Winter Skills – It’s the Little Things!

For those of us who adventure in the northern temperate zone, now’s the time that we need to start looking at taking slightly different gear with us when going out for 2/3 day trips. As the temperatures fall and the length of daylight decreases one of our main priorities will be to look at maintaining our safety margin.

Collect as you go along your way

Collect as you go along your way

You may think that the words safety and adventurer are poles apart but in reality they’re inseparable. The lone adventurer is continually assessing risk and engineering solutions to keep that risk within an acceptable tolerance. The ‘acceptable tolerance’ may change enormously, just as the situations change that you may find yourself in. The reality is that the whole situation is incredibly fluid and although it may all look very impulsive to the onlooker it is, in actual fact, a very well thought out, complex procedure based on knowledge and your personal ability.

So! What’s Changed?

During the last seven months or so I have travelled light using only a minimum of kit. The long days and higher temperatures generally mean that any mistakes will only result in a very uncomfortable time with little danger to life. This situation is now about to change… for the worse. As the temperatures fall and the days get shorter the odds start to stack-up against us. Although we may not get more rain, the rain we do get can now become very dangerous indeed; rain and cold are bad enough together but when combined with wind they can stop you in your tracks.

What Can We Do?

There are lots of things that we can do but a combination of little things will serve us much, much better. We could just take lots more equipment with which to deal with any eventuality; if you’re in a vehicle this is a viable option but if you’re on foot the bulk and weight make it a poor choice. Even if you can handle the weight and bulk it will bring with it extra risk of injury, not to mention reducing your ability to react quickly to rapidly changing situations. Isn’t risk the very thing we’re trying to reduce? Without doubt, our rucksack will be larger and the weight heavier, but if we’re careful we can still keep it sensible. As we’ve discussed previously, multi-day trips in remote areas mean heavy rucksacks but a weekend excursion can still be undertaken with minimal kit.

What Goes Where?

We need to make a few little changes that will help in the event that things get a little ugly. The first is your fixed blade knife and sparking tool. These are always fastened together no matter what time of year it is but during the summer months you may keep them in the top pocket of your rucksack for easy access. These are now kept on your person at all times, no exceptions. The ability to start a fire quickly under any conditions is probably the single most important skill you possess and will go a good way to sorting out many of your other immediate problems as well. Your hat, gloves, map & compass are also kept on your person as is a small torch. Even in the very unlikely event that you’re separated from your rucksack you’re still well equipped to survive. Keep your waterproofs under the top flap of your rucksack as normal so that they remain accessible without opening the main compartment.

Dehydration

This is often overlooked in cold, wet conditions and probably even more so in very cold bright conditions. Cold, dry air takes moisture and heat from your body with every breath; when you become dehydrated your blood thickens and your circulatory system is put under unnecessarily load. You’ll get cold more easily because the warm blood is not circulating efficiently and your muscles will tire more quickly because they are being starved of a good supply of oxygenated blood; this can also have a detrimental effect on your ability to make good decisions. A hydration pack is an ideal way to maintain hydration as you don’t have to remove your rucksack to take a drink; this is more important when carrying a heavier rucksack because once it’s comfortable you don’t want to disturb it.

Skills

These are probably the most important thing. Brush-up on the basic core skills, a couple of days should be sufficient as it all starts to flood back again quite quickly. The skills that should be honed are fire lighting, shelter building and navigation; being proficient in these core skills should go a good way to keeping you safe if things, well, let’s say don’t quite go to plan. Choose a cold, wet and windy day for the fire lighting and when you think you’ve mastered it, strip to shorts and T-shirt, then when you’re cold and wet have another go. Shelter building skills just need to become more fluid so that it’s done as quickly and as safely as possible. Ideally, navigation needs to be done under very poor weather conditions in barren featureless areas if possible; it will soon sharpen-up after a short while.

A Few Final Tips

Collect stuff on the way that will make your life easier later on. This could include collecting tinder as you walk throughout the day. Thistle heads, read mace heads, birch peelings, dead grass etc. will all be very useful when you break for the night, Even if these are wet or damp you can dry them with your body heat as you walk and start your fire easily when the time comes. Keep a few small zip-lock bags in your pocket to keep the stuff in when it’s dry; that way it’ll stay dry even if you don’t! The same with bits of food and look for natural shelters when the time is near that will take much less work to complete. Much of this is nothing more than common sense; all the same, by sharpening up your winter skills you’ll be much better equipped, not only physically but more importantly mentally.

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