A survival expert’s guide to making it through the dark, miserable winter
All the ways to crush the cold season, with ex-Special Forces supremo and Channel 4 survival expert Ant Middleton
Falling asleep in the cold
I once got so cold that I began seeing trolls. It was during my Special Boat Service selection, when I was dropped into the Highlands and forced to go on the run for five days, covering about 30 miles a night, laying up during the day to avoid the enemy. After day three, I started hallucinating. I started to see trolls, patrolling along gates and fences that I needed to jump over. Patrols of trolls with capes on and carrying big staffs. They were pretty cool fuckin’ trolls. I definitely needed to get some sleep, though.
When you’re trying to sleep in winter or arctic climates, it’s essential you get off the ground. Cold will sit at the lowest point it can reach. When you dig a snow hole to sleep in, for example, you dig a trench beside you for the cold to, effectively, fall and settle into. If you don’t, all your body heat will get sucked out, and you begin to freeze to death.
I saw it first-hand, recently. I slept in a ripped-apart aeroplane in Iceland for my show Escape. The team and I were lying up on the seats, apart from one guy, who decided to sleep in the trench where the aisle would’ve been. In the night he woke up screaming. All the cold was settling into the gully, right where I told him NOT to sleep, and we suddenly had a pretty serious situation on our hands: his arse was literally freezing.
Dealing with the darkness
Darkness is an incredibly effective psychological interrogation weapon. Put someone in a dark room, and it’s only them and their head. Their head, which will slowly begin to overanalyse and overthink. We wait for their brain to melt, then we start chipping into it.
You’ll see us use that in SAS: Who Dares Wins. We put a hood over the subject’s head and add headphones to take away their primary senses. You can see the panic beginning to set in. That’s the state the interrogator wants to achieve. The answers will start to flow, because the subject will do anything not to go back into the darkness.
Inside that hood, everything needs to revolve around self-preservation. If your mind’s ticking over non-stop in a hostage situation, all you’re doing is mentally exhausting yourself and slowly self-depleting. You’re doing the enemy’s job. Instead, realise where you are, and bide your time. Concentrate on what you need to do to stay alive, and what actions might get you out of there. That’s your route to a positive mindset. The last thing you want to do is put yourself in a negative mindset in a negative situation.
With the winter, at least you know the darkness isn’t forever. You will come out if it, but your mind needs to acknowledge that. You want to embrace entering the dark bubble for a while. If you sit back and let it take control of you, that’s when depression sets in.
Take control by making a challenge of it, and thinking, “I will not let the darkness beat me!” Get out there and tackle it. Take the dog out for a walk in the dark and the pissing rain, put yourself in that uncomfortable moment, and I promise the reward you’ll experience when it’s over will feel great.
Walking on ice
Walking? No no, I’m not walking. If there’s an icefield between me and my destination, I’m belly-crawling across it. I’m spreading my body weight as much as I can, because I have no idea how thick it is. That way, if I start to hear a cracking, I can simply crawl backwards to where I know is safe. But don’t just go in all guns blazing. Take a moment to assess the ice, observe the ground, and see if you can pick the shortest, safest route across.
It’s a scenario I’ve faced on numerous occasions, actually. You’re on your belly, with your firearm resting on a backpack as you push it along in front of you across a frozen lake or river. And it works. We do a lot of arctic training, especially in the Special Boat Service. The coolest part of arctic exercises, though, has to be the ability to blend in instantly. Being able to disappear. Wearing your white jacket: as soon as you stop, you merge in with the snow like that. You can sit there for days, collecting intel or sniping, without anyone ever seeing you.
Jumping into a frozen pond
When you leap into sub-zero waters, you suffer ‘cold-water shock’, where the air is stolen from your lungs. You need to prepare for the extreme temperature and impending breathlessness, because for the first 60-90 seconds your impulse will be to panic and flap around. And when that happens, you’re going one way – down. Instead, for the initial 60-90 seconds, just do nothing. Unless you can get out straight away, just wait, get used to the cold, slowly regain a breathing pattern, and start to form a plan.
When we train in Norway, a hole is cut in the ice and we simulate falling in while skiing. We jump in with our ski poles, and the instructor begins to ask questions. By the time you’ve managed to stutter out an answer to, “What is your name?”, about a minute has gone. After about six questions you take the poles and dig them into the ice and drag yourself out.
But you’re not in the pond with ski poles, are you? With your breath back, start attracting attention. When help is on its way, you need to make sure they don’t end up in the water next to you. Think about what you need to do to avoid that situation. What that actually does is take your mind off being in that water. You, thinking of someone else’s safety, will keep your mind preoccupied. The best solution? Get them to tie items of clothing together to hurl at you. You want to be pulled out, from a safe distance.
Winning any snowball fight
I take snowball warfare seriously. The year before last, I took my family to Lapland. I was tobogganing with my children when some kids started throwing snowballs at us, then retreated into the woods – a classic hit-and-run tactic. But I was off. I went missing, on a two-hour excursion from my family holiday. With a game plan to outflank them, hide patiently and wait for them to bomb past on their sledges, I followed these local kids into the woods. It worked. I picked each of them off, knocked them all off their sleds, just smiled at them and watched them leg it away from me.
In a more classic snowball scenario, the key is stalking and surveillance. You need to locate your primary target: their leader. Whenever a sniper took out a leader in the Second World War, the entire war would come to a halt for days. It triggers chaos. You hit a leader in any given situation, and it’s a devastating blow. It’s your enemy’s discreet movements and subtle messages that’ll give him up. He’s the guy that everyone else is turning to for their next move.
Once your target is located, hit him hard and hit him fast – I might even consider prepacking my snowballs the night before and storing them in the freezer for one-hit, one-kill ammo. Then sit back and watch as the enemy’s gameplan crumbles. Watch them run around like headless chickens. Watch the chaos, and begin picking the rest of them off, one by one.
Packing for a nuclear winter
Far more important than packing is making sure you’ve got shelter. If you’re cold, wet and facing wind chill, you’re dead. Only when that’s prepared, then you can consider packing.
Firstly, please, don’t pack to over-fucking-clothe yourself. Always start cold. A lot of people head out with all their clothing on, which is going to lead to sweating. What they don’t realise is that sweat will freeze, and before they know it they’re covered in a layer of thin ice, wondering why they’re shivering even with 100 coats on. What I’m saying is, being too warm is bad in the cold. It’s why I always like to make sure I’m slightly uncomfortable. I’m in control that way.
I always layer up, instead of down.
There’s no getting away with poor-quality winter clothes. Yeah, the good stuff is expensive, but don’t be tempted to go down the cheap route, because you’ll just end up having to put layer over layer over layer. Instead, get one piece of quality duck down, some merino wool, maybe some Gore-Tex.
Then I’m packing a lot of tinned food. I’m searching for tinned tuna, tinned sweetcorn and tinned baked beans. Carbs are massively important in the cold, and the fattier the food, the better.