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5 Essential Winter Survival Skills

Avalanche Danger
Avalanche Danger

Winter is when the training wheels come off for hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers. When all of the planning and preparation you did before your trip won’t help you get out of the jam you’re in. When your buddy hits his head on a tree skiing down a backcountry route or a big chunk of falling ice takes out your belayer. When you fall through an ice ledge on a river soaking your winter boots and clothes or a whiteout smothers the peak you’re climbing and a winter storm blows in. When circumstances are so out of control, that you can only survive with what’s in your pack, the knowledge in your head, and the resources you can scrounge from your surrounding environment.

Survival Situations

To begin, let’s define what a survival situation is so we’re on the same page. I’m not talking about situations where you’re uncomfortable, or worried, or behind schedule. You’re in a survival situation when there is a real threat to your life and a better than even chance that you’re NOT going to make it out alive. Where, if you don’t take appropriate actions to improve your chances of survival, you or one of your companions will assuredly die.

Survival Skills

Winter presents some unique challenges in a survival situation. Cold temperatures can quickly lead to hypothermia or frostbite if you’re immobilized or lying on the cold ground. The wind poses a much greater danger if you’re in an exposed location than in warmer weather and water is harder to find because it’s likely frozen. If a member of your party is injured, you need to stabilize them and protect them from further injuries until help arrives, if it’s even coming.

No matter how grim your situation is, you need to focus on getting shelter, creating a heat source such as a fire, stabilize injured companions, obtain water which will help you avoid hypothermia, and help rescuers find you. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Snow Trench with a Tarp as a Roof
Snow Trench with a Tarp as a Roof

1. Build a Shelter

Your first priority in winter is to build a shelter to get out of the elements, especially the cold and the wind, which can cause hypothermia and frostbite. If you’re in the open and everyone in your group is mobile, you need to get below treeline.  Studies of winter accident reports have shown that people who get below treeline survive far more often than those that don’t. The trees will protect you from the wind and provide fuel for making a fire.

If you’re pinned down by the weather or a member of your party is injured and can’t be moved, digging a snow cave, a snow pit, or a snow trench will get you out of the wind. Snow is an excellent insulator, so make your shelter as enclosed as possible, while still providing adequate air flow. But don’t underestimate the effort required, especially if you don’t have an avalanche shovel.

A log cabin style fire
A log cabin style fire

2. Start a Fire

If you’re cold or wet, building a fire will significantly improve your chances of surviving. While a stove is good for making hot drinks or melting snow, it can’t help you dry wet clothing or help keep you warm for long. The smoke from the fire can also be used to alert rescuers to your location.

But building a fire in winter is much more difficult than building one the rest of the year, especially if the ground is covered with snow and the dead wood in the forest is wet. You also need to bring firestarters with you such as egg carton squares dipped in wax or vaseline coated cotton balls. You’ll have a really hard time starting a fire in winter without these. If there’s one skill you should definitely practice, it’s how to build a fire from scratch in the winter.

A winter survival fire doesn’t have to be big. In fact you want to keep it fairly small to stretch your wood as long as possible. If you have to build a fire on snow, dig a pit into the snow about 2 feet deep and line the bottom with thick logs cut to the same length. These will provide a solid surface to build your fire on. You’ll need to collect tinder to start your fire, which can be broken off the lower trunks of living trees in an emergency. Focus on building a deep bed of hot coals to begin with before adding larger pieces of wood to the fire.

Any larger pieces of wood you gather from the ground will probably be wet. You might want to consider adding a lightweight chain or pruning saw to your emergency gear kit so you can cut and processes larger branches from downed trees and add them to your fire more easily. If the wood is wet, you can split it using a pruning saw and make smaller kindling with a good knife. Building a log cabin or pyramid style fire will let the wood higher up dry while the wood below it burns. If you don’t already own Buck Tilton’s The Complete Book of Fire, it’s the definitive reference for building campfires for warmth, light, cooking, and survival.

Wilderness First Aid Technique for Rewarming a Hypothermic Patient
Wilderness First Aid Technique for Rewarming a Hypothermic Patient

3. Administer First Aid

If a member of your group is injured, you need to stabilize their condition until help can arrive.  After securing the scene of an accident to make sure there no further danger or moving the victim to a safer location, you need to get an injured person onto an insulating sleeping pad as quickly as possible to prevent hypothermia from contact with the cold ground. Your immediate focus should be on stabilizing their condition, immobilizing them so they don’t harm themselves further, and keeping them warm, since rescues take much longer in winter than the rest of the year.

Wilderness first aid training is an indispensable skill in winter, and one you want at least one of companions to possess.

Melting snow with a white gas stove
Melting snow with a white gas stove

4. Melt Snow

It’s important to stay hydrated in winter, especially in a survival situation, as a defense against hypothermia and frostbite. If you’re out of water and not near a freely running water source, you will have to melt snow for drinking water. If you don’t have a stove or cook pot to melt snow with, you can try putting snow in a water bottle and placing it in your coat to melt it. Don’t do this however until you have a fire going and can stay warm. It can take rescuers a lot time to get to you, possibly days, and having water and fire will keep you alive even if you’ve run out of food.

Delorme inReach Explorer
Delorme inReach Explorer

5. Get Found

If you prepared for your trip properly, you left a trip plan with a trusted relative or friend who will call out Search and Rescue when you’re overdue. Be aware however that many SAR teams won’t start searching for you or launch a rescue even if they have an exact fix on your position until daylight or a bad weather event has passed. Basically, you’re on your own until they show up.

If no one knows that you’re missing, you’re going to have to signal for help. Putting green wood or leaves on a hot fire will generate smoke that rescuers can see. Circumstances will vary widely by locale, so you’ll probably want to bring extra communications gear like a DeLorme InReach Satellite Communicator or a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger to signal for Search and Rescue assistance if you’re in remote backcountry or experiencing a bad weather event where there’s no one to see your signal fire. You can’t always count on electronics in winter, but they’re clearly a worthwhile investment when compared to an old school signal fire.

Winter Preparedness in the Backcountry

Winter is no joke for hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers and it takes a lot more than gear to ensure that you have the survival skills needed when the shit really hits the fan. My advice is to learn the essential survival skills I outlined above and to practice them this winter. This type of knowledge doesn’t become a survival skill until you use it, so it’s best to use it before you need it.


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15 comments

  1. Philip – Great post. My winter gear list is something I obsess over for just these situations. Do I bring a shelter or sleeping bag for a long day hike? Is the “what if” factor worth the extra weight, especially considering the added weight on my feet of snow shoes / crampons / plastic boots and so on?
    For what it’s worth, in my 4 season daypack I carry a Bivy and tarp with a 4 season sleep pad. Instead of a sleeping bag, I bring a lot of extra layers. Above tree line I may need the layers just to stay warm if I stop and if I have to survive the night it should be enough, all be it uncomfortably.
    I should probably add a stove to my list. On a winter backpacking trip last year in Northern VT, I was shocked by how quickly large rivers would freeze and how much fuel it takes to melt a sufficient amount of snow. It takes an awful lot of snow to make 1 cup of water.

    • On my Kinsman day hike last week, I had a sleeping bag, pad, and stove with me in addition to most of the survival items I mention above. There are a couple of other things I recommend: Find yourself a good group of hikers with the skills I describe above to hike with, never hike alone in winter in remote areas, and practice, practice, practice. Trying to start a winter fire is an eye opener.

  2. I agree, I don’t do anything above tree line alone, except the Franconia Ridge Line on the weekend. It’s a quick drive and there are lots of people up there, even in the winter (although fewer and fewer the further you go).

    I joined meetup groups for other White MT adventures and have taken courses w/ Eastern MT Sport to learn basic Mountaineering skills. It’s not something to be taken lightly.

    As for starting fires in the winter, every year my college buddies and I do a winter car camping trip. It is no easy task even when you have dry kindling. That and gathering enough wood to keep a fire going all night (in a survival situation), when there is 6 feet of snow on the ground… Not an easy undertaking.

  3. One small item to add should you need to snow trench…which I have used on Mt Rainier snow camping. A small spool of dental floss can really help should your number of cross braces be limited and snow load builds, and particularly if you are making a winder tench for two. I use floss to build a spiders web of sorts between the cross braces. The stuff is amazing strong, and provides a near endless supply of line for doing this compared to emergency rope…and the next morning it can be quickly cut and rolled up into a ball for disposal.

  4. Brilliant post! Thanks!!

  5. “Trying to start a winter fire is an eye opener.” Preach it, brother. Starting a fire is really, really tough in wet conditions. And sustaining a fire when all of the dead wood is hidden under a layer of snow takes a lot of work. If you are immobilized, you can forget about it; the better strategy is to have sufficient insulation for the expected overnight lows & a way to keep them dry. I still love making a small fire in my hobo stove, but I have abandoned the idea of using a fire to stay warm if benighted in the winter.

    • Carry a Silky folding pruning saw and a decent survival knife. The saw makes it possible to process the branches of blowdowns (which you can brush snow off of) rather than forcing you to rely on wet wood on the ground.It’s stil not trivial, but it makes wood collection less of a showstopper. .

  6. Philip – Do you carry a good survival knife on winter hikes?
    I don’t even own one. I could never justify the weight. It certainly would be a worthwhile tool in a scenario like this.

    • They’re not heavy. A good survival knife has a blade that’s 4″ long, max. Mora Knives are lightweight, inexpensive, and good quality. With a little practice you can split logs for firewod using a knife and a sawed off tree branch. It’s called batoning in bushcraft circles.

      Do I carry one? Not yet. I will start selectively carrying one, together with a Japanese pruning saw on long routes and backpacks this winter. The pair will add about a pound to my gearlist, It’s a little overill, since most of the trips I do are with very qualified hikers in good sized groups and in fair weather. What I’m really trying to do is master a few old school bushcraft techniques around firewood processing – splitting, firebuilding – for some longer wilderness backpacking trips, I hope to take next summer which may involve catching and eating trout. :-)

  7. Catching and eating trout:? Splitting logs with a 4″ knife? I cannot wait to read about those adventures!

  8. I still bring a 21″ SVEN saw and a small hatchet for batoning in the winter, I just don’t believe they will do me much good if I am immobilized. Last year I gathered dead wood stacked it vertically in the early fall for trip that winter. I know that was “cheating” but I still enjoyed cooking steak tips after a full day of snowshoeing in the drainage south of the Captain.

    • Ah, but you solo in winter. I don’t. (caching wood (a natural materials) is cheating but brilliant!) That area must be nice in winter with Sawyer River Road closed. Probably a good place for cross country ski trip too, up those logging roads.

  9. Kevin , read up on batoning over at bushcraft usa. Its really not that difficult to split wood with a good quality 4″blade. The Mora knife Philip mentioned can be had for less then $20 and is a decent little knife.

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