The following is a guest post by Chris Ruiz from The Bug Out Bag Guide.
Huddled within the snow-block Quinzee his father had built, snuggled up next to his sister with a campfire burning out front, it was almost possible for Jacob Voss to imagine he was playing in a snow fort, enjoying an outdoor adventure with his family. Almost.
Only hours before, the Voss family had been forced to flee the warmth and comfort of their home and take refuge in the wilderness. Sunlight lasted for only an hour, just enough time to find a place to camp and set up shelter.
As cold as he was, Jacob felt thankful. His family had been prepared and he was confident his father knew how to keep them alive. Others hadn’t been so lucky. He had seen his classmates running from their homes with nothing more than sweatshirts and sneakers. He was safe, his family was safe, and due to his father’s knowledge of outdoor survival, they were comfortable.
Bugging out in cold weather can challenge the survival skills of even the best outdoorsmen and requires significant training and preparation. If you live in an area where bugging out in winter is a possibility, make sure you regularly check you bug-out-bag to ensure you have the proper gear for the elements.
In this article, we will provide you with the survival knowledge you’ll need to keep yourself and your family safe in cold weather including staying warm, building shelter and fire, and performing first aid.
The key to surviving cold weather is to keep your core temperature warm. This is especially difficult in harsh winter conditions when shorter days (less sunlight), wind chill, lower temperatures, and ice and snow are all working against you to steal your body heat and energy. In order to stay warm, your body is going to need to work harder and consume more calories than normal to keep you going.
Here are our top tips for staying warm in frigid conditions:
Unlike his ill-prepared neighbors, Jacob Voss had several layers to help keep him warm. Layering multiple items is preferable to one thick layer as air gets trapped between the layers and is warmed by your body to act as an insulator against the cold.
For an average adult, three to five layers is most desirable, starting with a light wicking layer closest to your skin to keep perspiration off. Your outer layer should be both wind resistant and waterproof to minimize heat exchange and keep water out. The great part about layering is that you can add or remove layers as needed to regulate your body temperature.
If you happen to be bugging out with children, like the Vosses, make sure to dress them in one additional layer than yourself to ensure they stay warm.
It may be tempting to bunker down and wait out the cold, but by keeping yourself moving you’ll ensure you keep your heart rate up and provide a good flow of warm blood to your extremities.
Remember to keep a moderate pace and maintain your body temperature by adding or removing layers as needed. By over-exerting yourself, you risk becoming drenched in sweat, which will create moisture that takes heat away from you.
Keep Hydrated and Nourished
Hydration and calories are key to keeping your body going in freezing temperatures. To fuel the extra energy you’ll spend keeping yourself warm, make sure to keep your bug-out-bag stocked with high calorie/low weight options such as nuts, granola bars, energy gels, and powerbars. For hydration, Gatorade powder can be mixed with water or melted snow, which will keep you hydrated longer than water alone.
Cover Your Head
A covered head is a key source of warmth – in fact, up to 90% of heat loss will be through your head if it isn’t properly covered. Make sure to pack a hat or jacket with a hood – or both – to keep your head covered in the snow. A hat or hood also provides an easy layer to put on or remove to regulate your temperature.
Building Shelter and Fire
After addressing your core temperature, building shelter should be next on your cold weather survival priority list. In the case of the Vosses, they built a Quinzee out of snow, but there are other options as well. The video below provides step-by-step instructions on how to construct a Quinzee if that’s the option you’ve chosen.
Another alternative is to create a basic A-Frame or Lean-To shelter using branches and piling snow on top. While it may be cold to the touch, snow is an excellent insulator and makes a great outer layer for a shelter. If your survival pack includes an emergency blanket, poncho, or tarp, these can all be used as a roof for your shelter by laying them on top of your branch frame. Additionally, if you have a spare, you can use one of these items on the floor of your shelter for added insulation. The video below provides practical guidelines for building a winter survival shelter:
Your next consideration should be building a fire. If you plan to have your fire inside your shelter, always ensure you provide for proper ventilation to avoid suffocation.
In cold weather situations, fire is essential for two reasons:
1. Keeping warm – while this may seem obvious, keeping warm has other less tangible benefits such as raising morale and keeping freezing-related medical issues off everyone’s mind.
2. Melting snow – the great thing about snow is that it provides a nearly limitless supply of water; make sure to boil melted snow before drinking to ensure all pathogens are killed.
When gathering kindle for your fire, look for dead branches on the lower parts of trees and stay away from those on the ground or in the snow – the moisture will make them harder to burn.
Performing First Aid
Besides the plethora of injuries that can arise when bugging out (check out my First Aid article for preparing for and treating typical injuries), cold weather offers the added dangers of hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia occurs when your body’s core temperature drops to the point where your body can no longer self-regulate (typically below 95 degrees Fahrenheit). The onset of hypothermia can come rapidly, especially if someone falls through thin ice into cold water, such as a stream or lake.
The following are symptoms of hypothermia:
● Loss of coordination
● Weak pulse
● Slow speech
● Confusion or memory loss
To ensure survival, hypothermia must be treated immediately. If you suspect that you, or someone in your group, have hypothermia, try the following treatments:
● If possible, seek emergency medical attention
● Replace any wet clothes with dry ones or dry items such as blankets or sleeping bags
● Ensure protection from wind or other elements that could cause heat loss
● Seek immediate shelter
● Warm the person up through shelter, a fire, or body heat from another person
● Have the person drink warm liquids as this can help bring their temperature back up
An exposed body part – usually a nose or ear – can become so cold that ice crystals will begin to form in the tissues. This is frostbite. Without immediate treatment, it can lead to the loss of the affected body part.
Symptoms of frostbite include the following:
● Numbness in the affected area
● White patches on your skin, which will turn black with severe frostbite
● Hardening of the affected area
If you suspect that you, or someone in your group, have frostbite, try the following treatments:
● If possible, seek emergency medical attention
● Gradually warm the affected area by moving it closer to shelter, fire, and away from the elements
● Applying warm water to affected area
In the case of frostbite, make sure you AVOID the following:
● Placing anything hot on the affected area – this can cause burns that are not felt as the area is numb
● Walking on frostbitten toes or feet – this can cause additional damage
● Rubbing the affected area to warm it up
Survival in the winter can prove to be one of the most challenging and brutal bug-out situations you can find yourself in. However, armed with knowledge and the proper gear, you will greatly increase your chances of survival.
There is no better test of preparedness than facing the elements head-on. To ensure you and your loved ones are properly equipped, spend a weekend in the wilderness practicing and honing your winter survival skills. Not only will this help test your preparedness in a controlled environment, but also highlight areas you may need additional training or gear for.
If you’re ever faced with bugging out in winter, you want yourself and your loved ones to be safe, comfortable, and perhaps imagining it as a family adventure, like Jacob Voss. Don’t get caught wishing you had been prepared, like his ill-fated neighbors.
About The Author
Chris Ruiz is a lifelong outdoorsman and has been interested in survival tactics and practices for many years. He currently helps people prepare for unforeseen disasters at The Bug Out Bag Guide. For more information on disaster preparedness, emergency planning, survival skills, every day carry, or picking bug out gear, please visit: