Winter Survival Basics : How to Survive The Cold

When envisioning a hike through the woods or an impromptu camping trip, most people naturally imagine a balmy summer day. Unfortunately, we don’t always get …

When envisioning a hike through the woods or an impromptu camping trip, most people naturally imagine a balmy summer day. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to pick the day that we are caught in a survival situation. While every climate has its unique survival challenges, most experts agree that winter survival is among the most difficult to withstand. Given the inherent rigors of serving in a frigid or snowy environment, preparedness is more important than ever. Here are the winter wilderness survival tips you need to stay safe.

Focus on the Basics of Winter Survival

Winter in the wilderness can be an absolutely beautiful experience, but it can also become extremely dangerous if you are not prepared and focused. Whether you intended to camp during the winter or you simply found yourself in an unplanned predicament, the basics are the same. Basic winter survival techniques require knowing how to make a shelter, build a fire, prepare food and water, and make your way to safety.

Winter Survival Shelter

Finding shelter is always a crucial element to survival, but it becomes truly paramount in a snow survival situation. Your best-case scenario is to have a four-season rated tent. These insulated tents are designed to protect you from the elements, and they are an absolute must if you purposefully hike or camp during the winter season.

Of course, we do not always have the luxury of packing the proper gear. In these times, you need to learn how to construct your own shelter. While constructing an elaborate shelter can make for a better night’s sleep, conservation of energy is also a key consideration. The U.S. Marine Corps official training suggests that a horseshoe configured rampart is the most efficient and effective survival shelter. In other words, a snow wall.

To build a snow wall, pile up or dig out snow until you have a U-shaped wall roughly three feet high. Depending on the composition of the snow, you may need to reinforce the walls with branches, rocks, or gear. Once you have created a comfortable alcove, you can top the structure with a jacket, poncho, or foliage. If at all possible, position your shelter so that the open end is downwind.

Snow provides a surprising degree of insulation, and this should trap enough heat to keep you safe. You won’t be toasty, but you should avoid hypothermia.

Building a Fire for Snow Survival

Perhaps the most important skill for any survival situation is the ability to improvise a fire. Of course, this is absolutely critical among a list of winter survival skills. As with other survival aspects, preparedness can make your life a lot easier in this context. If you intend to venture into the wilderness during the harsh months of the year, never depart without a basic complement of fire-starting gear. The specifics can vary, but this is a situation where having multiple options is a wonderful asset.

Consider bringing various types of kindling such as dryer lint, newspaper, or fatwood sticks. Double up on your sparking options, too. You should always have a flint with you, but there is no reason to not also pack a lighter and some waterproof matches. You will never regret having a backup plan.

If you did not have the opportunity to pre-assemble your fire kit, you will have to improvise from the resources around you. The specifics will depend on your location, but it is often possible to find dry leaves or other plant material to use as kindling. Finding dry material can be difficult in a snowy region, so always look underneath logs and boughs for twigs that have been sheltered from the moisture.

When improvising a fire, always be generous with the amount of kindling you use. If you don’t have a fire starter, you will likely have to resort to a bow drill. This is a tedious process but can work with enough perseverance. Once you see a spark amid your tinder, slowly blow onto the flames until it grows. Be very careful to add more material slowly, as choking a fire can easily restart the process.

Food and Hydration

One of the most challenging aspects of winter survival training is consuming enough calories to survive. In frigid climates, our bodies have to constantly work to maintain our core temperature. Combine this with the inherent physicality of hiking in snow and building a shelter, and you will be going through a lot of calories in short order. If there is any chance you might find yourself being in a cold climate for an extended period of time, make food a priority. Energy density is your friend here, so focus on fatty snacks like nuts, meat, and chocolate. Winter survival isn’t a time to worry about your waistline.

Staying hydrated is another challenge for how to survive in the snow. In some ways, locating water is much easier in a winter scenario because there is likely snow all around you. While most snow is safe to consume, there is a caveat. When you consume something cold, you are lowering the temperature of your body. Thus, your metabolism has to expend energy to make up this delta. Think of it as heating your house. If you open a window and let the crisp winter air blow in, your furnace is going to have to run longer to maintain the set temperature. Because of this, consuming too much snow can put you at a higher risk of exhaustion or hypothermia. If at all possible, heat your water before drinking it. At the very least, finding running water will guarantee that the temperature is somewhat higher.

Be Mindful of Sweat

It may seem odd to worry about sweating in a winter survival guide. However, sweat can be a surprisingly dangerous situation in the dead of winter. You will be expending a lot of energy while building a shelter and stoking a fire. Thus, you are likely to build up a sweat, especially if you are lucky enough to have a proper jacket with you.

The issue is that this moisture can become trapped between your skin and your jacket, making your undergarments damp. Once you slow down for the evening, this moisture will work to wick heat from your body, making you significantly colder. As crazy as it sounds, you need to be very careful to not sweat too much in a winter situation. Pace yourself, and occasionally open your jacket to let your clothing breathe.


Winter is a beautiful time of year, and it is no surprise that the call of the wild beckons thousands of adventurers every year. If done properly, winter exploring and camping can be an awe-inspiring pastime that is both challenging and safe. However, the stakes are higher when the temperature is lower. Basic preparedness and a working knowledge of winter survival tips can be the difference between a fun adventure and a heart-breaking tragedy. If you think there is any chance of being in the cold for a long period of time, never overlook the basic survival gear. A little knowledge is all you need. As always, be prepared, be safe, and have fun.