Cold Comfort

Learn to be a Winter Survivor in the Alberta Wilderness

text and photos by Katherine Jacob,

Doctor’s Review, December 2002 edition

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 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,” your 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.


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., T0E 2M0; tel: 1 -877-527-2628 FREE; fax: 780-325-2627; e-mail: 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.

Article about Karamat Courses

Winter Course Learn-to survive: make rope, tie knots and build with wild materials you’ve collected.


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 bow drill 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.

Article about Karamat Courses

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.

Five Rules for Survival

Since the appearance of television’s Survivor, surviving has taken on all kinds of different meanings, some good, some bad.

Karamat Wilderness Ways instructor Mors Kochanski suggests these are the things you should focus on if you want to make it through your wilderness ordeal.

  • Remember that the bush is neutral. It is neither for nor against you. Your comfort depends on what you can do for yourself and how much you know about using the materials around you.
  • Stay positive. Becoming angry, depressed or unhappy does little to help your situation. Try to think positive thoughts and find ways to be thankful for what you have. When you’re not sure of what to do: stop, relax and think out the situation before you act.
  • Stay put. Moving when you don’t know where you are or where you are going will make it more difficult for others to find you.
  • Focus on the present. Your first concern when you’re lost should be to make yourself comfortable for the night. Find or build shelter from the wind, rain or snow and build a fire to warm up.
  • Stay calm. Do not let fear or panic rule your mind; this only works against you.