Cold Weather Bug-Out Survival Lessons

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One of the fantastic advantages of living in what James Wesley, Rawles often refers to as the American Redoubt is the ample opportunity for full-spectrum training in some of the roughest terrain in the United States. In the Flathead Valley of Montana in particular, preppers and survivalists abound, with the organizational help of Stewart Rhodes and Oath Keepers, Chuck Baldwin and Liberty Fellowship, and my own Montana Safe Haven Project, liberty minded residents here are surrounded by an atmosphere of independence and self reliance. If you want to completely immerse yourself in the survivalist dynamic, this is one of the best places to do it.

Spring is now breaking through the winter snows, and soon even more training will be possible, but during the icy months I did get an opportunity to engage in some hands-on practice with a team of people in what I feel is probably the WORST possible scenario for the prepper; the cold weather bug-out.

The bug-out strategy in general is for all intents and purposes a last ditch effort at survival. It is used only when a collapse is at its apex, your homestead is under siege or at risk of being overrun, or when your secondary retreat location is compromised and unsafe. During wintertime, the danger is increased tenfold by multiple factors, including:

Limited Mobility: There are ways around it, but usually snow and ice make bugging out, especially on foot, a real headache.

Limited Food Sources: Is wild food still available? Yes. But nowhere near as easy to gather than in warmer seasons. Without intense preparation for a winter bug out, you will starve.

Warmth Dominates Time: In a rushed escape into back country during winter, the desire to stay warm will rule over almost every decision you make, and can eat up precious hours of the day better spent gathering food and planning a defense. It is a distraction you cannot afford.

Fire Building Frustrations: In the event that you are lucky enough to not have to worry about light discipline, snow covered forests can still make fire building an exhaustive affair. With wet or buried tinder, rock solid frozen ground, and difficult mobility, just putting together an adequate blaze could be maddening. After your fire is started, keeping it fed through the night can lead to limited rest and eventual sleep deprivation.

Condensation: This is the arch nemesis of the survivalist in the middle of a winter bug-out. Forget wolves, bears, and hungry hordes of the unprepared roaming the hills; the incessant collection of water condensation on clothing, gear, and stocked tinder, is a heat depriving force to be reckoned with.

At bottom, the methods for bug-out training we use often in the spring, summer, and fall, just don’t cut it during the winter. In places like the Redoubt, they can be shockingly ineffective. Remember, if you find yourself in the middle of a winter bug-out, you have likely hit absolute rock bottom, but the pain can be eased or even nullified with heavy planning over the course of the next six months. I recommend every prepper take advantage of the planting season not only to build their gardens but to also set aside the following provisions, just in case…

Bug-Out-Bag Upgrade

The following is a list of items that made our lives easier (or would have made our lives easier) in the rugged backwoods of snow laden Montana. If you don’t have these tools in your BOB, get them!

Best Tinder: Searching tree wells for dead wood and tinder is all fine and good, but even then, much of what you collect will have soaked up at least some condensation. You need to pack tinder that burns extra hot, or extra long, to compensate for this. The most effective tinder we used included cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, small firestarter bricks (pieces can be shaved off as needed), strike-a-fire tinder (tinder sticks that light like matches), and magnesium shavings (collect shavings into rolling paper and add a chunk of firestarter). Water proof matches and flint are a must, obviously.

Hand Axe: A good hatchet with a steel handle that is melded perfectly into the blade is a timesaver, and a life saver. Hand saws and wire saws are mostly a waste of energy.

High Grade Camp Knife: A fixed blade camp knife with a full tang along with a small knife sharpener is an absolute necessity. You will use it constantly, especially in the cold when making tinder is an uphill battle.

Waterproof Tarp: In rain or snow, your makeshift shelter will eventually start springing leaks unless you have a heavy duty trash bag or tarp overhead. Folded up, this item does not take up very much weight or space in your pack, and makes life in the woods so much more bearable.

Snow Gaiters: Even with the best waterproof boots, trudging through the snow tends to draw moisture into your pants and socks, and there is nothing worse than being stuck with wet socks in the middle of a cold bug-out. Snow Gaiters wrap around the top of your boots and bottom of your pants, providing extra protection against moisture.

Extra Socks: Most preppers have at least a couple pairs of wool socks in their pack. I recommend a minimum three pairs just to be sure.

Snow Shoes: Before heading out into the mountains for our cold weather survival training, we held an indoor class on essential items and strategies attended by a large number of people within the Liberty Movement community here in the valley. One of our primary focuses was winter mobility. Depending on the amount of snow and how compact it was, skis could be a fantastic tool for a cold weather bug out. Most of us, though, used snow shoes, which work adequately even when snow is iced over and compacted. Without snow shoes, we would have gone nowhere fast, and they are a must for any survivalist who may have to traverse icy terrain.

Biomass Stove: A “biomass stove” is just a fancy name for a portable camp stove that burns wood. For those taking a jaunt into the woods for the weekend, a Jetboil with its limited fuel canisters is fine. But for those facing a bug-out situation, a Bushbuddy or similar stove which uses fuel readily available everywhere is the correct choice. Biomass stoves also greatly reduce light and heat signatures over the use of an open fire, in case this is a concern (which it might be).

Thermal Blanket: A thermal blankets adds mere ounces to your pack and if used correctly, can help to maintain warmth consistency within your shelter. I recommend wrapping it around the inner roof of your lean-to, A-frame, or even your 4 season tent, allowing it to bounce your body heat and campfire heat back at you.

High Grade Sleeping Bag: This is perhaps the single most important item you could possibly have in your bug-out bag. More important than your knife, your compass, or even your gun. Without a sleep system rated for at least ten degrees below zero, your life after bug-out will be unmitigated hell. Even where light discipline is not an issue, keeping a fire going all night long is not fun, and destroys healthy sleep patterns. Where light discipline IS an issue, a winter bug-out is impossible without a solid sleeping bag. The primary trouble with sleep systems is the weight they tend to add to one’s pack. Spend the extra money. Get a higher end synthetic sleeping bag with lighter weight technology (some weigh only a few pounds), and a compression pack which will strap onto your BOB. Seriously folks, find the cash, and make it happen.

Plan Ahead

Bugging out without a destination (or several destinations) set up in advance is rubber-room crazy. During the warmer months this year, make it your mission to have your bug-out retreat locations squared away. Find multiple sites and take the extra time to set up each with care, while simultaneously maintaining camouflage and concealment techniques. Here are just a few suggestions that can help…

Set Up Shelter Before Hand: Make-shift shelters can do the job in a pinch, but setting up more permanent dwellings, from a lean-to or hut with all the fixens’, to a low profile cabin, is really the ideal. Survival sleep pits can be dug out while the ground is unfrozen and then covered for later use. At the very least, you can find and memorize the locations of the largest and best tree wells that can be used for expedient shelter.

Find A Water Source: Our training class chose a location that had a natural spring nearby, which was an excellent source of water. Find a stream, a spring, a well, a pond, anything, but find it well in advance of any threat of a bug-out. Set up your shelters nearby, but not too close, for better security. Make sure to bring a filtration system with you so that you can collect water on the way to your destination.

You Must Cache: The bug-out survivalist slogan should be “Cache Or Die!” Caching is truly that important, in winter even more so. Wild edibles are scarce during winter. And, snaring, trapping, and hunting are a gamble at best, at least in the first couple weeks as the prepper gets situated at his new retreat. Without several caches of food, tools, tinder, ammo, and even an extra sleeping bag, your bug-out may be short lived (and not in a good way). Imagine all the items that would ease your survival that are impossible to take with you on a bug out trek. How about a full sized ax? An extra .22 caliber rifle? Large quantities of ammo? A week’s worth of freeze dried foods? All of this and more could be waiting for you at caching sites surrounding your pre-chosen retreat if you make the extra effort now.

Build A Team: At Alt-Market, we push for people in the Liberty Movement to build communities first. The ultimate survival strategy is one that involves back-up economies, back-up trade skills, and a large number of participants working together to insulate their town, county, or state, from financial and social collapse. However, within these communities, there should be teams formed to deal with the possibility of the very worst such a disaster has to offer. Going it alone, especially during a bug-out, is a nightmare proposition.

Train A Guard Dog: During our excursions into the Montana wilderness, a great source of comfort was a large guard dog which a member of our team brought for protection. In Montana, wolves and bears are not a rarity; they are commonplace, and having the dog walking the perimeter of the camp allowed us to sleep without worry. This made me realize the incredible protection that these animals provide, even against would-be human intruders.

The common argument against guard dogs is that they can make noise and draw attention. But, with the right training, they will only make noise when you need them to make noise; to alert you to danger, or to ward off those who were hoping to use the element of surprise against you. Train your dog now for watch duty, and bring him with you if disaster rains down in your neighborhood. You’ll be glad you did…

There Is No Calamity, Only Lack Of Preparation

There is no such thing as a national or local catastrophe that cannot be survived as long as the intelligent prepper makes the right choices ahead of time. Cold weather training allowed those within our community here in the Montana Safe Haven to get a taste of the worst case scenario, make some mistakes, and learn from them quickly. The result is a stronger and more informed knowledge base to draw from, and a sense that the man next to you knows exactly what he is doing. I look at such training and preparation as a surefire investment. The advantages and dividends will undoubtedly outweigh the costs. For those who see the above suggestions as “paranoia”, all I can say is, they have missed the point.

Survivalists learn so that they do not have to fear. True preppers live in a state of tangible and sustainable calm. The ignorant live in a similar state as well, but only as long as the system they blindly believe in and embrace continues to give the appearance of functionality. Under the thin veneer of the skeptic and his happy-go-lucky lifestyle there exists the unconscious echo of dread and dead panic, ready to be unleashed at the first sign of abnormality. In crisis, they will fold and wimper, while the prepper goes on with his day as always…