Water in Cold Weather Survival Situations

Andrew’s Note:  Today we present another lesson from our Military Pedagogy series.  This discussion, from FM 21-76, the U.S. Army Survival Manual [Approved For Public Release; Distribution is Unlimited] is on Water in Cold Weather Survival Situations.  While written by the Army for Arctic survival, much of the information presented is applicable to any cold weather survival situation.


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. (more…)

Fire in Cold Weather Survival Situations

Andrew’s Note:  Today we present another lesson from our Military Pedagogy series.  This discussion, from FM 21-76, the U.S. Army Survival Manual [Approved For Public Release; Distribution is Unlimited] is on the importance of fire in cold weather survival situations.


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 trees.

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.

CAUTION:  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, and 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 poisoning.
  • 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.

Cooking Fire and Stove, Figure 15-7

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.

Cold Weather Survival Shelters

Andrew’s Note:  Today we present another lesson from our Military Pedagogy series.  This discussion, from FM 21-76, the U.S. Army Survival Manual [Approved For Public Release; Distribution is Unlimited] is on Cold Weather Survival Shelters. 


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 generate. (more…)

Medical Aspects of Cold Weather Survival

Andrew’s Note:  Today we present another lesson from our Military Pedagogy series.  This discussion, from FM 21-76, the U.S. Army Survival Manual [Approved For Public Release; Distribution is Unlimited] is on the Medical Aspects of Cold Weather Survival.

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. (more…)

Top 10 Names for Winter Storms, Suggestions for the Weather Channel

You may have read earlier this week that the Weather Channel has decided to begin naming winter storms.  As you may be aware, the National Hurricane Center names tropical storms and hurricanes but this is the first time a private media company in the U.S. will name weather events.  Their thinking is that “a storm with a name is easier to follow, which means fewer surprises and more preparation.”  We thought we’d get a jump on the competition and suggest our Top 10 Names for Winter Storms (really 19 but who’s counting):

  1. The Big Chill:  Good name for either a Nor’Easter or Hillary Clinton’s next layover at the home she shares with Bill
  2. Frosty:  For obvious reasons
  3. S.H.O.E.:  An acronym for Stay Home Or Else.  This would be a good name for any storm that drops snow South of the Mason Dixon line.
  4. Vanilla Ice:  Sure to be a quick storm that unexpectedly shows up for another 15 minutes (of fame) every few years
  5. Ice-T:  Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time that Ice-T has graced the pages on Prepography.  Check out what Ice (as I presume his friends call him) said in an interview a few months back about not wanting to be the only one without a gun. (more…)

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