Winter poses a genuine survival risk. Every year people die from exposure and sub-zero temperatures from being stranded in cars or lost in a blizzard. The winter season can bring unpredictable weather patterns where temperatures can plummet as wind-chill can send the thermostat to double digits below zero. Exposed to these temperatures, you wouldn’t last the night.
Whether you are traveling through snowy mountains or staying at a backcountry cabin, winter presents some unique challenges that can quickly turn. If you live in a climate where the weather can change quickly, being prepared with the proper knowledge and gear can mean the difference between life and death.
Having a survival kit containing basic survival items like food, water, fire and shelter can be critical in an emergency situation if you are stranded, lost, or stuck in snowy conditions.
In this guide, we’ll talk about how you can survive the bitter cold by dressing warm, by being able to build a survival shelter, by carrying the necessary supplies so that if disaster comes knocking, you will be ready.
Winter Survival Tips: The Basics of Winter Survival
Freezing temperatures are a threat not only to those traveling through the mountains but even if you are staying indoors. The basic thing to understand is that you need to keep yourself warm and dry. This means finding a heat source to keep your inner core warm and creating a shelter to protect you from the wind and cold.
1. Dress in Layers
The basic principle of keeping warm is to wear several layers of clothing. This traps air in between the layers of cloth, creating a microenvironment that retains heat. This process is called insulation. When dressing for the cold, remember that wind chill can drastically reduce your core temperature.
The best way to stave off the chill is by wearing layers with the outermost being a Gortex, or Windstopper. Even if your body is warm enough because you’ve layered up (or down) correctly, the wind can strip away this layer of heat protection and leave you exposed and more susceptible to hypothermia. This is why it is important to have not only a warm coat but also a windproof outer layer.
2. Survival Shelter
The most important part of winter survival is finding a suitable shelter for the night when temperatures can really plummet. Finding refuge for the night is so important because your body loses heat much faster when it’s exposed to the elements.
There are several different types of shelters:
Natural Winter Shelters
- Caves or rock outcrops, big boulders, overhangs, rock walls, or anything that provides a barrier from the wind can be used for protection.
- Fallen down trees can be used to prop up against by using fallen tree branches, debris, or sticks to create a shelter makeshift shelter.
- Underneath pine trees provide a good source of protection from snow and wind.
Man-made Winter Survival Shelters
Snow caves are the most basic type of snow shelter which is just a hole in the ground. Depending on how much snow is on the ground, you can take it a step further and dig a full-on snow cave. Creating a deeper cave will provide a natural wind barrier and also act as an insulator. Other variations of a snow cave can be anything from a snow trench to a free-standing igloo.
Lean-to shelters are shelters that lean against rocks, stumps, or fallen trees using tree branches, leaves, debris, or anything that’s lying on the forest floor. This type of shelter can be more ad hoc rather than anything sophisticated.
The idea is to get as much insulation on both the ground and above you on the roof so as to act as an insulator from the outside freezing temperatures.
For insulation, you can use just about anything including:
- Tall grass or leaves
- Plastic tarp
- Trash bag
- Pine tree boughs
3. Making a Fire
Fire is an essential element for survival. Not only does fire provide a way to create warmth in a potentially inhospitable environment, but it can also be a big morale boost if you are stuck in the wilderness by yourself. Something about the light and warmth that a fire brings seems to dispel the darkness and fear that can easily creep in in a survival situation.
There are a number of ways you can get a fire going using anything like:
- Matches or lighter
- Flint and steel
- Rubbing two sticks together
- Bow and drill
- Ferro Rod
- Magnifying glass
We won’t go into the details of how to make a fire here, but we will say that it is always good to have at least two to three different fire-starting devices just in case.
4. Food and Water
It is important that you find and consume enough water. It is actually quite easy to become dehydrated in the cold as the body will not feel like drinking water as much as when it is hot out, which can quickly sneak up on you. The human body will start to shut down when it is dehydrated, so it’s imperative that you drink enough water to have the necessary energy to meet the situation at hand.
Note: It's important to remember not to eat snow. If you are already cold and dehydrated, then eating snow will decrease your body temperature. The energy that it takes for the body to break down solid snow into water and warm up to match your body temperature will only make you more dehydrated.
It’s always better to try and have a freshwater source or that you boil the snow first before you drink it.
Food also provides energy which will help keep you warm. Your body will burn a lot more calories in colder environments, and if you are active you can burn up to:
“3,632 to 4,317 kcal/d…and in more highly strenuous circumstances in the cold, requirements of 4,200 to around 5,000 kcal/d…may be required.”
How to Survive Extreme Cold in a Survival Situation
If you are in a survival situation and are exposed to the elements, do not have the right clothes, and do not have a fire, you are in serious risk of developing hypothermia or frostbite.
How to Survive Hypothermia?
If your body temperature drops below 95°F, you’re at a major risk for hypothermia. Without a thermometer, a doctor or a hospital, it may not be very easy to tell if you have hypothermia. Some indicators, according to the Mayo clinic, are lack of coordination and slurred speech.
It’s important to take steps to prevent this from happening by:
- Staying dry, warm, and out of the wind as much as possible
- Wear enough layers of clothing
- Drinking enough floods
If you’re already feeling hypothermic, there are a few steps you can take:
- Find shelter, get rid of wet clothes, and put on dry clothes
- Drink warm liquids
- Wrap yourself in warm blankets, layers of clothing, or a sleeping bag
- Place yourself next to a heat source whether its a fire or heater
- Monitor breathing
- Use warm dry compresses on the core of the body
- Seek medical help
Things NOT to do
- Do not rub or massage your skin vigorously if you are hypothermic, as it could cause cardiac arrest.
- Do not apply a warm compress to the extremities as this forces cold blood back toward the heart and brain which will cause the body temperature to decline further.
- Do not apply direct heat to the skin due to the sensitivity as the skin will not be able to gauge the temperature appropriately
How to Survive Frostbite?
Frostbite is a very real danger if you are in an environment that is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature is not below 32, you should be ok, if there is no wind and if you are not wet. Wind chill, being cold and being exposed the cold air are the main culprits that usually lead to frostbite.
Frostbite happens when ice crystals form in the cells, which may result in a feeling of pins and needs, numbness and tingling in the area. The skin will become hard, may turn white, and eventually black as the skin cells die.
Frostbite affects exposed limbs and skin, so things you can do to avoid getting frostbite.
- Wear enough layers of protective clothing so that your skin and limbs are not exposed
- Make sure your clothes are dry
- Wear a synthetic windbreaker, or hardshell jacket to stop the wind from penetrating your core
- Wrap yourself in blankets, sleeping bags or layers of clothing
If you think you have frostbite:
- Ensure you are in a warm environment
- Slowly warm the area by keeping it close to the body or covering it a towel
- Seek medical help
If you have frostbite, things that you should NOT DO are:
- Do not pour hot water on the affected area
- Do not rub the affected area
For more: How to Survive in Freezing Cold Water
Winter Survival Emergency Kit and Tips
When you are out in the environment, whether in your car, backcountry house, or camping in the mountains, you should have a wilderness survival kit. This will give you not only a fire starter, compass, emergency food, and water, but also headlamps, whistles, and a first aid kit should anything go wrong. Here are a few more winter survival tips to know before you head on out for your winter fun.
- Bring a first aid kit and basic supplies
- Always check the weather beforehand
- Tell someone where you are going
- Bring a map of the area you will be going
- Learn how to navigate with a compass
- Bring a cell phone for emergencies
- Bring important survival gear to make a fire, filter water, and provide shelter
The key to survival in winter conditions is preparation. It’s important to always plan ahead, and bring extra supplies like water, food bars, fire starters and flares just in case anything goes wrong while hiking or camping during the winter months.
You also want to make sure that someone knows where you are going and when they can expect you back- this way, if an emergency happens, then there will be a designated person who will know what needs to happen for rescue services. Most all winter accidents are preventable, and with the right knowledge and gear, you should have no problems.