mountainsurvival / Lake Tahoe Recreation

Winter backpacking can mean your footprints are the only ones out there.

That adds to the beauty of the experience, but also to the danger. Alone

and in a cold enviroment, it’s important to know what to do in an

emergency. Learning a few basic cold weather survival skills can save

your life.

Fire Making

Imagine slipping into a stream and soaking everything with you, when you

are more than a day from the nearest road and it’s below freezing out.

What would you do? Start a fire, of course, but can you?

Always carry waterproof matches, and practice starting a fire in the cold

BEFORE you go winter backpacking. Learn which tinders work even when wet.

Birch bark, for example, will burn when wet, and so will sap from pines

and spruces. You may have only minutes before your fingers get too cold

to function, so speed is of the essence.

Winter Backpacking - Survival Shelters

You’ll probably have a tent with you, but you still may want to learn

shelter building using snow blocks. Sometimes you can stomp out blocks

without tools, using your feet, and then liff them from beneath. Just

play around in your backyard until you get the hang of it. In an

emergency, or if the weather turns extremely cold, you may want to put

your tent behind a wall of snow blocks, to stop the wind.

If it isn’t raining, a quick survival shelter for warmth is a pile of dry

leaves, grass, braken ferns or other plants. I once collected enough

dried grass from a frozen swamp in thirty minutes to make a pile several

feet thick. I slept warmly in the middle of it (half the insulating grass

above, half below) with just a jacket, despite below freezing


Staying Dry

You can be wet and warm when it far below freezing, as long as you are

active. The moment you stop moving, however, you start to lose your body

heat. Once you get chilled through, it is difficult to get warm again.

Hypothermia (a lowered body temperature) kills many people every year.

If you get wet, try to get dry before you go to sleep. Put dry clothes on

if you have them, and use a fire to dry any wet clothes. Earlier in the

day, you may be able to hang damp clothes on your pack to dry in the sun.

Often when it is coldest, the air is dryer.

Try not to sweat. Adjust your layers, removing and adding shirts,

sweaters and jackets as necessary to keep from getting too hot or too

cold. Sweat, and clothes damp with sweat, will cause you to lose body

heat fast once you stop moving. Stay dry to stay warm.

There are many other cold weather survival skills that you may want to

learn. (You can generate heat by eating fatty foods, for example.) You

don’t need to know hundreds of skills and techniques, but why not learn a

few basics, like the ones above, before your next winter backpacking trip?

About The Author

Steve Gillman is a long-time advocate of lightweight backpacking. For

more on winter backpacking, plus tips, photos, stories and a new

Wilderness Survival Guide, visit The Ultralight Backpacking Site:

mountainsurvival / Lake Tahoe Recreation