5 Winter Survival Tips for Outdoor Adventurers

Enjoying hiking, backpacking, or other activities in winter can mean it’s only your footprints out there. (Hooray!) The quiet solitude adds to the beauty of the experience, but also to the danger. (Boo!) When you’re adventuring in a cold environment, it’s important to be extra-prepared. Knowing what to do in emergencies you may encounter during the winter months, and learning a few basic winter survival skills, can save your life! (Not to mention how superior you’ll feel knowing all this stuff.) So harness your inner Type-A and prepare ahead of time for a variety of sucky winter survival scenarios.

Small flame from on a log lit during a survival skills class

A life-saving fire just beginning to burn during wilderness survival training in Virginia

1. Making a fire while wet and freezing

Imagine you’re in the middle of wandering the wintery backcountry, the sun setting into the snowy landscape with temperatures dropping quickly. You’re enjoying the crunch of the snow beneath your boots and day-dreaming about your JetBoil when SPLASH! You somehow manage to trip and tumble down into an icy-cold stream. Everything is soaked and suddenly your situation has become serious. As you squelch your way out, you realize your fire-making is going to have to happen sooner than anticipated—and while wet. Can you do it? As ever, plan ahead and be prepared:

  • Always carry waterproof matches.
  • Practice starting a fire in the cold before you go out on your winter adventure.
  • Learn which tinders work even when wet. Birch bark, for example, will burn when wet. So will sap from pines and spruces. Know how to locate and use pitchwood.

Keep in mind you may have only minutes before your fingers get too cold to function, so speed is of the essence.

2. Building a shelter if you’re lost overnight

It’s winter. There’s snow on the ground. You’re lost AF. Daylight is draining out of the sky and it becomes a real possibility you may have to spend the night outside. If you have a tent, awesome. Walls of snow in front of your tent can be fantastic wind-blockers. No such luck? Then it’s time to live out your winter hibernation fantasies in order to save your own life. Types of emergency winter shelters include:

  • tree well
  • snow trench
  • snow cave
  • igloo
  • quinzhee

If you’re fortunate enough to find your backyard full of packable snow prior to your trip, sweet! You can play around in the snow (er, practice your winter survival skills) until you get the hang of it.

Woman lying on bed of leaves under plastic sheet while learning survival skills

Testing out an emergency shelter on a brisk but sunny day in the Virginia mountains

What if there’s no snow?

As long as it isn’t raining, a quick winter survival shelter for warmth can be a pile of dry leaves, grass, bracken ferns or other plants. Make a mound several feet thick and sleep in the middle of it (half piled underneath you, half piled above you). Painter’s plastic drop cloths are lightweight and make excellent shelters as well.

3. Getting dry and warm (and staying that way) in cold temperatures

You’re busy doing your outdoor adventurer thing: tramping up snowy inclines, scrambling over chilly boulders, and maybe even tackling some ice climbing. In the process of all that badassery, you’re cranking up that body heat. The moment you stop moving and grooving, however, you start to lose it. If you aren’t properly layered up to maintain a warm body temperature or managed to sweat goddess glisten, bad news. Yes, it’s possible to still be both warm and wet in even the most frigid conditions while out hiking or backpacking. Once you’re chilled through, it’s difficult to get warm again. Hello, hypothermia. Here are some ways to keep it at bay.

Two women in winter clothing posing in front of snowy rocks during a hiking trip

Explorer Chick Guides Kimberly and Cassie showing off proper winter layering in the Smoky Mountains

Keeping warm without sweating

Clothing is particularly important during the winter, so looks like extra shopping for you! Whether staying at your campsite or venturing out for a hike, it’s important to maintain your body temperature with the proper clothing and accessories:

  • Always wear a hat! Mama was right: up to 80% of your body heat can be lost through your head.
  • Wear several layers of non-cotton clothing and choose a waterproof outer layer. (Bonus points for zippered armpit vents.)
  • Wool socks are a must! Wearing two pairs of socks means extra warmth, but don’t sacrifice comfort.
  • Always keep a pair of warm, dry “sacred socks” to sleep in at night. Sacred socks are stored in your sleeping bag, and are never worn for hiking (except in an emergency).
  • Wear boots that are waterproof and suited to cold weather.

Adjust your clothing layers, removing and adding shirts, sweaters, and jackets as necessary to keep from getting too hot or too cold. If backpacking, keep removed layers within easy reach so you can quickly grab them again as temperatures fluctuate.

Getting and staying dry

Damp clothes are miserable in any weather, but downright dangerous in winter. If you get wet (either through sweating or because of water), try to get dry before you go to sleep. Put dry clothes on if you have them, then use a fire to dry any wet ones. If you’re backpacking and it’s early in the day, you may be able to hang damp clothes on your pack to dry in the sun.

Green water bottle with Explorer Chick sticker sitting in snow and surrounded by rocks

Finding a water source is easy when there’s snow on the ground, like here at Rainbow Falls

4. Keeping yourself hydrated when there’s not much water

In a survival situation, water is more important than food. You can survive about three weeks without food, but only about three days without water. First, let’s pause here for a no-duh winter survival skills moment: If you’ve got fuel and a means to light it, the ice and snow you’re surrounded with are a viable source of hydration.

What if there’s no snow?

No snow to make water from? No worries. Here are some other ways you can find water in winter:

  • Depending on how cold it is, flowing water is frequently available under the snow pack in the bottom of creeks and at river bends.
  • Animals and birds will keep patches of swamps and ponds ice-free (thank you, furry friends!).
  • In the mountains, solar radiation can be powerful enough to create ice-melt against dark rock faces.

5. Keeping yourself fed when there’s not much food (and you’re not that hungry)

You’ll probably be less hungry during winter outdoor adventures, but don’t neglect keeping your body properly fueled. Cold weather requires more calories from the body and hunger lowers the body’s resistance to cold. If you’re trying to survive out in cold temperatures, it’s crucial to assess your food situation once you’ve established a water source. People die of starvation sooner in winter than summer because, well, there’s not much alive and there’s not much to eat. Keep your energy up as much as you can. You can generate heat by eating fatty foods (woo hoo!). Sip on warm drinks or soups. Stay away from coffee, tea and alcohol (you know, the stuff you really want) if you are feeling the effects of hypothermia. Unfortunately, they thin the blood and can actually advance symptoms.

Woman in black coat leaning down and pointing to tree during a winter hike

Pointing out a possible food source on a chilly hike in the Smoky Mountains

Winter foraging

If your survival situation is desperate and you’re running out of packed food, there are edible plants and roots you can forage in winter. These include:

  • acorns
  • beechnuts
  • black walnuts
  • berries
  • cattail roots
  • crabapples
  • hazelnuts
  • hickory nuts
  • milkweed seeds
  • mushrooms
  • pine nuts
  • watercress

Additionally, grubs and bugs can be found with a little digging. When it comes it eating bugs, there’s an old survivalist saying: “If it’s brown, swallow it down.” Also keep in mind anything with six legs or less is edible. Mmmmm… For details on how to locate and identify specific edible plants and insects, do your research and practice at home. Now, who’s hungry?!

Surviving in winter conditions mainly means staying calm and clear-headed. Unless you’re wet, sit down and take a deep breath and few sips of water. Using these tips as a guide, start thinking about what you need to do to get yourself found and make a plan to do it. Hey, the sooner you’re out of the situation, the sooner you can get back to adventuring—in any weather.

Related Reads

3 Tips for Winter Hiking Safety

How to Layer for Your Winter Hike

The 10 Essential Items to Pack for Every Hike

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