Winter Over: Outdoor Survival

by Dave Hall with Jon Ulrich


Reprinted from Winter in the Wilderness: A Field Guide to Primitive Survival Skills, by Dave Hall, with Jon Ulrich. Illustrated by Dave Hall. Copyright © 2015 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press. Available wherever books are sold
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Book Lecture
Eastern Mountain Sports (Ithaca): Sunday, 12/6, 6:00 p.m.


It’s fifteen degrees outside, there’s over two feet of snow on the ground, and I’m laughing. I’ve pulled an amateur move and have begun to sweat inside my snow shelter. I know better. I’ve entered my snow trench headfirst, and in an effort to turn around so I can close my door, I’ve overheated. I could have exited my shelter and come in feetfirst, but in an act of stubbornness I’ve defied rational thought. Staying as dry as possible in a winter survival situation is one of the cardinal rules.

I’m leading a winter overnight into the wilds of central New York with a group of high school students. Our goal is for each person to solo in his or her own shelter without the aid of a sleeping bag or blanket. I’m joined by my coworker Tom Archibald (a rookie in matters of winter survival) and my good friend Suzanne Johnson. Sue has been to many of Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School classes, including a winter survival intensive. Both Tom and Sue use sleeping bags. The rest of us go without.

The students I’ve invited on this challenge are prepared. They’ve been practicing survival skills for years and have become well versed and comfortable in wilderness settings. Some have even become instructors for Primitive Pursuits, an outdoor education program I founded in 1999 in the town of Dryden.

I emerge the next morning unscathed. For one thing, I’m wearing a sensible combination of wool and synthetics, allowing me to stay warm despite the moisture. Second, I exited my shelter and was able to regulate air flow through my layers and dry out before settling down. Later in the evening, when I found myself unable to sleep, I joined several students around the fire.

Still, my situation is a telling reminder of how quickly fortune can turn on even the most seasoned outdoorsman. One misstep could mean the difference between life and death.

Why Winter Survival?

My immersion in winter survival began more than twenty years ago as a natural extension of my interest in primitive skills. As an instructor, I knew I could not ignore this topic if I wanted to build confidence while exploring the outdoors. Because the driving force behind primitive survival is that all of our needs can be met through a deep and meaningful relationship with the earth, it was necessary that I learn to meet these needs without the aid of gear or technology.

Helpful Crafts and Skills

On assignment for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine in August of 2012, Jon shadowed Primitive Pursuits’ Forest Archer program. Of all the skills he observed, he was most taken with a demonstration of knapping – the practice and art of shaping rock.

Jon watched as lead instructor Justin Sutera flaked apart pieces of obsidian to create stone carving tools. Later, Sutera used these tools to skin a groundhog. Utilizing resources the earth provided, he was able to remove the animal’s pelt in less than 20 minutes.

The deeper an outdoorsman’s bag of tricks – coupled with true hands-on experience – the more options he will have at his disposal. Our forebears met seasonal challenges not with apprehension but with confidence. The skills culled from our collective ancestry are indeed vast, and learning these will deepen your connection with nature like nothing else can.

Coal Burning

Coal burning is an incredibly important skill to master. This skill, which has been used to fashion items as large as canoes, allows you to make wooden bowls that can then be used to boil water. The importance of being able to purify water with this method should not be underestimated. I have coal-burned numerous containers and spoons over the years. With care, these projects will last for years.

The easiest way to begin a coal-burning project is to use a saw and ax. Look for sections of wood that are free of knots or other imperfections. My favorite woods for coal burning are cedar, basswood, aspen, and pine, but any soft wood will do. These materials should be dead, dry, and free of knots or cracks. In a true survival situation, you will not likely have metal tools at your disposal. In such cases, simply burn a section of wood to length and use this uncut, rounded portion for your project. (Logs are typically split in half for coal burning, but without the luxury of metal tools, burning the round is a viable alternative.)

The hardest part of any coal-burning project is getting started. To begin, place your coals in the center where you want your catch to be. These coals, with a well-directed exhale, will heat up and your project will soon begin to smolder. In no time your log will turn red with heat. Remember that you are the artist. Much like a sculptor wielding her chisel, you will determine where wood burns away by the placement of coals. Quite often the interior of your bowl will become red hot and embers will no longer be required. Burning can then be controlled by dampening certain areas. Wind can be a great ally when it comes to coal burning.

One thing to avoid is flames. While coals are relatively easy to control, flames will lick the edge of your container, rendering it nothing more than a charred piece of wood. Be careful not to go too far and burn your bowl through the bottom. Once you’re satisfied with it, scrape it clean using a stick or smooth rock.

Be sure to start your fire and your coal-burning projects as soon as you’ve established your camp. Once your fire is burning, you can get your project going and monitor its progress while tending to other matters. I once left a large split willow log out overnight with a small pile of coals in the center. In the morning, I was fortunate enough to find that my project hadn’t burned through but had converted into a functional bowl.

Pine Bark Baskets

The Eastern white pine is a gift to the survivalist. This magnificent tree can be found throughout the Northeast, the Great Lakes, and south along the Appalachian Mountains. The bark of this conifer can be removed and folded into a seamless container that can then be used for cooking or water purification. These containers can also be used directly over a bed of coals. When I use them in this way, I prefer to buffer the container by placing green sticks on the coals and my container on top. This will, however, diminish the life of your container. Unlike most barks that lend themselves to basket making, white pine bark can be removed from the tree in the winter and, once removed, is leathery and pliable, making it ideal to fold and manipulate.

The best bark to use for this project comes from either young trees or lower branches. The bark should be smooth and without damage. The older, more mature bark of the white pine is rough. I typically locate a section of bark from a branch that is at least fourteen inches in diameter and of substantial length. Using a knife, make two circular cuts around each end of your length of bark. Next, make a straight cut lengthwise connecting these circular cuts. When hammering through the bark, make sure that you’ve cut down all the way through the bark and into the wood.

This next step is helpful but not always necessary. Heat your wood next to the fire. (Heating the bark will make it easier to remove.) Be sure to turn your project regularly to ensure that all sides are evenly heated. (Removing pine bark in the winter without the aid of heat can be done, but it is challenging.) Next, using a spatula (a small, flattened hardwood stick), gently pry up a corner of your bark. Be careful not to poke through the bark! Instead, carefully use this tool to separate the bark from the wood. If all goes well, you’ll end up with a rectangular sheet.

You can fashion simple pins to secure the corners of your pine bark basket by splitting a short stick. I like to bind one end of a three-inch stick (about one inch in circumference) or find a stick that branches or has a knot at one end. This branching or knotted end will help prevent your split from going all the way through and doesn’t require any binding.


I often craft tongs because they are so useful in handling hot rocks and coals. I tend to use green wood, looking for material that’s straight, several inches in diameter, and at least eighteen inches in length. Certain woods split straighter than others. I prefer to use ash and cedar for my tongs. Once your wood is split, shove a small stone in the crack toward the base and secure this in place with a length of cord. The cord also prevents the tongs from splitting.

Snow Saws

Snow saws or knives were traditionally made of bone and wood for use in the construction of igloos. In lieu of carrying a modern snow saw, you can improvise a useful cutting tool from wood. I often use a simple snow saw that my older son made for me years ago. This tool can be crafted from split wood or a large, flat splinter from a damaged tree. Remember, too, that you can quarry and remove snow blocks from drifts using something as rudimentary as a straight stick.

Stone Tools and Knapping

Rocks, our geological record, can be used in a variety of ways to help complete certain tasks. From pounders to hammers, scrapers to sanders, they are an invaluable resource. Always remain vigilant and keep an eye out for these hidden gems. With snow cover, this can be challenging. To combat this, I typically look to stream and creek beds, steep areas, or overhangs where snow is less likely to accumulate.
Here I will focus on creating basic edged tools.

Becoming an expert at making sharp-edged stone tools can take years. With that said, it is important to understand that simple and effective tools can be made quickly in times of need. With a basic understanding of how to work stone, these wedges, simple knives, and choppers and scrapers can be made with minimal effort. This process is called knapping.

The best rocks to use for sharper-edged tools are those with a high silica content. Obsidian is a classic example of this type of stone. The easiest way to find suitable rocks is to look for dense stone that has a highpitched ring when you tap it with a rounded, hammer-like stone. The higher the ring, the better suited the rock is for making sharp-edged tools. As always, experiment. I have made tools from slate, even though sedimentary rock isn’t thought of as ideal knapping material.

Exercise caution when working with stone. If you don’t have eye protection (such as ski goggles), close your eyes before striking your rock. Once you’ve found a stone, support it either on your lap or in your nondominant hand. Using a hammer stone (a hard, rounded cobble), forcefully strike the edge with a glancing blow, directing your effort on a spot near the bottom half of your rock. Be sure to continue your motion and follow through. If all has gone well, you will release a flake from your stone. Depending on its size, this flake can be used as a splitting wedge, a chopper, or a knife. Experiment with this method of removing flakes. Adjust the angle of your strike, the angle at which you hold your larger tool rock, and the force with which you strike.

Digging Sticks

The digging stick is a simple tool used to loosen soil and extract tubers and roots from the earth. It is a hardwood stick two to two and a half feet in length that is beveled at one end. Under certain conditions it may become necessary to thaw prospective areas with a fire before digging.


Proper footwear is essential to the itinerant survivalist. Here I share three of my favorite designs.

Improvised Snow Shoes

The use of snow shoes may become necessary to facilitate travel through deep snow. Snow shoes can be as simple as lashing spruce branches underneath your feet. These are then bound near the toe. With the luxury of cordage, fancier snowshoes can be crafted out of saplings. The illustration on page 48 shows the classic Tom Roycroft design for making snowshoes in the backcountry.

Expandable Moccasins

In an issue of the now-defunct magazine Wilderness Way, Randal Jones contributed an excellent article titled “The Perfect 15-Minute Moccasin,” wherein he described a design from the Tierra Del Fuegan Indians. These people, who lived in the archipelago region south of mainland South America, adapted footwear to an unpredictable environment with an average summer temperature of only fifty degrees.

These moccasins are easy to make, and they expand and contract to receive natural insulation such as grasses and sedges. The illustration (on page __ on the book) shows how to use your foot to create a moccasin specific to your needs. (The overall pattern should be the length of two of your feet, with the lower width the length of your foot and the upper portion the width of your foot from the big toe to the little toe. Depending on the temperature, you may want to expand on this design to accommodate more insulation.)

First, fold the pattern’s heel section in half and sew these two pieces together. After placing your foot in the pattern, punch holes where your foot meets the ankle. Then fold the remaining part of the pattern over the top of your foot to where the foot meets the ankle. Last, punch matching holes in the upper portion as depicted in the illustration and lace your moccasins in a drawstring fashion.

Although these moccasins are ideally made from leather, they can be made from other materials such as car seat covers or canvas and adapted to beef up lighter footwear. I have constructed several pairs of these over the years and believe they are truly the perfect moccasin. I often add uppers to my design, transforming them into a mukluk-style shoe.


When Ötzi the Ice Man, whose remains date back to the late Neolithic period, was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in September of 1991, he was wearing leather shoes insulated with grasses. This grass layer was held in place with a net. (Because his footwear was insulated with hay, Ötzi was thought to have been a migratory herder.) Such an intricately designed piece of footwear reflected the ingenuity and needs of a people who lived in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

With Ötzi as my inspiration, I once crafted a handmade net and filled this with grasses to bolster the poor footwear of one of my students. As a means of comparison, we insulated one foot and left the other in her sneaker. The results were alarming – the bundled foot was warm and comfortable, whereas the noninsulated foot was significantly colder. Netting is an age-old skill found across the globe. Once understood, making netting is a relaxing process that results in a craft that has many uses.


  1. Fashion a coal-burned bowl and pine bark container, and then experiment boiling water in each. Which is easier to construct? Which is more durable? Which is better suited for travel?
  2. Assemble footwear during a simulated situation involving a stranded vehicle. First, remove the cover from a seat cushion without the aid of a knife. Secure this in place with cordage or netting and fill with grasses or other insulation. Then walk a mile over snowy, uneven terrain and record the results.
  3. Visit a nearby creek or stream and survey the area for rocks that are suitable for boiling and knapping. Are such rocks abundant in number? If you are not able to locate rocks with a high silica content, experiment with knapping sedimentary rocks such as shale. Put the resulting flakes to use trimming meat, skinning game, or slicing edibles.

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