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Winter Survival: How to Survive Outdoors in Harsh Weather

The first time I went winter camping, I found myself shaking miserably from the freezing cold – and that was even with all the expensive gear I’d brought along.

Now, I am a lot more prepared and have had a good time, even on some wilderness survival retreats with almost no gear at all.

The secret to winter survival isn’t just about gear. Pack all the stuff you want in your Bug Out Bag and it won’t help if you don’t know how and when to use it. (Btw, you can find a Complete 3-Day Bug Out Bag Checklist here)

Here are some winter survival tips for bugging out in the wilderness.If you have anything to add to this, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

Know How to Layer

When it comes to winter survival, layering is one of your most important tactics. Why is layering so important?

Because layering allows you to adjust your body temperature based on outside temperatures and activity level.

It is very important that you don’t start sweating in your clothes. As Princeton.edu writes,

Heat loss from a wet surface can be up to 25x greater than a dry surface!

Sweating also will cause you to lose water that you desperately need to avoid dehydration.

Winter Clothes Layers:

Layer 1

A lightweight layer of your shirt, pants, and socks. Choose merino wool or a synthetic (never cotton!) as these wick water away and dry quickly.

Layer 2

An insulating layer which will trap your body heat. Fleece is a good material for this. For your feet, wear another pair of socks over your base pair. Don’t put on too many socks though. You don’t want to cut off circulation and end up with frostbite.

Layer 3

Now you need a windproof and waterproof layer, yet one which is still breathable. There are many different materials but Gore-Tex is probably the most well-known.

Making a Winter Survival Shelter

snow cave
For bugging out in winter, pack a shovel in your BOB. You’ll need it to dig a snow cave survival shelter or a quinzee.

Alternatively, you can use a tent, tarp shelter, or degree shelter. (If it isn’t winter, you can use these survival shelters you can build in 20 minutes or less)

Snow Caves:

  • You’ll need at least 4 feet of snow
  • Make sure the snow cave is ventilated. Falling snow in front of the door can lead to suffocation.


  • Use your shovel to make a pile of snow
  • Pack the snow down hard (such as by stomping it)
  • Now dig a cave into the pile of snow

Tent, Tarp and Brush Shelters:

  • Pack down the snow before setting up your tent. Your body heat will cause loose snow to melt and result in an uneven floor
  • Position the shelter away from wind, such as next to natural protection like a tree. A snow wall or wind barrier can be built to block wind
  • Use a landmark to make sure you can find your shelter again later

snow tent

Winter Survival Fires

When there is snow covering the ground, finding firewood can be tricky.

It is even harder to find good tinder for starting your fire.

And good luck using your survival knife to make a featherstick or shave off pieces of tinder when your hands are trembling from the cold!

  • As you hike, pick up any firewood you see
  • Use the “star” fire lay to preserve wood
  • Prepare ahead by making fire starters

Care for Your Hands and Feet

Frostbite on your hands and feet isn’t just painful and dangerous, but it means you won’t be able to use them anymore!

How are you supposed to walk to safety or do tasks like building a fire when your extremities are frostbitten?

  • Put hand warmers  (Amazon Link) in your Bug Out Bag
  • Boil water and put it into your water bottle. Hold onto it to keep your hands warm
  • Invest in good quality gloves and mittens to go on top of them. Likewise, get good mountaineering socks.
  • The best winter camping gloves I ever had were biking gloves. They were waterproof and windproof

Hydrate Smartly

It is easy to forget to hydrate when it is freezing cold outside. But still your body needs water to stay active.

  • Don’t eat frozen snow: Yes, it is water. But it will reduce your core temperature. Always melt snow before drinking it
  • Find a moving source of water, such as a river: This way you won’t have to melt snow
  • You still need to treat water: Generally, snow is very clean. However even glacial water and fresh snow can have bacteria and viruses if they formed around nucleation sites
  • Choose your water treatment method wisely: Filters like the Sawyer Mini will break if they freeze. Your best method of treating water in the winter is probably boiling
  • Turn Your Water Bottle Upside Down: Ice will form from the top down. If you turn your water bottle upside down, then the top of the water won’t freeze as quickly

Fight Condensation

vbl barrier
Condensation is your enemy when bugging out in winter!

If you’ve made a good shelter, then it will trap your body heat inside – which will then mix with the cold air and create condensation.

The last thing you want is to wake up soaking wet from the condensation!

  • Bring a towel for wiping condensation off your tent
  • Use a Vapor Barrier Liner (Amazon Link) in your sleeping bag: Condensation from your body can get into the upper layer of your sleeping bag. This condensation can then freeze! Arctic explorers know all about this and have to beat their sleeping bags each day to break the ice. A solution is to use a VPL to prevent condensation

Get Off the Ground

I hate Bear Grylls and he spouts a lot of stupid survival advice, but he’s not always wrong – like when he said that two layers on the bottom are worth one on the top.

When you sleep on the ground, you lose heat through conductive loss (meaning your heat goes into the ground).

  • If making a brush shelter, make a platform bed
  • Get a sleeping pad (Amazon Link) with at least an R value of 4
  • Use a closed-cell foam pad (Amazon Link) underneath your sleeping bag and pad

Recommended Reading – Choosing the Best Survival Sleeping Bag

Use a Pee Bottle

It is no fun getting out of your shelter to face the freezing cold to pee. Instead, utilize a pee bottle. Just pee in the bottle. Then put the pee bottle in your sleeping bag to help you stay warm.

If you don’t like the idea of a pee bottle (it’s more difficult for women), then boil water and make your own hot water bottle to put in your sleeping bag.

*Make sure you label your pee bottle well! You don’t accidentally want to drink your own pee.

Know Your Fuel

When the weather turns freezing cold, your emergency stove might not work anymore. Alcohol stoves are generally fine, but even these can freeze.

Your best bet is a white gas stove. Put your stove cartridges in your sleeping bag before using them so they warm up first.

Generate and Trap Heat

As Backpacker.com says, when you start to feel cold, don’t just sit there. There are things you can do to get yourself warm instead of succumbing to cold misery.

  • Get active: Go on a walk. Do jump and jacks. Do pushups from within your sleeping bag. These all generate metabolic heat
  • Put a tea candle in your shelter: You’d be surprised how much heat a small tea candle can produce. Put it in your boot or another fireproof place. Light it before going to sleep
  • Trap heat with a survival blanket: Drape a metallic survival blanket over your torso area to trap heat. You can also use your waterproof jacket. You want the layer to be lightweight though so it doesn’t push the air out of your sleeping bag which is acting like an insulating layer.

Recommended Reading:

Bonus Tips

  • Bring sunblock: Snow is reflective and can give you a mean burn!
  • Bring sunglasses or goggles: You want to keep that snow out of your eyes
  • Bring a headlamp: It’s better than a flashlight because it frees your hands
  • Use lithium batteries: These work best in cold weather. Next best are alkaline batteries.

Have you ever been in a winter survival situation? Let us know about your experience!

Image credit: By Josh Lewis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22295914

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  1. Get out of the clothes you wore that day and into Polypropylene long underwear before getting in your sleeping bag. Put a layer of Space blanket between your sleeping bag and the inflatable mattress. It works like a heating pad to keep you warm. Additionally eat high calorie items like Chocolate Bars, nuts, pasta , and Slim Jims to get your body furnace working if you get chilled at night. No Alcohol as it dehydrates you. Cover your head well ,as you loose heat through your head. Sleep Well.
    Tips from an Old Antarctic Explorer Association Member.


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