Knowledge from Storms: Wheel Book December 2022 Entry

Training: Cold Water Survival

Hunting and fishing can be exceptional when weather conditions are challenging. Cold water, high winds, rough seas, remote locations, and few people can make for a great adventure. But you must prepare appropriately for these late-season trips in and around the water to ensure you’re safe. 

If you or a partner falls out of a boat while duck hunting or fishing this winter, you must be capable of responding to and managing the situation. When going out on the water in winter conditions, you must be prepared to deal with incidents like Hypothermia and drowning.

Drowning is a real possibility, especially in frigid water. Humans have an uncontrollable reflex to inhale and hyperventilate when suddenly exposed to cold water. This Cold Shock Response increases the likelihood of aspirating water into the lungs and can affect anyone, no matter their swimming ability or safety gear. You can’t fight human evolution and think this can’t happen if you were to take a cold plunge.

Hypothermia is another reality when out on the water in winter and occurs when the body loses heat quicker than it can be replaced. You and your partners must be prepared to respond to this potentially life-threatening scenario. I discuss Hypothermia in more detail later in this newsletter.

Mitigating the risks inherent in cold water pursuits is prudent and smart, allowing you to focus on the activity, knowing that you’re prepared for an incident. I spent almost three decades on and under the world’s oceans with highly functioning teams. Each team member I worked with was an excellent swimmer, comfortable in the water, and pressure tested. Yet we never went out on the water in any boat or craft without a life vest, whether we were kitted up or not. 

A lifevest is cheap insurance and a way not to die dumb. If you fall out of a boat, especially wearing waders, you’ll quickly tire, fighting for your life, trying to stay afloat. You’ll also quickly burn calories making the potential for Hypothermia greater and the onset quicker. 

Rehearse your action plan as to what you’ll do if someone falls overboard. If you’re solo, determine how you’ll get back in the boat if thrown out. I know it’s not cool, but if you’re in a small boat, using the kill switch and keeping the lanyard around your wrist could save your life. 

It will be difficult to effectively rewarm a hypothermic victim in a small boat exposed to the elements unless you’ve prepared in advance. If someone goes for a swim, it’s essential to have a plan and the proper gear to rewarm the individual and perform any first-aid. 

The boat’s survival kit should be capable of managing routine medical issues along with those associated with cold weather and water-related injuries. To stack your odds of survival, the craft should have the following minimum items stored in a dry bag and secured inside the boat.

Boat Survival Kit

  • satellite communication device 
  • spare set of dry, technical clothing
  • synthetic insulated sleeping bag
  • ground pad
  • bivy sack or emergency space blanket
  • canister stove, fuel & windproof lighter
  • freshwater
  • tea or other non-caffeinated drink
  • food to include dehydrated meals
  • fully stocked first-aid kit

Having a survival kit in the boat is critical, but each person should also have a survival kit secured on them in case they get separated from the boat and can’t be recovered. Store these items in the lifevest, jacket pockets, waders, or a fanny pack. 

Personal Survival Kit

  • lifevest
  • satellite communication device
  • phone – waterproofed
  • survival knife
  • fire tinder
  • whistle
  • pencil flares
  • survival blanket or bivy
  • food bars or energy chews

Going out on the water in winter can be fun but has its hazards and should not be taken lightly. The possibility of something going wrong is low, but it can quickly become life-threatening if it does.  It’s better to be prepared and never need it than risk everything.

Gear Locker

Black Beard Fire Starter

We should all possess the ability to quickly and easily light a fire outdoors. Fires provide warmth and comfort, cook food, boil water, and can signal for help. To ensure we are capable and ready, we must select our fire-making supplies carefully so we’re confident we can strike a fire, even in inclement weather. 

I’ve used pre-fabricated fire tinder cubes for many years, but ultimately, they’d get crushed, expire, or not catch a spark or flame as efficiently as I wanted.

Blackbeard fire tinder doesn’t possess any of these drawbacks. The cotton rope is treated with a blend of odorless, non-toxic oils and waxes that easily catches a spark, is windproof, waterproof, and has an infinite shelf life.

An entire stick will burn for four hours, but I cut mine into 1-inch chunks and store a piece in my optics harness and two others in my survival kit. When I need to use some, I break apart the rope and create a nest that serves as the nucleus of the fire and quickly catches a spark from a ferro rod or a flame from a lighter.

Often, the small details determine success and failure, survival or death. Creating a fire is not my top priority in most backcountry situations, but it can sometimes be the difference. Choose your fire-making materials carefully and train regularly to ensure they will perform when you need to deploy them.

The Closet


The burning pins and needles sensation stopped after 30 seconds. A few agonizing minutes later, my body began limiting blood to my extremities, making my hands and feet feel like blocks of wood. Deep breathing helped me settle into a zone after five minutes. 

The call of “time” at 15 minutes woke me from my trance, and I stumbled awkwardly from the frosty Gulf of Alaska up the beach like a drunken sailor 50 meters to the tree line. 

Research scientists scrambled to scan data from the RFID chip I’d swallowed an hour earlier as my clothes iced over, and I struggled to put on my puffy jacket and pants. The corpsman checked my pupils, asking for a verbal OK. I mumbled something incoherently back and continued with my rehearsed process of setting up my tent and getting out of the elements. 

I put myself through this ordeal during a cold-weather symposium sponsored by the military. Scientists and researchers gathered to debate the merits of various methods of rewarming hypothermic victims in remote field settings. 

I was one of several volunteers exposed to cold water immersion to lower our core body temperature so the scientists could exercise their various rewarming methods. Some proved impractical for remote settings with no medical assistance, but all were effective. I was glad I had medical professionals on-site to monitor us, and I would never recommend anyone try something similar. 

Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition where the body loses heat quicker than it can replace it, and your core temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. During the training protocols at the symposium, none of us had our core temperature drop below 96, so we were technically not at the level of Hypothermia, but damn, was it debilitating.

The signs and symptoms of Hypothermia are shivering, slurred speech, confusion, lack of coordination, drowsiness, and a weak pulse that can eventually lead to a coma and death.

When out in cold weather, we need to be aware of these signs and symptoms and have a plan to confront them. One excellent way is to wear a clothing system that will perform in the worst conditions, keeping you warm when wet and able to manage moisture and dry quickly in the field. 

Another way to combat Hypothermia is to get out of the elements, helping to slow the loss of body heat, giving your clothing system time to perform. A tarp, bivy sack, space blanket, tent, or improvised shelter becomes critical to survival. 

Finally, you need to generate body heat and reverse the cycle of heat loss. Fueling your body with calories becomes crucial to stoke your metabolic engine, and having high-calorie, easily digestible foods available is vital to this cause.

Placing warm water bottles or bladders against the patient’s legs and torso may also help to warm the patient slowly. In a worst-case scenario, a partner may need to climb inside the sleeping bag or shelter to share his body heat with the affected person.

Anyone suspected of suffering from Hypothermia should be treated carefully and not allowed to walk around, sit up or be active even once they’re warm. Call for assistance or take the patient to proper medical attention as soon as possible. 

Everyone going into the wilderness or out on the water, especially in winter conditions, should take a first-aid course at a minimum and preferably a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. You can never be too prepared, and heading into remote areas, demands you are ready for adverse contingencies.

Winter is a great time to be outdoors, but the environment poses some challenges. Dismissing them or thinking it can’t happen to you is ignorant. The best way to avoid severe issues is to be aware and prepare accordingly to confront them. 


Mindful Hunter Podcast Ep. 90 – Student of the Game

Listen Now

Jay Nichol and I discuss the gear and mindset required for cold-weather whitetail hunting before he departs on a mid-November hunt in Alberta. 

Beyond the Kill Podcast 419- Late Season System Principles

Listen Now

Adam Janke has me back on his podcast to discuss late-season system layering for the stand hunter. We also share our thoughts on Defining Success which becomes quite spirited.

The Word: Stoke The Fire

I remember wondering if that were the last bugle I’d hear for the season. The thought depressed me; I wasn’t ready. I’d spent the last 11 months preparing for the season, and it was over after just 20 days in the elk mountains.

I had a fantastic season by most measures finding success in Utah and at full draw a few times in Montana. I’d been in and around elk most days which is always a win. I called in a couple of nice bulls and almost got walked over. Staring face-to-face at a drooling, rut-crazed elk at five yards is intense. Nothing taps into your caveman DNA like chasing giant, screaming beasts through the mountains with a stick and string.

I felt intimately connected with the natural world and was dejected that I wouldn’t experience that depth again until I stepped back into those mountains next fall. I also got to share camps with good friends, torched a partnership, and embraced solitude and my instincts while hunting solo. 

As I begin building my training and improvement plan this winter in the comfort of my home, the animals will continue their fight for survival. This slow period is a time of opportunity to begin building upon past experiences. There’s no time to hibernate, getting dull and soft. 

The pages of lessons learned and observations from the season will inform my efforts. The wild creatures we pursue demand our best efforts year-round, and I plan to emerge more capable, deadly, and wiser in the spring. 

The days we spend with the animals we pursue are finite, and time has expired on my season. I’m using the mental residue from those intense encounters to stoke my fire for the winter ahead. For those obsessed, there’s no off-season.