When we think about winter survival prepping, we often focus simply on the loss of conveniences: electricity, supermarkets, etc. Of course, the loss of those conveniences can be devastating. However, it’s also important to recognize that the loss of these conveniences can have a great deal more impact if it occurs when external conditions are more extreme. Severe weather and natural disasters can throw a huge monkey wrench into your prepping plans. That’s why we’ve compiled this in-depth survival tips guide for surviving harsh winters.
For starters, we’re going to make a couple of “worst case scenario” assumptions. Namely, that you don’t have the advantage of say, a revolutionary geothermal power generator or an epic array of solar panels. We’re also going to assume that the winter will be at least somewhat lengthy (but not permanent) and that you’ll be facing 3-5 months of snow and low temperatures.
Your Bug Out Winter Survival Kit
The very first thing you need to consider if you might face a harsh winter in a survival situation is your bug out kit. Why?
Well, there are a few reasons but the most pertinent is this: blizzards are unpredictable and can be absolutely hostile when it comes to traveling anywhere. Even if you have the supplies to survive out in the snow, trying to travel during a whiteout is almost always a no-no—the risk of getting lost is just too high. On top of the risk of being lost due to difficulty navigating, heavy, deep snowfall can slow you more than you could possibly imagine. This is especially true if you have to travel any appreciable distance. It takes many more calories than you’re used to burning simply to keep your body temperature up, never mind the energy expenditure of slogging through snow up to your knees, waist, or worst.
The unpredictability of winter storms means that you could be caught anywhere at any time and you may not know whether the storm is going to blow through in fifteen minutes or dump snow on you for three days.
Here are your bug out winter survival equipment kit must-haves—and you must-have your bug out kit with you at all times in the winter.
Remember that bit about how easy it is to get lost? It’s absolutely imperative that you have a compass on you in the winter. (And that you know how to use it. Make sure to learn if you haven’t already). Just being able to tell the cardinal directions can keep you on track and prevent you from getting turned around in a whiteout, even if you don’t have a map with you to do orientation.
• An Emergency Bivouac/Bivvy
A bivvy is a very compact emergency shelter— a tad larger than a sleeping bag. They’re lined with heat reflective material to make the most of your body heat. There are a few things you should look for in your bivvy (and don’t skimp on it, since you get what you pay for). Look for a bivvy that’s both waterproof and breathable. Waterproofing is necessary for obvious reasons—all that heat reflection isn’t going to do you much good if icy, melted snow is soaking through the material. Check the body heat reflective rating on it as well. You want one that’s at least 90% reflective. Finally, choose one that’s bright and easily seen in an emergency situation so that rescuers are more likely to find you.
You’ll notice when shopping for bivvies that there are versions that are more tent-sized. These aren’t really ideal for very severe cold temperatures unless you’re with another person. The additional space inside might seem like a plus, but it’s just a larger area for your body to heat, and a few more cubic feet could be the difference between severe hypothermia and survival.
• Emergency Stove
An emergency stove is a winter survival gear essential in cold weather conditions, if for no other reason than to melt snow or ice for water. Did you know that eating snow or ice to rehydrate isn’t safe? The energy expenditure you need to melt the snow with your body heat can actually lead to further dehydration. And, if you keep it up, you’ll find yourself with hypothermia on top of being dehydrated—a potentially deadly situation. This doesn’t have to be pricey. In fact, there are plenty of resources available to help you make your own. An industrial-sized vegetable can will work, along with the right fuel.
• Ignition Source and Fuel for Emergency Stove
When choosing your emergency stove, look for one that uses highly portable fuel. Sterno or similar fuels
can be a lifesaver. Look for a fuel compatible with your stove along with your favorite ignition source, whether it be a good supply of waterproof matches or a sturdy lighter.
• An Extra Set of Winter Clothing
Hopefully, you’ve already dressed appropriately for the climate. However, stuff happens, and wet clothing can be a death sentence in cold conditions. A base layer (thermal long johns, for example), and a mid-layer (like a thermal diver suit or fleece top and bottom) are ideal. Your outerwear, which you should already have with you, will likely be waterproof/wind resistant. When shopping for your extra base and mid layer, steer clear of cotton (you may have heard the age-old phrase “cotton kills.”) Man-made fabrics and wool are better choices in these conditions.
• A Metal Container for Water
First, you may need to have a metal container to melt snow. Second, your usual portable filter may not be up to snuff in negative temperatures, so you may need to boil your water.
• Folding Portable Emergency Shovel
Aside from having a million and one other uses, an emergency shovel is a good winter survival tool for shoveling the snow away from your sleeping/resting area. If you know how to do so SAFELY, it’s also a good tool for constructing a show cave.
• Emergency Winter Survival Food Rations
Calorie dense, non-perishable foods like MREs, which don’t require cooking. Make room for at least 5k calories worth of rations—but if you can fit more, go for it.
• Emergency Blankets and Shelter
Yes, you have your bivvy, but there’s no reason not to carry a few Mylar blankets and a lightweight tarp, too. A transparent sheet of heavy-duty plastic works as well, and lets you get a little extra warmth from the sun.
• Emergency Rope
You should always have a few lengths of rope on you, and a good fifty feet of paracord is the perfect solution.
• Roll of Duct Tape
Because things break, and duct tape is the universal fixer. Seriously, though, it can be a great tool to have on hand if your shelter, bivvy, or clothing tears and you need a quick and reliable way to seal it back up.
• Folding Saw/Serrated Heavy Duty Knife
If you can build a fire using readily available fuel, do it—save your Sterno for when you can’t.
• Hand Crank Flashlight, Sunglasses, and Sunscreen
Yes, we know it’s not a trip to the beach—but sunburn can indeed be debilitating, and in a bright, snowy landscape, you’re getting it from all directions. Not only that, but snow blindness does happen. UV protection for your eyes is a winter survival essential.
Yes, these winter survival tools can be quite a haul—but if you’re caught away from home base, it could mean the difference between life and death. Speaking of the home place….
Winter Survival in Your Home Place
If you’ve been prepping right, you’re probably set as far as food and general supplies (and we’ll assume you are, because you’re not going to have a lot of options with a ton of snow on the ground). We’ll go over a few things you might have overlooked. But first, this very important note:
Don’t travel far from your home base during winter in a snow belt area unless you have to. Just don’t! Limiting yourself to about a two-mile radius around your home base may be the smartest thing you do all winter. Have your compass with you at all times, and your vehicle winter survival kit/bug out bag if you’re going any distance at all. If you have to go further than two miles away, over prepare. Pack extra food, extra clothing, etc. While packing light is generally wise, severe snow storms almost always mean you have to hunker down, and you don’t know how long you’ll be stranded for.
• Toilet Paper
Yes, you have quite a supply (hopefully) if you’re a career prepper—but you know that it will eventually run out. In the summer months, washing after elimination (if you have a good, renewable water supply, and you should) is the obvious solution, but in the winter, water can be at a premium. Reusable toilet “paper” (i.e. rags) can be a good solution. No, you won’t be able to wash it immediately if water is short, but you can freeze it while it’s cold enough outside, until it’s more convenient to wash.
Don’t restrict gathering fuel to task-specific needs in the warmer months. You’re going to need a lot more than you think when the weather turns cold, so accumulate as much as you can while the going is good. Even if your home place is in a wooded area, you might be snowed in for weeks or longer, or not be able to range far enough to continue gathering wood. Five cords will generally get you through the winter, but there’s really no such thing as too much on hand, as long as it’s stored properly.
Another issue is that chopping and splitting wood in negative temps is going to burn up far more calories than you need to be spending during the most difficult months of the year for food gathering. And sweating out in cold weather can put you at risk for hypothermia. Take a lesson from your friendly neighborhood bear, and try to be prepared enough to sleep through the coldest months of the year. If you can have your fuel for the winter set by the first snowfall, you’ll be grateful, and your food stores will thank you. And on pleasant days when you can pick up more? Do it.
• Wood Storage
You’ll notice I’m using “fuel” and “wood” as synonyms here. If your homeplace isn’t in a wooded area, presumably you’ve figured out other options, but wood should definitely be high on your list. Other sources of fuel, like propane, will be snapped up quickly in a situation where extreme prepping is necessary, so it’s not ideal to depend upon it. So, wood it is. Now, if you’re storing as much wood as you possibly can, a significant amount of it is going to be outside. That said, wet wood has to dry, and cold wood doesn’t work well as kindling. That means that you need space inside for a week or more worth of wood.
Storing some wood inside means you can avoid having to dry/warm wood in the event that you need a fire now. You don’t need to keep wood indoors all year. Still, having some indoors for winter means you don’t need to open the door to let heat out during the worst of a storm. Make sure to guard your woodpile with rat and mouse traps too.
We’re hoping you have a store of treated water at any given time, but we’d be remiss not to discuss how to leverage snowfall. Remember that to melt snow, you must either do so it slowly (starting with a cool pan) or add liquid water and then add snow slowly. Make sure to ventilate well! Even melting snow can create a lot of water vapor, and that humidity can be a huge problem in cold climates.
If you live in a climate with a harsh winter, you need to up your food gathering and preservation skills in preparation for the cold months. Don’t just do the bare minimum, or plan on using up non-perishables that you’ve saved from before—because winter will come again and again. You need to know how to use your natural resources during the spring, summer, and fall to ensure that you have sustenance over the winter. If springtime resources, however well preserved, won’t last until winter, you can still stock up and eat them through the summer, while preserving summer resources for fall, and designating autumn resources for the winter months.
It may be beneficial to research hunting, fishing, and other winter food sources for the region around your home base, and keep a hard copy of this information for a situation when you might need it. During the fall, when harvests are coming in, and the woods are teeming with natural food sources, you won’t be pondering the intricacies of ice fishing, for example. Ideally, you won’t need to gather much food outdoors during the winter, but then again, things aren’t always ideal. Plus, on those nice days without a cloud in the sky, being able to get out and about a bit and be productive can be a great break from the winter monotony.
• Entertainment and Sedentary Projects
A prepper’s life is rarely boring because there’s always something to do, right? Well, usually. In winter, however, much of your prepping playground—i.e. the entire world outside of home base—may be unavailable for weeks or even months at a time. Winter is the time for repairing things, small and large, indoors, and even then, you may find yourself bored. Keep yourself mentally active with whatever you have at hand. Favorite books, craft supplies, and other activities can keep you from succumbing to cabin fever.
Winter is a great time to explore your artistic side!
Shrink Your Home Base
Not literally, of course, but during cold weather, minimizing the space you’re heating is important. Choose the best room for your “hibernation cave.” Cover windows with Mylar blankets (and hang them on the walls) to reflect heat back inward. Plastic sheets hung like curtains (split down the middle, and overlapping) in doorways can help keep heat from escaping.
These might seem like minor things, but they can greatly extend your fuel resources, and will certainly enhance your comfort.
Remember, while sealing off areas where drafts come in, that you still need to have adequate ventilation for cooking.
This is something that may come back to bite preppers that aren’t familiar with deep snowfall. Is it harder to build a steeply pitched roof for your home base? It sure is. Is it worth it? Well, if you’re expecting any significant amount of snow, yes. Very much so. Make sure to keep it in good repair. Roofers aren’t going to be on call if you’re in a situation that you need to be prepped for.
Even with a pitched roof, you may have to get up there to sweep or shovel heavy snow off or face a catastrophic failure at your home base—but the less you have to do so, the better. Remember, even shoveling snow on flat ground comes with risks of overexertion and wastes calories. Doing it from the roof also comes with risks of falls and other injuries.
Have a Mid-Winter Celebration
Whether it’s Christmas, Yul, or just an “it’s the dead of winter, and I need to cheer up” day, have yourself a little celebration mid-winter. Is it strictly necessary for survival? No, of course not. But there’s a reason that so many cultures have a mid-winter celebration.
Winter is hard. It can be isolating. It can be depressing. Wrap yourself a few “goodies” back in the fall to save for your celebration, and save a few treats from your winter survival rations for that special day. Celebrate that you’ve made it this far. You might be surprised by just how much a day off to reflect can help lift your mood. Take the time to feel proud of what you’ve accomplished, and do a bit of self-care to help you feel motivated to make it through the rest of the snowy, icy months ahead.
Staying happy and upbeat in a winter survival situation might not provide calories, shelter, or water, but it’s still a necessary tool. Deep depression can strike during the winter months regardless of whether or not we’re in a winter survival situation. Keeping your mind limber and healthy is just as important as keeping your body limber and healthy in a survival situation. After all, your mind is the most important tool you have. You want it to be working at its full potential, and that means taking care of it.
Winter season can often bring colds, the flu, and other viruses along with it. Keeping your immune system at it’s highest functionality is essential for maintaining healthful comfort this snowy season. Consuming foods or supplements with a lot of Vitamin C may be a very beneficial practice for boosting immunity. Colostrum is another natural supplement that has been known to potentially boost immunity.
The winter months aren’t easy, of course, but they do come with their own comforts. If you’re well prepared, the winter months can be a time of rest that you don’t really have during the warmer seasons. They’re also a time to plan and mentally prepare for spring and summer. Keep a journal and a calendar. Take notes on difficulties that you faced so that you can be better prepared for the next year. And as always, keep prepping!
*Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your health care provider. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.