Cold Weather Survival Tips and Skills

Surviving when you are cut off from the support net of society is extremely difficult under even optimal conditions.  Cold weather survival situations add significant additional challenges which must be trained and planned for.  These challenges can be overcome by gaining cold weather survival knowledge and experience as well as  tailoring your bug out bag as we mentioned in our recent article covering cold weather survival gear.  In this article we will review the most essential cold weather survival tips to practice and employ when beating the cold.

cold weather survival

Keeping Warm During Cold Weather Survival

A key to cold weather survival is keeping your core temperature warm.  A combination of shorter days (less sunlight), wind chill, lower temperatures, and ice and snow will conspire to steal body heat and energy away from you.  Your body will have to work harder and consume more calories to keep you warm.  In order to stay warm practice the following cold weather survival tips:

Dress in layers

This is the best way to regulate your body temperature while surviving in the cold.  Multiple layers are better than one thick layer because they trap air between them.  This air is then warmed by your body and acts as an insulator against the cold.  Start off with a light wicking layer to keep perspiration away from your skin and build up from there.  Three to five layers are good for most adults.  The outer layer should always be wind and waterproof to minimize heat exchange and keep water out.  Layers are additionally excellent at regulating temperature because you can add or remove them if you find yourself to be cold or hot.  If you are travelling with children a good rule of thumb is to dress them in one more layer than you have on to keep them warm.

Keep active

Keeping yourself active will keep your heart rate up and maintain a good flow of warm blood to your extremities.  It is important to not overexert yourself however.  If you become drenched in sweat this moisture will sap heat away from you.  Keep a moderate pace for your activities whether hiking or building a shelter.  Maintain your temperature by removing clothing layers to keep warm but not hot.  Slow down or stop to rest periodically to avoid burning yourself out.

Keep fuel in the tank

As you will be burning a lot of energy keeping active and keeping your temperature up you will need to consume extra calories and drink extra liquids to keep your body going.  It is important to pack extra high calorie/low weight rations in your bug out bag.  This may include nuts, granola bars, energy gels, or powerbar type foods.  To keep hydrated pack gatorade powder, which can be mixed with water or melted snow.  This will keep you hydrated far better than water alone.

Cover Your Head

Up to 90% of the heat you lose will be through your head if you do not keep it covered.  Keeping a hood up or hat on will keep this heat in as well as keep your head dry if you are working in snow.  Also this is the easiest layer to remove if you find yourself getting hot.  Keep your head covered to keep that precious heat in!

Cold Weather Survival Tips

Surviving in cold weather requires the same basic survival skills as in any other environment.  It is necessary however to add to your skill set as some tasks become more difficult under cold weather survival conditions.

Cold Weather Shelter Building

Building a survival shelter should be a top priority during cold weather survival.   A good shelter will keep out the wind and damp as well as keep heat in.  Cold weather survival provides some additional challenges as well as benefits to survival shelter building.

A basic A-frame or Lean-to shelter works well using branches and piling snow on top.  Snow is an excellent insulator and makes a great outer layer of a shelter.  If you have chosen to include an emergency blanket, poncho, or tarp in your bug out bag essentials, any of these items can be used to form the roof of your shelter if laid upon the frame of branches.  Using one of the items as a ground cloth will additionally insulate a shelter against cold and damp.  An important thing to consider when building a cold weather survival shelter is that if you are going to build a fire in a shelter be sure it is ventilated with a chimney to avoid suffocation.  Check out the below videos for instructions on building a winter survival shelter.

Fire

Fire is essential in a cold weather survival scenario for two reasons:

  1. Keeping Warm – this is obvious but its importance cannot be overstated.  Having a fire will raise your morale and keep the spectre of freezing related medical problems out of your mind.
  2. Melting Snow – This will give you a nearly limitless water supply while surviving.  Boil the water from melted snow to ensure any pathogens are killed.

When gathering wood in a winter survival situation be it is preferable to collect branches that are not lying in the snow as the moisture from snowbound wood will make it harder to burn.  Look for dead branches in the lower parts of trees in the area.  For more tips on fire building check out our article on Basic Survival Skills.

Cold Weather First Aid

The two biggest medical problems found in cold weather survival are hypothermia and frostbite.  Both of these are very dangerous and need to be watched out for at all times.  Familiarize yourself with the symptoms and treatments for these two conditions:

Hypothermia

A condition where one’s body temperature drops below the ability to self-regulate.  This typically begins when the core temperature goes below 95F degrees.  It can happen easily if someone falls into a cold stream or frozen lake and must be addressed quickly to increase a person’s chances for survival.

Symptoms
  • Shivering

  • Loss of coordination

  • Weak pulse

  • Drowsiness

  • Slow speech

  • Confusion or memory loss

Treatment
  • If possible seek emergency medical attention

  • Remove any wet clothes and replace them with dry ones or a dry blanket/sleeping bag, etc

  • Protection from wind or anything else that may cause further heat loss

  • Seek shelter

  • Warm the person up by putting them in a shelter, bringing them near a fire or using your own body heat

  • Drinking warm liquids can also be used to bring a person’s temperature back up

Frostbite

This occurs when a body part (usually an extremity or an exposed ear or nose) becomes so cold that ice crystals begin to form in the tissues.  It should be treated immediately and can lead to the loss of the frostbitten body part!

Symptoms
  • Numbness in the affected area

  • White patches on skin, these will turn black in severe frostbite

  • Hardening of the affected area

Treatment
  • Seek emergency medical attention if possible

  • The affected area should be gradually warmed up by moving to a warmer area such as a shelter or near a fire and covering it from the elements

  • Warm water can also be used

  • Care needs to be take to not place anything hot on the affected area as this can cause burns that are not felt due to numbness

  • Try not to walk on frostbitten toes or feet as this can cause additional damage

  • You should NEVER rub the affected area to warm it up

Cold Weather Survival

Conclusion

Cold weather survival can be a brutal and trying circumstance.  However with some planning and the addition of some carefully chosen cold weather survival gear you can greatly increase your chances of success.  There is no replacement however for experience and knowledge.  If you live in a cold weather area try going out in the woods for a weekend with your bug out bag and cold weather survival gear to practice making a shelter and fire with the contents you have with you.  This will test your abilities and show you where you need to expand your knowledge or if your gear (including your cold weather clothing) is up to the task.  Remember, chance favors the well prepared.

Your Thoughts?

Do you have any cold weather survival tips that you want to share?  Have you had to survive in freezing conditions yourself?  Please let us know in the Comments Section below.

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Chris

Chris Ruiz

My name is Chris and I created this site to help ordinary people prepare for the uncertainties of the modern day world. I believe that a well-prepared society is the best safeguard against any natural or manmade disaster.

4 comments on “Cold Weather Survival Tips and Skills

  1. Actually shivering only occurs in the early stages of hypothermia. As the condition worsens the patient will stop shivering. Not shivering when they should be or you should be is a clear indication of hypothermia and that immediate intervention and treatment is needed.

  2. Fleece is excellent. fleece shirts, jackets, blankets and sweaters will keep you warm in the coldest of weather. Don’t forget the fleece leggings. Wrap your fleece scarf around your head to keep your head and neck warm. Then reinforce with fleece scarf around the neck. You won’t feel a thing, not a hint of cold weather.

  3. I grew up learning to do things low-tech, and spending a lot of time in the mountains. In my teens I took off into the Coast Range of the Pacific Northwest for the winter with almost no gear. (Not the best choice ever…) I knew quite a bit about, but still learned a lot, the hard way….
    The first thing I would add to this article is that your clothing should never be remotely snug, or allowed to bunch up. Both can restrict circulation, which in turn cools the extremities. This absolutely includes boots. (I almost lost some toes to snugly tied boots.)
    My second addition would be not to eat snow. Cools the body, uses more energy, blah blah blah.
    Number three is to use chapstick, petroleum jelly, lard, or even ear wax to protect the more sensitive exposed skin from the cold wind. It may not sound like fun, but neither is the severe drying that can come with extended exposure to cold winds. Don’t forget the corners of your eyes, as they can be very problematic.
    Number four is to learn to make STURDY snow shoes. Wading through snow is not fun. Neither is breaking through one of your snow shoes and skewering your leg on the jagged point of a broken off sapling under the snow a few miles from camp.
    Maybe if I am going to write a book I should do it somewhere other than the comments section of someone else’s site…..

  4. I grew up in Eastern Ore. on a working cattle and sheep ranch. In the days before Gortex and a lot of the gear we now have. I learned early not to rely on your gear. Try to learn how to survive without all of the fancy gear. Equipment can be lost, knowledge is yours wherever or whenever you need it. You can practice many skills in your back yard.

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