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8 Essential Cold Weather Survival Skills for Winter Recreation and Travel

8 Essential Cold Weather Survival Skills for Winter Recreation and Travel

Winter’s icy grip can be unforgiving. We’ve found that cold weather winter survival skills and gear are essential when venturing into frigid environments. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a winter traveler, or want to prepare for an unexpected chill, knowing how to survive in cold weather is crucial.

From starting a fire in the snow to properly packing cold-weather survival gear, we’ll cover the winter survival skills you need to know. Let’s dive in!

What Is the Coldest Temperature a Person Can Survive In?

The coldest temperature a person can survive in varies depending on several factors, including clothing, shelter, and resilience. However, extreme cold below -40 degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius can be life-threatening in a matter of minutes without the correct protection. Survival skills become increasingly critical as temperatures drop to these extremes.

When Might You Need Cold Weather Survival Skills?

Cold weather survival skills are important in chilly conditions, but we’ve found they become especially crucial during winter recreation and travel. We have had cold weather adventures go sideways on us that could quickly lead to a survival situation. On our last skiing trip, we accidentally found ourselves off-trail and deep in the mountainside forest during a blizzard. Luckily a GPS app on my phone navigated us to safety, but without it we could have been seriously lost.

lost in a blizzard
This was a quick shot I took as we navigated our way out of a blizzard in downhill skis. This was not a fun adventure.

Whether you’re skiing in the mountains, camping in the wilderness, or even navigating icy roads, your survival skill set can mean the difference between a safe adventure and a perilous one.

3 Critical Rules for Surviving in Cold Weather

How to survive cold weather requires some preparation. To stay safe as temperatures drop, there are some critical rules you should follow to help ensure your safety and survival in cold weather. Maintaining your body temperature is paramount as hypothermia poses the most severe threat. To counter this, dress in layers to effectively trap heat close to your body. 

Second, staying hydrated is vital because dehydration can exacerbate the effects of cold weather. Even when you don’t feel thirsty, drink plenty of fluids. 

Finally, consider the importance of energy conservation and providing your body with the fuel it needs to generate heat. Consuming high-energy foods can help achieve this. Additionally, conserving energy by minimizing unnecessary physical exertion is crucial. These three fundamental rules lay the groundwork for effectively enduring cold weather.

winter tent camping
Keep warm, well hydrated, and conserve energy when in a cold weather survival situation.

Survive Cold Weather With These 8 Essential Winter Survival Skills

Survival skills are great, but before you venture out, please take navigation and communications equipment that will work in the areas you plan to be. More than once, we have relied on GPS or satellite communications when cell service runs out. While cold weather can be serviced, its much harder than warmer temperatures and far more dangerous, so getting help as quickly as possible is always critical.

While help is on the way here are some skills that could really come in handy.

1. Starting a Fire in the Snow

Starting a fire in snowy conditions can be challenging, but it’s a vital survival skill for staying warm and cooking food. First, ensure you have a clear, flat area to build your fire. Remove any snow or ice from the ground to prevent the fire from melting into the snow and extinguishing itself. Gather dry fuel like twigs, branches, and leaves, from beneath the snow. Look for standing deadwood, which is less likely to be damp. 

Create a platform of logs or rocks to keep your fire off the wet ground. Use waterproof matches or a fire starter rod, as traditional methods like flint and steel can be challenging in wet conditions. Place small twigs and branches over the initial flames to build a sustainable fire. Maintaining a fire in the snow requires a constant supply of dry fuel. Keep the fire small and manageable to conserve resources and energy. Remember to have a fire extinguishing method nearby for safety, like a bucket of snow or a fire extinguisher.

Pro Tip: Make sure you have these 7 Essential Items Your Fire Starter Kit Needs to Have packed for your outdoor recreation.

2. Finding or Building Cold Weather Survival Shelter

Cold weather survival shelters and related gear can protect you in harsh winter conditions. If you’re in a vehicle during winter or are stranded in the wilderness, you have several shelter options. If you have a vehicle its probably your best shelter. Ensure it’s well-insulated and seal any drafts, using thermal curtains or blankets on windows to retain heat. Keeping a supply of warm clothing, sleeping bags, and blankets inside is crucial. 

In wilderness situations, consider constructing a snow cave for effective insulation. This involves digging a hole into a snowbank and hollowing out a small chamber inside. Create an entrance lower than the chamber to trap warm air. If you have a lightweight, cold-weather tent or tarp in your RV or van, you can quickly set them up to provide shelter from snow and wind. 

Additionally, carry compact emergency shelters and gear like bivy sacks or space blankets for survival in cold weather emergencies. Ensure plenty of padding between you and the ground so you have heat to protect you from the ice.

3. Melting Snow for Drinking Water

When you have limited or frozen water sources, melting snow for drinking water becomes a vital skill to survive cold weather. To do this safely, start by collecting clean snow into a container. Avoid any discolored or dirty areas, as snow can contain impurities. Use a camp stove, portable heater, or a fire to melt the snow. However, exercise caution with open flames inside vehicles and ensure you have proper ventilation. 

Avoid consuming snow directly, as it can lower your core body temperature. Once the snow melts, it’s essential to purify the water to eliminate potential contaminants from the snow. Boiling the water is a reliable method, but you can also use water purification tablets or filters. This purification step ensures that the water is safe for consumption.

Pro Tip: Worried you won’t find fresh drinking water while in the wild? Use our guide on these 5 Ways to Purify Water for Survival in the Wilderness.

man sitting next to beautiful glacier
We have been fortunate to explore some amazing remote places, some of which have been very cold. Its important to know some basic survival skills in case things go wrong.

4. Removing Vehicles Trapped in Snow

RVers and travelers might accidentally trap their vehicles in deep snow. Getting stuck can be dangerous if you do not have enough supplies to eat, stay hydrated, and get electricity. To safely extricate your vehicle, start by assessing the situation. Consider factors like nearby obstacles and weather conditions to determine if it’s safe to attempt removal. Clear the snow around and beneath your vehicle using a shovel or a snow plow attachment. 

Employ traction aids like sand, sticks, tire chains, socks or traction mats under your vehicle’s tires to enhance grip on the snow. Gently rock the vehicle back and forth to help it gain traction, using low gears and avoiding excessive tire spinning. If your vehiclee remains in the snow, consider seeking professional towing or winching assistance. Attempting to force it out may lead to damage or worsen the situation. Always prioritize safety and avoid aggressive maneuvers when attempting to remove a vehicle. Ensure you have appropriate recovery gear like a tow strap, shovel, and tire chains when venturing into snowy areas.

5. Treating Frostbite

Frostbite is a severe cold weather injury resulting from prolonged exposure to extreme cold temperatures. With frostbite in winter, the priority for survival is to act swiftly to minimize tissue damage. The initial step involves getting the affected person to a warm environment as quickly as possible. Cold temperatures only worsen the condition. Remove any wet clothing, as wetness can exacerbate frostbite. Replace wet garments with dry, warm clothing to help raise the body’s core temperature. 

To treat frostbite, gently warm the affected area by immersing it in warm (not hot) water, ideally at a temperature of around 104-108°F. It’s crucial to avoid direct heat sources like heaters or stoves, as the person may not have full sensation in the frostbitten area and could risk burns. While focusing on the frostbitten area, ensure that the rest of the body remains warm using blankets and comfortable clothing to prevent further heat loss. 

Avoid aggressive rubbing or massaging the frostbitten area, as this can cause further tissue damage. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen can help manage pain and reduce inflammation. In cases of severe frostbite with blisters or blackened skin, immediate medical attention is necessary to prevent complications. Skin grafts or even amputation of the affected area might be necessary to prevent infection from the dead tissue.

6. Treating Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, leading to a dangerously low core body temperature. Treating hypothermia is a critical endeavor to prevent life-threatening consequences. The primary objective is to transfer the affected person to a warm and dry location as swiftly as possible, ideally indoors. It’s essential to avoid further exposure to cold temperatures. Once indoors, replace wet clothing with dry, warm garments. 

The next step for winter survival involves rewarming the individual. You can do this by wrapping them in blankets, using warm heating pads, and offering warm, non-alcoholic beverages. In severe cases of hypothermia, if the person’s condition does not improve, seek professional medical assistance immediately. 

The key to treating hypothermia is gradual rewarming. Applying direct heat like heating lamps or hot water can lead to shock and other complications. Monitoring the person’s vital signs and providing gentle rewarming measures is crucial until their body temperature returns to a safe range.

cold tree sunrise
I snapped this photo in the early morning while camping in British Columbia.

7. Surviving Cold Water

Falling into cold water, especially in frigid environments, can lead to cold shock and hypothermia. Both conditions can be life-threatening. When in this situation, start by staying afloat and conserving energy. Remain calm and resist the urge to panic, as frantic movements can lead to faster heat loss. Try to keep your head above the water and control your breathing. If you’re wearing a life jacket, it can greatly assist you in staying buoyant. 

Once you’re stable, focus on getting out of the water as soon as possible. Look for nearby flotation devices or objects that can aid in buoyancy. If there’s no immediate prospect of rescue, try to adopt the HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) position, which involves bringing your knees to your chest to conserve body heat. 

Remember that swimming to safety should be a last resort for survival in winter, as it can quickly lead to exhaustion in cold water. Prioritize staying afloat and calling for help if possible. The golden rule is to minimize movement in the water to preserve body heat and increase your chances of survival until assistance arrives. Once you are out of the water quickly remove your wet clothes and dry off. Put on heavy layers and rewarm yourself as soon as possible.

8. Surviving an Avalanche

Avalanches are sudden, powerful snow slides that can be incredibly dangerous. Surviving an avalanche requires quick thinking and careful actions. If you are in an avalanche, try to move to the side and diagonally downhill to escape the flow. Simultaneously, try to stay on the surface of the moving snow by “swimming” with a breaststroke motion. The goal is to prevent burial. 

As the avalanche slows, create an air pocket in front of your face by cupping your hands around your mouth. This will help you breathe if you become buried. Deploy any avalanche safety equipment you have like an airbag backpack or an avalanche transceiver to aid rescuers in locating you. If you are buried, remain calm and conserve energy. Spit to determine which way is up if you lose your sense of direction. Try to create space around your mouth and nose to breathe while you await rescue.

If you’re planning on exploring a snowy destination where an avalanche could happen, having proper gear can be critical for your safety. Pack transceivers to call for help, shovels to dig your way to safety, and probes to help find buried victims.

The Call of the North: Journey to the Arctic Ocean | Go North Ep 1

How Long Can a Human Survive in Cold Weather? 

The duration a person can survive in cold weather depends on various factors, including clothing, shelter, and health. In extreme cold, you can measure survival without proper preparation in minutes to hours. However, with adequate cold weather survival skills and gear, humans can endure harsh conditions for extended periods. 

Due to this, enhancing cold-weather survival skills is a must for anyone venturing into winter environments. From staying warm and hydrated to knowing how to start a fire in the snow, these skills can be lifesavers when the mercury drops. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or a winter traveler, preparing for the worst can turn a potentially perilous situation into a safe and memorable experience.

Which winter survival skills do you need to brush up on? Tell us in the comments!

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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