Winter Survival: How to Navigate in the Snow

[Editor’s Note: As winter rages on, it brings to mind the importance of knowing how to navigate in snow and extreme winter weather. The worst-case scenario in this winter emergency is not knowing the terrain and getting so lost you succumb succumbing to exposure and possibly starvation because you don’t have the equipment necessary for survival. Author, Jeremiah Johnson has outlined the essentials on how to navigate in the snow and what equipment you will need to protect yourself from exposure.]

ReadyNutrition Readers, I have written several articles in the past on land navigation fundamentals and the importance of those basics.  Most of those basics still hold true in the “Winter Wonderland” of the snow and ice: those basics merely need to be modified for the changes of the season.  Once again, as with all things I recommend to you to practice these techniques and familiarize yourself with them prior to something coming up…a significant event where you must do it.  Practice does make perfect, and repetition promotes a good follow-through.

That being said, how hard is it to navigate during the winter?  Well, it is tougher in several perspectives.  First, with snow blanketing the landscape, the appearance of the terrain is changed.  Secondly, the landscape is also physically altered: it is a different thing to walk across six inches to several feet of snow.  Right now, where I live, I have almost three feet of snow on the ground.  The winter weather conditions are another item: it’s a far cry from a summer stroll when you walk into a cold wind that is throwing sleet right into your face in the middle of February.

Know Your Terrain

First, let’s address the appearance of the terrain.  This holds true, especially in wilderness or rural areas.  You can’t always discern natural landmarks, such as a creek or stream that may very well be on your map.  It may be frozen and covered over with snow.  The same for a lake or pond.  One of your keys to success in this area is to thoroughly know the area you will be in prior to these winter conditions existing.  Another is to pick out landmarks that do not change with the weather and that are clearly visible.  A mountain or high hilltop would be a good example, or a river that does not freeze over, or one with a bridge marked on the map that traverses it.

Know Your Pace-Count

You can find your position by relating it to a known and recognizable point.  Next, let’s address the physical alteration of the terrain.  I have recommended that you purchase snowshoes for yourself in the past.  Remember some of the land nav. articles I wrote before?  I told you to measure a 100-meter pace-count by marking your starting point and your finish point with a couple of “flags” or pieces of colored, coated, copper wire.  If you did that (and elevated it above the ground) on a couple of trees…you can use it in the wintertime.

Now you’ll need to find out two things: your pace count with snowshoes on, and the same while wearing a backpack or rucksack.  There’s also a “backup” to help you, and that is to estimate that distance by sight and correlate both your estimated distance and your pace count.  As you’re traversing the wilderness, it would be wise to have a good walking stick with you…something about as long as your height.  This will help you to test the ground for “soft” spots and help to steady you as you make your way across the snow and ice.

Winter conditions are also a lot of fun – Not! The sun isn’t shining, the wind isn’t calm, and a cup of hot chocolate is not in your free hand when your car breaks down in the middle of the winter.  Usually, it is horrible, to add to the physical and situational stress.  Once again, I exhort you to pick up a good pair of goggles that do not fog up, and appropriate shielding for the face…because the sun won’t be shining, the wind will be in your face, and that mirage of the “Swiss Miss” holding out a hot chocolate for you thirty meters to your front, sitting on the boulder?  That’s a mountain lion.

Make sure you’re dressed in all-weather to combat the weather.  I recommend Gore-Tex from head to toe.  A GPS compass will help, but here it is important to rely on the basics, because batteries do die, electronics can be fouled up by extremes in weather and temperature, and it’s always best to rely on the “primitive” and skills, rather than just try to “game” it with your Android compass app, or some other “toy” that can play a dirge for you if you depend on it and it fails.

Practice stepping out with those snowshoes and learning your pace count with them to traverse the drifts.  It is also a physical challenge regarding water and other supplies, such as food and first aid equipment.  Remember: your other challenges and obstacles do not cease just because you are in the process of finding your way across a valley in the wintertime.  Practicing good techniques with your map, your compass, a proper pace count, and terrain association (matching what you see on the ground with your maps and charts) are the keys to winning in the wintertime, along with perseverance.  A good cup of coffee also helps!  Happy trails!  JJ out!

Jeremiah Johnson is the Nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the United States Army Special Forces (Airborne). Mr. Johnson was a Special Forces Medic, EMT and ACLS-certified, with comprehensive training in wilderness survival, rescue, and patient-extraction. He is a Certified Master Herbalist and a graduate of the Global College of Natural Medicine of Santa Ana, CA. A graduate of the U.S. Army’s survival course of SERE school (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape), Mr. Johnson also successfully completed the Montana Master Food Preserver Course for home-canning, smoking, and dehydrating foods.

Mr. Johnson dries and tinctures a wide variety of medicinal herbs taken by wild crafting and cultivation, in addition to preserving and canning his own food. An expert in land navigation, survival, mountaineering, and parachuting as trained by the United States Army, Mr. Johnson is an ardent advocate for preparedness, self-sufficiency, and long-term disaster sustainability for families. He and his wife survived Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Cross-trained as a Special Forces Engineer, he is an expert in supply, logistics, transport, and long-term storage of perishable materials, having incorporated many of these techniques plus some unique innovations in his own homestead.

Mr. Johnson brings practical, tested experience firmly rooted in formal education to his writings and to our team. He and his wife live in a cabin in the mountains of Western Montana with their three cats.

This information has been made available by Ready Nutrition

Originally published February 20th, 2018
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  • Craig Escaped Detroit

    As a former life-long resident of Michigan, and having lived a short time on the northern tip of Michigan’s Lake Superior shores (where temps are often colder than -25F), I had my fill of cold forests, and long, dark roads without seeing a single car for hours at a time.
    Being properly dressed & prepared will save your life. I once hitch-hiked 500 miles alone, in cold winter conditions, from Houghton/Hancock Mi (about 100 miles N.W. of Marquette), to arrive in Ann Arbor. Many hours walking along deserted highways after dark, looking for a ride. I was dressed with “snow boots”, parka, and old “army coat”, with enough warmth, that I could have safely slept in a snow bank and been warm & cozy (even had some food & water rations), etc.

    I also had a couple of LARGE Lawn & Leaf trash bags to act as a rain-poncho to keep me dry in icy rains or sleeping under a pine tree to avoid some wind and snow.
    I used to dress up warm, and go on a midnight hike, into the wolf-zone forests of the “U.P.” (with an Army 45 in my pocket, just in case). Even in 30F below temps, once you’re in the deep forest, the wind dies down, and it’s peaceful and nice (but deadly cold if you’re not properly dressed.)
    A few years later, I got me some Cross-Country Skis, and enjoyed doing it a few times in the winter forest and city parks. I recommend having something like this if you’re in the cold parts of the world. And a “drag behind” plastic sled for your gear. Take up a bit of winter backpack hiking, skiing & camping to prepare yourself, but FIRST, go camping in the snow in your own BACK YARD to test yourself. You can always go in the house if you’re too cold, and this can be a good lesson.

    As for “navigation” in winter snows, and remote areas? You’d better be wise and knowledgeable about it, or you’ll really end up as a corpse-cicle.

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