Cold Weather Survival

One of the most difficult survival situations is a cold weather scenario.
Remember, cold weather is an adversary that can be as dangerous as an
enemy soldier. Every time you venture into the cold, you are pitting yourself
against the elements. With a little knowledge of the environment, proper
plans, and appropriate equipment, you can overcome the elements. As you
remove one or more of these factors, survival becomes increasingly difficult.
Remember, winter weather is highly variable. Prepare yourself to adapt to
blizzard conditions even during sunny and clear weather.
Cold is a far greater threat to survival than it appears. It decreases your ability
to think and weakens your will to do anything except to get warm. Cold is an
insidious enemy; as it numbs the mind and body, it subdues the will to
Cold makes it very easy to forget your ultimate goal–to survive.

Cold regions include arctic and subarctic areas and areas immediately adjoining them. You
can classify about 48 percent of the northern hemisphere’s total landmass as a cold region
due to the influence and extent of air temperatures. Ocean currents affect cold weather
and cause large areas normally included in the temperate zone to fall within the cold
regions during winter periods. Elevation also has a marked effect on defining cold regions.
Within the cold weather regions, you may face two types of cold weather environments–
wet or dry. Knowing in which environment your area of operations falls will affect planning
and execution of a cold weather operation.

Wet Cold Weather Environments
Wet cold weather conditions exist when the average temperature in a 24-hour period is -10
degrees C or above. Characteristics of this condition are freezing during the colder night
hours and thawing during the day. Even though the temperatures are warmer during this
condition, the terrain is usually very sloppy due to slush and mud. You must concentrate on
protecting yourself from the wet ground and from freezing rain or wet snow.

Dry Cold Weather Environments
Dry cold weather conditions exist when the average temperature in a 24-hour period
remains below -10 degrees C. Even though the temperatures in this condition are much
lower than normal, you do not have to contend with the freezing and thawing. In these
conditions, you need more layers of inner clothing to protect you from temperatures as low
as -60 degrees C. Extremely hazardous conditions exist when wind and low temperature

Windchill increases the hazards in cold regions. Windchill is the effect of moving air on
exposed flesh. For instance, with a 27.8-kph (15-knot) wind and a temperature of -10
degrees C, the equivalent windchill temperature is -23 degrees C. Figure 15-1 gives the
windchill factors for various temperatures and wind speeds.

Remember, even when there is no wind, you will create the equivalent wind by skiing,
running, being towed on skis behind a vehicle, working around aircraft that produce wind
It is more difficult for you to satisfy your basic water, food, and shelter needs in a cold
environment than in a warm environment. Even if you have the basic requirements, you
must also have adequate protective clothing and the will to survive. The will to survive is as
important as the basic needs. There have been incidents when trained and well-equipped
individuals have not survived cold weather situations because they lacked the will to live.
Conversely, this will has sustained individuals less well-trained and equipped.
There are many different items of cold weather equipment and clothing issued by the U.S.
Army today. Specialized units may have access to newer, lightweight gear such as
polypropylene underwear, GORE-TEX outerwear and boots, and other special equipment.
Remember, however, the older gear will keep you warm as long as you apply a few cold
weather principles. If the newer types of clothing are available, use them. If not, then your
clothing should be entirely wool, with the possible exception of a windbreaker.
You must not only have enough clothing to protect you from the cold, you must also know
how to maximize the warmth you get from it. For example, always keep your head covered.
You can lose 40 to 45 percent of body heat from an unprotected head and even more from
the unprotected neck, wrist, and ankles. These areas of the body are good radiators of heat
and have very little insulating fat. The brain is very susceptible to cold and can stand the
least amount of cooling. Because there is much blood circulation in the head, most of which
is on the surface, you can lose heat quickly if you do not cover your head.
There are four basic principles to follow to keep warm. An easy way to remember these
basic principles is to use the word COLD–
C – Keep clothing clean.
O – Avoid overheating.
L – Wear clothes loose and in layers.
D – Keep clothing dry.

C – Keep clothing clean. This principle is always important for sanitation and comfort.
In winter, it is also important from the standpoint of warmth. Clothes matted with
dirt and grease lose much of their insulation value. Heat can escape more easily
from the body through the clothing’s crushed or filled up air pockets.
O – Avoid overheating. When you get too hot, you sweat and your clothing absorbs the
moisture. This affects your warmth in two ways: dampness decreases the
insulation quality of clothing, and as sweat evaporates, your body cools. Adjust
your clothing so that you do not sweat. Do this by partially opening your parka or
jacket, by removing an inner layer of clothing, by removing heavy outer mittens,
or by throwing back your parka hood or changing to lighter headgear. The head
and hands act as efficient heat dissipaters when overheated.
L – Wear your clothing loose and in layers. Wearing tight clothing and footgear
restricts blood circulation and invites cold injury. It also decreases the volume of
air trapped between the layers, reducing its insulating value. Several layers of
lightweight clothing are better than one equally thick layer of clothing, because
the layers have dead-air space between them. The dead-air space provides extra
insulation. Also, layers of clothing allow you to take off or add clothing layers to
prevent excessive sweating or to increase warmth.
D – Keep clothing dry. In cold temperatures, your inner layers of clothing can become
wet from sweat and your outer layer, if not water repellent, can become wet from
snow and frost melted by body heat. Wear water repellent outer clothing, if
available. It will shed most of the water collected from melting snow and frost.
Before entering a heated shelter, brush off the snow and frost. Despite the
precautions you take, there will be times when you cannot keep from getting wet.
At such times, drying your clothing may become a major problem. On the march,
hang your damp mittens and socks on your rucksack. Sometimes in freezing
temperatures, the wind and sun will dry this clothing. You can also place damp
socks or mittens, unfolded, near your body so that your body heat can dry them. In
a campsite, hang damp clothing inside the shelter near the top, using drying lines
or improvised racks. You may even be able to dry each item by holding it before
an open fire. Dry leather items slowly. If no other means are available for drying
your boots, put them between your sleeping bag shell and liner. Your body heat
will help to dry the leather.
A heavy, down-lined sleeping bag is a valuable piece of survival gear in cold weather.
Ensure the down remains dry. If wet, it loses a lot of its insulation value. If you do not have
a sleeping bag, you can make one out of parachute cloth or similar material and natural dry
material, such as leaves, pine needles, or moss. Place the dry material between two layers
of the material.
Other important survival items are a knife; waterproof matches in a waterproof container,
preferably one with a flint attached; a durable compass; map; watch; waterproof ground
cloth and cover; flashlight; binoculars; dark glasses; fatty emergency foods; food gathering
gear; and signaling items.
Remember, a cold weather environment can be very harsh. Give a good deal of thought to
selecting the right equipment for survival in the cold. If unsure of an item you have never
used, test it in an “overnight backyard” environment before venturing further. Once you
have selected items that are essential for your survival, do not lose them after you enter a
cold weather environment.

Although washing yourself may be impractical and uncomfortable in a cold environment,
you must do so. Washing helps prevent skin rashes that can develop into more serious
In some situations, you may be able to take a snow bath. Take a handful of snow and wash
your body where sweat and moisture accumulate, such as under the arms and between the
legs, and then wipe yourself dry. If possible, wash your feet daily and put on clean, dry
socks. Change your underwear at least twice a week. If you are unable to wash your
underwear, take it off, shake it, and let it air out for an hour or two.
If you are using a previously used shelter, check your body and clothing for lice each night.
If your clothing has become infested, use insecticide powder if you have any. Otherwise,
hang your clothes in the cold, then beat and brush them. This will help get rid of the lice,
but not the eggs.
If you shave, try to do so before going to bed. This will give your skin a chance to recover
before exposing it to the elements.

When you are healthy, your inner core temperature (torso temperature) remains almost
constant at 37 degrees C (98.6 degrees F). Since your limbs and head have less protective
body tissue than your torso, their temperatures vary and may not reach core temperature.
Your body has a control system that lets it react to temperature extremes to maintain a
temperature balance. There are three main factors that affect this temperature balance–
heat production, heat loss, and evaporation. The difference between the body’s core
temperature and the environment’s temperature governs the heat production rate. Your
body can get rid of heat better than it can produce it. Sweating helps to control the heat
balance. Maximum sweating will get rid of heat about as fast as maximum exertion
produces it.
Shivering causes the body to produce heat. It also causes fatigue that, in turn, leads to a
drop in body temperature. Air movement around your body affects heat loss. It has been
calculated that a naked man exposed to still air at or about 0 degrees C can maintain a
heat balance if he shivers as hard as he can. However, he can’t shiver forever.
It has also been calculated that a man at rest wearing the maximum arctic clothing in a
cold environment can keep his internal heat balance during temperatures well below
freezing. To withstand really cold conditions for any length of time, however, he will have to
become active or shiver.

The best way to deal with injuries and sicknesses is to take measures to prevent them from
happening in the first place. Treat any injury or sickness that occurs as soon as possible to
prevent it from worsening.
The knowledge of signs and symptoms and the use of the buddy system are critical in
maintaining health. Following are cold injuries that can occur.

Hypothermia is the lowering of the body temperature at a rate faster than the body can
produce heat. Causes of hypothermia may be general exposure or the sudden wetting of
the body by falling into a lake or spraying with fuel or other liquids.
The initial symptom is shivering. This shivering may progress to the point that it is
uncontrollable and interferes with an individual’s ability to care for himself. This begins
when the body’s core (rectal) temperature falls to about 35.5 degrees C (96 degrees F).
When the core temperature reaches 35 to 32 degrees C (95 to 90 degrees F), sluggish
thinking, irrational reasoning, and a false feeling of warmth may occur. Core temperatures
of 32 to 30 degrees C (90 to 86 degrees F) and below result in muscle rigidity,
unconsciousness, and barely detectable signs of life. If the victim’s core temperature falls
below 25 degrees C (77 degrees F), death is almost certain.
To treat hypothermia, rewarm the entire body. If there are means available, rewarm the
person by first immersing the trunk area only in warm water of 37.7 to 43.3 degrees C (100
to 110 degrees F).

Rewarming the total body in a warm water bath should be done only in a hospital
environment because of the increased risk of cardiac arrest and rewarming shock.

One of the quickest ways to get heat to the inner core is to give warm water enemas. Such
an action, however, may not be possible in a survival situation. Another method is to wrap
the victim in a warmed sleeping bag with another person who is already warm; both should
be naked.

The individual placed in the sleeping bag with victim could also become a hypothermia
victim if left in the bag too long.

If the person is conscious, give him hot, sweetened fluids. One of the best sources of
calories is honey or dextrose; if unavailable, use sugar, cocoa, or a similar soluble

Do not force an unconscious person to drink.

There are two dangers in treating hypothermia–rewarming too rapidly and “after drop.”
Rewarming too rapidly can cause the victim to have circulatory problems, resulting in heart
failure. After drop is the sharp body core temperature drop that occurs when taking the
victim from the warm water. Its probable muse is the return of previously stagnant limb
blood to the core (inner torso) area as recirculation occurs. Concentrating on warming the
core area and stimulating peripheral circulation will lessen the effects of after drop.
Immersing the torso in a warm bath, if possible, is the best treatment.

This injury is the result of frozen tissues. Light frostbite involves only the skin that takes on
a dull whitish pallor. Deep frostbite extends to a depth below the skin. The tissues become
solid and immovable. Your feet, hands, and exposed facial areas are particularly vulnerable
to frostbite.
The best frostbite prevention, when you are with others, is to use the buddy system. Check
your buddy’s face often and make sure that he checks yours. If you are alone, periodically
cover your nose and lower part of your face with your mittened hand.
The following pointers will aid you in keeping warm and preventing frostbite when it is
extremely cold or when you have less than adequate clothing:
• Face. Maintain circulation by twitching and wrinkling the skin on your face making
faces. Warm with your hands.
• Ears. Wiggle and move your ears. Warm with your hands.
• Hands. Move your hands inside your gloves. Warm by placing your hands close to
your body.
• Feet. Move your feet and wiggle your toes inside your boots.
A loss of feeling in your hands and feet is a sign of frostbite. If you have lost feeling for only
a short time, the frostbite is probably light. Otherwise, assume the frostbite is deep. To
rewarm a light frostbite, use your hands or mittens to warm your face and ears. Place your
hands under your armpits. Place your feet next to your buddy’s stomach. A deep frostbite
injury, if thawed and refrozen, will cause more damage than a nonmedically trained person
can handle. Figure 15-2 lists some do’s and don’ts regarding frostbite.

Trench Foot and Immersion Foot
These conditions result from many hours or days of exposure to wet or damp conditions at
a temperature just above freezing. The symptoms are a sensation of pins and needles,
tingling, numbness, and then pain. The skin will initially appear wet, soggy, white, and
shriveled. As it progresses and damage appears, the skin will take on a red and then a
bluish or black discoloration. The feet become cold, swollen, and have a waxy appearance.
Walking becomes difficult and the feet feel heavy and numb. The nerves and muscles
sustain the main damage, but gangrene can occur. In extreme cases, the flesh dies and it
may become necessary to have the foot or leg amputated. The best prevention is to keep
your feet dry. Carry extra socks with you in a waterproof packet. You can dry wet socks
against your torso (back or chest). Wash your feet and put on dry socks daily.

When bundled up in many layers of clothing during cold weather, you may be unaware that
you are losing body moisture. Your heavy clothing absorbs the moisture that evaporates in
the air. You must drink water to replace this loss of fluid. Your need for water is as great in
a cold environment as it is in a warm environment (Chapter 13). One way to tell if you are
becoming dehydrated is to check the color of your urine on snow. If your urine makes the
snow dark yellow, you are becoming dehydrated and need to replace body fluids. If it
makes the snow light yellow to no color, your body fluids have a more normal balance.

Cold Diuresis
Exposure to cold increases urine output. It also decreases body fluids that you must

Exposed skin can become sunburned even when the air temperature is below freezing. The
sun’s rays reflect at all angles from snow, ice, and water, hitting sensitive areas of skin–
lips, nostrils, and eyelids. Exposure to the sun results in sunburn more quickly at high
altitudes than at low altitudes. Apply sunburn cream or lip salve to your face when in the

Snow Blindness
The reflection of the sun’s ultraviolet rays off a snow-covered area causes this condition.
The symptoms of snow blindness are a sensation of grit in the eyes, pain in and over the
eyes that increases with eyeball movement, red and teary eyes, and a headache that
intensifies with continued exposure to light. Prolonged exposure to these rays can result in
permanent eye damage. To treat snow blindness, bandage your eyes until the symptoms
You can prevent snow blindness by wearing sunglasses. If you don’t have sunglasses,
improvise. Cut slits in a piece of cardboard, thin wood, tree bark, or other available material
(Figure 15-3). Putting soot under your eyes will help reduce shine and glare.

It is very important to relieve yourself when needed. Do not delay because of the cold
condition. Delaying relieving yourself because of the cold, eating dehydrated foods,
drinking too little liquid, and irregular eating habits can cause you to become constipated.
Although not disabling, constipation can cause some discomfort. Increase your fluid intake
to at least 2 liters above your normal 2 to 3 liters daily intake and, if available, eat fruit and
other foods that will loosen the stool.

Insect Bites
Insect bites can become infected through constant scratching. Flies can carry various
disease-producing germs. To prevent insect bites, use insect repellent, netting, and wear
proper clothing. See Chapter 11 for information on insect bites and Chapter 4 for treatment.

Your environment and the equipment you carry with you will determine the type of shelter
you can build. You can build shelters in wooded areas, open country, and barren areas.
Wooded areas usually provide the best location, while barren areas have only snow as
building material. Wooded areas provide timber for shelter construction, wood for fire,
concealment from observation, and protection from the wind.
Note: In extreme cold, do not use metal, such as an aircraft fuselage, for
shelter. The metal will conduct away from the shelter what little heat you can
Shelters made from ice or snow usually require tools such as ice axes or saws. You must
also expend much time and energy to build such a shelter. Be sure to ventilate an enclosed
shelter, especially if you intend to build a fire in it. Always block a shelter’s entrance, if
possible, to keep the heat in and the wind out. Use a rucksack or snow block. Construct a
shelter no larger than needed. This will reduce the amount of space to heat. A fatal error in
cold weather shelter construction is making the shelter so large that it steals body heat
rather than saving it. Keep shelter space small.
Never sleep directly on the ground. Lay down some pine boughs, grass, or other insulating
material to keep the ground from absorbing your body heat.
Never fall asleep without turning out your stove or lamp. Carbon monoxide poisoning can
result from a fire burning in an unventilated shelter. Carbon monoxide is a great danger. It
is colorless and odorless. Any time you have an open flame, it may generate carbon
monoxide. Always check your ventilation. Even in a ventilated shelter, incomplete
combustion can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Usually, there are no symptoms.
Unconsciousness and death can occur without warning. Sometimes, however, pressure at
the temples, burning of the eyes, headache, pounding pulse, drowsiness, or nausea may
occur. The one characteristic, visible sign of carbon monoxide poisoning is a cherry red
coloring in the tissues of the lips, mouth, and inside of the eyelids. Get into fresh air at once
if you have any of these symptoms.
There are several types of field-expedient shelters you can quickly build or employ. Many
use snow for insulation.

Snow Cave Shelter
The snow cave shelter (Figure 15-4) is a most effective shelter because of the insulating
qualities of snow. Remember that it takes time and energy to build and that you will get
wet while building it. First, you need to find a drift about 3 meters deep into which you can
dig. While building this shelter, keep the roof arched for strength and to allow melted snow
to drain down the sides. Build the sleeping platform higher than the entrance. Separate the
sleeping platform from the snow cave’s walls or dig a small trench between the platform
and the wall. This platform will prevent the melting snow from wetting you and your
equipment. This construction is especially important if you have a good source of heat in
the snow cave. Ensure the roof is high enough so that you can sit up on the sleeping
platform. Block the entrance with a snow block or other material and use the lower
entrance area for cooking. The walls and ceiling should be at least 30 centimeters thick.
Install a ventilation shaft. If you do not have a drift large enough to build a snow cave, you
can make a variation of it by piling snow into a mound large enough to dig out.

Snow Trench Shelter
The idea behind this shelter (Figure 15-4) is to get you below the snow and wind level and
use the snow’s insulating qualities. If you are in an area of compacted snow, cut snow
blocks and use them as overhead cover. If not, you can use a poncho or other material.
Build only one entrance and use a snow block or rucksack as a door.

Snow Block and Parachute Shelter
Use snow blocks for the sides and parachute material for overhead cover (Figure 15-4). If
snowfall is heavy, you will have to clear snow from the top at regular intervals to prevent
the collapse of the parachute material.

Snow House or Igloo
In certain areas, the natives frequently use this type of shelter (Figure 15-4) as hunting and
fishing shelters. They are efficient shelters but require some practice to make them
properly. Also, you must be in an area that is suitable for cutting snow blocks and have the
equipment to cut them (snow saw or knife).

Lean-To Shelter
Construct this shelter in the same manner as for other environments; however, pile snow
around the sides for insulation (Figure 15-5).

Fallen Tree Shelter
To build this shelter, find a fallen tree and dig out the snow underneath it (Figure 15-6). The
snow will not be deep under the tree. If you must remove branches from the inside, use
them to line the floor.

Tree-Pit Shelter
Dig snow out from under a suitable large tree. It will not be as deep near the base of the
tree. Use the cut branches to line the shelter. Use a ground sheet as overhead cover to
prevent snow from falling off the tree into the shelter. If built properly, you can have 360-
degree visibility (Figure 5-12, Chapter 5).

20-Man Life Raft
This raft is the standard overwater raft on U.S. Air Force aircraft. You can use it as a shelter.
Do not let large amounts of snow build up on the overhead protection. If placed in an open
area, it also serves as a good signal to overhead aircraft.

Fire is especially important in cold weather. It not only provides a means to prepare food,
but also to get warm and to melt snow or ice for water. It also provides you with a
significant psychological boost by making you feel a little more secure in your situation.
Use the techniques described in Chapter 7 to build and light your fire. If you are in enemy
territory, remember that the smoke, smell, and light from your fire may reveal your
location. Light reflects from surrounding trees or rocks, making even indirect light a source
of danger. Smoke tends to go straight up in cold, calm weather, making it a beacon during
the day, but helping to conceal the smell at night. In warmer weather, especially in a
wooded area, smoke tends to hug the ground, making it less visible in the day, but making
its odor spread.
If you are in enemy territory, cut low tree boughs rather than the entire tree for firewood.
Fallen trees are easily seen from the air.
All wood will burn, but some types of wood create more smoke than others. For instance,
coniferous trees that contain resin and tar create more and darker smoke than deciduous
There are few materials to use for fuel in the high mountainous regions of the arctic. You
may find some grasses and moss, but very little. The lower the elevation, the more fuel
available. You may find some scrub willow and small, stunted spruce trees above the tree
line. On sea ice, fuels are seemingly nonexistent. Driftwood or fats may be the only fuels
available to a survivor on the barren coastlines in the arctic and subarctic regions.
Abundant fuels within the tree line are–
• Spruce trees are common in the interior regions. As a conifer, spruce makes a lot of
smoke when burned in the spring and summer months. However, it burns almost
smoke-free in late fall and winter.
• The tamarack tree is also a conifer. It is the only tree of the pine family that loses its
needles in the fall. Without its needles, it looks like a dead spruce, but it has many
knobby buds and cones on its bare branches. When burning, tamarack wood makes a
lot of smoke and is excellent for signaling purposes.
• Birch trees are deciduous and the wood burns hot and fast, as if soaked with oil or
kerosene. Most birches grow near streams and lakes, but occasionally you will find a
few on higher ground and away from water.
• Willow and alder grow in arctic regions, normally in marsh areas or near lakes and
streams. These woods burn hot and fast without much smoke.
Dried moss, grass, and scrub willow are other materials you can use for fuel. These are
usually plentiful near streams in tundras (open, treeless plains). By bundling or twisting
grasses or other scrub vegetation to form a large, solid mass, you will have a slower
burning, more productive fuel.
If fuel or oil is available from a wrecked vehicle or downed aircraft, use it for fuel. Leave the
fuel in the tank for storage, drawing on the supply only as you need it. Oil congeals in
extremely cold temperatures, therefore, drain it from the vehicle or aircraft while still warm
if there is no danger of explosion or fire. If you have no container, let the oil drain onto the
snow or ice. Scoop up the fuel as you need it.

Do not expose flesh to petroleum, oil, and lubricants in extremely cold temperatures. The
liquid state of these products is deceptive in that it can cause frostbite.

Some plastic products, such as MRE spoons, helmet visors, visor housings, aid foam rubber
will ignite quickly from a burning match. They will also burn long enough to help start a fire.
For example, a plastic spoon will burn for about 10 minutes.
In cold weather regions, there are some hazards in using fires, whether to keep warm or to
cook. For example–
• Fires have been known to burn underground, resurfacing nearby. Therefore, do not
build a fire too close to a shelter.
• In snow shelters, excessive heat will melt the insulating layer of snow that may also
be your camouflage.
• A fire inside a shelter lacking adequate ventilation can result in carbon monoxide
• A person trying to get warm or to dry clothes may become careless and burn or
scorch his clothing and equipment.
• Melting overhead snow may get you wet, bury you and your equipment, and possibly
extinguish your fire.
In general, a small fire and some type of stove is the best combination for cooking
purposes. A hobo stove (Figure 15-7) is particularly suitable to the arctic. It is easy to make
out of a tin can, and it conserves fuel. A bed of hot coals provides the best cooking heat.
Coals from a crisscross fire will settle uniformly. Make this type of fire by crisscrossing the
firewood. A simple crane propped on a forked stick will hold a cooking container over a fire.

For heating purposes, a single candle provides enough heat to warm an enclosed shelter. A
small fire about the size of a man’s hand is ideal for use in enemy territory. It requires very
little fuel, yet it generates considerable warmth and is hot enough to warm liquids.

There are many sources of water in the arctic and subarctic. Your location and the season
of the year will determine where and how you obtain water.
Water sources in arctic and subarctic regions are more sanitary than in other regions due to
the climatic and environmental conditions. However, always purify the water before
drinking it. During the summer months, the best natural sources of water are freshwater
lakes, streams, ponds, rivers, and springs. Water from ponds or lakes may be slightly
stagnant, but still usable. Running water in streams, rivers, and bubbling springs is usually
fresh and suitable for drinking.
The brownish surface water found in a tundra during the summer is a good source of water.
However, you may have to filter the water before purifying it.
You can melt freshwater ice and snow for water. Completely melt both before putting them
in your mouth. Trying to melt ice or snow in your mouth takes away body heat and may
cause internal cold injuries. If on or near pack ice in the sea, you can use old sea ice to melt
for water. In time, sea ice loses its salinity. You can identify this ice by its rounded corners
and bluish color.
You can use body heat to melt snow. Place the snow in a water bag and place the bag
between your layers of clothing. This is a slow process, but you can use it on the move or
when you have no fire.
Note: Do not waste fuel to melt ice or snow when drinkable water is available
from other sources.
When ice is available, melt it, rather than snow. One cup of ice yields more water than one
cup of snow. Ice also takes less time to melt. You can melt ice or snow in a water bag, MRE
ration bag, tin can, or improvised container by placing the container near a fire. Begin with
a small amount of ice or snow in the container and, as it turns to water, add more ice or
Another way to melt ice or snow is by putting it in a bag made from porous material and
suspending the bag near the fire. Place a container under the bag to catch the water.
During cold weather, avoid drinking a lot of liquid before going to bed. Crawling out of a
warm sleeping bag at night to relieve yourself means less rest and more exposure to the
Once you have water, keep it next to you to prevent refreezing. Also, do not fill your
canteen completely. Allowing the water to slosh around will help keep it from freezing.

There are several sources of food in the arctic and subarctic regions. The type of food–fish,
animal, fowl, or plant–and the ease in obtaining it depend on the time of the year and your

During the summer months, you can easily get fish and other water life from coastal
waters, streams, rivers, and lakes. Use the techniques described in Chapter 8 to catch fish.
The North Atlantic and North Pacific coastal waters are rich in seafood. You can easily find
crawfish, snails, clams, oysters, and king crab. In areas where there is a great difference
between the high and low tide water levels, you can easily find shellfish at low tide. Dig in
the sand on the tidal flats. Look in tidal pools and on offshore reefs. In areas where there is
a small difference between the high- and low-tide water levels, storm waves often wash
shellfish onto the beaches.
The eggs of the spiny sea urchin that lives in the waters around the Aleutian Islands and
southern Alaska are excellent food. Look for the sea urchins in tidal pools. Break the shell
by placing it between two stones. The eggs are bright yellow in color.
Most northern fish and fish eggs are edible. Exceptions are the meat of the arctic shark and
the eggs of the sculpins.
The bivalves, such as clams and mussels, are usually more palatable than spiral-shelled
seafood, such as snails.

The black mussel, a common mollusk of the far north, may be poisonous in any season.
Toxins sometimes found in the mussel’s tissue are as dangerous as strychnine.

The sea cucumber is another edible sea animal. Inside its body are five long white muscles
that taste much like clam meat.
In early summer, smelt spawn in the beach surf. Sometimes you can scoop them up with
your hands.
You can often find herring eggs on the seaweed in midsummer. Kelp, the long ribbonlike
seaweed, and other smaller seaweed that grow among offshore rocks are also edible.

Sea Ice Animals
You find polar bears in practically all arctic coastal regions, but rarely inland. Avoid them if
possible. They are the most dangerous of all bears. They are tireless, clever hunters with
good sight and an extraordinary sense of smell. If you must kill one for food, approach it
cautiously. Aim for the brain; a bullet elsewhere will rarely kill one. Always cook polar bear
meat before eating it.

Do not eat polar bear liver as it contains a toxic concentration of vitamin A.

Ear-less seal meat is some of the best meat available. You need considerable skill, however,
to get close enough to an earless seal to kill it. In spring, seals often bask on the ice beside
their breathing holes. They raise their heads about every 30 seconds, however, to look for
their enemy, the polar bear.

To approach a seal, do as the Eskimos do–stay downwind from it, cautiously moving closer
while it sleeps. If it moves, stop and imitate its movements by lying flat on the ice, raising
your head up and down, and wriggling your body slightly. Approach the seal with your body
side-ways to it and your arms close to your body so that you look as much like another seal
as possible. The ice at the edge of the breathing hole is usually smooth and at an incline, so
the least movement of the seal may cause it to slide into the water. Therefore, try to get
within 22 to 45 meters of the seal and kill it instantly (aim for the brain). Try to reach the
seal before it slips into the water. In winter, a dead seal will usually float, but it is difficult to
retrieve from the water.
Keep the seal blubber and skin from coming into contact with any scratch or broken skin
you may have. You could get “spekk-finger,” that is, a reaction that causes the hands to
become badly swollen.
Keep in mind that where there are seals, there are usually polar bears, and polar bears
have stalked and killed seal hunters.
You can find porcupines in southern subarctic regions where there are trees. Porcupines
feed on bark; if you find tree limbs stripped bare, you are likely to find porcupines in the
Ptarmigans, owls, Canadian jays, grouse, and ravens are the only birds that remain in the
arctic during the winter. They are scarce north of the tree line. Ptarmigans and owls are as
good for food as any game bird. Ravens are too thin to be worth the effort it takes to catch
them. Ptarmigans, which change color to blend with their surroundings, are hard to spot.
Rock ptarmigans travel in pairs and you can easily approach them. Willow ptarmigans live
among willow clumps in bottom-lands. They gather in large flocks and you can easily snare
them. During the summer months all arctic birds have a 2- to 3-week molting period during
which they cannot fly and are easy to catch. Use one of the techniques described in
Chapter 8 to catch them.
Skin and butcher game (see Chapter 8) while it is still warm. If you do not have time to skin
the game, at least remove its entrails, musk glands, and genitals before storing. If time
allows, cut the meat into usable pieces and freeze each separately so that you can use the
pieces as needed. Leave the fat on all animals except seals. During the winter, game
freezes quickly if left in the open. During the summer, you can store it in underground ice

Although tundras support a variety of plants during the warm months, all are small,
however, when compared to plants in warmer climates. For instance, the arctic willow and
birch are shrubs rather than trees. The following is a list of some plant foods found in arctic
and subarctic regions (see Appendix B for descriptions).

• Arctic raspberry and blueberry
• Arctic willow
• Bearberry
• Cranberry
• Crowberry
• Dandelion
• Eskimo potato
• Fireweed
• Iceland moss
• Marsh marigold
• Reindeer moss
• Rock tripe
• Spatterdock
There are some plants growing in arctic and subarctic regions that are poisonous if eaten
(see Appendix C). Use the plants that you know are edible. When in doubt, follow the
Universal Edibility Test in Chapter 9, Figure 9-5.

As a survivor or an evader in an arctic or subarctic region, you will face many obstacles.
Your location and the time of the year will determine the types of obstacles and the
inherent dangers. You should–
• Avoid traveling during a blizzard.
• Take care when crossing thin ice. Distribute your weight by lying flat and crawling.
• Cross streams when the water level is lowest. Normal freezing and thawing action
may cause a stream level to vary as much as 2 to 2.5 meters per day. This variance
may occur any time during the day, depending on the distance from a glacier, the
temperature, and the terrain. Consider this variation in water level when selecting a
campsite near a stream.
• Consider the clear arctic air. It makes estimating distance difficult. You more
frequently underestimate than overestimate distances.
• Do not travel in “whiteout” conditions. The lack of contrasting colors makes it
impossible to judge the nature of the terrain.
• Always cross a snow bridge at right angles to the obstacle it crosses. Find the
strongest part of the bridge by poking ahead of you with a pole or ice axe. Distribute
your weight by crawling or by wearing snowshoes or skis.
• Make camp early so that you have plenty of time to build a shelter.
• Consider frozen or unfrozen rivers as avenues of travel. However, some rivers that
appear frozen may have soft, open areas that make travel very difficult or may not
allow walking, skiing, or sledding.
• Use snowshoes if you are traveling over snow-covered terrain. Snow 30 or more
centimeters deep makes traveling difficult. If you do not have snowshoes, make a
pair using willow, strips of cloth, leather, or other suitable material.
It is almost impossible to travel in deep snow without snowshoes or skis. Traveling by foot
leaves a well-marked trail for any pursuers to follow. If you must travel in deep snow, avoid
snow-covered streams. The snow, which acts as an insulator, may have prevented ice from
forming over the water. In hilly terrain, avoid areas where avalanches appear possible.
Travel in the early morning in areas where there is danger of avalanches. On ridges, snow
gathers on the lee side in overhanging piles called cornices. These often extend far out
from the ridge and may break loose if stepped on.

There are several good indicators of climatic changes.

You can determine wind direction by dropping a few leaves or grass or by watching the
treetops. Once you determine the wind direction, you can predict the type of weather that
is imminent. Rapidly shifting winds indicate an unsettled atmosphere and a likely change in
the weather.

Clouds come in a variety of shapes and patterns. A general knowledge of clouds and the
atmospheric conditions they indicate can help you predict the weather. See Appendix G for

Smoke rising in a thin vertical column indicates fair weather. Low rising or “flattened out”
smoke indicates stormy weather.

Birds and Insects
Birds and insects fly lower to the ground than normal in heavy, moisture-laden air. Such
flight indicates that rain is likely. Most insect activity increases before a storm, but bee
activity increases before fair weather.

Low-Pressure Front
Slow-moving or imperceptible winds and heavy, humid air often indicate a low-pressure
front. Such a front promises bad weather that will probably linger for several days. You can
“smell” and “hear” this front. The sluggish, humid air makes wilderness odors more
pronounced than during high-pressure conditions. In addition, sounds are sharper and carry
farther in low-pressure than high-pressure conditions.

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