Monday, 18 November 2013

Packing your kit for winter:

With the winter of 2013/14 apparently about to be the worst since 1947, we're set for some seriously chilly weather. Despite the seasonal media doom mongering, it's no revelation that winter is cold in the UK! This should most definitely not mean putting your outdoor kit into storage until spring - the colder months are some of the best times to get outside. You'll probably have the place to yourself for starters! At first glance, the stark landscape and sleepy, quiet woodlands suggest that there’s not much going on and that the best place to be is snug and warm indoors, but it’s well worth pulling on your thicker socks and silly hat with the ear flaps and going to take a look for yourself.  The winter snows bring their own set of seasonal bonus’s to the bushcraft enthusiast; greater opportunities for tracking is just one. Not only is it easier to pick up sign but it’s far easier to interpret and follow a track from start to finish. This is helpful for confirming certain theories that are otherwise difficult to interpret correctly at other times of the year. This information, once confirmed can be of great use when using knowledge of a certain animal’s behaviour to fill in missing gaps along a trail at other times of year.

If you have set out to learn bushcraft skills as a form of insurance should something ever go wrong then to gauge progress, occasionally it helps to test yourself. Skills that come easy in the summer will be that much harder in the winter months as the harsh weather and difficulty in identifying resources throw up all sorts of additional limiting factors. Fire lighting, tree and plant identification, navigation are all outdoor skills that require a real in depth understanding which is fully tested to the limit in the winter. By practicing and mastering important skills such as these in the winter time your confidence will be increased dramatically at other times of the year. Train hard, fight easy as they say...

Above all, waking up in a snowy forest is the stuff of fairy tales. If properly kitted out and equipped with sound knowledge of the winter environment then to a certain degree, snow can be your friend offering insulation, building materials and even drinking water. Any light from the moon is enhanced greatly on the surface of a snow covered woodland floor allowing some fantastic night time wildlife encounters that would otherwise be missed.  But cold, wet conditions can rapidly increase the speed at which things go wrong if caught out unprepared. Practicing skills that could save yours or others lives is important but you must have a back up plan when the cold weather hits. Before venturing out it’s a good idea to spend a bit of time preparing to ensure that you could take care of your own survival should the unexpected happen and you find yourself stranded between A and B at the mercy of winter at it’s most wintry. 

Keeping things simple is always important and initially it makes sense to settle on a packing system that works pretty much all year round, only needing a bit of tweak for extreme weather conditions or different environments. When tweaking your packing system for a trip in winter, give some thought to whether or not your kit would realistically keep you sheltered, warm, hydrated and fed if you had to spend an unexpected night outdoors. Additionally, could it enable you to call for help, guide in rescuers or even self rescue before things got out of hand?  In light of the annual stories of unfortunate travellers stranded overnight on snowy motorways, it seems that any winter journey could result in a chilly, potentially life threatening experience if things don’t go to plan. It pays to be prepared and a well thought out, fully packed winter survival bag could serve you just as well kept in the boot of your vehicle as it could out on the hill. Additionally, if the zombie apocalypse begins while you’re out doing the shopping you’ll be laughing all the way to the fortified survivors compound.

Here’s a suggested winter packing system for a day out walking or an emergency bag to be kept in the back of the car. The rucksack shown has a 45 litre capacity which should really be seen as the minimum size for a winter day sack:

Lid / outside pocket:  Items you might need in a hurry:
Keep the following items in the lid pocket or a side pocket so they’ll be close to hand without having to tip the contents of your bag out all over the snow...

1.  Good head torch with new batteries, powerful beam and preferably some additional features (the Alpkit gamma shown has all sorts of flashing, different coloured and different strength beams).
2.  Tough, flexible, waterproof pouch containing phone as well as a spare battery or reliable, portable charging system. My waterproof pouch has a lanyard so it can be attached to my rucksack. I also carry a second ‘cheapy’ phone that uses a different network to double my chances in areas with poor signal.
3.  Compass, whistle, notebook, pencil and waterproofed map (map not shown here). Forward thinking mountain navigators also have a spare map, sometimes of a larger scale hidden away in the main body of their pack. Maps can suddenly become tiny un-piloted para gliders without warning on windy days...
4.  Back up mittens: In winter time, especially out on the hill if your hands are frozen you’ll get into serious difficulty. Putting up shelter, lighting a gas stove, even using a map and compass becomes virtually impossible with numb hands. In the event that your primary pair of gloves becomes ineffective after a good soaking, or even whipped out of your hands by the wind, you won’t want to faff around too long looking for replacements. Keep a warm, weather-proof but easily packable pair sealed in a small drybag (Buffalo make excellent pertex and pile mitts for this purpose) in the hood pocket. Basically somewhere you can reach with your teeth if needs be!
5.  Toilet kit: the last third of a toilet roll and some anti-bacterial hand gel in a ziploc bag is a better option than looking for soft leaves on a hill side in winter!
6.  High energy snacks (not shown, or eaten. Probably eaten)
Main body of the rucksack - top layer:  Shelter and warmth

1.     If not already worn you’ll want your waterproof jacket right at the top ready to don if the heavens open. In this day and age, your main jacket should really be made from a waterproof and breathable fabric with taped seams, weather-proof closures, a good hood and pockets. I hate wearing too much when on the move so avoid wearing mine whenever possible, instead opting for a lightweight windproof hooded top and thermal shirt underneath. If you feel the same then you must ensure that your winter walking top is at least windproof, preferably showerproof. Constantly battling the wind chill will use valuable energy and mean that you’ll rapidly cool to the point of shivering whenever you stop moving. A windproof top keeps the wind-chill at bay and traps much of your own generated body-heat next your body where it belongs. There are loads of windproof, quick drying, lightweight and highly breathable fabrics out there that don’t feel like you’re wearing a bin bag. Montane, Rab, Paramo and Buffalo all make good lightweight windproof tops.

2.    I also keep a warm hat in the pocket of my waterproof jacket and make sure the jacket is arranged with that pocket being the first thing I see when I open my rucksack. It’s amazing how much warmer you feel if you pop on a hat when you stop for a brew or to check the map. Almost like putting on another layer! A snood, buff or whatever the latest strange name for a warm neck covering is, should also be kept here for the same reason.

If you carry them, waterproof trousers should be stowed here too.

3.    Keep a mid-weight windproof and warm top near the top of your bag, just under your waterproof jacket. I favour a gillet if I’m on the move or working hard as it’s less restrictive on the arms; synthetic fill insulated job when out in the hills and dense wool if mucking about in the woods. Top tip; if your warm top has a full length zip then keep it zipped around a third of the way up and pull it on over your head. Trying to get the two halves of a zipper to connect with cold fingers or big gloves on when the wind is picking up is not easy. Also, when removing clothing such as jackets to add another warm layer underneath, keeping the bottom section of the zip, zipped means it can drop down out of the way still fastened around your knees but not be completely free to be suddenly blown awaaaaay across the hills.

Also shown here, sunglasses are handy for protecting your eyes from the glare of the snow and more importantly, will magically transform a boring looking rambler into a polar explorer or adventure racer!

4.    In the winter, especially if walking primarily in exposed areas it makes sense to carry a lightweight shelter of some sort. If stopping for a rest it can be quickly set up to provide protection for you or a small group and if stranded out overnight it could be a lifesaver. When I’m in the woods I take a lightweight, waterproof tarp (currently an Alpkit rig 7 – fantastic) with guy-lines fitted so that I can set up some overhead cover to work under in the rain. When out on the hill an emergency ‘bothy’ bag would be your best bet. These can easily be whipped out and used to create a sheltered place for lunch. My rig 7 tarp is about the same size as a two person bothy bag when all squished up, basically very small indeed. If you carry walking poles a tarp can even be set up like a small tent out in the open but you’ll need some origami training first.

5.    If you have an old foam sleeping mat then it’s a good idea to cut out a section as long as the height of your rucksack and twice the width. Fold it in half along it’s length and slip it down inside the main body of your rucksack to sit against the existing back padding. This can be pulled out to sit on whenever you stop for a rest or in an unplanned overnight emergency, used to provide vital insulation between your body and the ground. Although smaller than a full size mat, you can at least provide protection for your torso with your empty rucksack and other kit providing some ground insulation for your legs. It also gives a bit more padding to the back of your rucksack when packed!
Middle layer:  Food, water, stove, essential kit

1.    Drinking system:    I’ve had problems with hydration systems in the winter (frozen hoses) so carry my water in a hard, plastic 1 litre bottle with a wide mouth. Hunt around for a bottle that will fit neatly inside a large metal mug so that these two bed fellows can stay permanently locked together in your kit. A metal mug can be used to cook in, melt ice or boil wild water to make it safe to drink. Keep your water bottle/mug combo in a pouch along with a spoon, a metal lid for the cup (to speed up the heating process), a cloth water filter bag and some water sterilization tablets or similar water purification device.

2.    One litre of drinking water isn’t really enough so carry a second water container. In the winter months this may as well be a small stainless steel flask filled with a hot, sweet brew! Looking for a good place to keep your gaffa tape? Wrap a load around your flask and water bottle.

3.    Food:    Winter walking grub needs to be highly calorific offering both quick and slow releases of energy. Time to raid the Christmas selection packs! If heading out for the day then choose food that matches this criteria but also concentrate on foods that don’t necessarily need to be cooked. Obviously heating your food in the winter is recommended but if stove fuel is low, it’s good to know that your only available meal option doesn’t involve crunching your way through cold powdered potato sachets (been there...). Also, take more than you need for the day – pack for an unexpected overnight camp out. If you’re packing a rucksack for a potential emergency then 24 hours of highly calorific food needn’t take up that much room if you spend time shopping for the best options. If you’re annoyingly organised you can separate meals into different ziploc bags with a separate one for brew kit. Incidentally, replace milk or milk powder for the sweet, condensed stuff in a squeezy tube which can also be guzzled in an emergency and tastes yum in a coffee.

4.    Cooking pot, stove and fuel:    If you won’t be able to light a cooking fire (open terrain or not permitted) then a cooking stove is essential. Ideally, carry a small but effective stove that will fit inside your main cooking pot for protection. To stop everything rattling around your stove should also be kept in a cloth bag or wrapped in a tea towel within the cooking pot, along with a lighter and spare fuel if it fits. As your pot is likely to be dirty on the outside this should be kept in a dry bag of some sort leaving room for a flexible or folding windshield to speed up cooking times and save fuel. A word of warning though, always make sure that gas stoves which have an integral fuel compartment don’t get too hot due to your reflective windshield being too close and surrounding the stove completely, or you could end up wearing your dinner as a hat. Leave the windshield open on the leeward side to keep the fuel compartment cool. Never cook inside a tent without proper ventilation due to the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and it goes without saying that in the event of a vehicle breakdown or becoming stranded overnight in the snow, cooking inside or even near a vehicle is an extremely stupid thing to do!

Obviously there’s a limit to how much stove fuel can be carried so if carrying extra food, and travelling somewhere where lighting a fire may not be possible, it makes sense to also carry an emergency cooking source and for this you can’t go far wrong with a small packet of solid fuel tablets. A small pot support can then be improvised with sticks or rocks. There are also a number of ingenious little portable wood burners which maximise the effectiveness of natural fuel sources (such as dry bark, pine cones etc), leave nothing but ash, are much safer than a full on campfire, weigh virtually nothing and take up little more room than a birthday card when packed. Worth adding to your stove bag for sure. 

5.    Bits and bobs bag:    This bag contains a number of essential items which may be needed during the day as well as spare back up kit to some of your most important gear. It’s also a stand alone survival kit if needs be. A detailed breakdown of mine can be found here.

6.    Bushcraft tools – belt knife and folding saw:    With a good multi tool in your bits and bobs bag, cutting tools aren’t really essential kit to the average walker. However, to those who intend to go off the beaten track or have taken time to learn how natures resources can be utilised to your advantage, good cutting tools are definitely not leave at home items. After all, how the hell do you expect to whittle a wooden spoon without them? Don’t forget that if your rucksack is to be carried in a vehicle ‘just in case’ then the carrying of fixed bladed or folding lock knives needs to have a good explanation if you find yourself being stopped by the police for any reason. Use your common sense here. A machete strapped to the outside of a rucksack on the rear parcel shelf is asking for trouble.

7.    A first aid kit should always be carried but especially if using sharp cutting tools. Some of the items from larger kits (such as slings, folding splints etc) can be improvised so unless you’re intentionally heading off into the wilderness for an extended period your first aid kit need only consist of stuff that might actually be needed. My personal kit has plasters, blister plasters, steri- strips, antiseptic wipes, painkillers, zinc oxide tape, latex gloves, tweezers, sterile wound dressings, antiseptic cream, a crepe bandage and a small tin of vaseline (good for cracked lips, rubbing toes and chafing). Because I often use sharp cutting tools whilst a bit further away from medical assistance, I also carry a large military wound dressing and a small packet of haemostatic clotting agent. There's normally room for this mini kit inside my 'bits and bobs' bag.
Bottom layer:    non essential emergency gear and spare clothing:
1.    Before deciding what emergency gear to pack in the event of becoming stranded outside all night, I can thoroughly recommend attempting exactly that as part of a safe, supported and controlled experiment. I have on several occasions and the bitter experience gained means that the kit I carry now has just the right balance between real performance and small pack size. Rather than increasing my slim chances of survival by just a tiny amount, the comparatively small increase in weight and volume will ensure that I see the next morning with relative ease. A huge leap forward in survival kit technology is the emergency ‘reflexcell’ gear made by Blizzard. Blankets, bags and even jackets are all available. These are made from layers of reflective foil with compartments sandwiched between the innermost and outer layers designed to trap your warm air. I carry the Blizzard sleeping bag which comes vacuum packed to the size of a video cassette but has the warmth rating of a medium weight sleeping bag! Peace of mind if trapped outside in cold conditions overnight.
2.    Super warm top:    Again, you should be looking for maximum performance with minimum weight and bulk here. Down or high performance synthetic fill jackets fit the bill perfectly squishing down to almost nothing but keeping you extremely warm when worn. Your super warm top should be kept in it’s own waterproof brightly coloured and labelled bag so it can be easily found down there in the depths of your rucksack, only seeing the light of day in an emergency, during an extended stop or at much colder times of the day. If stuck out all night it’ll really turn the tables in your favour when worn inside a blizzard bag. Such an extreme garment should have a hood for maximum warmth and if it’s sole purpose is as a last resort layer then buy a size bigger than usual to allow for extra layers underneath.
3,4 & 5.    Lastly, right at the very bottom of your rucksack is a mysterious waterproof bag containing a full change of clothing, only to be opened in a dire emergency. A full change of clothing sounds like a bulky and heavy over indulgence for a day bag and not everyone goes to such lengths. In fact this part of my kit is only included if the weather is absolutely horrendous, if I’m heading well off the beaten track or if I’m planning on staying out for a couple of days. However, when you’re out all day at the mercy of the elements, even expensive waterproof clothing has been known to give up the ghost and let moisture in. You may even slip into a cold river and get a soaking! Despite sounding like a bulky package, a full change of clothes can be trimmed down to the bare essentials. A full set of wool thermals, spare warm socks, gloves, a balaclava, and a windproof suit made from para-silk or pertex squashes down to a surprisingly small package and will provide a warm, dry and protective layer next to the skin. With your super warm jacket on top you’ll be back in the game in no time.
For walking on steep, snow covered ground you’ll also need various specialist equipment such as crampons, an ice axe, snow shovel and avalanche probe but really, anyone needing to carry this kit should book themselves onto a winter mountaineering skills course first as the knowledge gained here WILL save your life. Check out Rob's site for just such a course. Rob’s an absolute diamond of a bloke – you’ll be in safe hands!
Hopefully the above advice will be of use to you. Enjoy the season!



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