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Finding Warmth in Cold Places

A snow shelter (called a quinzee) a group of children and parents made in my class.

Shelters come in many shapes and sizes. For the outdoor adventurer, there are easy and simple ways to stay warm in the outdoors....and it may come as a huge surprise that hypothermia is the #1 killer in the outdoors.

Clothing is our first line of defense. We want to dress in proper layers of the right materials:

  • Base layer (or wicking layer)- This layer is to be up against your skin to wick sweat away from your body. Materials: wool, silk, synthetics. ex- long johns.

  • Insulation layer(s)- These layers are what keep you warm! These could be made of down, synthetic, and wool. The key with these layers is to size them properly so that they fit you right. I always bring "too many" of these layers, just in case. ex- down puffy or wool sweater

  • Environmental layer- This would be a rain jacket/pants. Make sure this fits over EVERYTHING. You may be a size medium overall but choose to get this layer in an XL. Make sure this is a quality piece of gear, if I'm going to spend any money on something, it will be this layer.

Its always a fine balance between how many clothes we can bring, and the weight we want to carry. I would rather spend more calories carrying a few extra ounces of clothing during the day, than shivering at night.

Beyond clothing, we may choose to bring a quality TARP, SLEEPING BAG, or SLEEPING PAD depending on our adventure. But I'll be honest...I never carry these on day hikes or when I am not planning on spending the night.


Let's say we went on a turkey hunting trip together in late April. We would bring our weapons, camo clothing, our necessary hunting gear (licenses, turkey calls, decoys etc.), and maybe a few snacks along with water bottles, as we are only planning on being there until 12 pm. I frequently hunt in areas with no cell service so let's add that to the scenario as well. I am your new hunting buddy and I told you about a secret spot with tons of turkey tracks 2 miles down a trail and another half mile off trail. Excited, we head off not telling anyone where we are going as we only expect to be gone until the early afternoon.

I bet you may have already picked up on a few things we could have done better right? This scenario happens all the time and USUALLY folks are completely fine and everything goes according to plan.

We end up getting turned around, never finding the spot, and get lost. We hike around all day looking for the trail, only to get ourselves more lost. Its about 3pm and you suggest that we start making a camp for the night instead of looking for the trail in the dark. We did not bring any shelter gear or fire starters, and since April is a wet and cold month (especially at night) we will need to make a shelter.

A debris shelter is an extremely simple and easy shelter to build, even though it takes a few hours to make. It requires no tools, or rope to make.

You and I would get started on a debris shelter. This type of shelter uses only stuff we find on the forest floor and is very intuitive to make. We would find 2 "Y" sticks that are sturdy enough to hold up a long ridgepole, and only about thigh high. We want this shelter to be low and tight as our body heat will be the only thing warming it up. The ridgepole should be a bit longer than if you stood and raised your hand high. These 3 sticks would be the initial framework of our shelter. We then lay down "ribs" along the ridgepole about 2 inches apart. After this comes the hard part...gathering leaves! We need to pile up as many dead leaves, pine needles, grass, or anything else we can find. This pile should be so deep throughout the entire shelter that if we were to reach one of our arms through, we would not be able to touch the ribs until our armpit met the outer most leaves. We also need to add a bed inside the shelter to keep us off the cold ground. Sounds like a lot of work right? It is. In my 3 hour debris shelter class with 12 people, it takes almost the entirety of the class to build a proper shelter...for one person!


Getting lost in the woods happens far too often as folks head out into the wilderness, with no preparation or knowledge on what to do if things go wrong. An extremely easy and effective shelter kit would contain lightweight materials that are easy to pack and work in a pinch. Every person in your group should have the following in their pocket, survival kit, or backpack:

These three items can buy you lots of time, and save tons of calories. Pile up a decent amount of dead leaves or brush to sit on, pull the bivvy over your legs and up to your armpits, drape the emergency blanket over your shoulders, poke a hole in the trash bag right under a corner for your eyes and nose, and drape it over your head. Although you probably won't sleep well, you'll be off the ground, protected from the rain, and warm. If you need more warmth, stuff the trash bag with dry leaves or dead grass.

Hypothermia can kill a person in less than 3 hours. Avoiding getting too cold is a practice and something that one can get better at with training, proper gear, and self awareness. The colder times of the year are absolutely beautiful and should no deter anyone from heading out into the forest to enjoy the great outdoors.

If you enjoyed this read, consider taking a hands-on class with me in Colorado or Massachusetts! Thanks for hanging out! -Tim/ Owl Eyes Wilderness Survival

Please note: I receive a small percentage back if you order through the affiliate links I have listed above. I greatly appreciate your support.

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