Winter Survival: Tips for Staying Warm in the Wilderness


How to Stay Warm in a Winter Wilderness

Without the benefit of central heating, a warm car, or access to a heated public building, wilderness survival in winter months can be tricky. The following list contains essential knowledge for staying warm in winter when you’re out in the wilderness, plus some cold weather dangers to look out for.

Staying Warm in a Winter Wilderness

The Dangers of Getting Cold in the Wilderness

Whether you’re camping, backpacking, living off the grid, or in a survival situation, you’ll need to consider your options for staying warm in all kinds of weather. That’s tougher than it sounds when you’re far from civilization.

Everything you need must fit in your pack or have space for in your shelter. That means you probably won’t have room for a fancy generator, extra fuel, or a hot tub.

Ok, so I’m kidding about the hot tub, but staying warm in winter really is no joke. The dangers of getting cold in the winter wilderness go further than a mild case of the chills or a runny nose.

A backpacker attempting to stay warm in a winter wilderness.
If you are stuck in a situation like this, staying warm should be your top priority.
  • Sluggishness. As your body cools, you will begin to feel sleepy and sapped of energy. This will keep you from moving quickly enough to stay alive in an emergency. Sluggishness will also prevent you from having the necessary energy to complete physically demanding survival tasks such as building a shelter or digging for food.
  • Brain fog. Brain fog happens when your blood cools and slows, bringing less oxygen to your brain. This will slow your thinking and may even cause confusion, which contributes to poor decision-making.
  • Shivers. Uncontrollable shaking is one of the first signs that the cold is getting to you. It makes it difficult to light fires, tie proper knots, and take care of other essential survival needs. Shivers also have a mental impact, even on the toughest survivors.
  • Frostnip and frostbite. When the water molecules in your body begin to freeze, you’re looking at frostbite, which can irreversibly damage skin, muscles, and your nervous system. Frostnip is the stage before frostbite, an early warning, so try to catch it before it escalates. Better yet, take measures to avoid frostnip in the first place.
  • Hypothermia. This is the big bad boogeyman of winter wilderness survival. When your body’s core temperature dips below 95° F, hypothermia sets in. Approximately 600 people die every year from hypothermia, many of which could have survived if they’d had the right knowledge.

Frostnip and Frostbite

When tissues cool and blood vessels constrict, you get frostnip. It’s not permanent, but if left untreated, you’ll quickly slip into frostbite territory. There’s no coming back from that. Once your tissues are damaged by frostbite, those cells are dead. Here are some signs of frostnip and frostbite:

  • A cold or numb feeling in the affected area
  • Pale or red skin
  • “Pins and needles” feeling in the area
  • Itchy, tingly, or clammy skin
  • Loss of sensation to cold
  • Loss of elasticity and pliability in your skin
  • Increasing pain

Frostnip symptoms include a cold or numb feeling in the affected area, pale or red skin, and sometimes the “pins and needles” prickling of restricted blood flow. In one word, frostnip is irritating.

Your skin will feel itchy, tingly, and possibly clammy. It’s important to note that frostnip leaves your skin’s pliability and softness intact so these aren’t good indicators of potential damage.

If you can’t get the affected skin to warm up again, you’ll need to watch out for frostbite. Signs of frostbite include skin turning whiter or paler, loss of sensation of cold, skin losing elasticity and pliability, and increasing pain. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you can do for full-blown frostbite other than warm yourself up so as to prevent further damage, so avoidance is your best course of action.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is even more worrisome than frostbite since this condition can quickly lead to death. If you happen to be in the wilderness alone, getting hypothermia is basically a death sentence unless you move quickly to treat it. Here are some signs of hypothermia you need to be aware of.

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech
  • Weak pulse
  • Shallow breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Poor coordination
  • Memory loss and confusion
  • Loss of consciousness

Because of the confusion, memory loss, and the potential for loss of consciousness associated with hypothermia, it’s very difficult to self-diagnose this condition. If you suspect you may have hypothermia, you must take immediate measures to warm up and get yourself protected from the elements.

Staying Warm in a Winter Wilderness

By now you can see that many complications of cold-weather wilderness survival can be life-threatening. Obviously, focusing on prevention and mitigation of damages is your best bet for survival.

What do you do if you get stuck in the wilderness longer than you expected or you’re caught totally off guard? For those times you find yourself in a less than ideal situation, all is not lost. Your knowledge may be all the prepping you need. Below, are some of my tried and true tips for staying warm in harsh winter weather.

Basic rules of winter survival.

Basic Rules of Winter Survival

  • Cover Your Mouth – This has nothing to do with manners and everything to do with preventing freezing air from entering your lungs. If you suffer from asthma, have a cold, or are prone to breathing issues, this tip is especially vital.
  • Stay Dry – Wet clothes in winter are an invitation for hypothermia and frostbite. I know it’s difficult to stay totally dry in the rain and snow, but that’s why you should have those two extra sets of clothes in your bag. Dry your adventuring clothes overnight and wear your warm, dry stuff while you sleep.
  • Avoid Overexerting Yourself – Of course, building your shelter and finding food is important, but not at the cost of overexertion. If you overexert yourself, you’ll be drenched in sweat. Sweating will cause you to become hypodermic much more quickly.
  • Don’t Sit Still Too Long – There is a fine line between overexertion and being too still. Inactivity will slow your heart and cool your limbs, so try to keep moving a reasonable amount. Passive exercise works well in tight quarters.
  • Dress in Loose Layers – Layers trap air between them, which makes you warmer than wearing one thick layer. Plus, it saves room in your bug out bag for more important items like food and water. Wear three to five layers, making sure the top layer is wind and water resistant.
  • Stay Near Your Shelter – You’ll need to find food and water, but don’t stray too far from your shelter. An unexpected change in the weather could leave you stranded too far from base camp and end in your demise. You should never leaving a suitable shelter in search of help in a winter wilderness you aren’t familiar with.
  • Never Sleep on the Ground – The ground is cold and also often wet in the mornings especially. If you can, build some type of platform to get yourself off the ground. Even a layer of plastic bags or a simple tarp would be better than sleeping directly on the ground, so get creative if you must.

Shelter Is Your New God

This means you better be prepared to work. Whether you create an action plan and gather your shelter supplies before the big event or you end up winging it, shelter should be your top priority for winter survival.

Shelter provides protection from the elements—rain, snow, dropping temperatures, biting winds—and a place to store your gear and supplies. Your job is to hunker down and stay alive, and you can’t do that without shelter. The winter months are unforgiving, so build a shelter that can withstand Mother Nature’s worst.

5 Types of Winter Wilderness Shelters

In a wilderness setting, you can make a quick, sturdy shelter using what nature itself has provided. Look for large trees, rocks, fallen branches, saplings, and natural land formations that you can use to your advantage.

Tree and Bush Shelters

Using trees and bushes as shelter shouldn’t be your whole winter survival plan. It’s just not sustainable, comfortable, or suitable for long-term survival. Besides, you can’t start a fire under them, and you’ll need to have a fire at some point if you want to make it. However, in a pinch when there isn’t time to construct a proper shelter, this just may keep you alive.

  1. Spruce trees are well-suited for human shelter since they provide a sturdy, nearly-impenetrable canopy. They usually have a thick bed of needles beneath them to lay the groundwork for a comfortable bed. Plus, the trunks of many types of mature trees can be big enough to provide a natural windbreak.
  2. If there are no spruce trees in your area, you can use any tree that has a good canopy and a thick trunk. Avoid trees that are leaning heavily to one side or that have roots coming up out of the ground. Heavy snow could topple this behemoth at any moment.
  3. If the branches are too low for you to scoot under, cut or break a few off to make a suitable area for you to climb inside.
  4. In a pinch, you can slide under heavy brush or deep inside evergreen bushes. Watch out for animals hiding in these locations, though. Some won’t be as willing to give up their home when you come barging in.

To maximize the warmth inside this type of shelter, try to make it on the smaller side and pile up debris on all sides of the shelter. The debris can act as insulation and keep your body heat from escaping to get you through the night alive.

Hallowed Logs

Hollowed logs work a lot like the tree and bush emergency shelters. You may need to dig into them a little bit to make enough room, but they’re already raised off the ground and provide their own cover, so it’s a trade-off.

  1. Find a down tree with a trunk that is starting to rot from the inside out. This means the center of the log will be brittle or even already partially hallow, while the outside will be intact.
  2. Use a tool such as a strong shovel, trowel, or hand axe to carve away at the center of the log and hallow out an area big enough for you to climb inside. Watch for large insects while doing this.
  3. Once the interior of the tree is relatively clean, climb inside.
  4. For added warmth, consider piling debris around the open end of the log to keep cold air out and body heat in. Make sure that you still have a way for fresh air to get in at night.

Hallowed logs can be great in an emergency if you stumble across just the right tree or log that is in the correct stage of decay. Don’t waste your time trying to hallow out a downed tree that is not already somewhat rotten, it will take far too much work.

Like the other tree and bush-based shelters, you don’t want to rely on a hollow log for too long. It’s great in a pinch, and will get you out of the elements, but it’s not practical for a long term stay.

Tip: A bonus to finding a big log like this is that any pieces you dig and scoop out will make awesome kindling for starting a fire. Also, Grubs love to live in rotting trees and make a crispy treat when cooked over a fire!

Tarp Shelters

Tarp shelters are simple to construct, assuming you have some basic survival gear in your bug out bag. A tarp and a little bit of military grade para-cord are all you need to stay warm and dry. A roll of duct tape wouldn’t hurt either for closing up the ends of the shelter, and also many other survival purposes.

For the following draping techniques, keep one end open and higher than the other. This gives you room to crawl in and lets rain and snow slide off the other side. The duct tape will keep the flaps in the back closed. If you don’t have duct tape, use heavy rocks placed around the tarp tent to keep it from flapping in the wind.

  1. Drape your tarp over a large log, low branch, or fallen tree. This is good enough for a fast, temporary shelter for 1 – 2 days. Heavy rocks on the outside edges will keep the wind out.
  2. Drape the tarp over a branch or tall bush about chest-height or above for a larger shelter. This is suitable for 1 – 7 days, typically. It’s a good choice for a hunting or trapping camp if you’ve already spotted animal activity nearby.
  3. String rope or para-cord up tight in the trees, then drape the tarp over the para-cord for a taller shelter. The cord and tarp shelter offers more room for a survival fire and a bit more leg room without sacrificing heat retention. This is a great option for a longer stay. It provides a suitable base for adding layers to the outside walls for more insulation. As long as your cord holds and your frame is sturdy, you can add more wind and rain protection on top as well. Branches, plastic sheeting, animal skins, and newspapers work well with this type of shelter.

Video: 5 Different Tarp Based Shelters

In this video, the host demonstrates construction of five different tarp based shelters. This includes how to tie off the shelter and methods for keeping warm in cold environments. This is a very useful video!

Snow Trench

A snow trench can save your life if conditions are so bad that you can’t get under the trees or construct a tarp tent before dark. A lot of people are hesitant to think of snow as an option for constructing a warm shelter, after all, snow is cold right?!

Well it is, but it’s also a great construction material and highly insulating as well. Here’s how you build a snow trench shelter.

  1. Dig a narrow trench in the snow to mid-thigh and slightly wider than your shoulders.
  2. Place branches, boards, poles, or sticks across the trench to create a stable roof frame. Use blankets, tarps, camp towels, plywood, or more branches to completely cover the top of the trench.
  3. The final roof layer should be snow, which is an excellent insulator. Pad the inside of your trench with leaves, evergreen boughs, blankets, newspapers, or plastic bags. Then slide in. Your body will heat the trench enough to keep you alive until daybreak.

If you need a better idea on how the construction of a snow trench shelter is done, this video shows snow trench shelter construction in action.

A basic lean to survival shelter.
A basic lean-to survival shelter with debris piled on top to act as insulation for keeping in body warmth. This lean-to has one end of the main support beam up against the trunk of a tree and the other on the ground.

Lean-To

A lean-to is a very basic survival shelter that consists of a horizontal main support beam across the top, and sticks or branches leaning up against this support on one or both sides. Here’s how to build a basic lean-to.

  1. Find a sturdy, straight branch and place it between two trees. You can support it by placing each end of this branch in the “V” of two branches in the support trees on either end, or by lashing it to the trees using cordage.
  2. For a smaller shelter, try making a lean-to with one end in a tree and the other down on the ground. This will make a smaller shelter which will help to keep in a body heat.
  3. Use smaller branches and lean them up along each side of the shelter (this is why this shelter is called a “lean-to”). This will complete the framework.
  4. For insulation, and to make the shelter more resistant to rain, pile up debris against this framework in cascading layers from the ground up. The thicker the debris pile is on each side, the more insulation you will have and the warmer it will be at night.

Lean-tos are easy to make using a variety of supplies. Ski poles, branches, wood planks—anything you can find that will make a sturdy frame and a sturdy roof is good enough. They’re excellent for long-term survival in the winter months.

It’s as simple as leaning poles, branches, or other stiff materials against another sturdy object to make a space below that’s big enough for you to lay or sit in.

Take a look at this video guide on building a lean-to like this.

Use of Fire

Shelter, food, water, and fire—these are the four things that will keep you alive. Fire can be extremely hard to create and maintain in winter conditions, so it’s always best to prepare in advance. Keep a fire-starting kit in your BOB, your car, and at your workplace so you’re never caught off-guard. If you find yourself in the dead of winter with no lighter, you can try some of these clever methods to get a fire going without a lighter.

You’ll want to start collecting firewood right away. Pick up whatever you see and hang it from your pack to dry as you walk. If it’s raining or snowing, stick it inside your pack. It won’t dry very fast in there, but at least it won’t be getting wetter either. Anything on top of the snow will be easier to light than the stuff under the snow that’s been soaking up water for days.

You’ll need a significant amount of kindling for winter fires. Smaller is better, so shave it down or snap wood into pieces and collect the splinters and small bits into a pile.

It’s tempting to create a roaring fire on these cold winter nights, but that’s a great way to get yourself dead. Everything is harder to find in the winter, so conservation of firewood should be a priority. Keep the fire small and protected, feed it only enough to keep it burning and your water boiling, and be ready to scrounge in the coals the next morning for anything that’s dry and still burnable.

Staying Warm Overnight

In the daytime, you can move around and produce body heat to keep you warm. But at night, your breathing slows and your body starts to cool off. You’ll need warm layers, a dry shelter, and good insulation to make it through the night. Use these methods to add a little more warmth to your nights.

  • Tea candles are tiny but surprisingly good heaters on freezing nights. They’re easy to keep in your BOB and weigh practically nothing. In a well-built shelter, you can use one small tea candle to stay warm. Take care to place the candle in a location that won’t catch you or your shelter on fire while you sleep. I like putting them in tall mason jars and tucking them near the sealed back of the shelter where my head will be while I’m sleeping.
  • Survival blankets trap heat and keep you warm in the coldest weather. They’re light enough to pack around but sturdy enough for some tougher applications—such as use as a temporary roof for a snow trench.
  • Newspapers, plastic sheets, plastic bags, leaves, and evergreen boughs can keep you warm if you don’t have a blanket. They also make great sleeping mats.
  • Hand warmers are light, cheap, and easy to use. Keep a few in your BOB for the times when you can’t get a fire going or it would be dangerous to have one.
  • Hot stones from your fire can prolong the heat production in your shelter without risking catching everything on fire. Place them around you at bedtime or in a pile nearby to extend their heating time.
  • Use passive exercise to keep your blood flowing. Tense and relax your muscles for a few minutes to raise your body temperature and help warm up your sleeping area. This works great in sleeping bags, but if you only have leaves, branches, and a snow trench, passive exercise will still help.
  • Make sure your socks are dry before going to bed. It doesn’t take long for damp socks to freeze, even inside a sleeping bag or under some makeshift bedding.

Important Winter Survival Gear to Have

There are many articles online covering survival gear in general, but not as many good ones for winter-specific conditions. So, here’s my personal list of winter survival gear—just add these items to your bug out bag (BOB), and you’re good to go for even the harshest winter survival situations.

  • Hatchet for cutting down small trees or digging out logs. It works great for shaving wood for kindling, too.
  • Small shovel. You’ll need this for emergency shelters such as the snow trench and for digging under the snow when foraging for food.
  • Two extra layers of clothing. I bring long johns and workout clothes. Use whatever will fit under your regular clothes and will fit in your BOB. Choose loose-fitting items that dry quickly.
  • Ski mask, balaclava, face shields, or even a simple bandanna.
  • Have two pairs of important clothing so one can dry while you wear the other.
  • Hand warmers.
  • Extra socks. Bring two more pairs than you think you’ll need.
  • Fire equipment, including matches, lighter, flint and steel, and a small amount of dry kindling.
  • Canteen to keep close to your body, under your clothes, to ensure you always have water.

Tip: Synthetic materials dry very quickly if they get wet and are a great alternative to cotton clothing.

S.O.L. – Survive Outdoors Emergency Escape Bivvy

This the very same escape bivvy (or emergency sleeping bag) that I keep in my bug out bag. I love it because it’s:

  • Inexpensive
  • Super light weight and packs down to slightly bigger than a soda can
  • Very warm in a winter environment but still “breathes” so there are no condensation problems at night
  • Made to use outdoors without a shelter if needed

This checked all the boxes for me which is why I rely on it myself. It’s small enough that I don’t need to worry about strapping it to the outside of my bug out bag and I just pack it inside without any issues.

Conclusion

Winter survival is not going to be easy. It’s not going to be fun. But it can be done if you are prepared, never stop working through the challenge, and get creative.

Though the world hasn’t ended yet, I have used all these tips at one time or another. Rolling blackouts, the threat of local civil unrest, getting trapped after an accident, being stuck in the woods after a camping trip. . . I even lived unintentionally off-grid in the dead of winter in the middle of the woods for three months.

My life has been very exciting, but I’m ready for more. Who knows? Maybe we’ll meet up after the end of the world and swap survival stories.

Do you have other ideas for how to stay warm in a winter wilderness survival situation? Share with others in the comments below!

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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