Winter Survival Basics Every Prepper Should Know

American novelist Sinclair Lewis once said:

“Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.”

And he couldn’t have been more correct.

Winter is that unique time of the year when everything is either dead, dying, or frozen and you have to work extra hard for the things you’d usually have handy during the milder seasons. Winter may be the time to hibernate for most animals, but for us humans, it’s the time to hustle—hard—if we want to get things done.

Let’s put this in a survival perspective:

When SHTF in the dead of winter or if you find yourself lost in the wilderness, will you be able to survive? Here are a few winter survival tips to remember to get you through this frigid season:

How to Dress Up for Winter Survival

Clothing is your first level of protection in this harsh weather, so make sure you’ve got proper layers on. 

Your base layer should be made of wicking fabric to keep sweat and moisture off of your skin. Merino wool is an exceptional kind of fabric that keeps you warm and dry when it’s cold and keeps you cool when it’s hot out. Synthetic fabrics like polyester do well as a base layer, too. Stay away from cotton as it absorbs a lot of moisture. It will stay soaked when it gets wet, and that can lead to hypothermia.

People who live in arctic climates have used animal hide and sealskin to fend off the cold, so take it from them to keep warm if you’re in the same terrain. Prevent heat from escaping your head by wearing hats and scarves.

Build a Winter Survival Shelter

You gotta keep in mind that not all tents are suitable for winter survival, so pick one that can withstand the biting cold.

Many cold-weather shelters and specialty tents are large enough to accommodate you and your gear and have ample space for wood-burning stoves to keep you warm. 

Basic seasonal tents are usually made from nylon, while cold-weather tents are usually made of silicone and polyurethane to keep cold and moisture out. However, these types don’t accommodate wood-burning stoves very well. They can be bulky and heavy as well, so take the fabric’s weight and durability into account when you’re choosing a tent. You also have to make sure that the tent has enough ventilation.

Another great addition to your tent is a space blanket. Also known as an emergency or mylar blanket, this winter survival essential helps reflect heat to the body. It’s also lightweight and widely available, so you can bring one or two in your backpack. Tarps also do a good job of keeping the rain out of your camp.

On the off chance you find yourself without a tent, space blanket, or tarp, there are various emergency shelters that you can build using natural materials like poles, branches, foliage, and some cordage. One of the most common types of shelter is the wikiup. Here’s a neat video of how to make one.

Sometimes several feet of snow can be a good thing as it allows you to build snow caves. Snow caves are made by excavating snow and forming a shelter to protect people from the wind. See how to build one here:

Keep That Fire Burning

Making a fire in the winter is tricky, but not impossible. The cold, damp, and windy conditions will be a challenge, so have a lot of patience—and dry tinder on hand. Here are some of the things to consider when building a fire during the winter:

Pick the Right Location

Your choice of location is crucial to building your fire. Pick one with natural protection against the wind—a large rock, boulder, or log would do. These natural windbreakers can also act as heat reflectors. Dig beneath the snow and keep the area clear from it. Don’t build your fire beneath trees, as their branches are laden with snow that can melt and put your fire out.

Use the Right Type of Firelay

The right firelay can keep your fire burning for a longer period. Ideal firelays for winter survival are the log cabin and upside-down firelays, as they can burn for a long time with minimum supervision. You can also try to build a long fire or this self-feeding fire that can burn for 14+ hours.

Find Dry Tinder

Looking for dry tinder in the winter can be a challenge as everything will be damp from the snow. Your knife will be your best friend. Use it to whittle down dead branches until you get rid of the damp bark and find dry wood. Pine and birch bark also work nicely.

Carry Multiple Firestarters

Why stick to one when you can have a bunch? It’s always great to have an array of firestarters within your reach—when one doesn’t work, you’ll still have other options to light your fire with. 

If you’ve suffered from a wreck, you can use the oil to start a fire. Char cloth is also a handy firestarter that you can keep in an Altoids tin. You can pack some DIY egg carton firestarters in a waterproof Ziplock baggie, too.

Make sure you’ve got more than one way to light that fire. Matches can easily get wet and soggy, so pack a Ferro rod, firesteel, and a couple of trusty BIC lighters in your kit as well.

Here’s an excellent video on how to start a campfire in deep snow:

Stay Hydrated (But Don’t Eat Snow)

Just because it’s cold out doesn’t mean you don’t have to replenish lost liquids. It’s also a way to protect yourself from hypothermia and possible frostbite. Fortunately, finding water during the winter is not a problem as long as you have the means to melt it.

Under no circumstances are you to ingest snow.

Again, do NOT eat snow.

Doing so will decrease your core temperature and bring all sorts of trouble, starting with hypothermia. What you want to do is pack that snow tight into a container to get rid of any excess air before putting it over the fire to melt. The heat also kills microorganisms and other nasties from your drinking water.

How to Find Food and Keep Your Energies Up

When it comes to winter survival, keeping your energy up is a must. Your body is working twice as hard to stay warm, so it’s going to need all the fuel it can get. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is a real threat during these cold times, and it can often lead to confusion, headaches, and dizziness. 

Drinking plenty of water will help reduce the hypoglycemic effect. Food like apples, molasses, wild yam, and licorice roots are also particularly effective in combating hypoglycemia.

Other foods that can tolerate winter temperatures include berries, plums, wild nuts like acorns, cattails, and mushrooms.

Trapping is an efficient way to find some meat. Rigging multiple traps and snares saves you a lot of time and energy compared to hunting. Rabbits and squirrels are available even during the winter. Their meat is pretty lean and won’t lend a lot of fat, but it should sustain you in a survival situation.

Other meatier game includes beavers, raccoons, and deer, but you’ll have to hunt for these actively.

Finding Your Way and Getting Help

Navigating in the winter, when trails can be obscured by snow and daylight is painfully short, is no easy feat. The combination of thick snow, biting wind, and poor visibility can pose a challenge, even when you’re familiar with the terrain.

A map or even a GPS device will be of great help in finding your way back to safety. Avoid avalanche-prone areas like steep inclines and areas with scarce trees. If you can’t find a trail, try looking for other signs and watching for landmarks.

Heavy flurries and blizzards can lead to whiteout conditions. It’s always safer to stay put during these situations, but if you need to move, here’s how to do so safely.

Sat phones will come in handy in a winter survival situation when you’re trying to reach for help. Fire, smoke, and mirror distress signals can be helpful, too. Anything dark or that contrasts with the white backdrop (like branches forming an SOS over the snow) can serve as a signal for help.

Winter-Proof Your Car

Just like how you need to bundle up for the season, you must also prepare your car for winter survival. The snow and icy situations could put your vehicle under strain, so it’s best to keep your ride in mint condition if you need to head out and face deep snow and slippery roads.

Aside from checking your tire pressure and tire tread religiously in the frosty weather, it’s also essential to pack a winter car survival kit in case you get caught in some messy situation. Remember that every driver’s best defense against frigid temperatures is an ounce of preparedness.

Identify and Treat Cold-Weather Injuries

The possibility of you freezing to death is not an exaggeration. Aside from facing the chilling breeze and biting cold, you could end up dealing with cold-weather injuries, too.

If you’re not extra careful, you might just meet an untimely end because of the stone-cold season. To prevent that from happening, familiarize yourself with common cold weather-related injuries and how to treat them.

Most of these injuries have something to do with decreased temperature like:

Here’s a detailed article on the causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment of these cold-weather injuries.

Know the Difference Between Warnings, Watches, and Advisories

The number one rule in disaster and emergency preparedness is to know what’s coming your way so that you can better prepare yourself and your family when worse comes to worst. Winter survival is no exception.

So you won’t go frantic when blizzards or hail storms wreak havoc on your town, familiarize yourself with alerts like warnings, watches, and advisories. What do these terms mean? Here’s a quick rundown on their differences:


When authorities issue a watch in your town, it indicates the possibility of winter precipitation. An alert like this is usually announced 12 to 48 hours before a winter storm makes landfall.

You and your family are expected to prepare to take shelter or evacuate to safety ASAP when a watch alert is sent out. Keep updated on the weather through broadcast media, your emergency weather radio, or your cellular phone.


The National Weather Service alerts the public with a warning when severe weather is happening or is about to occur in less than 24 hours in your local area. A warning is issued when heavy snow of 6 inches is in the forecast. It also generally indicates that conditions could pose a threat to life or property.

These are the 3 types of warnings that you should watch out for:

  1. Winter storm warning: when heavy snow of at least 6 inches in 12 hours, or at least 8 inches in 24 hours, is expected
  2. Ice storm warning: when an ice accumulation of at least one-fourth inch is expected
  3. Blizzard warning: when blizzard conditions are expected for at least 3 hours

You and your family must take immediate shelter if you’re out and about. Folks must also follow instructions given by authorities and stay indoors or in their respective homes until it’s safe to go out.


A weather advisory means that conditions could create a significant inconvenience. And without exercising caution, life and property can be threatened.

Take note of these 2 types of advisories to stay informed:

  1. Freezing rain advisory: when ice accumulation of up to 1/4 inch is expected
  2. Winter weather advisory: issued for one or more of the following:
  • 3 to 5 inches of snow in 12 hours
  • Sleet accumulation up to one-fourth inch
  • Freezing rain in combination with sleet and snow
  • Blowing snow reported

Check Your Smoke or Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Stay safe indoors during the cold season by checking your smoke or carbon monoxide detectors. You’re more at risk for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning during the winter months because doors and windows stay closed and fireplaces and gas heaters are constantly in use.

Other situations that might expose you to deadly CO levels include warming up your car in the garage or when snow covers your tailpipe.

If you suspect a family member developing signs or symptoms of CO poisoning, get them fresh air immediately and call 911 or seek emergency medical help. Only perform CPR when they’re unresponsive or not breathing.

How to Stay Warm When the Power Is Out

Even during the colder months of the year, there’s still a possibility of power outages. Keeping your home warm without energy can be pretty tricky—that’s why you have to prepare for it.

Here are simple and easy ways to stay comfortable while waiting for the power to come back on:

  • Shut your blinds and close your curtains to preserve some heat.
  • Close off rooms in your house to avoid wasting heat.
  • Light up candles or your fireplace if you have one to add some extra heat. But be cautious around open flames because they increase the risk of residential fires.
  • Stuff rags or towels in cracks under your home’s main doors.
  • Put on some warm and comfy socks and gloves.

Final Thoughts

Winter is never an easy time, survival situation or not.

As Sinclair Lewis said, it’s really more of an occupation than a season. You gotta put your back into it if you don’t want to freeze to death.

For preppers, it’s actually a good time to practice your survival skills.

The average budding survivalist will just camp out and practice their skills during the summer when conditions are nice and fair. If you really wish to test your fire-making skills or want to see if you can build a quinzhee, winter is the perfect time to push your limits and see if you can survive and even enjoy your time outdoors while you’re at it.

Popular survival enthusiasts like Survival Lilly and Joe Robinet routinely camp out in the winter—and sometimes even in deep snow—just to test their winter survival skills. It’s a unique time of the year and a great opportunity to learn new things.

Have other cold weather tips to share? Drop them in the comments below!

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