Winter Survival
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What Skills and Tools Do You Really Need For a Winter Survival Situation?

These are the items and skills that are key for winter survival.

If you are like us, you do not like ending your outdoor adventures once the cold weather hits every year. Many people like to hibernate indoors once the cold and snowy conditions arrive, but the outdoors can be truly magnificent once winter weather arrives. And popular hiking trails and backcountry locations are often considerably less busy than other times of the year.

Whether you are planning on backpacking, hunting, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or simply hiking in cold climates, it helps to prepare for emergency situations. Because frostbite and hypothermia can kill quickly if you do not know how to survive the snow and cold.

With that in mind, we've got some winter survival tips today, as well as some recommendations on survival gear that's handy to have while enjoying time outdoors this time of year.

Dress for the occasion.

Before we dive into the details of a winter survival kit, let's just talk about the importance of wearing the proper clothing. Most people who get into trouble in the outdoors in winter end up that way because they are not properly prepared. A quality pair of winter boots is a must when heading outdoors with snow and ice on the ground. The more insulated the better. Something that is waterproof is usually ideal.

Pay close attention to your base layers and mid layers and the fabric they are made from. You want something that's going to help retain the most body heat. Avoid materials like cotton because they're awful at heat retention. Down and wool are probably your best bets. Merino wool in particular helps to retain that heat while also wicking away moisture.

I tested some Gobi Heat electronic base layers earlier this year that also help a lot with keeping you warm in the outdoors. However, do not depend on that completely to keep your warm in a survival situation. Because as great as equipment like that is, the battery is going to eventually run out if you are stuck outside for more than a day.

Don't forget about your head and hands either. A good fleece hat, facemask, neck gaiter, or Balaclava help significantly with retaining all the heat lost through your head. You shouldn't skimp when buying gloves or mittens either. Because if your hands are freezing, they're not going to be very helpful in an emergency. Consider keeping some hand warmers in your survival kit to help with that. If you are planning on traveling during the winter months, it's a good idea to keep extra clothing in your vehicle just in case you get stranded. If your clothes get cold or wet, it could save your life.

Fire-starting materials.


One of the most important survival skills for anyone to learn is the ability to start a fire. A good fire will help keep your body temperature up in cold temperatures, it will help you melt snow for drinking water to stay hydrated, or even to prepare a meal in extreme scenarios. Most ready stocked survival kits have emergency waterproof or windproof matches as a standard. Many also include small bits of kindling to help you get the blaze going. If you are newer fire building, it's usually easier to go this route. I like kits like VSSL's LED flashlight kit, which includes matches and kindling in a tin that fits into the flashlight body.

Another option is to get a magnesium Firestarter. These are either sold separately or packaged with other survival items for slightly more value. Simply shave off some magnesium to mix with your tinder and spark it with the Firestarter. I rather like the Firestarter included with the Morakniv Kansbol, which is an excellent survival knife for a budget price.

Whatever Firestarter you choose to use, make sure you practice with it in a no-pressure controlled setting first. You do not want a life-or-death cold weather survival situation to be the time where you learn how to start a fire. Like most things in life, practice makes perfect. Make sure you know how to do these things before you go.

A quality first aid kit.

Perhaps noting is more valuable than a fully stocked first aid kit when your life is on the line. Quality first aid kits should go beyond the basic bandages and medical tape. I personally like kits that aren't packed too tightly and leave a little bit of space for you to add your own items. For instance, I like kits that include Asprin or other headache relief. It not only helps with comfort. They could save someone's life in the event of an untimely heart attack far from civilization. The VSSL flashlights I mentioned earlier have a nice selection of items. Look for kits with signaling mirrors or other items you can use to direct rescuers to your position while lost in the wilderness.

I'm also currently testing Uncharted Supply Company's Park Pack, which comes in a nice hip pack. This kit includes the usual bandages and wound closure strips. However, there's some additional functionality with it thanks to Uncharted including a space blanket, stormproof matches, zip ties, a small length of bailing wire, and duct tape.

You usually get what you pay for with first aid kits. The more you spend on them, the better stocked they will usually be. I like to side with the "better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it crowd" when it comes to first aid kit items. The more the better, even if I think it's not likely I will need most of it.

Hydration is important in winter.

The last thing many think about in a winter survival situation is hydration. Mostly because it's often wet and there is usually snow on the ground. However, the cold temperatures of the air can make it easy to miss the signs you are getting dehydrated. Eating snow is not a solution here. Because the cold snow can cause your body temperature to lower, creating a potential for hypothermia or frostbite in extreme situations. If you have a pot and the ability to make a fire, you can melt snow for drinking and cooking water.

If you do not have a way to thaw the snow, try filling a canteen or empty water bottle with snow and then keeping it close to your body under your layers. The heat of your body should melt the snow making it drinkable. It's not an ideal scenario, but it works in a pinch and will help keep you from getting dehydrated.

Keep a quality flashlight or headlamp close.

Remember there's less daylight in the winter months. This makes a flashlight or headlamp a must-have item. Not just for seeing what you are doing either. You can also use them to signal for help. Many survival flashlights sold these days have built-in "SOS" modes that flash a signal of distress in Morse code. Once again, I can recommend the VSSL flashlights here since they have that mode built in. However, there are lots of other brands that will do the same thing. Remember you get what you pay for with flashlights too. It's probably not something you should skimp on for a survival kit.

A good knife or hand axe.

Perhaps the most important item for any survival situation is a good knife or hand axe. It's even better if you can carry both. These tools will help you start fires, clear ice from trapped vehicles, prepare food, and more. For knives we recommend going with something that is full tang for a fixed blade knife. For any knife or axe pay close attention to the steel quality. Try to avoid cheap ones like 8Cr13MoV and go for high grade stuff like S90V. It usually comes with a premium price tag, but if you are buying something you are staking your life on, it's worth it not to skimp.

I can also recommend the Morakniv Kansbol again here as a budget option which is made with 12C7 stainless steel. Whatever knife or tool you choose, make sure to do your homework ahead of time. And then test it thoroughly in a controlled setting before carrying it afield to make sure it will do everything you need it to do in a survival situation.

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For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels