Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst
This attitude is especially important during winter outdoor activities. Pack for every winter day hike so that you will be at least almost comfortable if you end up stranded overnight.
After an unplanned summer’s night spent miles from the trailhead you may be hungry and mosquito-bitten, but after and unplanned winter’s night twenty-five feet from the shelter you couldn’t see you may not be at all. Ergo the following list.
Knowing and Knowing How
The first ‘thing’ on the list isn’t a tangible thing at all, but rather knowledge. That is because things are no good to you if you don’t know what they are, what to use them for, and how and when to put them to those uses. Knowledge in this sense is not limited to facts. Skills are just as or even more important, and many of the skills needed to take advantage of the things listed below both need to be present before you need them and are perishable. In other words, you will need to practice early and often. The know-how necessary to put a snow cave is only one example.
“Two is one and one is none.” Take more than you should need of things like food and water and of survival specific items when practical.
Redundancy holds up to and including bringing along at least one other (seasoned!) human along.
‘Kit,’ as the Brits and Anglophiles would put it! (They would also put the comma outside the single quote, but I am not going to go that far.)
fire-making kit. A basic fire-making kit consists of something which will create a spark (flint-and-steel and/or matches, for example) and tinder (such as char cloth and/or a pine knot). For my own flint-and-steel I carry a Swedish Fire Steel purchased for me as a gift after a night spent in a snowcave without a fire-making kit (brrr!) with cotton balls soaked in denatured alcohol as tinder.
first aid kit. A basic first aid kit can be purchased pre-bundled from an outdoor goods store or can be assembled at home. Again, tools get you nowhere if you don’t know how to use them, so seriously consider investing time and possibly a few dollars in a basic first aid class.field repair kit. Don’t be left adrift in drifts miles from the trailhead by a relatively easy to patch mechanical problem. msr markets a kit specific to their offerings, and if you are at all handy with bits and pieces you can put together your own. Two hints: you would be surprised at what you can do with duct tape, and you never know when a pair of pliers is going to come in handy.
knife. Don’t be without a good woods knife, if for no other reason to aid in laying out a ground pad (see below) if need be. If carrying a single knife, I recommend a fixed blade (the long tang resists breakage) with a partially serrated blade or sawteeth. The Ontario Air Force Survival model fits the bill nicely. At 5″ it is long but not too long, the blade is durable carbon steel, and the leather washer handle won’t suck the heat from your hand on a frigid winter day or night. A second smaller folder or neck knife for finer work is not a bad idea. A model with a partially serrated blade kept close at hand on your belt, shoulder strap, or around your neck will be of use should you find yourself or your gear tangled in overhang or roots or quickly needing to cut through a section of cord.
landnav. At a minimum you will need 1) the most up-to-date map possible 2) a compass 3) to know how to use both of them. Do the phrase ‘red in the shed’ and ‘terrain association’ meaning anything to you? If not, there are a number of good “for dummies”-type books available, and the Army Field Manual is not bad at all. A knowledgeable friend who is a practiced and patient teacher is best of all.A gps is a wonderful and convenient tool, but because of the potential for mechanical and battery failure should never be anyone’s sole piece of navigational equipment. And ownership of a gps is never an excuse for not learning how to use a map and compass, as that is something you need to know to take full advantage of a functional gps unit.
comms. Let at least one person know where you are planning to go and when to expect to hear back from you. Sign any and all registers you encounter. Carry a whistle. By all means carry a cell phone, but do not rely on it. Consider buying a spot tranceiver unit and subscription.
illumination. Namely, an led headlamp or flashlight. Always carry extra batteries (see below) as well as an extra bulb. You can carry along one or more light sticks/chem lights as backups, but their performance unfortunately degrades as temperatures fall.
ground pad. If you find yourself needing to hunker down for the night you’ll need to put something between yourself and the snow, lest it conduct the body heat right out of you. One option is to acquire and carry along a commercial ground pad. For the right price these are not terribly cumbersome, and ultralight packs often make use of them as an element of their suspension system. The old school option for anyone below the treeline is to gather a healthy amount of evergreen boughs to form a blanket between the snow and one’s body. There’s little reason not to be redundant if both options are available to you, of course. An insulated ground pad atop a mound of spruce boughs might almost even end being comfortable if nothing else is too amiss.
point of use water purification. Snowshoeing in powder and/or low humidity environments makes heavy hydration demands so you should be prepared to purify more water than you brought should you end up out longer than you planned. This subsection deserves a post of its own, but in short, the options for water purification include: boiling (possibly in combination with melting snow and ice for snowshoers), chemical treatment (with iodine, for example), uv treatment, and filtering.
mylar. A space blanket is cheap as dirt, takes up next to no space, and weighs almost nothing. Is there a good reason not to bring along at least one?
extra layers. An extra pair of glove liners and socks, a beanie (that’s a ‘toboggan’ or a ‘tuque’ to readers from down south or up north!), and a neck gaiter or scarf if you don’t already carry them as part of your non-survival snivel. As someone blessed with the gift of Raynaud’s, I always tote along a pair of Fox River Double Ragg Mitts and was glad to have them during a night spent in a snowcave in the Adirondacks last February. I was also glad to have brought along an extra base layer top and shirt that night as the wet items I had worn through the day began to frost up as twilight faded.
a puffy layer. A down or synthetic down alternative (such as PrimaLoft) jacket packs down small and light and of will make a world of difference if you end up having to hunker down for the night.
extra batteries. Batteries perform less efficiently when cold, so anyone making use of battery-powered equipment should carry extras and insulate them in some manner.
A special note on changing batteries in the snow: if you are on unpacked snow, pack down a small patch before you begin the process of changing out your batteries so as to minimize your risk of loosing the fresh (or spent) batteries. You might also lay down your pack or a piece of clothing for contrast should you drop any batteries while switching them out.
shake-its. I carry hand-warmers as a matter of course, again because of Reynaud’s. But anyone’s fingers and toes will appreciate them while hunkered down for the night.
crampons. If you are going into uplands where icy conditions are even a possibility seriously consider a pair of strap-on crampons. It is true that you could spend ten winters rambling in an area like the Adirondacks and never find a need to use use them. But should you ever genuinely need crampons you will need them for real!
ice axe. If you frequent uplands where the relief and snowpack conditions make self-arrest a possibility you also seriously consider toting along an ice axe. Even if you never use it to self-arrest—and let’s hope you don’t!—it will look super-cool back there.
If the above list seems a little overwhelming to you take it as a sign that you absolutely need to hit the winter trails in the company of a salty companion. It will all be second nature soon enough, and one day you will have the opportunity to fill that role.