Preparing for Winter Storms & Extreme Cold, Part One; Lessons from Nature in Resiliency

By Chris Gilmour | Nature Inspired

Jan 06
learning from nature

​What ​lessons from nature teach us about being prepared for winter storms and extreme cold?


Part one of this post will focus on lessons from nature in being more cold hardy, adaptable and prepared for extreme cold, winter storms and bomb cyclones. If you prefer to skim articles, watch for the bold text highlighting key points.

In part two (scroll to the bottom for the link) will cover winter storm preparedness tips that people often do not consider. These can take you from surviving to thriving!​

Part one of this post will focus on lessons from nature in being more cold hardy, adaptable and prepared for extreme cold and winter storms.

In part two (scroll to the bottom for a link) I cover winter storm preparedness tips that people often do not consider. These can take you from surviving to thriving!

More...

A "Winter Weather Bomb"  was one of the top news stories in Canada this week along with snow in the Carolinas and Florida. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/weather-bomb-polar-vortex-winter-hurricane-1.4471087)  A friend of mine in Cape Breton saw lightning in the middle of the blizzard.

 Record-breaking cold preceded this storm and again followed it across much of the country. The polar vortex has dropped again, something becoming more and more common. (MAKE LINK TO - http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/extreme-cold-1.4471078)

As always, I ask the question, what can we learn from this?
Introduction:
A few weeks back I sat in a tree from before sun-up to late morning, several days in a row. It was below -20 Celsius on a number of those mornings. Not only was I out in these temperatures,​  I also was not moving​ or overdressed, and it was beautiful.

A few weeks back I sat in a tree from before sun-up to late morning, several days in a row, it was below -20 Celsius on a number of those mornings. Not only was I out in these temperatures, but I also was not moving, not overdressed, and it was beautiful.
learning from nature
​One morning I had five deer walk underneath me. I literally could have jumped on any one of them. Have you ever watched Bluejays dig in the snow looking for buried acorns or had chickadees singing less than 2 feet from your head? It was beautiful and recharging to my soul.

I spent a lot of time contemplating how I have built my relationship with the cold to the point that it is no longer a barrier to my enjoyment of winter. ​Lessons from nature ​teach us about being resilient beings and how all the other creatures of the woods deal with the cold.  Here are a few reflections and tips.

​Natural Strategies & Lessons from Nature 
- Dealing with the Cold -

acorns for food
chickadees and cold
​1) Eat like the Deer, Squirrels & Birds

Why do Chickadee's prefer sunflower seeds from your winter bird feeder? For the same reason, I put butter in my coffee.
​The morning I sat for over 3 hours in -25 Celius weather, I put butter and coconut oil in my coffee. For breakfast I ate nuts and bacon ​(Vegans, replace the bacon with avocado's and more coconut oil and nuts). ​
bullet proof coffee
​It makes a HUGE difference and was what allowed me to sit still for so long and remain warm. That morning I also witnessed Bluejays & Squirrels digging in the snow for acorns doing the same thing.

A great analogy I have heard around how fat keeps us warm is to consider how we build a fire. We start with kindling (tiny little twigs), which burns hot and fast but leaves few coals. Then we ad medium size sticks. They take longer to get hot, burn a little longer, and leave a few coals. Last we add our logs. Logs take the longest to light and generate heat but they leave a bed of coals that can last for hours.

​"If you want to be more hardy to the cold and winter, learn from nature and feed your body like a fire"  #Nature #Resiliency

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​Consider sugar and carbs to the kindling. They give us almost instant energy and heat but it will not last long. If your cold, eat some sugar and it will help with short-term warmth. Remember to add the medium sticks and logs too!

Protein is like the medium size sticks. It takes a little longer to digest but gives us sustained energy and heat along with supporting a ton of other bodily functions for longer than sugar.

If you want to stay warm in extreme cold temperatures, you NEED fat, the logs of our fire, for sustained heat and energy.

Nature has many perfect synchronicities. One of these is the way that the plant parts containing the most amount of fat (seeds and nuts) start to fall as the temperature begins to drop. If you are looking for ​wildlife in Southern Ontario in the fall, find the Oak trees dropping acorns.
Four Natural Strategies & Lessons from Nature - Dealing with the Cold
I had five deer walk underneath me in one morning. I literally could have jumped on any one of them. I watched Bluejays dig in the snow looking for buried acorns. I had chickadees singing less than 2 feet from my head. It was beautiful and recharging to my soul.

I spent a lot of time contemplating how I have built my relationship with the cold to the point that it is no longer a barrier to my enjoyment of winter or safety and what nature has to teach us about being resilient beings and how all the other creatures of the north deal with the cold.  Here are a few reflections and tips.

Is it just me, or does it appear that we a giving out "extreme cold advisories" more often and at higher temperatures than the past? As an outdoors educator, enthusiast and wild human, it always saddens me a bit when I hear the news station saying, "it's cold outside, keep your children indoors", "outdoor recess is canceled due to the cold" or "avoid going outside if possible."

It was only a couple hundred years ago the people on this continent lived outside year round, regardless of the weather and the temperature. In the far North, many including youth still spend most of the winter outside. Yes, these people had shelters, but no, life did not grind to halt, and outdoor play and work still happened when it dropped into the double digits. Let's have a look at how the wildlife cope with cold and what we can learn from nature.
Part one of this post will focus on lessons from nature in being more cold hardy, adaptable and prepared for extreme cold and winter storms.

In part two (scroll to the bottom for a link) I cover winter storm preparedness tips that people often do not consider. These can take you from surviving to thriving!

​2) Study how the grey squirrel builds it's home.

​That cold morning I also reveled in how comfortable the grey squirrels seemed when they had such small bodies. Have you ever really looked at a grey squirrel nest and considered how it works?

how to stay warm
​This simple architecture is a brilliant feat that encompasses core principles of shelter and warmth. When I teach shelter building ​I like to focus on the "principals" of shelter over the intricate details of the design. At least as a starting point.
This simple architecture is a brilliant feat that encompasses core principles of shelter and warmth. When I teach shelter building in the various wilderness skills workshops I run, I like to focus on the "principals" of shelter over the intricate details of the design. At least as a starting point.

​Once you fully understand the principles of shelter ​you can apply them in any circumstance. Hot, cold, wet, dry, and any ecosystem, forest, desert, urban, arctic, etc.

There are two general places heat comes from 1) Internal heat that our body generates through burning calories. 2) External heat from the sun, fire, furnace, etc. ​When you build a shelter, you either want to design it to capture external heat, such as a furnace in a well-insulated home. Or you want it to store and maintain our bodies own internal heat​ efficiently.

​A Grey Squirrel nest uses the second method. A giant pile of leaves (insulation) creates thousands of tiny pockets of air within it. These air pockets are insulated from the outside. ​

learing survival from nature
​The interior is small, thus the squirrel's internal body heat radiates into the leaves. It heats the tiny pockets of dead air space which in turn helps maintain the internal shelter temperature. This is similar to how a down sleeping bag or down jacket works.
​Like mentioned in strategy one, the squirrel chows down on a bunch of good fat and oil before bed. This allows it to radiate internal heat for a longer period during the night.

So we can emulate this ourselves in a winter power outage or survival situation. Here are a few examples:

​- Create a squirrels nest in your house. Build a simple frame out of mattresses or tables and chairs. Then pile blankets, pillows, stuffed animals clothes, etc., both on top of and inside the pile. Stick a couple of people inside of this. ​You are likely to be toasty warm inside even in minus temperatures. ​This is how to build a squirrels nest inside your house.

- ​Another trick is to tuck your jacket/sweater into your pants. Then stuff the layer in between your coat and body with clothes, stuffed animals or even crumpled up newspaper creating your own improvised down jacket.




​3) Move like the deer and chickadee's, work with nature!

I could write a whole book on this topic, or teach a month-long course.  We can learn so much from how wild animals move in relation to their natural environment. So many things today are based on these lessons in nature. ​Martial arts moves, military and sports tactics, architectural design and more. Nature is nothing short of brilliant!
​To summarize a few observations from my morning sit, deer, chickadee and wildlife behavior in general changes with the weather. During the fall, the majority of deer activity I witnessed and tracked ​was between sunrise and early afternoon. ​There was another spike around dusk. As soon as it dropped below -20 the deer seemed to be moving significantly more during the night. They were then bedding down to sleep midday in the afternoon sun.
learning from deer
​If you are interested in learning to track deer and other wildlife, check this opportunity out, Natural Born Tracker.
The key lessons from nature here are, consider keeping moving during the coldest periods​. Especially when there is no sun to warm you. Movement creates energy which in turn creates heat. Then like the squirrels and chickadees, consume a high-fat meal before bed to maintain heat the longer while you sleep.

If you can sleep in the afternoon sun with a full belly, you will likely sleep longer without getting cold. This allows you to be more energetic to keep moving during the coldest part of the day.

Your cycle does not have to look exactly like this. If you have adequate shelter/insulation, it may be best to hunker down for the coldest part of the day or night. ​How to most efficiently use your calories throughout the day is something to ponder and observe nature to learn. 


​4) Spend more time outside and consciously acclimatize with the changing seasons.

People frequently comment on how little clothing I appear to wear in the winter. At the same time, many others are dressed up as bulky as the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters and are still cold. ​
cold training for survival
​I attribute ​my cold tolerance to ​the following:

​Building a relationship with the cold and understanding how cold I can get before I am in a danger zone. This is a VERY practical life lesson.

​Knowing how to warm myself quickly and when I need too. Many people may think they do this already. I will challenge you in saying I believe most people can allow themselves to get a lot colder than they do and still be safe and healthy. Some medical conditions and other factors could change this, but most people are likely hardy than they realize.
​This valuable life lesson happened by mistake and as a consequence of my time as a dog sled guide. I was constantly managing others in the outdoors who were often not appropriately dressed. ​


dog sledding in Algonquin Park
At the same time I was also untangling dog chains and navigating through the wilderness trails at a fast-pace. This left me little time to manage myself.
​​While guiding I would be out in -20 with no gloves because I needed finger dexterity frequently. This allowed me to learn how cold my hands could get before it was a risk of frostbite or damage. I also learned I could warm my hands by sticking them up against my belly or in my armpits in less than a minute and keep going. ​

This led to me just getting used to being cold and consequently the cold just didn't bother me anymore. Yes, I was cold, but my mind no longer associated this as a bad thing or pain. This allowed me to enjoy cold weather better and now I love winters.
​I realized how much more comfortable I became as a consequence of my job. Then I started considering if I could consciously train my body to be more cold hardy. This is when I began to look to nature for advice.

Wildlife live outside year round, they grow thicker coats for the winter because they slowly transition with the seasons. To some degree humans can do this as well.

In the fall I now intentionally underdress. I also swim in lakes well into the fall and even take cold showers. You may think this is crazy and not for you, fair enough; I get it.

​Do you want to be able to enjoy being outside in the winter and be more hardy to a winter emergency's? If so you may find this is well worth the sacrifice and time put in. I have come to greatly enjoy the cold. Does that not sound better than dreading it?

Midwinter when it drops to the low double digits I finally put on a warmer sweater or jacket. I am quite comfortable because I have slowly been adapting all fall.

If you want to dig deeper on this topic I suggest you research the two topics:

- The role of brown adipose fat in our bodies. ​Hibernating animals and babies have lots more of it them, adults. This is that fat the converts to heat.
​There is some research suggesting that adults may be able to grow their brown fat reserves to become more cold hardy.  Brown fat is a lot healthier than white fat (the bad fat). Unlike white fat, brown fat does not increase your waistline from my understanding.

- Do some research on the health benefits of cold exposure. I Highly recommend checking out this video on ​the Wim Hoff Method. It is highly researched and fascinating. You can also check out his online school.

I Hope you enjoyed some of my observations and lessons from nature in cold hardiness. There are countless more.
** If you have other observations and lessons from nature related to the cold, please share them in the comments below!
Hibernating

READ PART TWO - 8 LESS KNOW TIPS TO THRIVE

​In part two ​I will ​discuss winter storm preparedness tips that people often do not consider. These can take you from surviving to thriving!​
I attribute this to 3 things:

1) I have built a relationship with the cold and understand how cold I can get before I am in a danger zone. This is a VERY practical life lesson.

 I also know how to warm myself quickly and when I need to. Now many people may think they do this already, but I will challenge you in saying I believe most people can allow themselves to get a lot colder than they do and still be safe and healthy. Some medical conditions and other factors could change this in some people, but most people are likely hardy than they realize.

This valuable life lesson happened by mistake and as a consequence of my time as a dog sled guide. I was constantly managing others in the outdoors who were often not appropriately dressed. At the same time I was also untangling dog chains and navigating through the wilderness trails at a fast-pace. This left me little time to manage myself.

I would be out in -20 with no gloves because I needed finger dexterity frequently. This allowed me to learn how cold my hands could get before it was a risk of frostbite or damage. I also learned I could warm my hands by sticking them up against my belly or in my armpits in less than a minute and keep going. I was so busy managing others I would forget that I was cold.

This led to me just getting used to being cold and consequently the cold just didn't bother me anymore. Yes, I was cold, but my mind no longer associated this as a bad thing or pain. This allowed me to enjoy cold weather better and now I love winters.

4) After realizing how much more comfortable I became as a consequence of my job, I started considering if I could consciously train my body to be more cold hardy. This is when I began to look to nature.

Wildlife live outside year round, they grow thicker coats for the winter because they slowly transition with the seasons. To some degree humans can do this as well.

In the fall I now intentionally underdress. I also swim in lakes well into the fall and even take cold showers. You may think this is crazy and not for you, fair enough; I get it.

But if you want to be able to enjoy being outside in the winter and be more hardy to a winter emergency, you may find this is well worth the sacrifice. I have come to greatly enjoy the cold. Does that not sound better than dreading it?

Midwinter when it drops to the low double digits I finally put on a warmer sweater or jacket, and I am quite comfortable because I have slowly been adapting all fall.

If you want to dig deeper on this topic I suggest you research the two topics:

- The role of brown adipose fat in our bodies. Hybernating animals and babies have lots more of it them, adults. This is that fat the converts to heat. There is some research suggesting that adults may be able to grow their brown fat reserves to become more cold hardy.  Brown fat is a lot healthier than white fat (the bad fat), brown fat does not increase your waistline from my understanding.

- Do some research on the health benefits of cold exposure. I Highly recommend checking out Wim Hoff and the Wim Hoff Method. It is highly researched and fascinating.

I Hope you enjoyed some of my observations and lessons from nature in cold hardiness. There are countless more. If you have other observations and lessons from nature related to the cold, please share them in the comments below!

4) Spend more time outside and consciously acclimatize with the changing seasons.

People frequently comment on how little clothing I appear to wear in the winter. At the same time, many others are dressed up as bulky as the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters and are still cold. I do appear to have a relatively high tolerance to cold.
There was another spike around dusk. As soon as it dropped below -20 the deer seemed to be moving significantly more during the night and bedding down to sleep midday in the afternoon sun.

The lesson here, consider keeping moving during the coldest periods, especially when there is no sun to warm you. Movement creates energy which in turn creates heat. Then like the squirrels and chickadees, consume a high-fat meal before bed to maintain heat the longer while you sleep.

If you can sleep in the afternoon sun with a full belly, you will likely sleep longer without getting cold and be more energetic to keep moving during the coldest part of the day.

Your cycle does not have to look exactly like this. If you have adequate shelter/insulation, it may be best to hunker down for the coldest part of the day or night. But how to most efficiently use your calories throughout the day is something to ponder and observe nature to learn.
To summarize a few observations from my morning sit, deer, chickadee and wildlife behavior in general changes with the weather. During the fall, the majority of deer activity I witnessed and tracked (want to learn how to track wildlife and learn from them? - click here - ) was between sunrise and early afternoon.
3) Move like the deer and chickadee's

I could write a whole book on this topic, or teach a month-long course.  We can learn so much from how wild animals move in relation to their natural environment. So many things today are based on these lessons in nature, from martial arts moves, to military and sports tactics to architectural and systems design. Nature is nothing short of brilliant!
On top of this, like mentioned in strategy one, the squirrel chows down on a bunch of good fat and oil from seeds and nuts before bed which allows it to radiate internal heat for a longer period than if it was consuming just carbs and sugars from berries.

So we can emulate this ourselves in a winter power outage or survival situation. Here are a few examples:

- Create a squirrels nest in your house. Build a simple frame out of mattresses or tables and chairs. Then pile blankets, pillows, stuffed animals clothes, etc., both on top of and inside the pile. Stick a couple of people inside of this, and you are likely to be toasty warm inside even in minus temperatures. You are building a squirrels nest inside your house.

- You could also tuck your jacket/sweater into your pants. Then stuff the layer in between your coat and body with clothes, stuffed animals or even crumpled up newspaper creating your own down jacket.
A Grey Squirrel nest uses the second method, a giant pile of leaves (insulation) creates thousands of tiny pockets of air within it. These air pockets are insulated from the outside. The interior is small, thus the squirrel's internal body heat radiates into the leaves, heats the tiny pockets of dead air space which in turn helps maintain the internal shelter temperature. This is similar to how a down sleeping bag or down jacket works.
Once you fully understand the principles of shelter (maybe this will be a future post, let me know in the comments if this would interest you) you can apply them in any circumstance (hot, cold, wet, dry) and any ecosystem (forest, desert, urban, arctic, etc.).

There are two general places heat comes from 1) Internal heat that our body generates through burning calories and 2) External heat from the sun, fire, furnace, etc. So when we build a shelter, we either want to design it to capture external heat, such as a furnace in a well-insulated home. Or we want it to store and maintain our bodies own internal heating system efficiently.
2) Study how the grey squirrel builds it's home.

As I sat in the -25 temperatures, I reveled in how comfortable the grey squirrels seemed when they had such small bodies. Have you ever really looked at a grey squirrel nest and considered how it works?
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About the Author

Nature Connection Mentor, Wilderness Survival Instructor, Emergency & Disaster Managment Professional

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(4) comments

Emily January 8, 2018

Such a valuable post, thank you!

Reply
    Chris Gilmour January 9, 2018

    Thanks for the feedback Emily, I appreciate it and am glad you enjoyed!

    Reply
danick clavel April 24, 2018

Great website resource, inspirational for students/staff and community..
Have followed many of these lessons and planning to incorporate more next year!!!
Danick Clavel
Principal
Bimaychikamah School
Slate Falls Nation

Reply
    Chris Gilmour April 24, 2018

    Glad you enjoyed Danick and are finding ways to integrate it in your work and community up North. Thanks again for your offer to send the fire blower my way as well.

    Reply
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