Hello from the Polar Vortex. It’s cold up here, but we love it, and your kids will, too.
My name is Tyler Fish, and I am the associate program director for the Voyageur Outward Bound School. I’m also a seasoned winter instructor and a polar explorer. I know cold. I want to share with you how we work with and through the cold to have a great Outward Bound experience.
For starters, cold is not the enemy. He’s a great friend because he gives us immediate feedback, like any coach would. If something is wrong, cold lets us know. Cold will kick our butt if we sweat too much, don’t drink enough water, don’t eat enough, don’t listen to the instructors’ tips on layering out clothes, wearing mittens, sleeping with a hat and more of the like. As Oscar Wilde put it, “Wisdom comes with winters.” Whatever he meant, I think it’s applicable.
Cold is dry. Dry is warm. People often cringe when hearing about temperatures as cold as we’ve had this winter, but really, it’s a trade-‐oﬀ. Cold snow is dry, meaning it doesn’t melt when you fall or sit down. Cold snow doesn’t get you wet as it falls—you shed it easier than rain oﬀ an umbrella. Most, if not all, instructors prefer cold to warmer, wetter weather for winter camping. Sure, you can’t make a snowball, but we’re not here to have snowball fights. (Instead we knock snow oﬀ of tree onto unsuspecting heads as we ski by.)
Wet is cold. Work is warm. Wet can come from outside, like snow, sleet or rain, or falling through the ice. In the winter, that’s bad because eventually it will freeze and be cold. Wet can also come from inside in the form of overheating and sweat, which can drench under and outer layers, mittens, hats and feet. There’s actually very little you can do to avoid your feet sweating, but everything else is preventable. If people begin to feel that warm glow, it’s time to take oﬀ layers. Keep the glow, lose the clothes. Keep the sweat inside your body. Stay dry. All that being said, the best way to get warm, stay warm and know you can do it again, is to work. Skiing, mushing, cutting, chopping and moving wood are all great ways to keep the blood moving. Have I mentioned blood?
Water is blood, blood is heat; heat is good. The amount of blood that can ﬂow through your extremities varies by an amazing factor. Hands can be frozen or too hot in the same weather. Move blood around and things heat up. You can only move blood if you have it to move freely, ﬂowing smoothly. This means people have to hydrate. This is hard in the winter. Essentially a winter expedition is a journey through a desert. You have what you have until you find more at camp. So we proactively drink a lot while we can, pretending we’re camels. We also don’t end the day with a frozen bottle. That means cold just taught you a lesson. You wasted water by waiting too long to drink it.
Sleeping dry and warm means you can do anything during the day. One of the first lessons that we teach our students is how to sleep warm. Then we re-teach it and mentor them along the way. Sleeping warm and dry is the reward at the end of the day but also the necessary recharging that needs to happen for body and soul. This means that people cannot sleep too warm, sweating, which is sometimes the risk. We help them not to fear the cold. Fearing cold means that you will stay too hot for too long. That’s bad.
Fire is amazing, but…it’s not everything. We make big ﬁres. We sit around ﬁres to eat, drink, dry and be merry. Sometimes one half of you roasts while the other freezes, so you have to stay proactive about it all and not overdue one side while undercooking the other, so to speak. We also sit inside canvas wall tents with portable wood stoves when the weather is very windy, wet or cold. This is our haven. Again, it’s important to be able to rest, recharge and be ready for the next day. Why isn’t ﬁre everything? Read on.
The only heat that really matters comes from within. If winter teaches us one lesson, it’s how to avoid being a victim, giving your control away to other people or things. Eventually we snuff out the ﬁre and go to bed. Or we extinguish it in the morning to pack up camp and travel onward. There is no heat coming from outside of you. Long underwear and Jackets don’t warm us; they keep the heat we create next to us as a layer of warm, dry air. Think of clothing like an insulated mug. It keeps the cold, cold, and the hot, hot. (But how does it know?) It doesn’t care which it is, being just dumb insulation. So as Outward Bound instructors we are constantly telling students to run around, do pushups, take a trip to ﬁll up the pots for dinner—anything that moves blood around. We create our own best heat. This also means you have to have fuel, calories, for the inner ﬁre. Winter cures picky eaters of their ailments.
Good company warms the heart. A warm heart will heat the world. If you’re happy, cold is just…well, cold. It doesn’t affect you more than that. At Voyageur we believe that challenges are best met with a supportive environment. “Support” means many things, depending on the situation, but the end result is a group that can weather the ups and downs of the journey with trust, smiles, honesty and not just a little grit. If an Outward Bound student’s heart is in the right place, she will heat everyone around her with her attitude. That’s the goal.