How to survive up North: a Canadian Armed Forces operations perspective

An American soldier instructs Canadian soldiers on the construction of a snow cave.
American Staff Sergeant Matt Hinds of the Northern Warfare Training Center instructs members of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment on the construction of a snow cave near Resolute Bay, NU, in preparation for Operation NUNALIVUT April 4, 2016. (Photo: Cpl Parks, Task Force Image Technician)


By: Ashley Black, Canadian Joint Operations Command

Canada’s North is beautiful, cold, isolated, and mysterious. The stunning white landscapes and aurora borealis are examples of sights that attract many to the region. However, it can also be a dangerous place to visit due to extreme cold weather and unfamiliar wildlife.

Every year, some Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members have the unique opportunity of going up North during Operation NUNALIVUT. These skilled CAF members learn important survival tips for the coldest region in Canada.

About 200 CAF members will deploy to Resolute Bay and Hall Beach, Nunavut on February 22. They will continue to participate in Operation NUNALIVUT 2017 until March 10. As the troops conduct the operation, they will be putting the following tips into practice.

1. Preparation is key

You have to prepare for anything that may come your way. Lieutenant-Colonel Timothy S. Halfkenny is the Deputy Chief of Staff Operations and Plans at Joint Task Force North. He also deployed on Operation NUNALIVUT in 2016. He says that Canada’s North is a very harsh and unforgiving environment so a lot of preparation goes into Operation NUNALIVUT.

He says cold weather injuries are inevitable but preparation can help lessen the number of injuries and reduce the severity. “Limit exposure of the skin where possible, make sure to refresh your skills on cold weather injuries, stay hydrated and do not travel alone,” he says.

2. Know your surroundings

Research the conditions and wildlife of the area you’ll be visiting. During Operation NUNALIVUT, the CAF links with wildlife officials to have a better understanding of the environment the troops will be in.

Since weather and wildlife in Canada’s North can be unpredictable, you should practice the buddy system. Captain Louis-Karl Hottin, the Commander’s Executive Assistant at Joint Task force North, deployed to Operation NUNALIVUT in 2016. “Never go out alone when going outside of urban centers,” he says. “Make sure you always let someone know when you are going out, and where you are going.”

3. Dress for the occasion

To protect from the cold, Captain Hottin says you should make sure to wear proper winter gear. “The parka and bib pants are very warm and they provide all the protection the body needs,” he says.  “The most vulnerable parts of the body are the extremities (hands, head and feet). These are the most prone to cold weather injuries and must be carefully taken care of.”  Wear your clothing in layers and make sure your clothing is loose. Since clothing is your protection from the cold, ensure that it is always clean. The insulation of your clothing will be more effective when it is free of dirt.

4. Prepare for differences in navigation and transportation

Regular operational tasks can be difficult in harsh weather. For example, vehicle performance can decrease in extreme cold weather. Also, daylight hours, wind, weather, and precipitation can impact your navigation. “Navigation is very challenging since there are few geographical features and reference points compared to the south,” Captain Hottin explains. “There are very few roads. It’s almost impossible to find your way back if a blizzard wipes your snowmobile tracks.”

5. Ask the experts

When in doubt, do what the experts do. When CAF members deploy up North, they work with Canadian Rangers, like Sergeant Titus Allooloo, for expert advice on Canada’s North. During Operation NUNALIVUT, Sergeant Allooloo says the Canadian Rangers help CAF members understand Northern survival skills that have helped people to persevere up North for thousands of years.

Ultimately, he says that water, shelter, and fire are incredibly important. “The most important thing to know when you’re in the North is how to build a shelter and how to build a fire. The shelter will protect you against the elements,” he says. “Make sure you stay hydrated and keep moving to stay warm.”

6. Enjoy yourself

Don’t forget to take time to appreciate the unique cultures in Canada’s North, and to enjoy the beautiful landscapes.

“I was surprised by the stark beauty and varied nature of the terrain and the vitality of one of the most unique ecosystems I have experienced,” explains Lieutenant-Colonel Halfkenny. “I am honored to have been exposed to a unique environment and offered the opportunity to experience a very unique culture in our country.”

Image gallery

  • A soldier dressed in a red winter coat and goggles observes the base camp.
  • A soldier dressed in heavy winter uniform carries a block of snow.
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