Winter Safety/Prep Tips from a Navy SEAL

I’m not sure about you, but it seems like colder weather has been creeping in a little early this year…

Maybe it hasn’t quite set in where you live, but if you ask the people in Montana or Colorado who have already seen the treacherous ice, snow and sleet of winters fury, then you may have a different story.

Even just a couple weeks ago, the United States saw it’s first named winter storm of the season: Winter Storm Aubrey.

The snowstorm dumped heavy snow and blanketed much of the northern Rockies and Northern Plains. It caused significant travel disruptions, tree damage, and sporadic power outages in the places most affected.

It’s clear winter is on the horizon and as harsh weather begins to head our way, there are several things that you need to do to make sure you are properly prepared for this winter wonderland.

As with all perilous scenarios, preparation and implementation priorities are keys to surviving a cold weather environment.

So, let me give you a “worst case scenario” so you can make sure that you are not only properly prepared, but you would be able to make it out alive.

Imagine this…

You are in a remote area driving in a blizzard and are not only lost, but just slid off the road and find yourself stuck in a ditch.

You have no mobile phone coverage and your phone is about to lose battery. After a day of sitting in your vehicle using the heater, you have run out of gas and decide that your only hope is to leave your vehicle and try to find help.

How you got lost and how you’ll get out, you will deal with later… but you need to be smart about this dangerous next step.

Here, the cold is your greatest threat and exposure is your greatest enemy. You must retain your core body temperature.

At least in this ice- and snow-covered landscape, be thankful that you are surrounded by an abundance of water. So that’s one essential necessity you have in your favor.

However, exposure and hypothermia can kill you faster here than dying of thirst in the desert. That’s why it’s critical to have a winter emergency kit in your car to better prepare for those “worst case scenarios.”

Vehicle Survival Gear: There should be a minimum survival gear list in your trunk that includes:

    1. Winter clothing: Heavy coat (bright in color), hat, gloves, boots, goggles, non-cotton long johns, wool socks
    2. Water, food (See my top recommendation, right here)
    3. Flashlight
    4. Butane lighter
    5. Fire starting (toilet paper, wood chips, cotton balls, lighter fluid)

Survival priorities: Always address the thing that can kill you first

    1. Moving and Navigation
    2. Shelter
    3. Fire
    4. Water
    5. Food

1. Moving and Navigation

So, the decision has been made and it’s time to move. Remember you are leaving the shelter of your vehicle and heading out into this very dangerous and potentially deadly environment that might require you to start the list of survival priorities all over again from the beginning. That said, here are some things that will help you on your way.

  • Safe in / safe out: If you came from relative safety then backtracking will be your best bet. Head back the way you came. That said you want to find someone as soon as possible so try to remember if you spotted any homes/businesses/structures that you might have observed while driving and head that way.
  • Improvised snowshoes: Traveling through deep snow can be extremely difficult, sinking up to your chest in some cases with each exhausting step. You can make a set of snowshoes that will enable you to walk on top of the snow by gathering several pine bows and making an “X” out of them. Then place your foot over the “X” and tie them to your feet using rope, shoe strings, etc.
  • Watch Method: You need direction to know where you are going and not end up walking in circles. You can figure out which way is North by using your watch. Take it off and point the hour hand at the sun. Now imagine a line halfway between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock position. In the Northern hemisphere that line is south and opposite that direction is north.

2. Shelter

Once you start moving and are getting ready to “hit the wall” your priority is to get out of the cold, especially if your clothing is wet. In this environment, you have several shelter options I list below, providing techniques from the most basic and expedient to a more advanced shelter, which could provide longer-term use, if necessary.

Remember, the first thing to do in any shelter is to prepare the floor; you must create a layer of insulation between you and the snowy ground. This will immediately forestall losing more body heat. Use materials abundant to the terrain, such as pine bows to create a padding barrier.

  • Natural Hollows: For immediate cover, seek natural hollows, sometimes referred to as tree-wells, which are ready-made shelters found at the base of a snow-covered pine trees. These will offer only limited protection from the elements, but it might be just enough for you to warm up while you decide your next step. Be careful when entering and exiting not to dislodge the snow from the overhanging branches.
  • Lean-to: This is a fairly simple shelter to construct. Use a series of strong branches that can serve as poles and place them diagonally and as closely together as possible, which will create a space below for shelter. Try to use an existing rock formation or several trees as the vertical wall to lean the branches against. Once you have created the diagonal section you can cover it with additional branches for greater protection below. Once this slanted “roof” or lean-to is fashioned, snow can be used to cover the branches for increased insulation.
In 2001, a fellow SEAL and I decided to attempt a winter summit of Mt. Rainier as a training climb for Mt. McKinley, and then ultimately Everest. Things were going great until we got caught in a whiteout at 11,000 feet. We spent the next few days in a snow cave. We had sufficient survival gear, but a small candle was enough to keep the cave’s temperature at a steady 40 degrees. On top of that, we even toasted the New Year with the airline bottle of Jack Daniels I brought along. Talking about being prepared for the worst!

3. Fire/Signal
You are in a shelter, but not out of danger. The chances that you are at least mildly hypothermic are great, especially if your clothes are wet. You need to get your body temperature back up and your clothes dry. Although this snow and ice filled climate make things more challenging when starting a fire, it is still very doable.

    1. If you are prepared you will be able to use the fire-starting items you had in your trunk. BUT if you aren’t – find dry wood by breaking dead branches from nearby trees. Branches found on the ground will be too wet. Also, strips of bark will be relatively dry and make a good form of kindling. Gather as many branches and kindling as you can on your trip from the shelter to reduce exposure.
    2. Dig a small pit. This will help protect your fire from wind.
    3. At the bottom of this pit create a base or platform by laying rocks or logs down side-by-side. This will keep the fire from melting into the snow and extinguishing.
    4. As with any fire, start with the small stuff (kindling) and create a tepee-style pile. The key is to ignite thinner pieces of wood and slowly add larger and thicker branches.
    5. Once the fire is going, you can enclose a section of it by building a small wall with stones or ice blocks to further protect it from wind.
    6. To further increase the warmth of the fire, you can build a fire reflector behind you with logs. This will actually bounce the heat back at you from behind.
    7. Once the fire is sustainable you can place pine bows on it to create heavy smoke that will also help a rescue party find your location.

4. Water

So, given your situation, if there is anything to feel “lucky” about, it’s that you will have plenty of water to drink. But don’t just start eating snow. This will not only take more energy from your body to melt the snow inside your stomach, it will also accelerate your chances of going into hypothermia. The best way is find clean snow and melt it before drinking, which can be done in several ways.

  • Snow Melter is constructed using a large flat stone placed at an angle above your fire. Place the snow at the upper end, and with stones, guide the water into a collector at the bottom end.
  • Water Maker is a series of branches or a tepee-style system, using a suspended bag or cloth filled with snow. Place this near, never directly over the fire. Under this bag place a collector. As the snow melts, the water will collect below. If a shirt or cloth is used as your water maker, it will also help to filter the melted snow.

5. Food

Again, if you are prepared you will have high calorie food in your survival bag like a 4Patriot Emergency Food Bars – BUT if you didn’t, animals are easy to track in a snowy environment. Start with the smaller ones first. Look for exit and entrance holes made by small animals in the snow. Use anything from wire to shoe laces to make a series of snares. This is done by tying a slipknot at one end of your material that forms a loop-end slightly smaller than the diameter of the burrow hole. Then anchor the other end of the line. The animal will exit the hole and the snare will tighten around its neck. Dinner!

In summary, always remember that the thing that will kill you first needs to be your priority. Making that shelter and fire an hour before you think you need to could be the difference between seeing your loved ones and dying from hypothermia. Go into a long-term survival mindset. This is a marathon not a sprint in which every decision you make is life or death. Go slow and be smart. Mother nature can be cruel but you can make it out alive.

Be a survivor, not a statistic,

Cade Courtley
Former Navy SEAL / 4Patriots Contributor


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