All of our ancestors learned to use the natural resources around them to survive through the harsh winter months, Native Americans included.
Many of the skills that were used by Native Americans to survive the extreme winter cold are now stored away in textbooks and on barely-visited pages of the internet.
Most of these survival skills are related to how to build and obtain heat, store and preserve food, and remaining warm.
While each tribe had different adaptations to their local climate and environment, there are a few general ideas that carry over across communities. Modern survivalists can benefit from looking back at traditional native practices to learn new skills.
Let’s discuss the most important skills used by the Native Americans to survive the winter cold.
Body Heat Preservation
Body heat is one of the most important resources during a long, harsh winter. The Native American populations learned how to preserve the body’s natural heat through the use of proper winter clothing, blankets, and shelter.
Many tribes had practices and beliefs centered around finding a use for every part of an animal they killed, and animal skins were no exception. These skins made the perfect winter clothing for keeping in body heat, offering the same protection to humans as they once did to their animal counterparts.
Animal furs were also used for additional clothing layers, blankets, and mats for the ground. Some tribes even moved into special larger housing accommodations for the winter where everyone could benefit from the combined body heat.
In adapting this skill for modern life, it is important to remember to select clothing, sleeping bags, and other gear made from materials such as fleece or polyester that trap body heat.
Reading the Signs
Without weather forecasts to rely on, native populations had to learn how to read the signs of the world around them to know when harsh winter storms were coming. These communities lived in tune with the land and with the animals around them.
Through looking to the skies, observing animal behavior, and paying close attention to the direction of the wind, Native Americans were able to predict with great certainty when a blizzard or cold front was on its way.
Since being caught unprepared for a sudden drop in temperature could mean the difference between life and death, this skill was extremely important. Having advanced warning gave the tribe time to prepare provisions and find adequate shelter.
Animals would often signal the approach of a coming storm or help to predict the severity of a winter season. For example, many tribes believed that the larger a beaver’s winter den was, the colder the coming months would be. And if a deer herd suddenly began to make its way deeper into the forest, a blizzard might be heading your way.
Knowing the signs of an approaching storm and understanding basic weather patterns is still an important part of survival skills today. This skill can be practiced by matching up the signs you see around you to the actual weather forecast. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a trusted resource to learn more about annual forecasts and other helpful information.
One of the most important parts of winter survival was undoubtedly the power of fire. In addition to using fires for warmth, native populations had to get creative with heat preservation.
By heating rocks in a campfire or fire pit, warmth could then be transported indoors. For example, hot stones could be wrapped in leather skins and kept next to their bodies for extra heat overnight. This essentially functioned as an early version of a heated blanket.
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Large pits filled with heated rocks buried underneath the floor also served as a way to radiate heat indoors without bringing the danger of fire or smoke to interior spaces.
The natives also took great care to preserve their fire in extreme winter weather conditions. Starting a fire can understandably be difficult when the ground is covered in snow. By covering or transporting ashes and live coals from the previous day’s fire, it was much easier to restart the fire when needed. This practice is still used by many modern-day campers to ensure a successful fire in damp conditions.
At first glance, it might seem that hunting practices must cease during the cold winter months. In fact, hunting was sometimes made easier by winter conditions such as smooth snow that could be quickly traveled by sled and frozen rivers that could then be crossed more efficiently.
Animals that were engaged in hibernation also became easier to hunt down during the cold winter months.
Some tribes would temporarily relocate to different hunting grounds for the winter, such as an area with easier access to lakes for ice fishing or wooded areas for better trapping.
These practices underscore the importance of being creative and resourceful with hunting strategies across all seasons.
But while some tribes were still able to hunt and transport game during the winter, the most important aspect of survival during this harsh season was the ability to store enough food.
Primitive food preservation techniques included storing dried crops (such as corn, beans, or squash) in underground pits lined with dried grasses and leaves and preserving meat by wrapping it in animal skins and burying it in the snow.
These are the same methods used by many homesteaders today who use root cellars and deep freezers to store and preserve large quantities of food for months or even years at a time.
Meat was also often dried and preserved in a manner similar to what we would call jerky today.
By taking advantage of the natural climate and environment around them, the native populations were able to harness the power of both the sun and the snow to preserve food.
Passing Down Wisdom
In addition, the winter months served as the prime opportunity for passing down fables, stories, and traditions. Families gathered, annual ceremonies were held, and other social activities took place.
Long nights around the campfire created the perfect environment to focus on tribal history, preservation, and planning. Future wars and raiding campaigns were planned, and past conquests and hunts were recorded.
Known by many tribes as the “winter count”, all significant events of the past year were retold and recorded at this time. Elders would record everything from disease epidemics and major storms to births and marriages.
While modern-day Americans often struggle with mental health during the long and dark winter months, native populations mastered the art of tribal fellowship and remembrance, ensuring their communities were carried forward to the next season and beyond.
Modern survivalists can benefit from carving out dedicated time each winter to reflect on what went right and what went wrong, while simultaneously making plans and preparations for the year ahead.
In thinking of ways to translate ancient winter survival skills to modern life, we have much to learn from both the attitude and the innovations of the original Americans.
Native populations embraced the winter season rather than feared it. By planning for it, preparing for it, and taking advantage of its benefits, native communities were able to thrive – not just survive – during the long winter months.
Many of these skills translate into successful practices for today, even when we have new technologies to assist us. Although the implementation may look a bit different, the concepts remain the same.
From preserving heat and observing weather patterns to dressing in layers and storing autumn crops, the ways that Native Americans survived winter in years past still have relevance for future generations of survivalists, campers, and homesteaders.