Sunday, December 30, 2012

Your Shelter System - Clothes, Shelter, Fire

Shelter, and keeping a normal temperature (usually warmer than outside), is something that the lack of can kill you within hours from hypothermia.

Shelter breaks down rather conveniently into three areas: what you wear, what you erect around you, and how you heat it.
Survival Rule One Of Clothing: Cotton Kills.
We all wear it, from head to toe, underwear to outerwear, and for our modern, climate-controlled world, it’s spiffy. Venture out where it’s wet or cold and the love affair with cotton may become a tragedy – for you. Yes, it’s washable, durable, and readily available. But it doesn’t wick moisture, it absorbs it. Like a sponge. And then drains it very slowly. When it’s cold, that moisture robs you of heat a dozen times faster than cold dry air. If the temperature becomes low enough, the water in the cotton fibers freezes, providing you with a hard armored shell, and in a truly life and death environment, besides making you walk like the Tin Man in a rainstorm and robbing your energy, than icy wet cotton exoskeleton will probably also be the last blanket you every sleep under, never to wake up again.

Before modern material science allowed chemists to concoct wonder garment materials at will and by design, man had to rely on nature. The proto-examples he selected were, from inner to outer, silk, wool, and leather.
Silk makes an excellent skin layer, because it’s strong, comfortable, and pulls moisture on your skin, like sweat and condensation, away from it, but releases it as well as at wicks its. Silk breathes, and moves wherever you do with ease. The only three drawbacks to silk at all are expense, scarcity, and lack of durability. Nonetheless, it’s still used today, found at all the spiffier backpacking and hiking stores, and every synthetic fiber base layer is trying to improve on silk. The modern go-to fiber is polypropolene and more recent formulations.

Next, an insulation layer was ideally composed of wool. Wool traps air. Air movement is what conducts heat out from your body. What makes wool great, besides coming off of sheep and other animals by the bucketload, was the fact that it still worked when wet. Currently, it’s heavy, expensive, and scratchy, but it’s still used for sweaters, socks, gloves, shirts, pants, and outercoats by nearly every military force of the planet, because it’s durable, available, and effective. Nowadays the best artificial wool is polyfleece.
Your outer layer needs to shed or repel outside moisture – rain and snow – while hopefully letting your own moisture out without letting the outside moisture in. If only one is an option, keeping water out was the preferred choice. So properly tanned and dressed leather filled that task.  Later, vulcanized rubber coatings on canvas served. Currently, the wonder fabric is Gore-tex and later similar functioning materials, which let perspiration out, while keeping precipitation outside.
Bundle yourself head to toe and inside to outside in this combination, and you won’t go far wrong. Don’t forget covering your head, hands, ears, face, and feet.

Once suitably clad, really severe conditions require the sense to come in out of the weather, because you’re burning energy faster than you can eat to replace it.

Caves, and their later relatives, building, work great for this. Vehicles may serve, but they lack insulation, making them cold-weather iceboxes, lack ventilation, making them easy to suffocate inside, and they’re hard to heat, forcing you to resort to leaving them frequently to ventilate, which then robs the heat, and the cycle starts all over again. They are much easier for rescue parties to spot though, so whenever possible, if you can’t stay in them, stay as close next to them as you can manage. Any survival book will show any number of options, from igloos and snow caves to brush lean-tos to log cabins. When snow won’t co-operate and trees are scarce, a small tent will suffice.
Add a decent sleeping bag system, with usually two bags layered, along with a bivy bag, and you’ve recreated the body layer system above, sufficient to allow you to asleep comfortably in arctic cold 20 or 30 degress F below zero. This also takes a vehicle from an icebox to a habitation. For bags, bird-feather down works great until it gets wet, then it’s worse than cotton. Modern hollow-core fiber substitutes are a bit heavier, but work even when wet. And in a nasty situation, they’re going to get wet. The bivy bag is basically a waterproof tub with a water-repellent top shell, usually Gore-tex, to minimize any water on your sleeping system, while allowing body perspiration and breathing condensation to escape outside, allowing you to sleep warm and dry, which is always my first choice.

Google and read the short story by that name by Jack London. It compellingly and succinctly explains why fire is vital. And it’s a great read.

The number of ways to make fire are nearly legion. The key elements, as any fire safety class taught you, are air, heat, and fuel.
Matches, in quantity, and stored dry, work well. So do ordinary butane lighters. You should have both.

Then we get to other methods. A small magnifying glass will work on sunny days. Flint and steel, or a metal match and magnesium block for making shavings will work at 3AM in the Arctic. So will a dozen modern variations.

Then there are the bow drill methods, which still require a sturdy knife and cooperative underbrush, or else carrying the requisite parts. Personaly, I’d rather carry the original 5 items: matches, lighter, glass, metal match, magnesium. Because they work quicker and take up less space.

Following the ubiquitous threes, your fire will need tinder, kindling, and actual fuel. Tinder tabs and military ration heating trioxane tabs work very well. A great homemade substitute is to fill a small metal bowl with petroleum jelly (Vaseline) and heat it on an electric hot plate etc. until it turns to liquid. Then take anything, hot dog tongs, clothespins, bamboo skewers, toothpicks, etc., and dunk 100% cotton balls (NOT the synthetic kind) into the liquid petroleum jelly, soaking each one thoroughly. The set each blob on a sheet of aluminum foil and let it cool and harden. Once harder, and cool enough to handle, cut 4”x4” or so aluminum squares out of the foil. One each square place a jellied cotton ball. Fold the aluminum foil over in half with the ball inside, then fold up the edges on the three open sides until you have a sealed square about 2”x2”. Folding and sealing will flatten these packets somewhat, which is fine, as long as they stay sealed. Now, in a pinch, you have however many of these you’ve created, ready to use as emergency tinder/candles. If you cut an “X” into one of the flat sides when you’re ready to use it, and tease out a few cotton threads, you have a tinder packet/candle with a wick which you can now light, either to make light, or to start the other tinder and kindling you’ve collected for your fire. I’ve had them burn for up to an hour, which isn’t bad for something 1/3rd the size of a tealight.
Which reminds me, tealights and stubby candles are also great items to include in you fire-making ensemble.
You can also provide tinder by taking sawdust, soaking it in something flammable, and packing it in an impermeable plastic or metal container.

All of these give you a way to light a fire, providing you’ve gathered some kindling (think pencil-thick sticks) and then finger- and arm-thick wood or other suitable longer-burning fuel. And since we mentioned pencil-thick sticks, another tinder tip is to carry a schoolkid’s pencil sharpener in your fire making kit. Feeding a small stick into one, and spinning out a stream of paper-thin shavings creates great tinder on the spot. As a side benefit, you can also use it to sharpen a pencil!
Provide yourself with the means to stay warm, sleep warm, and get warm, and your life expectancy just went from hours to days.

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