DRY, fluffy stuff.  Tuck your shirt into your pants.  Tuck your pants into your socks.  Fill up your clothes with dry fine grass, or cattail fuzz, or dry leaves, or whatever is available.  This will create a very warm cocoon for you.  But don’t stop there.  If you doubt getting to the car in time, then build a shelter early.  Right away!  Don’t wait until it is too late. 

I suppose I should mention that of course, you have a nice warm sleeping bag in your pack, and the dry body heat of two people will keep them much warmer than one.  Get off the cold wet stuff, and get in that bag together.  Don't be shy.  Get rid of anything that is wet and save a life; skin to skin.  Alright guys, I know what you are thinking.  Don't get your girlfriend hypothermic just to use this solution.  You need to be a bit more suave and a little less reckless if you want the relationship to grow!

But lets assume you may not have that bag.  You might need to depend on nature to survive.  Even with the bag, how can you stay dry?  Now what?

Take the time to learn about rubbish huts, lean-to shelters, snow caves, and the like.  They all are similar in that they turn water or snow and create insulating walls.  It takes longer to make these shelters than one would think.  That is why it is imperative to start early--right after you have stuffed your clothes with lots of dry, itchy stuff.   The key is to create a dry, insulated space, and fill it with dry, light stuff, like leaves.  Crawl into that pile of leaves and pull the door closed.  One can survive and even be warm in rather crude piles of leaves and sticks in incredibly cold weather.  Just a note….  Lean-to shelters are great for warm rainy nights and not a lot else.  If it is cooler than warm, you will need a shelter that is more substantial.

We will expound more on shelters in future blogs.  But in short, think small, dry, insulating, light, and breeze-proof.  A stack of pine boughs against a log covered and stuffed with leaves will save your life.  Really.  When it is critical, don’t try to build a palace.  Make a small shelter that will stop the wind and turn the rain.  Fancier shelters can be made in the sunshine. 

And the number one rule is to be DRY.  Moisture sucks away body heat.  If you are soaked, then you will have to get dry clothes, even if those clothes are just a scratchy, THICK pile of leaves.  Stay dry.  Get dry.  Nude and dry is better than wet.  Number two rule for staying warm is to drink plenty of water and eat high energy foods.  Staying warm burns a lot of fuel.  But if you don't have these at hand, get dry and sheltered and worry about the food in the morning.  The cold will get you before hunger or thirst.

Okay, okay, I can hear you asking, “What about fire?!”  I leave fire out of the survival equation.  Unless you have a shelter to catch and keep the heat from a fire, it really offers little value for staying warm.  Sure, you can roast one side while freezing the other, getting soaked to the bone, struggling to keep the fire going all night long with wet and wetter wood.  What is the point of that?  Make a shelter rather than a fire, and stay dry and insulated.  You can build a fire for fun in the morning.  Use it to signal for help or cook up a trout, but don’t depend on fire to keep you warm. 

Wilderness survival:

Getting found

There is more to come as the series continues.  One unmentioned key to wilderness survival is to get out there in the woods and practice skills when the weather is fine and all is fun and games.  Build several types of shelters.  Be familiar with materials that can be used for insulation.  Be accustomed to the time it takes to build a shelter.  Learn to plan ahead and work with nature’s bounty.

Do any of you have a survival shelter idea or experience to share?  Please post a comment.  You might save a life!