10 Winter Survival Hacks

Posted by: admin February 10th, 2018

10 Winter Survival Hacks


By: Zach Cherry


Zach is a long-distance hiker who has backcountry experience in all 4 seasons.  He completed 1,000 miles on the AT in 2015 and thru-hiked the 484 mi Colorado Trail in 2016 with his dog Bear.


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Winter survival skills are like a seatbelt; you hardly ever need it but it could save your life.  Hypothermia can begin at 50F if dry and 60F if wet.  Nearly everyone in America lives in a place where it gets below these temperatures.  This makes it likely for you to face a winter survival situation at some point in your life.  It could be a backcountry day hike gone wrong, a broken-down vehicle on a remote road, a hunting or fishing trip, or a blizzard that knocks out power for an extended period.  Whatever the situation may be, it will be crucial for you to act quickly and correctly to overcome possible injury or death.


Keep a positive attitude- while this might sound a little corny, it’s the most important hack.  Decision making and prioritization go downhill quickly with a defeated mindset.  Focus on something that makes you smile.  Think about eating your favorite food, being nice and warm by a fire, or sing your favorite music.  Take your mind off the suck and focus on how you’re going to prevail.

Layered clothing- just having a big puffy isn’t enough.  A great winter clothing setup would be a wool/silk/synthetic long sleeve base layer top and bottom, fleece mid-layer top, down jacket, and a rain jacket (taped seams).  Combine that with a warm hat, wool socks, and gloves for maximum heat retention.  Glove liners are also recommended because you will need the dexterity of your fingers for certain tasks.  Exposing your hands to the cold and quickly make them numb.


Extra food and water- food will give you the calories your body needs to produce heat to combat hypothermia.  It’s also a huge motivator and will help you keep a positive attitude.  During emergency situations, your body will be stressed and consume water at a faster rate.  Staying hydrated will help your blood flow reach your extremities and keep you warm.  


Headlamp- it’s obvious why you need a flashlight for emergency situations, but not all lights are equal.  Headlamps are affordable and free both hands to do work.  Anywhere you look is where you need light, so the best option is to go hands-free.


CB Radio- they’re cheap, easy to install and pass on valuable information about traffic conditions and incoming weather.  The Cobra 29 LX BT has 10 NOAA weather broadcast channels that seem to pick up everywhere.  I’ve driven from Georgia to Wyoming and all through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado without ever losing signal.  The forecast is detailed and accurate, with constant updates.  If you like to launch adventures into the backcountry, a good CB radio is a great choice.


Fire-starting-  making a fire is practical and motivating.  I recommend stocking up on large Bic lighters and carrying them with redundancy.  Keep two in your vehicle, put two in your backpack, and carry one in your pocket.  It’s easy to find tinder and a fuel source, but not having a lighter is a big deal.  Butane torches are great for lighting in the wind, but in my experience, a large Bic lighter is extremely reliable and has gotten me out of numerous pinches.  Start your fire by clearing out a large circle on the ground and making a rock ring.  Dig the pit into a shallow bowl to allow air flow to the bottom.  Break or saw medium sized pieces of wood to a length almost as wide as the pit.  Arrange the larger pieces next to each other to form a base.  Do this again perpendicular to the base layer.  Take smaller pieces and repeat another couple times until you start building a little pyramid.  Make a little nest at the top and put your tinder in here.  Apply flame and gently blow after it starts to build.  Too much air flow and you’ll snuff it out.  This model is a top-down burner that burns more efficiently than a teepee style fire.  Once you get the fuel logs going on the bottom, keep adding wood to the fire.  Staying active will keep you as warm as the fire you’re making.


Whiskey- for those who responsible enjoy libations, a little whiskey could be useful and uplifting in a winter survival situation.  A small amount of alcohol acts as a vasodilator and will help return blood flow to your hands and feet.  Anything more than a small amount will begin to reduce your core temperature and accelerate your slip into hypothermia.  


Emergency Travel Kit- a kit should include jumper cables, basic tool set, serviceable spare tire, vehicle jack, lug nut tool, spare anti-freeze or water, ice/snow scraper, windshield wiper fluid, a quart of oil, and spare gas if you can place it outside your vehicle.  It sounds like a lot, but I have used all the above in various situations.  Being prepared means forecasting likely events and having spare parts or fluids on hand for when something goes wrong.  If you know your vehicle is leaking brake fluid, it would be wise to keep a can in your vehicle.


SOS Beacon- there are a couple reputable beacons on the market including DeLorme In-Reach and SPOT.  Both operate on the satellite signal and will work “anywhere” in the world.  The In-Reach has an option to purchase a data package that allows text communications with cell phones as well as landlines.  SPOT is an SOS beacon only.  Both are great choices and could literally be a lifesaver.  If you’re injured in the backcountry during winter conditions, your chance of survival goes up exponentially if you can signal for help.  Keep it in your vehicle to make sure it’s close by when you need it.


Shelter- if you go into the backcountry make sure you are familiar with how to set up your tent or hammock.  Inspect it for tears, and be sure to pack a rain fly regardless of the chance of precipitation.  Gorilla tape is the 8th wonder of the world and is extremely durable.  Wrap a little around your hiking pole or Bic lighter.  Vehicles make for better shelter than tents even if it won’t crank.  No matter how cold it is, crack a window to maintain airflow.  There was a time when I car camped in -50F wind chill and decided to shut the windows.  After a couple hours, I woke up suffocating and had to fling the door open to get air.  If it’s extremely cold you can take clothing, towels, or blankets and hang them in the windows around you to keep more heat in the vehicle.  Just roll the window down a little bit, stick the cloth through a little, and roll it back up.  Keep an appropriately rated sleeping bag in your vehicle.  Bonus points for packable down that can be carried in the backcountry.

This list is not all-inclusive, but it is a great starting point for anyone who is working on being better prepared to face harsh winter conditions.  Combining these concepts into a personalized strategy will increase your comfort and odds of survival.  Having a sense of preparedness will keep you positive and give you the tools you need to succeed.