Knowledge from Storms: Wheel Book March 2023 Entry

I’m switching up the Knowledge from Storms Wheel Book format this month. The KFS platform is intended to provide a depth of information you can’t find elsewhere, along with lessons learned through trial and error to help us all become better Students of the Game.

I presented a seminar in January at the Wild Sheep Foundation annual convention in Reno, Nevada. I chose to speak on Cold Weather Mountain Survival to match the convention attendee’s interests. I have a wealth of knowledge in this area and possibly a different perspective on this topic than most.

I want to share a truncated version of that presentation in this month’s newsletter. Of course, you’ll not get to enjoy my frequent tangents or the conventions energy, but this is the next best thing to being there. For those interested, I’m providing seminars at the biennial Pope & Young convention in Reno, Nevada, in mid-April.

Cold Weather Mountain Survival

The conditions were clear and calm as I hiked into the mountains. But the weather far north of the Arctic Circle is always unpredictable and can’t be trusted, especially in early September. After a full day of hiking, I was committed, set up camp, and started glassing for sheep, spotting a few young rams and some scattered ewes. 

In the morning, I climbed out of the tent into a dense, wet cloud bank. Visibility was poor, maybe 60 yards, with fog to the deck. Hoping it would clear off by daylight, I made breakfast and filled up on coffee. 

Photo Courtesy: Eastmans Hunting Journal

For the next seven days, the weather never improved but only worsened. Schizophrenic, it alternated between fog, rain, sleet, and snow covering everything in a thin veneer of ice. The dew point in the air was saturated, making for a damp, uncomfortable climate. 

Each morning I’d depart with the hope of climbing out of the mist or finding a passing clearing to spot white sheep in an ever-increasing white landscape. Getting back to the tent, I’d strip off my rain gear and climb inside my sleeping bag to dry my kit for several hours. 

Each morning, dry and warm with renewed enthusiasm, I’d strap back on my gear and head out for another fruitless day of hunting.

That Dall Sheep hunt in the Brooks Range of Alaska is a good example of weather conditions that challenge us to endure and survive the elements. Without the proper training, knowledge, and equipment, this could have easily become a survival situation. The remoteness, poor communications of the time, and weather could have easily conspired against my safety and my staying in the field and thriving.

For almost two decades, I was fortunate to teach outdoor professionals like the military, search and rescue teams, and hunting guides how to survive and thrive in austere mountain environments. I’ve also been lucky to hunt in remote locations on several continents to pursue personal adventures.

Like those professionals, none of us want to or can afford to be pushed out of the mountains prematurely. The goal is always to leave the mountains on your terms, not Mother Natures. 

To achieve this level of performance, you must understand how and why your kit works to keep you warm and dry. This approach is a big unlock to true self-sufficiency. Building confidence in yourself and your equipment that it will perform when truly needed in a worst-case scenario is crucial to your survival.

Defining Survival

We each have our definition of survival. Some may feel that spending an unplanned night out under a tarp constitutes a survival situation. Others may feel that a primitive living situation where you live in an improvised shelter and trap food is survival. Neither is wrong. 

But to me, survival is simply the ability to endure the challenges of the wilderness. You must be capable of enduring the elements with limited resources if you expect to find success and thrive in the mountains, especially during an unplanned contingency. 

If you do things correctly and get a bit lucky, you’ll hopefully never face a true life-or-death survival situation. But just like the sheep hunt in Alaska, if you want to be safe and intend to hunt the mountains regardless of conditions, you must understand how to endure and hopefully thrive in conditions that others may cower from or become a victim. 

Most true survival situations are preventable if you’re prepared. Sure, you may not be comfortable, and it may be inconvenient to be caught away from camp overnight, but you shouldn’t be fighting for your life. We can’t control lightning, grizzly bears, the weather, or a broken ankle, but we can control our preparation and training.

Exposure to the elements is the most likely and common scenario threatening your safety in the backcountry. Each year people strike out into the wilderness unprepared, setting themselves up to become a victim. The good news is with planning and preparation, you can build in levels of safety and reduce your chances of becoming a statistic. 

It was mid-October in far northern BC, and the wranglers had been rounding up the horses for several hours that morning. The weather was just above freezing with light, persistent rain. As they started coming back into camp, we noticed one of the guys was shivering and not his usual jovial self. The wrangler was completely soaked as he hadn’t brought rain gear, thinking they’d be back in camp sooner. Realizing the situation, we brought the wrangler into the small cabin without much argument. He was out of it and needed attention to avert a bigger issue. He was on the verge of Hypothermia. As a reminder, Hypothermia is when your body can’t generate body heat quicker than it’s lost, and your core temp drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. 


We stripped him down, got him a change of clothes, and fed him warm drinks and some hot food. You could see the spark come back into his eyes as his core temp warmed. After several hours of recovery, we got on the trail and headed toward civilization.

If this incident had occurred high in the mountains while living in small tents with fewer resources, the situation could have turned out much differently. It was an unforced error by the wrangler that could have cost him dearly.

Lessons Learned

I’ve got pages upon pages of lessons learned scribbled in wet notes pads, on my computer, and compiled in journals. Out of all those, here are the top four lessons I’ve learned to help you survive in the wilderness.

  1. Clothing is your first line of defense against the elements. The show is called Naked and Afraid because if you’re naked in the mountains, you should be really afraid. Clothing allows you to live outside in frigid weather, protecting you from the elements and helping to regulate body temperature. Without the proper clothing and an understanding of how it works, you’d not survive very long outdoors in cold weather.
  2. You need to understand how your body loses heat so that you can effectively counter those forces to stay warm and dry in any conditions. 
  3. Know your survival priorities and have a plan of action to execute them quickly. The better you understand these priorities, the more likely you’ll be able to manage an emergency, turning a potential tragedy into a great story to tell for years around the campfire.
  4. Lastly, you need to aggressively train with your gear to ensure it meets or exceeds your expectations for how and where you use it. Don’t trust your life to others’ opinions and recommendations.

Mechanisms of Heat Loss 

As mentioned, you must understand how the body loses heat to counter those forces to regulate body temperature best. We lose body heat in four basic ways; radiation, evaporation, convection, and conduction.


Fueling your body with food and water generates body heat that freely radiates away to the atmosphere. Clothing and shelter help slow and manage this heat loss. You want to be stingy and use body heat to your advantage, as it’s the most reliable source of heat you have when outdoors. Windstopper layers, puffy jackets, and beanies help manage your body heat. 


When your skin is damp from sweat or wet clothing contacting it, you lose heat as that moisture evaporates. Evaporative heat loss occurs far quicker than when we’re dry, losing heat only through radiation. This evaporative process helps cool you in hot weather but has a negative effect in the cold. This is why a base layer is foundational to a clothing system, efficiently managing moisture on your skin and drying quickly. 

Photo Courtesy: Jay Beyer Imaging


The wind quickly strips away heat from your body through convection. Convective heat loss is compounded when you’re damp from sweat or are wearing wet clothing, say, after climbing to the top of a ridge and wetting out your base layer. That’s why it’s critical to be able to dry out your clothing efficiently and seek shelter from the wind with wind-blocking clothing and shelter.


When your warm body, generally at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, comes into contact with colder objects like the ground, trees, or rocks, you lose heat through conduction. That’s why it’s important to insulate yourself from the cold ground when sitting down and glassing, sleeping, or in an improvised shelter riding out a storm or an unplanned night out. 

Two friends and I were attempting a big alpine climb in Alaska. The route would take us two days or more, and the technical difficulty was manageable but sustained. We needed to climb as light as possible but also manage at least one night on the mountain, so anything unnecessary was left behind. 

After 18 hours of sustained effort, we got to the first semi-flat area large enough for us to sit down. After donning puffy jackets and pants, we began digging and chopping out platforms to sleep on. With our efforts, we generated sufficient body heat, then rolled out foam ground pads and slid into 20-degree sleeping bags. 

We each snacked and finished our water as snow melted in the cook pot. Soon hot dehydrated dinners were being consumed, and we settled into our perch 2500′ up the frozen ridge. 

I’m not going to tell you it was the most pleasant night I’ve spent under the stars, but it wasn’t the worst. Because we slept tethered to the mountain, we couldn’t move around much or sleep on our side, but we weren’t unduly tortured by the cold. We had everything we needed and nothing more to endure the frigid air. 

We had purposely placed ourselves in a precarious position, and it was incumbent on our survival to stay warm, manage our fuel intake and maintain sharp cognitive functions to make good decisions. In the morning, because of limited experience with the weather in that mountain range and the intimidating remote environment, we backed off the climb, executing 18 technical rappels. The ability to function and make good decisions was vital to surviving that decent.

Understanding the body’s mechanisms of heat loss and our survival priorities allowed us to endure the cold adequately enough for our intended purpose and stay combat effective. For those unprepared, that open bivy and the long retreat could have become a fight for survival.

Survival Priorities 

You can do everything correctly and still find yourself in a predicament. Shooting an elk at last light or getting caught in a cliff band hiking back to camp in the dark can find you spending an unplanned night out. For the unprepared, this could become a fight for survival. But for those who are prepared, this uncomfortable situation simply becomes a learning opportunity. 

You can remember the survival priorities as the Rule of 3’s. Three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. 

When caught out in a storm away from camp, the first priority should be to seek shelter from the elements. Immediately protect yourself from heat loss with clothing, then find or construct a suitable shelter to get out of the wind and precipitation. Once this is achieved and things stabilize, try to consume some calories to stoke your metabolism and generate body heat. 

If you think you’ll be on the mountain for more than several hours, think through how you’ll collect more water. Hydration allows your body to efficiently thermoregulate itself and, along with a bit of food, keeps your cognitive mental functions sharp to make good decisions. 

Natural food sources should never be passed up if easily acquired, but not at the expense of seeking shelter or procuring water. The reality is we can go a long time without food, although it may not feel good. Any food you have in your pack should be conserved. In this situation, food becomes fuel for your body and mind and should be managed the same way you manage fuel in your vehicle. 

Notice I did not mention fire. Fire is not a survival priority, especially if you understand how to utilize your internal combustion engine and clothing to stay warm. 

If your first actions are gathering wood to try and make a fire while exposed to the elements, you’re risking your life. Poor weather often creates difficult or near-impossible conditions to create a fire. And if a fire is struck, it often provides more psychological warmth than actual warmth. 

In poor weather with damp wood and precipitation, the most heat you’ll get from a fire is usually from the physical effort it takes to gather the wood and achieve combustion. If you’re stuck on the mountain for a prolonged period, managing your energy reserves becomes crucial and should not be squandered.

If you try to make a fire before seeking shelter and stabilizing the situation, you may lose the primary opportunity to get warm or dry out. Once the situation is stable and reasonable, gathering wood and building a fire is a good course of action. But if your entire survival protocol is to build a fire, I think you’re setting yourself up for failure or worse.

A buddy was going in to pull a tree stand over an unproductive bear bait in Northern Idaho. The weather was snotty, with intermittent rain and snow, but he only intended to be gone from the truck for a few hours. When he got to the tree stand, he noticed large fresh bear tracks and decided to hunt the bait for a few hours and see what showed up. 

Well, my friend didn’t have the proper clothing to sit around stationary while he got cold and damp from the precipitation. After an hour or so, he realized that he was shivering and beginning to lose his concentration. His thoughts immediately went to getting down and starting a fire, but the several inches of wet slushy snow covering the ground dissuaded him from that line of thinking. 

He was only an hour from the truck, and if he didn’t get to hiking, he might never make it back. So he put on any remaining clothes and began hiking back, generating body heat and improving his situation while getting closer to the trailhead. 

He told me later that he might not have made it out if he had taken the time and effort trying to build a fire. His hands were numb, his mind cloudy, and he was going downhill quicker than expected. Unfortunately, my buddy didn’t have a tarp or the ability to make a shelter as darkness approached, and he made the right call to improve his situation.

Cardinal Rules

After 30 years in the mountains, climbing, skiing, hunting, and training thousands of guys how to live and thrive in austere environments, I’ve established some Cardinal Rules for the backcountry. 

You must stay as dry as possible and take each reasonable opportunity to dry out your clothing. 

When you get to the top of a ridge damp from sweat, put on your puffy jacket to capture body heat and use it to dry the base layer on your body. Don’t throw wet clothing into a pile at night in the tent to be managed the next day. Wear it to bed or dry it around a campfire.

– Your body is the most consistent and reliable source of heat you have when outdoors. 

This metabolic engine runs on food and water to fuel you, just like your truck runs on gas. Carry what you need, conserve it, and be stingy with body heat.

– Pack some type of shelter or know how to make an improvised shelter. 

Carry a tarp, emergency bivy or paracord, and a knife to make an A-frame. Shelter is your number one priority, and a bunker to seek refuge from the weather.

– Always try and improve your situation. 

If your camp is in a poor location, move it. If the glassing knob is exposed to weather, move or set up a tarp. When fighting to stay warm, move to generate body heat. Hike closer to camp or the trailhead if things start unraveling. 

 Be prepared to stay an extra 24 hours out away from camp.

Now, that’s not to say to bring a lot of gear but have the knowledge and a few basic items to sustain yourself. Knowledge weighs nothing. The more experienced you have, the less you’ll need to carry. If you shoot a buck at last light and need to wait till dawn to hike back to camp, be prepared with the basics to endure the night.

Don’t get too nutritionally or physically depleted. 

If you wait too long to dry out, warm up, feed yourself, or get back to camp, you may be too far gone to self-rescue. It’s better to take frequent breaks to hydrate, eat and rest than to push for several hours and deplete yourself. If a contingency occurs when you’re at your lowest level, you may not be capable of responding to the challenge.

A fellow winter warfare instructor took a squad of guys into the mountains for a training exercise. My squad was skiing up a valley several miles to the south, and the intent was for all squads to meet at a link-up point in three days. 

The weather was brutal, with high winds, poor visibility, and bitterly cold temperatures in the teens. As the instructor’s squad moved up the valley, they took a route up a frozen creek bed for ease of movement and to conceal themselves from the weather. He was in the back of the patrol when suddenly he plunged through the collapsing ice, going armpit-deep into the rushing water below. 

Drenched and lucky to be alive, he was helped out of the hole and scrambled onto the snowy creek bank. Not having much time, the squad immediately started implementing their survival protocols. The instructor put on his puffy gear directly over his wet clothing. Two guys grabbed his pack and set up the tent, while others got the sleeping bag and ground pad inside. One person started the stove and got snow melting while the others set up their tents in a safe location out of the elements. 

Photo Courtesy: Jay Beryer Imaging

Seeking shelter, the instructor crawled inside the tent and sleeping bag to reverse the heat loss he was experiencing. Several hours later, he was warm and beginning to dry out. With the situation under control, he just needed time to dry all his kit. The group spent the night in their improvised camp, and the following morning, warm and mostly dry, the instructor decided to continue the patrol. 

This incident could have easily become a tragedy, but because he and the others were well-trained and had practiced if something like this were to occur, it simply became a setback.


The only way to know if the clothing and equipment you’ve assembled and your skills are up to the task to meet your expectations is to test them aggressively. Testing is much different from merely wearing or using your kit. When testing, you’re trying to prove or disprove a theory or test a performance metric, then set a testing standard and criteria to measure against.

You don’t want the first time you get your system wet in cold weather to be when you fall out of the raft on a moose hunt in Alaska and realize it won’t dry out or keep you warm. At that point, you may truly be in a situation where you’re fighting for your life.

Survival in the wilderness all comes down to your planning and preparation. We head into the mountains for the challenges and rewards it provides. Our responsibility is to be as knowledgeable and prepared as possible to meet the indifferent and harsh demands of the backcountry. 


Outdoor Class – Backcountry Mission Planning

Outdoor Class, and I have released my first online course. This course has been a ten-year goal, and I couldn’t be more proud. Backcountry Mission Planning is 16 chapters, draws on my 30+ years of experience, and focuses on preparing you for the upcoming big game seasons and becoming a more knowledgeable Student of the Game.

Use code BARKOW20 to receive 20% off an annual Outdoor Class membership and get access to all the courses available on the Outdoor Class website.

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Hunt Talk Radio

I join Randy Newberg, Dustin Roe, and Steven Drake @stevendrakephoto at the annual Wild Sheep Show live from the Sitka Gear booth. We discuss our scariest hunts, the one thing we never head into the backcountry without, and how physical comfort allows you to hunt your best. 

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