What Is The Biggest Dangers You Face While Hunting In Cold Weather

One evening years ago in a late-season deer camp, I emerged from the bright central cabin, took two steps into the darkness toward my sleeping quarters and–whoosh–went flying. A moment before launching I heard my companion, a few paces to one side, exclaim in surprise, then hit the ground with a solid thump, followed by a cry of pain. A third member of the party came out to see what was happening, and he too went sprawling.

This procession could have gone on until the entire camp was flopping on the ground like landed fish, except that somebody had the sense to hit a switch and bathe the area in overhead light, revealing a black surface sheen where hours ago there had only been tramped-down snow. Apparently, while we were inside eating supper and telling somewhat-factual tales of past hunts, the lightly falling snow had turned into sleet or freezing rain. The ground was slick as a comic’s banana peel, though not nearly as funny.

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Luck was with Me

I described a classic pratfall, landing on my tailbone, clacking my teeth but otherwise causing no harm. My companion was not so fortunate. Trying reflexively to break his fall he crashed an elbow against the stone-hard ice, disabling his right arm to a point that finished his hunting trip and caused him groaning pain during weeks of recovery.

Granted, this is not the kind of story that makes it onto the sensational “survival” documentaries on cable TV. But the sheer, banal, unspectacular reality of our pratfalling is part of its relevance. Winter dangers come in all sizes and shapes, and in various degrees of severity, but all can be troublesome. My friend could have cracked his skull as quickly as his elbow, and then there would have been a real emergency situation, possibly life, and death given our remote setting. (For the record, dangerous falls are probably the most common, and most underrated, emergency-creating accidents in the outdoors.)

I took the experience as a lesson, and began adding ice creepers to my winter survival gear, whenever feasible of course. Creepers strap onto the soles of your boots and have metal threads that bite into slick surfaces for reliable traction. Mainly designed for ice fishing, they’re useful for many winter weather situations. I keep a pair in my car kit (ever try to walk along an ice-slick highway or back road?) in case I get into trouble driving to and from the woods and mountains. I’ve used creepers to gain safe purchase on icy pegs or steps while climbing in and out of tree stands. They’ve helped me shortcut across frozen bays and up grassy slopes while en route to the prime game country I could not have reached as easily, or as safely–or at all in some cases–with ugly boot soles.

In the West, we have a term for another kind of hunting problem that has survival implications and involves traversing snowy ground. It’s called post-holing and occurs when the crusted surface of deep snow cannot support human weight. Each step forward breaks through the crust and plunges knee-or-thigh deep into the snow, just like stepping into a post hole. As every hunter who has been there knowing, this kind of travel is exhausting, discouraging, tedious, and maddening, to list only a sampling of the adjectives that crowd to mind.

The survival implications of post-holing–or of any struggling through the deep snow–should be obvious. One is easily fatigued or exhausted. For the less young and athletic hunter, this kind of grueling march can be a dangerous cardiovascular strain. Another danger is moisture. Either you get soaked from the outside as you plunge through the snow, or from the inside via perspiration caused by the extreme effort. Moisture leads to heat loss, chilling, and potential hypothermia–a serious malady indeed.

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To Deal with Deep Snow Problems

Of course, the classic way to deal with deep snow problems is to go over the top with the aid of snowshoes, and there are times when it makes good sense to prepare ahead by strapping a pair of modern, lightweight snowshoes to your pack or daypack. The new-generation snowshoes are small and easy to carry (some of the plastic “emergency” style shoes weigh mere ounces), and can be lifesaving in a pinch. (They can also get you into a game country most other hunters never even try to reach.) Whenever a vehicle of any kind is involved, I consider emergency snowshoes a necessary part of my winter survival kit. If a car, snowmachine, or ATV breaks down or gets mired in a drift, the snowshoes can get you back out when regular foot travel would prove arduous or impossible.

If you aren’t prepared from equipment or conditioning standpoint to face a deep-snow trudge, often the best strategy is simply to turn back. Innumerable case histories show that poor judgment is the primary cause of many winter survival sagas and fatalities. Typical mistakes that create trouble and cost lives include: Attempting too much for the conditions; traveling too far from safety; overexerting physically to the point of fatigue and vulnerability; assuming the way out will be as easy as the way in; and not noticing or taking into account the gradual worsening of environmental conditions such as deepening cold, building wind, or incoming inclement weather.

Another frequent source of trouble, more subtle and seldom discussed, concerns our physiology in cold-weather environments. Specifically, few hunters give much thought to the importance of staying well hydrated and properly nourished against the cold. Although dehydration (a subject I’ll cover more fully in a later column) is typically linked with hot-weather survival, it is in fact also a serious issue in the cold. Military tests in the Arctic, for instance, found that dehydration was the most common problem experienced in frigid conditions. Cold air holds less moisture than warm air, so the mere act of breathing causes water loss through evaporation.

Dark clothing adds to the exertion of moving, and to greater perspiration. Water loss lowers blood volume, which in turn impairs circulation, especially to the extremities. This increases the danger of frostbite as well as hypothermia. Past an easily reached point of dehydration, one’s judgment and coordination become progressively impaired, increasing the likelihood of accidents, mistakes, wrong turns, and lax awareness. The simple solution: carry and drink lots of water, more than you think you need, preferably before you begin feeling very thirsty. (Thirst is a delayed response; by the time you feel it you’re already starting to dehydrate.)

Proper nutrition is another important concern since our bodies have to work hard to maintain warmth in a cold environment. A typical adult who requires 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day in temperate weather might need 5,000 calories to stay healthy in the cold. Beyond caloric intake is the need for the right kind of fuel. Chocolate bars and other candies, for all their modern “energizing” hype, are comprised mainly of quick-burning simple sugars.

Far better nutritionally are more complex carbohydrates, fat, and protein, which metabolize more slowly. As an addition to usual lunches, and also as backup survival food just in case, trail mix (or “gorp”) is an excellent nourishment source for hunting. It’s easy to carry, won’t freeze, and provides lots of nutritional bang per ounce. An essential gorp mix includes granola, peanuts, mixed nuts, raisins, dried fruit, and sunflower seeds. Carry this in a quart or gallon sized zip-top freezer bag. A handful of gorp and a few swigs of water several times a day will help keep you warm and prepared to face the elements.

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