7 Critical Winter Survival Skills to Practice

Once again, winter is fast approaching, and just as season follows season that means the arrival of cold and oftentimes treacherous weather. You might like winter or you might resent it, but one thing you must do is respect it if for no other reason than it is statistically one of the most dangerous seasons, and it likely has always been that way.

The cold, bleak and often dim days of winter have long been associated with death, or near death. Most crops and vegetables will not grow, animals hibernate in their burrows, and much of what we associate with human activity and enterprise slows down or even halts entirely.

woods during winter

In many places throughout the world, winter serves to bring things to a standstill, a sort of silence over the land.

While the temperatures alone are enough to put your life in danger should you be exposed without adequate protection, accumulating snow and ice can also serve to disorient you, to make travel treacherous, and too greatly complicate activities and tasks that are trivial in warmer weather.

There is no reason to panic, no matter where you are going or where you live, but you must be prepared to survive winter’s chill.

In this article we will share with you seven critical winter survival skills that you should practice now to get ready for the challenges of winter weather ahead.

The Cold Embrace of Winter

One of the challenges of winter survival is it affects absolutely everything that you do. Travel, staying home, work, school, and especially dealing with additional emergencies and disasters. Sustained winter conditions will make all of that harder.

Operating motor vehicles become significantly more difficult or downright treacherous thanks to hazardous road conditions. If you have to work outside, or worse, should get stuck outside exposure will quickly become your number one threat, as prolonged exposure to cold weather and subsequent hypothermia will rapidly incapacitate you, and then kill you.

Each year in North America and Europe, alone tens of thousands die from cold weather exposure.

Your standard issue survival plans, especially pertaining to bugging out, will likely not go down quite the same way in the winter as they would the spring, summer or fall.

The previously mentioned road conditions will obviously be quite a wrench in the works, but even on-foot transit will be affected; certain routes will be made difficult to locate or follow, or simply impossible.

Obtaining water from natural sources will be far more challenging and laborious; it is hard to drink water that is frozen! You’ll need to thaw it first.

Even your daily readiness procedures will be impacted. Just ask anyone who carries a pistol for self-defense how challenging it gets keeping the gun accessible under bulky, heavy layers of suitable winter clothing.

The survival skills you will read below reflect this; some are skills that are simply endemic to winter survival, or survival in any perpetually cold region of the world. Others are a drastic enough modification of your usual day-to-day procedures that they belong on any list of winter-centric survival skills.

So without further ado grab your parka, lace up your boots and don’t forget your hand warmers. Let’s get into it!

7 Critical Winter Survival Skills

1. Create or Improve a Shelter

As mentioned above, the single biggest incidental killer in nature around the world is not a dangerous animal, is not a slip, trip or fall and it is not death via ingesting poisonous fungi or plants. It is exposure!

Specifically exposure which leads to hypothermia and eventual death. When your body’s core temperature starts to fall, you don’t have too long to warm up again before things start to get truly dire.

Hypothermia is sometimes a funny thing, and too many people fall victim to it in conditions that they would never dream it would be a real threat.

Say you’re out on a cool but pleasant spring day, let us say around 50° Fahrenheit, enjoying a brisk hike up a local mountain, when suddenly you and your partner get popped with a surprise but passing shower.

With soaking clothes and a light breeze you will be shedding body heat at an alarming rate in those conditions, and will be shivering mightily and no time. Maybe hustling will keep you warm enough to stay alive, but maybe not. If you have to stop, however…

You can imagine how much worse such circumstances would be in improper cold weather, with temperatures getting close to or even below zero.

Now add in wet skin or clothing and stiff winds and you could wind up, quite literally, frozen in a very short span of time. It is hard to overstate how crucial it is to always have access to proper shelter in the winter.

If you find yourself trapped in a situation where the risk of exposure is a constant, it is imperative you know how to construct an emergency shelter using either natural or man-made materials.

Something as simple as a snow cave or a reflective lean-to might mean the difference between life and death. Even if you can take advantage of a structure, even your very own home, knowing how to improve your shelter to maximize warmth is essential.

If your home loses power or cannot generate heat during periods of extreme cold, you should know how to create a microclimate using a tent, tarps, blankets, and so forth in order to heat the air volume of a smaller space with greater efficiency, potentially keeping you and your family alive.

Employing microclimate/micro shelter techniques and a small heat source like a candle, handwarmers or even just your own body heat will keep you surprisingly warm! You can use similar techniques inside a vehicle should you find yourself stranded and out of fuel, facing a similar risk of exposure.

winter campfire

2. Build and Tend a Fire

Sometimes, no matter how much body heat you are able to conserve, no matter how much warm air you are able to hang on to, the chill of the atmosphere is overwhelming.

You will need to generate a net surplus of heat, and do it quickly if you want to survive such brutal conditions, and the best way to do that reliably, no matter what sort of situation you are in, is by building a fire.

The ability to build a fire and take advantage of its life-sustaining warmth is of prime importance in your winter survival skill repertoire.

Many preppers know how to build a fire, how to maintain it and how to extinguish it but building a fire in wintry conditions presents added difficulty. First and foremost, cold temperatures do not make building a fire any easier, and with winter weather often times comes considerable precipitation in the form of snow or rain.

Both create substandard conditions for building your fire, and that will definitely increase the pressure on you when you are shivering and struggling with numb fingertips and crushing fatigue.

Consider that any fuel you might gather, especially tinder and kindling, is likely to be wet and useless, and this doesn’t even take into account how difficult it will be to find beneath the white-out layer of snowfall.

Assuming you have everything you need to get the fire going, you will likely need to elevate the fire as building it directly on snow or ice covered ground is a great way to have it extinguish itself as the snow or ice melts. With wet fuel, your burgeoning flame with disappear in a puff of steam.

Beyond these material concerns you will also have equipment challenges to deal with as a result of the cold; lighters might not work as well, and even traditional prepper standbys like ferro rods or firesteels will be more difficult to utilize thanks for the loss of dexterity from the cold or the necessity of wearing gloves.

Any spark you do generate will cool even quicker, reducing the chances that it will catch on your tinder. For this reason particularly hot burning fire starters like storm matches, butane torches and magnesium fire starters are liable to have an advantage.

Though you will need a survival fire more than ever in wintry conditions, those same conditions will make building and tending it even more challenging. Make sure you are up to the task before the cold settles in!

3. Cold Weather First-Aid

First aid skills are essential for survival, and anybody who has been serious about personal preparedness knows there are approximately a million ways to get her.

Winter will provide many more ways to get hurt, some of them unique to the cold temperatures, and you must be prepared for dealing with these eventualities whenever and wherever sustained cold conditions exist.

By now you are probably seeing a pattern when it comes to exposure-related hazards thanks to winter weather; you are definitely on the right track!

When the body can no longer maintain its internal temperature, or suffers thermoregulation failure, and that temperature starts to dip below approximately 95° Fahrenheit you will become hypothermic.

Hypothermia will result in confusion, dulled senses and reflexes, and difficulty in coordinating body movements. As hypothermia progresses, heart and respiratory rate will both plummet along with blood pressure. This is a critical juncture that many will not survive. Eventually, total delirium takes hold, followed by unconsciousness and death.

If flesh is exposed to sustained freezing temperatures frostbite can occur, resulting in the destruction and subsequent loss of tissue, compartment syndrome, gangrene and other maladies.

Many times, the full toll of frostbite will not be known until a month or more after the incident, assuming the victim survives. You should know how to treat both of these occurrences…

Hypothermia is easier to treat, or at least simpler, and involves only warming up the victim by getting them moving, wrapping them in blankets, providing them with hot water bottles or other warming apparatuses and in extreme cases giving them an IV of warm fluids.

Frostbite is far more challenging, and warming the victim up can only halt the worst of the damage; medication and surgery are often required.

Beyond these cold-weather related conditions, you will find that slips, trips and falls are all more common during cold weather thanks for the preponderance of ice and snow slick surfaces, both around human habitation and out in nature.

Anytime someone takes a tumble, especially one as uncontrolled and surprising as a fall on slippery ice, the possibility exists for significant sprains, fractures and concussions. These can be showstoppers if they happen in a remote location where you’ll be unable to get help.

4. Dressing for Survival

So we know that winter weather provides many opportunities for hypothermia and frostbite to strike and so your first line of defense, assuming you cannot stay tucked into your home by a roaring fireplace, is to dress appropriately for the weather, and that means layers.

No matter how good the garment or how high-tech the fabric a single layer of clothing, or your inner layer plus a heavy outer layer, is just not going to be adequate to the task of keeping you warm for all of your outdoor activities.

Sure, you can probably get away with it for a quick trip to the corner store or the grocery, but you definitely don’t want to chance it anytime you are traveling, bugging out, or embarked on some other outdoor adventure, or one that could potentially see you stranded outdoors.

To appropriately equip yourself for cold weather survival you will need to dress in layers, and beyond that, those layers need to serve a specific purpose.

Your innermost layer should be lightweight and made of a moisture wicking fabric. Remember what I said about being all wet and exposed to cold air? That is a great way to go screaming into hypothermia in a very short time.

Your inner layer should pull moisture away from your body so that can evaporate, helping to keep you warmer. Wool, silk and synthetics are good choices but avoid cotton like the plague as it holds way, way too much moisture and takes too long to dry.

Your mid layers, which could number one or two, will be the primary mechanism by which you stay warm, as these fibers will help the trap body heat and create a cushion of warm air between you and the frigid atmosphere.

Wools, fleeces and even silks can be good options here. Lastly your outermost layer, or shell, should help keep the wind and water off of your mid layers and off of you.

This is the layer that will repel the elements, but it always comes at a price: Any material that will keep both wind and rain off your back will trap moisture, so you’ll need to use this selectively depending on your activity and conditions.

This layering exercise is not just important when you are outside in wet winter weather; anytime you’re exerting yourself you will start to perspire, and heavy perspiration that soaks your clothing with sweat, and wind up being just as lethal as a plunge into an icy lake.

Make sure you dress appropriately in the winter time, and that means dressing in layers with sharp attention paid to the function of each layer, adding and removing layers as appropriate to your level of activity.

5. Adaptation

Sustained cold weather is going to change the way you do everything, and refusal to change will court disaster. For instance, the onset of winter will make travel of all kinds more hazardous.

Are you changing the way you conduct your itinerary accordingly? Are you checking the weather and ensuring roads are clear before setting out?

If you live in a place that does not have the roads cleared by legions of salt trucks and snow plows, are you equipped in your vehicle to handle the conditions? Are using chains or some other device to provide more traction?

Do you have a cold weather-specific survival kit equipped in your vehicle? Most preppers will carry needed items for survival and emergency remediation in their vehicles, but winter weather will necessitate the addition of other things, like blankets and hand warmers, and potentially the removal of others, like bottled water. It won’t do you much good if it freezes and bursts in your truck!

On a similar note, if you carry a firearm for self-defense you will have to take the good and the bad when it comes to winter weather.

Typical cold weather clothing will allow you to carry a much larger gun than usual in your preferred position with very little risk of it becoming exposed or getting made, but having to claw it out from beneath one or two layers of clothing, including a large and bulky outer layer, before hauling the gun into action is not a recipe for winning a fight.

Many savvy pistoleros choose to carry a much smaller gun in an exterior pocket on their outer layer so that they can always have it close at hand, just in case they need it.

Even your overarching survival plans will have to change in the winter time. Certain bug-out locations might no longer be good options in the middle of winter, or the routes to them might become closed-door hazardous, leading you to reprioritize them for a different one.

If heavy snowfall or a lengthy blizzard cease you totally shut indoors, will your supplies hold? What will you do if they don’t?

Every item on your survival plan and checklist must be scrutinized for suitability in winter weather, and altered, replaced or discarded if it cannot pass muster.

7. Signaling

Signaling is always a crucial skill when disaster strikes because you need to be able to let people know where you are, especially when they cannot see you, when conditions are bad or if they are located a far distance from your location.

Good signaling skills and the equipment to make use of them are especially imperative in the winter because you are far more likely to need prompt rescue when caught outdoors, or anytime you have a risk of exposure due to cold weather.

You should have no less than three available signaling options at any given time, regardless of what you are doing.

For instance you might make use of a high-visibility marker panel that can be stretched out on the ground and easily seen from the air, or hung in such a way that it is visible from the ground over a long distance.

A high-powered flashlight or emergency strobe could be another option with multiple uses and, depending upon your situation, smoke signals, made all the more effective if you are able to generate black smoke which will contrasts sharply with a white background.

Lastly, an auditory signal is a good idea, taking the form of a survival whistle or even a firearm if you have an abundant supply of ammunition.

Signaling is not just for wilderness survival situations, as choosing to stay behind and combat rough winter weather when you perhaps should have evacuated when the going is good means you might not be able to effectively leave you’re lodging.

It may also be the case that potential rescuers will assume that an area is deserted, or has already been swept, so you must have a way to get their attention in a very short span of time.

Do take care with some signal methods like flares or mirrors as they might present secondary hazards or require considerable practice to make use of. You don’t want to be figuring these things out during a trial by fire, having never interacted with them before!

Conclusion

Winter is a season that will put your survival skills to the test, since so much of what you do will be made more difficult, more dangerous and more complicated by this coldest and bleakest of seasons.

Some of the challenges brought about by winter weather mean you will need to employ entirely new skills and adapt old ones if you want to remain ready for whatever comes. Stay safe this winter by practicing these six winter survival skills before the white stuff starts hitting the ground.

winter survival skills Pinterest image

4 thoughts on “7 Critical Winter Survival Skills to Practice”

  1. Avatar

    Tom,
    Can you write an article on a winter EDC for your car in case you slip off the road in BFE and have to wait for help in a no service area? Thanks!

  2. Avatar

    I’ve been stuck in a ditch overnight in a blizzard. I had high calorie snack bars, TP, a warm blanket and a thick comforter. By morning coffee in the thermos was cool but drinkable liquid. There was a container I could relieve myself in if it’s too cold to get out. Luckily things were in the back seat and not in the trunk. The trunk is where they are usually kept. I was gathering winter things to change out the warm weather things and the back seat was handy until the other things were taken out. Glad I had both. It gave me some water, and more snacks. Also another thin cover to add with the thick ones and a pack of 10 reflective survival blankets i keep there year around. I hadn’t yet added the usual winter kitty litter, 3′ long carpet scrap, rock salt, or the short folding shovel. If I’d had the last items I’d have gotten out of that ditch by myseIf.
    I also had a battery operated radio and extra batteries. It was good company listening to talk radio. I did stay warm and slept most of the night. I wouldn’t have run the car radio and didn’t use the heater to save starting power for daylight when I might get out of the ditch.
    A man on the way to work pulled my car out of the ditch with my tow strap. I had gotten out long enough to clean the snow off the side of my car toward the road so it could be seen. I had the defrosters going once he stopped. After I was out of the ditch I was able to clean off the windows. Then I cranked up the heat to defrost me after being out in the snow.

  3. Avatar

    Check out the book: “How to Build an Igloo and Other Snow Shelters”. Available at Amazon and other on-line sources. The book gives detailed instructions and drawings for a wide variety of snow shelters that are appropriate for many different snow conditions.

  4. Avatar

    Being someone who’s had a lifelong love of the outdoors it comes as no surprise learning the hard way about heat and cold. I’ve had several near death hypothermia experiences and had I not known the symptoms I likely would not be typing this now. My best advice if you’re already in trouble is to fight for your very life and realize when all seems calm and peaceful you are likely succumbing to its effects. Fighting on, you’ll be dealing with extreme nausea as your body is shutting down and says just lay here where it’s nice and warm. Death is close at hand when this happens and you “MUST” resist lying down. There are limits to what will power alone can do and learning how to handle and recognize hypothermia in yourself and others can save a life. Stuff happens. Be prepared for it.

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