Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
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Cold Comforts

Learn to be a winter survivor in the Alberta wilderness

After a night of minus 30, I pulled on a pair of wool socks and started out for a walk in the snow. Then, for a moment, childhood conditioning stopped me. I thought I heard my mother's voice. "Put your boots on," she was saying.

It was still minus 10 outside, crisp enough to feel the air biting my nose. But my feet weren't cold at all. Those wool socks were working. I even tested their insulating power by plunging my foot into ice-cold water and then walked around in the snow some more.

"She's nuts," you're thinking. "Who tests winter gear like that?"

My feet, in fact, grew warmer. The ice simply froze into a shell, like a sole for my socks. I felt no discomfort.

Sock it to me
My icy experience came during a week-long winter survival course I took in Alberta. The classroom used by Karamat Wilderness Ways (P.O. Box 483, Wildwood, AB TOE 2M0; tel: 877-527-2628; fax: 780-325-2627; email:; is a row of chairs under a tarpaulin, deep in the northern boreal forest an hour and a half west of Edmonton.

Before you stop reading, because you don't travel in the wilderness during the winter, just think: what if you got lost taking a walk? What if someone in your skiing party was injured and you had to overnight in the woods? What if you were stranded in your car during a snowstorm?

Take the course and you'll live and breathe winter 24 hours a day. Like me, you'll learn that boots keep the cold water on your wet feet. But wool socks, even when wet, warm up with body heat. If you fall through the ice, those wool socks -- not high-tech synthetics -- will save your feet from frostbite.

I will survive
It's all about being a winter survivor. But survival isn't figuring out what to do when an unfortunate event happens. It's about being prepared beforehand, about knowing basic skills that can sustain you through your ordeal.

A week in the woods may sound like a lot of fun. Walking through the snow in your socks is like being a kid again, running through the grass barefoot. But there's a lot of serious information to cover here and Karamat's course touches all the essentials.

All week long students cut and collect firewood, build the fire and prepare group meals. They practice various methods for lighting a fire, using a bundle of twigs, a bowdrill or a zirconium rod.

Starting a fire in wet weather? Here's a trick I learned: dry lichens on your stomach between layers of clothing, or collect branches from the bottom of a heavily leaning spruce tree.

Light my fire
In an emergency, the best way to arrange firewood is as a series of poles laid parallel to each other and to the wind -- it's easier to light in most woodland locations. This is the kind of fire the students maintain throughout the week-long course, warming hands between lessons and cooking over it in cast iron pots.

I also know now how to build an open front lean-to with a fire wall or a quinzee, an igloo-like snow-house. Combine the fire with the shelter and you'll be warm without a sleeping bag. We spent a night testing our bough beds.


Course corrections
Build snowshoes from a black spruce tree cut down with a knife blade just the length of your palm. Learn to navigate by the stars or practice orienteering using a compass. Master complete sets of skills, like making cordage with rope whipping and twisted birch, then use it to tie essential knots. First aid, food and fasting, bush travel, trapping and wilderness hazards are also covered.

But it was the signal fire that put it all into perspective for me. The work combined knowledge of the bush, knots, construction, weather and fire-making skills. We gathered the materials and built the platforms carefully until the wooden structure was almost as tall as me. Within three minutes of lighting it all, the intricate layers of materials generated billowing columns of smoke, large enough to signal a search party or an airplane flying overhead. We stood back from the smouldering pillar, watching it swirl into the sky.

I realized then that the things we collected from the bush -- and what we did with them -- were what would save our lives in an emergency. That was well worth taking a week out of my life to learn.


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