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PAUL SMITH: A cold night to be in the woods

Cameron Gosse chopping wood for the night’s fire.
Cameron Gosse chopping wood for the night’s fire. - Paul Smith photo

There is a bright red extreme-cold warning across the top of the weather app on my smart phone. Wednesday night the ambient air temperature is forecasted to drop to -18 C. The brisk northwest wind at the time will create a wind chill possibly as long as -35.

The warning states that there is an elevated risk of frostbite and hypothermia.

No kidding. It’s even worse for folks working and exercising outside, so if you’re out running or hiking, keep everything covered. Tips of ears freeze so quickly. The warning also mentions people without proper shelter. If you are lost in the woods Wednesday night you had better be fully prepared. I have had both frost bite and mild hypothermia. Neither is much fun.

The last time I remember a night that cold was during the winter of 2014. Actually it was March 6. I remember it so well because I slept outside in a tent with my two crazy buddies, Cameron Gosse and Robert Richards.

They are not really crazy, but lots of folks who knew we were out camping that night would not vouch for our sanity of mind. We did survive quite nicely, actually we weren’t the slightest bit uncomfortable. Well, except for going outside at 2 a.m. for a nature call.

A fire like this can save your life.
A fire like this can save your life.

That wasn’t very toasty. I rushed back inside through the tent flaps, sunk deep into my mummy sleeping back, and pulled the hood over my head. But in no time I was snoring again.

I guess appropriate shelter can actually be just a tent, or even a snow tunnel, I suppose. I have never slept in a snow tunnel but I really want to. I will if we ever get enough snow here on the Avalon.

Let me distinguish between two very distinctly different styles of winter tenting. There are hot tents and cold tents. A hot tent has a heat source inside. The setup that comes to my mind is the typical Labrador or outfitter’s canvas tent. They typically have a small wood stove with a funnel sticking out either the sidewall or the roof. My stove pipe goes through the roof.

A cold tent is just that, cold, with no stove or any sort of heating device, other than your own body’s metabolism.

Think of a simple backpacking tent. That’s what we were using on March 6, 2014.

You can only survive an extra cold winter’s night in a cold tent if you have a good quality sleeping bag. The tent isn’t keeping you warm. All it does is break the wind, so you experience the ambient temperature of the night air and not the wind chill.

Actually, contrary to what you might think, it’s necessary to keep flaps open to ventilate the tent. I learned that the hard way. With no fresh air circulation moisture from human breathing soon condenses as pure water on the tent ceiling and walls, resulting in drip, drip, drip.

Everything, including you and your sleeping bag will be soaking before the night is over. Hypothermia would be a distinct possibility.

Never go into the backcountry without an axe.
Never go into the backcountry without an axe.

I learned a grim lesson that evening of March 6, before we turned in to our high-loft down sleeping bags for the night. If not for either fire or the sleeping bag, we would have certainly perished before daybreak. I kind of knew that all along but the stinging cold of -20 reinforces theory practically into your bones.

We were seated around our campfire decently comfortable and having a few nips and a grand chat. It was nigh on midnight and our fire had been burning for about five hours atop a deep snow pack. We keep it from burning down through the snow by utilizing two layers of the greenest sappy wood that we could find.

Eventually the fire scorched down through and dropped into a deep melted hole in the snow.

Our heat source was gone. The cold set in so fast. It was scary. My clothes weren’t near warm enough to just sit there with no fire. I’m sure I would have been hypothermic in a few hours. Sitting in the woods all night without a fire to see if I would survive is not an experiment I’m keen on. We called it a night and crawled in our sleeping bags.

A fire-steel is a fantastic way to start a fire.
A fire-steel is a fantastic way to start a fire.

One might argue that enough good quality clothes are as good as a -20 sleeping bag. Maybe, but not many of us either own that kind of gear, or wear it out hiking. I have a mountain-rated down jacket and down pants that would suffice I think to sit out the night without a fire. Perhaps I’ll sit out in the yard for a while tomorrow night and see what happens.

I’m serious; I might give that a go. I’ll read a book with my headlamp. Anyway, that’s serious hard-core rags I’m talking about, the sort of stuff you would take to the Himalayas. I have it because I was planning a trip and I found the coat on sale at half price for a discontinued colour.

It’s a Marmot Greenland Baffled Down jacket, 800-fill goose down, same as my sleeping bag. I look like a blimp with it on. My pants are Patagonia’s Das pants. I could have survived the night of March 4 with that gear on.

You don’t normally have mountain and polar rated gear when you get lost in the woods. A normal snowmobile suit is nowhere near what’s needed to sit in the freezing cold all night. Neither is the sort of clothing you world wear snowshoeing, hunting, or skiing in the backcountry.

The bottom line, the difference between survival and death, is fire, plain and simple. If you have no means to start a fire and secure firewood on a freezing cold winter night in the woods, you could easily succumb to the elements. How many folks go off on snowmobiles and ATV’s with no means to chop wood and kindle a blaze. I think too many.

A while back I watched a guy from a snowmobile club give some tips on what to take with you on backcountry snowmobile outings. It was on the evening news and the emphasis was on items to fashion repairs, communications, and leaving a plan of your trip with someone at home.

These kerosene-based fire starting blocks are fantastic to coax kindling ablaze.
These kerosene-based fire starting blocks are fantastic to coax kindling ablaze.

That’s all solid advice. But he left out a few key items.

Never go into the woods without an axe, not under any circumstances, especially in winter. Did you ever try to fuel a fire all night with a knife? It will not happen. A folding saw is great but you also need the splitting ability of the axe when everything is wet and damp. Then of course you need matches or a fire-steel. I carry both. It’s also not a bad idea to have some sort of kindling material with you, like cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. You can keep them in a plastic bag or pill bottle, and they give you a solid four minutes of hot flame to get your splits crackling.

When you hear that wonderful wilderness music you are safe.

Survival in the cold boils down to self-reliance, common sense, basic woods skills, and being prepared.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock.

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