This movement stands for increased accountability from corporations: through regulation, through taxes, and through limiting their political influence. I went very cautiously, not sure what it would be like. Was stunned by the unity of purpose, the incredible diversity of the people there, and the friendly attitude as everyone self-organized into a voting General Assembly.
The Reality of Occupation
One of the issues pressing the occupation is the reality of holding a piece of ground round-the-clock (it is an occupation, after all) in October and, soon, November. Milwaukee occupiers have been forced to relocate; Minnesota protesters, who face an even colder winter, have been told they can’t use tents. When you’re outside and exposed, winter survival is a safety issue of Valley Forge proportions.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time living in the snow, and I’ve written this post as a how-to. If you’re holding the line in the name of the 99%, thank you for what you do. I hope this advice will help keep you healthy and on your feet (fingers and toes intact).
1. Siting & Layout
When you set up a camp in the winter months, location is everything. Many Occupations have already launched, and they’ll have to make the most of the current site. Others are still in the planning stages, and should take the lay of the land into consideration.
If you are still planning: There are many things you want from your site: visibility, accessibility, and a hope of avoiding arrest. None of these mean anything if you can’t sleep at night from the cold.
Wind and shelter are two of your biggest considerations. In most areas, winter winds come from the north, but be aware of your local weather patterns. An ideal location (in a city) will be a low-lying area with taller buildings on all sides, especially the side the winter wind comes from. Hedges and evergreen trees provide surprisingly effective wind blocks; fences do not. Scout your location on foot and pay attention to whether it seems less windy than the surrounding streets.
Elevated areas are terrible for winter camping. Don’t choose high ground. Likewise, areas that channel wind (such as long, narrow parks or malls) will be miserable.
Likewise, do not camp on concrete or asphalt. Even a thin layer of mowed grass is better to lay and sit on. If possible, choose a location with tall (unmowed) grass, which will do the most to insulate you from the cold ground.
If you’ve already chosen your site: Once you’ve seized a piece of land and occupied it, chances are you’re not moving come winter. Even if you don’t have the most sheltered area of land, there are things you can do to mitigate the weather.
Be thoughtful in how you arrange your tents. If people have put them up hap-hazardly, address your General Assembly and ask to form a working group to reorganize the camp. Proper siting is crucial to survival.
All tents and shelters should be arranged with their doors facing downwind. Larger shelters (such as pavilion-style tents or group meeting tents) should be the farthest upwind, and smaller shelters (individual tents) should be in rows after that. This allows the bigger structures to act as wind-breaks for the smaller ones. Likewise, large vehicles (first aid trucks, etc) should form an additional windbreak if possible.
People like to put their tents in circles for a sense of community, or out on their own for privacy. That is selfish under these circumstances. Putting the tents in lines not only blocks the wind, it makes it easier to clear walkways through the snow in the winter. The lines of tents should be staggered so there are no “alleys” channeling wind across the camp.
Think also about the function of each structure. Shelters used for eating or meeting should be in the initial windbreak line, while those used for sleeping should be farther down where they’re protected from the wind.
Most people associate camping with tents and sleeping bags. Tents are a horrible choice in wintertime. This doesn’t mean you should refuse donated tents, but be aware of their drawbacks. Tents do very little to keep the wind out, and nothing at all to insulate you against the ground.
People staying in tents must not sleep directly on the ground. If their sleeping bag is on the tent floor or the bare ground they are in serious risk. There are a variety of ways to get off the ground, and the absolute best is a bed of pine boughs.
I know, where are you going to get pine boughs in the middle of the city? Don’t strip your city parks. Most Occupation sites are supported by a network of volunteers and donors. If even just one supporter lives on a farm or owns a section of woods, you can get a huge amount of fresh pine boughs without killing any trees. Reach out to your network and ask; one pickup truck load of fresh branches will keep dozens of people cozy all winter.
To make a pine bed, all you need are branches, not whole trees. Take a few branches and lay them out parallel to each other. Then put a second layer over the first, criss-crossing them. It’s like making hash tags with your #pineboughs. Keep going, it needs to be thicker than you think. The point of the pine bed is that it doesn’t compress under your weight or let you touch the floor—you want pockets of air and lots and lots of branches between you and the ground.
This is the difference between sleeping all night and clutching yourself shivering and praying for morning. It doesn’t matter how good your sleeping bag is.
Aside from warmth, pine beds are comfortable and keep insects away. Consider the risk of lice or bedbug outbreaks in your camp, and you’ll appreciate the pine boughs all the more.
If you can’t get pine boughs, or not enough of them, a similar bed can be made with lots of tall grass or even with loose straw if you can get enough. Many people will suggest air mattresses, and you should take ‘em if they’re free, but air mattresses are a sub par choice. They’re expensive, cumbersome, require electricity to inflate (or an hour of pedal-pump action) and not nearly as warm. I consider air mattresses a waste of donor dollars.
Proper clothing makes a huge difference. Here are some simple guidelines.
- Unless you have a wool allergy, wool is the single best thing you can wear in the winter. It keeps you just as warm wet as it does dry. A wool sweater and socks are worth ten times their weight in cotton or synthetic.
- Keep a dry change of clothes in your shelter, and have a place for hanging up clothing to dry. People still sweat in the winter.
- Waterproof boots or shoes are one of the best investments you can make.
- Heavy waterproof layers like snowpants are not necessary for most people. They add extra weight and make you sweat more. Unless you’re rolling in the snow, leave them at home.
- Chapstick and sunglasses are your wintertime friends.
- When your core body gets cold, it is willing to sacrifice your extremities to keep your vital organs warm, and that is why your ears, hands and toes are cold. No amount of extra socks will fix it because your body just won’t heat those regions. Instead, add extra layers of shirts/coats and pants/longjohns, and wear a hat. By warming your head and core, you’ll find your toes get much warmer and you can even walk around comfortably without gloves.
Last, let me tell you about your new religion (no, not that one). This religion is called sacred dry socks. Your pair of sacred dry socks are your special, secret reserve pair that live deep in your backpack. You have two pairs of socks for daytime use, and the sacred dry socks never get rotated in with those. Sacred dry socks are not even worn to dinner, they could get sweaty! They stay 100% dry so that every night, seconds before sliding into your sleeping bag, you can put them on and experience the special bliss of dry, warm feet. In the morning, they come off again.
Add Your Own Advice
The #Occupation is beyond a democratic movement, it’s a consensus-based one. My advice is only that: advice. I’ve assembled the most important bits of knowledge I have from winter camping, filtered to work better in an urban park.
What winter camping advice can you add for our brave protesters? I want to see this movement succeed, and I feel that many Occupiers exemplify the Heroic Life. Do you have suggestions for warmth, food, shelter, health, or general care during the winter? Speak up and let the people’s mic repeat it!
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