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Cold Weather Survival: 10 Key Skills and Rules


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Last Updated: September 30, 2020

It’s one thing to survive in the wilderness in mild weather. You might be cold, dehydrated, and hungry, but you’ll probably make it at least a few days.

Surviving in cold weather is a completely different beast though.  Without adequate gear, knowledge, and skills, you can succumb to the cold or any other number of dangers quickly.

Cold-weather survival skills take a lot of time to learn, practice, and master.  Don’t think you’ll be able to survive by just reading this article.

I  strongly encourage you to check out survival schools (like these schools in the USA) where you can practice skills with an experienced instructor.

In the meantime, here’s a breakdown of the most important things you need to know in order to survive in cold weather.

1. Build a Winter Survival Shelter

Any of the standard survival shelter designs – like an A-frame or lean-to shelter — will work in cold temperatures (see 11 simple survival shelter designs).

But, in survival situations where there is a lot of snow, you might not have sticks or leaves for building a shelter. Luckily, snow is a very good insulator.  It can be used to make a very warm survival shelter.

*You need a shovel to make a snow survival shelter. Make sure you always carry one in your winter survival kit, (see our recommendations for top survival shovels).

Snow Pits

camping in snow shelter

If you have a good sleeping bag, pad, and tarp, you can sleep comfortably in sub-freezing weather.  You’ll need to dig “beds” into the snow.  Make sure the snow is packed down or your body heat will cause you to sink into the snow!

Why not use a tent instead? Contrary to common belief, winter tents don’t actually trap much heat.  Rather, they keep you warm by blocking wind (which is important).  A budget four season tent is a good option to have.

A good tarp setup and a snow pit can also block wind.

Basic Snow Shelter

snow cave shelter for survival

You can dig directly into a mound of snow to create a cave for sleeping.  If the snow isn’t deep enough to provide a stable structure for a roof, you can put pine boughs over the top, as shown in the image above.

Quinzee

quizhee

A quinzee is made by building a pile of snow and then digging a cave into it.  In most situations, quinzees are NOT a good cold-weather survival shelter.  They take a lot of time and energy to make.

If the snow is already this low, you can probably find debris to use for a shelter.  It will be faster and save you much-needed energy.

Snow Cave Shelter

snow cave design illustration

A true cave shelter is made so the entrance tunnel is lower than the sleeping chamber.  This design is warmer because warm air rises and cold air sinks.  Read how to build a snow cave.

Tree Well Snow Shelter

tree well snow shelter

If you don’t have a shovel or are running out of daylight, this simple shelter might be your best shot at survival. The snow under evergreen trees isn’t as deep.

Carefully step towards the tree so you don’t fall into the tree pit.  Then start packing down the snow to make walls and a floor.  Break some branches to create a roof.

2. Understand Layering Systems

Contrary to common belief, the layering system does not mean you should constantly add or remove clothes to adjust temperature.  Imagine how impractical and annoying that would be!

Also, every time you took off your jacket to add/remove a layer, you’d lose some body heat.

Layering actually means wearing clothes which keep you dry, trap heat, and protect from the elements.  A good set of layers will keep you equally comfortable in 50°F and 15°F temperatures.

Really.  I can wear the same layers in winter as in spring.  If it’s really cold, I might add an extra mid layer once I stop hiking, but I’m not constantly adding and removing layers as I move about!

A winter layering system consists of 3 or 4 parts:

1. Base layer

The purpose of this layer is to wick sweat away from your body.  The best base layers are made from wool.  Silk and synthetics are also good options.  Never wear cotton as it traps moisture and takes forever to dry.

2. Mid layer

The mid layer is your insulation.  It should be light and fluffy.  You don’t want it to be too tight or it won’t trap air next to your body.  Fleece jackets are good mid layers.

3. Another mid layer

In really cold weather, you’ll put on an extra mid layer. A puffy down jacket or thick wool sweater is a good choice.  Since your core loses the most heat, your second mid layer can be a vest.

4. Shell

The shell is what protects you from the elements. It prevents wind from carrying away body heat and keeps you from getting wet in rain or snow.  The issue with shells is that they are not breathable and thus you can easily start sweating.

While active in clear weather, it’s often smarter not to wear the shell so you don’t sweat too much.

winter layering system

These climbers (above) are utilizing the winter layering system.  Note that they are NOT wearing shells because it would cause them to get too sweaty.  The shells will come on when they stop moving.

*You also need a base, mid and shell for your legs.  However, because our legs tend to stay warmer (while moving, at least), a lot of people only wear a base and another layer on their legs.  Once you stop moving though, you’ll want to put all 3 layers on your legs.

Layering Also Applies to Hands and Feet

Don’t think you can wear just one pair of socks or gloves and stay warm.  You’ll need to layer your extremities just like the rest of your body.  This is important or you could risk frost bite.

Hand Layering System:

  1. Base layer glove: A thin synthetic or wool glove will wick away sweat
  2. Insulating glove: Usually made from fleece or wool, this is what will trap heat. It’s important that it is a glove so you can still do survival tasks. Sometimes shells come with built-in insulating layers.
  3. Shell mitt: The mitten needs to be made from a windproof, waterproof material. It will be big and bulky to retain heat.  However, it’s difficult to do camp tasks in these.  Some mitts have fold-back fingers so you can easily access your insulating layer without completely taking off the mitt.

Feet Layering System:

  1. Base layer sock: These wick sweat away from your feet so you don’t end up with blisters or trench foot. Silk and wool are good options.  Synthetics get stinky very quickly!
  2. Insulating sock: Wool socks are by-far the winner here. They insulate even when wet.  Always carry a spare insulating layer.
  3. Shell boot: True winter boots are massive with thick soles to insulate your feet against the cold. If you don’t have good snow boots, consider wearing gaiters as these will keep snow from getting into your boots.

hand and feet layering system for winter

This Alaskan Ranger (above) unzips her shell while clearing an auger pit.  She’s wearing insulated shell pants. Notice how massive her boots are!

3. Starting a Fire

Building a fire in the snow is difficult because the ground and wood are wet.  High winds can also blow out your fire before kindling has time to burn down.  Here’s how to overcome those challenges so you can make a fire in the snow.

1. Pack Down Your Fit Pit

The snow under your fire will start to melt, causing the entire fire to sink.  If the snow is deep, you’ll need to shove it away and/or pack it down.

2. Create a platform

making a fire in the snow

If you try to light tinder directly on snow, the snow will put out the sparks.  Instead, build your fire on a dry platform.  In the image above, a piece of split wood was used.  If you don’t have an ax, you can build a platform out of alternating layers of branches.

3. Create Dry Tinder and Kindling

In winter, you should carry tinder in your fire-starting kit.  I personally like cotton balls coated in Vaseline. They will burn for several minutes each.

Read: Best tinder for starting a fire.

If you don’t have dry tinder, you will need to make some: Peel the bark off of a branch with your survival knife.  Then start rubbing your knife blade up and down the branch to obtain little shavings of dry wood to use as tinder. You’ll need a lot of it to get a fire going!

You’ll also need some dry kindling.  Often, it’s only the outer layer of branches which are wet from snow.  Use your knife to shave off the bark and you’ll have dry wood.  Thicker branches should be chopped with a survival axe.  If you don’t have an axe, learn how to use your knife to baton wood.

4. Fire Lays for Snow

different fire lays for winter

Most people know how to do the tipi (teepee) fire lay.  This is the simplest to get going and maintain. However, it isn’t good for windy or snowy conditions.  The tipi fire lay also burns through wood quickly – you might not have a lot of wood during a winter survival situation.

These fire lays are often better choices for winter survival. 

  • Lean-to Fire: The lean-to configuration blocks snow, rain and wind. You can use this to make a fire in the rain.
  • Council Fire: Good for making a huge fire that is self-burning and doesn’t require much maintenance.
  • Log Cabin Fire: The cabin configuration around the inner fire blocks wind. If you use large fuel logs for the cabin, the fire will burn for a long time.
  • Star Fire: Also known as a cowboy fire, this configuration is best when you have limited amounts of fuel. As the fire burns, just push the fuel further into the center of the star.

4. Obtaining Water

Drinking water might not seem like a problem when you are surrounded by snow, but obtaining water in cold-weather survival situations can actually be very tricky.

Do NOT eat snow for survival.

Yes, snow will give you water – but the snow will also drop your core body temperature.  Instead, you need to melt snow for drinking.  This means you need to have a pot and fire or stove.

Tip: Always save a bit of water to put in the pot before melting snow.  The water acts as a “starter” and helps the snow melt much faster.

What if I don’t have a stove to melt snow?

Fill your canteen with snow and put it under your jacket.  Your body heat will melt the snow.  Each time you take a drink, add a bit more snow.

Constantly refilling is important.  The snow will melt faster when in water.  Adding just a little bit of snow at a time will also prevent all of the water from becoming too cold to drink safely.

5. Finding Food

winter wild edibles rosehips

Finding enough food in spring and summer can be challenging enough.  In cold-weather survival situations, your food options will be even more limited.  There won’t be many or any leafy plants.  Trapping insects (one of the easiest and most nutritious survival foods) is also not going to be possible.

A lot of experts will tell you to learn how to trap or track animals for food in winter survival situations. Realistically, this isn’t going to be easy –  especially if you are already exhausted and hypothermic.

You are better off investing your time in learning some wild winter edibles in your area. Read more about foraging.

6. Treating Cold Injuries

I’m a big advocate of never going into the wilderness without a first aid kit.  In winter, you have to be extra careful about detecting and treating injuries.  They can turn deadly very quickly!

These are the main cold-weather survival injuries you need to know and prepare for.

  • Hypothermia
  • Frostbite
  • Trenchfoot

I’d recommend getting the book Wilderness Medicine: Beyond First Aid. It’s got very thorough information on treating a range of injuries, including those from cold weather.

7. Recognizing Cold-Weather Dangers

Cold-weather isn’t the only danger in winter survival situations.  Winter conditions can create numerous other dangers.  Make sure you know how to recognize and prevent these risk:

Avalanche

NY State has a good guide on avalanche basics.  After reading that, I suggest you read this guide by the Mountain Academy about how to free yourself from an avalanche.

Cornices

cornice dangers

A cornice is a pile of snow which forms when wind blows layers of snow over the edge of a mountain.  Cornices are very dangerous because the can look like part of the mountain.  But, when you walk on it, the cornice can collapse and send you falling to your death.

Tree Wells

tree well dangers

In very deep snow, you need to be careful about tree wells.  These are areas underneath low-hanging evergreen branches which don’t have as much snow.  If a person gets too close to the tree, he can fall into the tree well – often head first.  This often happens to skiers and snowboarders.

The more the person struggles, the more trapped he will get in the snow.  The victim can end up suffocating to death in the snow.   You can find information on how to survive a tree wells here.

Getting Lost

It’s very easy to get lost in snowy conditions.  The snow hides trails and markers.  You have to walk slower, which can make it difficult to tell how much ground you’ve covered.  And snowstorms can reduce visibility to practically zero.

  • Make sure you have a satellite navigation system. This is one time they are more reliable than a paper map.
  • Have an emergency communication device. Devices like SPOT (Amazon link) let you send distress signals with your GPS coordinates, regardless of where you are and whether there’s a cell signal.
  • Don’t hike in blizzards. If you can’t see, it’s safer to stop and make a shelter.

8. Gear Works Differently in Cold Weather

Your gear which works perfectly in warm weather might not be suitable for cold-weather survival.   As with any gear you rely on, it’s important you test it in real-use situations before you take it out into the field.  This means going outside with your gear in the cold and trying it.

Here’s some of the ways your gear might fail you in winter.

  • Not Glove-Compatible: Ferro rods, touchscreen devices, stove spark buttons, water bottle lids, and other small gear can be very difficult to use with gloves. If you have to remove your gloves, you risk frostbite on your fingers.
  • Fuel freezing: Some types of fuel do not perform well in cold weather. Liquid fuel (white gas) is generally best for winter.
  • Filters: If drinking water from streams, you will need to treat it first (you don’t want to get diarrhea in addition to surviving the cold!). I usually use a Sawyer Mini filter. However, the filter membrane will be destroyed if water freezes in it.  Make sure the filter you use is suitable for winter.  See the best survival filters here.
  • Purification tablets: Purification tablets do work in cold weather, but the reaction time can slow down. You may need to wait a long time before it’s safe to drink the water. Read about the best water purification tablets.
  • Water bottles: Non-insulated stainless steel water bottles will freeze shut in winter. This can sometimes happen with plastic bottles too; keep them upside down (with liquid water in the lid area) so they won’t freeze.

9. Signal for Help

Sending out a distress signal for help is incredibly difficult when there are high winds, low visibility, and not much wood for a fire.  Know your options and practice them!  Read 5 ways to send a distress signal.

10. Always Be Ready

We think of “readiness” as something we do, but readiness can also be regarded as a skill.  And, like all skills, readiness is something that needs to be learned and practiced.

Being ready means going through all of the worst-case scenarios in your head and thinking of what you’d do in that situation.  Is there anything you could do to make the outcome better – like packing more gear or practicing skills?

To get started with readiness, I recommend performing Emergency Conditioning Training.  It not only helps you find holes in your plans, but ensures you are mentally prepared for whatever comes your way.

Cold-Weather Survival Kit List

When experienced backpackers, alpinists, dog mushers, and other winter athletes go out in the freezing weather, they always carry emergency supplies with them.   Make sure you have:

  • Calorie-dense food: Emergency ration bars are a good option.
  • Extra water
  • Fire-starting kit: with tinder, a lighter, and a backup firestarter
  • Shovel: And an ice pick if the conditions require it
  • Closed-cell foam pad: You’ll want this to sit on, even in non-survival situations
  • Spare hat, gloves, buff, and socks: It’s very easy to lose these or they can get wet. Bring backups.
  • Extra mid layer
  • Chemical hand warmer packets
  • Emergency Mylar bivvy and/or tarp
  • Headlamp
  • First aid kit
  • Emergency signaling device
  • Cooking pot and white gas stove
  • Tools: Knife, folding saw, ax…
  • Candle lantern: Ones like the UCO lantern can be used to heat a shelter. Read about the best emergency lanterns.

Remember: You might never get lost in a snow storm, but winter breakdowns do occur.  So also make sure you’ve got a kit in your vehicle. Here’s a winter survival gear checklist for your vehicle.

What do you carry in your winter survival kit?  Let us know in the comments.

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