by Donald Alley
Editor’s Note: This account is only of the lecture portion of the course. The course also has a 2 1/2 practical portion (weather conditions permitting) where the information in the lecture is applied. Students may sign up for just the lecture or the full course.
Fortune Bay Expedition Team (FBET) is an outdoor adventure and exploration group that pushes the skillsets of its members via formalized training offerings so that they can safely and successfully go farther than the average backpacker or outdoor enthusiast. Their events often take them to the remote, quiet, and under-explored areas around Michigan and into the north. Whether via foot, bike, kayak, or overland, FBET seeks to visit the world as it is, not as it has been ‘built up’ for tourism.
To achieve this reality, it becomes necessary to embrace the seasons, for they help define a place and its people. Many of the places FBET explores have beautiful summers and daunting winters. To safely and successfully explore these extremes, education of winter survival is a required subject of study. This is the reason for courses such as Arctic Skills Scenario.
Disclosure: This author became an FBET member after taking multiple overland courses and seeing the value of this study. This article is being written from a neutral standpoint.
When this course was taken, it was in the afternoon following the Arctic Medicine course in the morning. The synergy between the two courses was excellent, because much of the medical effects in the ‘medicine of cold’ presented in Arctic Medicine can be precluded with proper gear selection and practices. Students get the ‘why’ of certain choices.
As with many winter camping courses, there is a lot of talk about gear. What works, what doesn’t and “Do we really need yet another lecture on layering?” What sets this course apart is the experience of the instructional cadre. This group is comprised of professional outdoorsmen, search and rescue personnel, and others that have ‘lived it’. So while there is indeed yet another lecture on layering, it is supplemented with very good practices as when to recognize overheating, managing body temperature, instilling the discipline to thermoregulate, and more.
If you’re taking this course, understand you are getting experienced know-how, not just info you’ve already googled multiple times. The course follows the survival tenets: shelter, hydration, nutrition, and gear/rescue/mitigation.
Sheltering includes not only tents or hammocks or where you’ll sleep, but how you can use the arctic conditions to your advantage. Snow is a phenomenal building material. Customize an eating space, build walls around your shelter to stop wind, create benches, etc. Of importance, a great deal of the focus on shelter is an in depth look at how each one prevents heat loss (convective, conductive, radiated, evaporative) and thus how each one is approached and prioritized. It is a scientific approach to what people have learned through experience, and thus offers opportunities to improve upon shelter.
Hydration and nutrition are covered with a detailed look at increased needs for both during exertion, and the make up of what is necessary in a high exertion diet. Since most heat is generated through metabolism, keeping the body properly fueled is important so clothing (shelter) can do its job (by having body heat to entrap). Additionally, there is a lot of consideration needed for keeping water a liquid, and the gear necessities to be able to properly heat up food. This is where the experience of the instructional cadre shine. A simple hint of “pre-slice your Snickers Bars before going out” sound inconsequential, until you’re busting your incisors trying to gnaw on a frozen bar in the field.
The gear/rescue/mitigation covers a great deal of things to make the winter excursion more easily managed, but go beyond comforts and into adapting and embracing the winter climate. A decent amount of time is covered on snowshoes, skis, and the hybrid ski/snowshoe called the ‘skishoe’. Fundamentals as to what the advantages and disadvantages to each is covered, and when each might provide a benefit or disadvantage.
Further optimizing the available conditions of winter camping, a segment of time is devoted to building a pulk; a pull-behind sled. Self-powered travel is always a trade off between gear needed and wanted vs its weight to bring along. Factor in winter-intent gear with heavier weights and snow covering being harder to get through, and the advantage to pull the load of gear over nearly frictionless surface is very appealing to beat having to make this trade-off.
The instructional style of this course is worth mentioning. Yes, FBET takes a formalized approach to the content and conveyance of the course material. It’s because this knowledge and shared wisdom can help save lives. Yes, the material is greatly helpful to survive and eventually revel in the winter months for successful exploration and enjoyment. And yes, the course is fun, friendly, and delivered by people that know that imparting the best knowledge they can moves people from the ‘survive’ area of operation to the ‘flourish’ area of operation. Their motto is “We go farther”. Farther is where challenge happens. Farther is where discovery is. Farther is where true exploration takes place. But farther can be scary. FBET’s coursework is intended to be that bridge between comfort, and farther. Between what you’ve done and what you’ve dreamed of doing.
Donald Alley is a personal protection and emergency preparedness author appearing in multiple publications. He is a co-owner and instructor at Keep and Bear, LLC, and is a guild member at Fortune Bay Expedition Team.