How to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness

Wilderness survival in the harsh winter months is challenging without the benefit of central heating, a warm car, or access to a public building with heating. In this article, I will teach you how to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness.

Dangers of getting cold in the wilderness

It is important to know how to get warm in all kinds of weather conditions, whether you are backpacking, living off grid, or in a survival situation. This is a lot tougher than it seems when you are far away from civilization.

You will need to fit everything that you need into your pack or have a place for it in your shelter. This means that you probably won’t have space for a hot tub or a fancy generator. Staying warm in the winter is a very serious matter because the dangers of getting cold go far beyond a runny nose or a case of the chills.

How to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness

Dangerous effects of getting cold:

  • Sluggish. You will begin to feel sluggish, zapped of energy, and sleepy as your body cools. This may prevent you from moving fast enough to survive in an emergency. If you are too sluggish, you may not have enough energy to complete physically demanding tasks like acquiring food or building a shelter.
  • Brain fog. When your blood cools, slows, and brings less oxygen to your brain, you will experience brain fog. As a result, you may feel confused and your decision making skills could be negatively affected.
  • Shivering. Uncontrollable shaking is one of the first signs that the cold is affecting you. It makes it difficult to care for your essential needs and do tasks like knot tying and starting fires. Shivering can have a mental impact even on the toughest survivors.
  • Frostnip and frostbite. When the water molecules in your body begin to freeze, frostbite can irreversibly damage your skin, muscles, and nervous system. Frostnip is an early warning sign and the stage before frostbite. Try to catch it before it escalates or better yet, take measures to prevent frostnip in the first place.
  • Hypothermia. Hypothermia sets in when your body’s core temperature drops below 95° F. According to the internet, Hypothermia is the cause of at least 1,500 deaths a year just in the United States. Many of those people could have survived if they had been properly prepared with the right knowledge.

This is another reason why I’m glad that I moved to the Big Island of Hawai’i. We do get snow on the mountain (for those of you who can’t imagine a life without snow), but the weather stays at a survivable temperature in most places and never drops to a severely cold level. This lowers your risk of experiencing the negative effects of cold weather in a survival situation.

Frostnip and Frostbite

Frostnip happens when tissues cool and blood vessels constrict. While it is not permanent, it is a slippery slope. If left untreated, you will quickly slip into frostbite territory. The alarming truth is that there’s no coming back from that. Once your tissues get damaged by frostbite, those cells are dead.

Here are some signs of frostnip and frostbite:

  • Cold or numbness in the affected area
  • Pale or red skin
  • “Pins and needles” feeling in the area
  • Itchy, tingly, or clammy skin
  • Loss of sensation
  • Loss of elasticity and pliability in your skin
  • Increasing pain

Frostnip is irritating and the symptoms include, a cold or numb feeling in the affected area, pale or red skin, and even the “pins and needles” prickling of restricted blood flow. Your skin will feel itchy, tingly, and maybe clammy. At this point the texture is not a good indicator of potential damage because frostnip doesn’t affect your skins softness or pliability.

If you cannot get the affected skin warm again, you will have to watch out for frostbite. Signs of frostbite include: skin turning pale or white, loss of sensation to cold, loss of elasticity and pliability in skin, and increasing pain. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do for frostbite other than warm yourself up to avoid further damage. Total prevention is the best plan of action.

Frostnip vs Frostbite in 120 seconds


Hypothermia is much more worrisome than frostbite because it can quickly lead to death. If you get hypothermia when you are alone in the wilderness, it is basically a death sentence unless you rapidly move to treat it. Here are some signs of hypothermia that you need to be aware of.

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech
  • Weak pulse
  • Shallow breathing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Confusion and memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness

It is very difficult to self-diagnose hypothermia due to the fact that you may be experiencing confusion, memory loss, and have the potential to go unconscious. If you suspect hypothermia at any point, you must take immediate action and warm yourself up.

How to Survive Hypothermia like a Navy SEAL (Eastmans’ and Sitka Gear)

How to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness

By now you can see that the complications of cold weather survival can be life-threatening. Your best bet for survival is definitely going to be prevention and mitigating damage.

What do you do if you ever find yourself stuck in the cold for a prolonged period of time and caught completely off guard? Know that all is not lost and remain hopeful. Your knowledge may be all the prepping that you will need. Below I will talk about my tried and true tips and tricks for staying warm in a harsh winter.

7 Basic Rules of Winter Survival:

  1. Stay Dry. Wet clothes in the winter are an invitation for frostbite and hypothermia. I know that it’s difficult to stay dry in rain and snow, but this is why you should have two extra sets of dry clothes in your pack. Wear your warm, dry clothes while you sleep and dry your adventuring clothes overnight.
  2. Cover your mouth. This has nothing to do with manners and everything to do with preventing freezing air from entering your lungs. This is an especially vital tip if you have asthma, a cold, or are prone to breathing issues.
  3. Avoid Overexertion. Building a shelter and finding food is important, but not at the cost of overexerting yourself. If you overexert yourself, you will quickly become drenched with sweat and the sweat can cause you to quickly become hypothermic.
  4. Don’t sit still for two long. There is a fine line between overexertion and not moving enough. Try to keep moving without overexerting yourself because inactivity will slow your heart and cool your body. Passive exercise works really well in tight quarters.
  5. Wear loose layers. Multiple layers can trap air between them. This will make you warmer than wearing just one thick layer. Wear three to five layers and make sure that your top layer is wind and water resistant.
  6. Stay close to your shelter. You will need to find food and water, but don’t stray too far away from your shelter. You could get stranded by an unexpected change of weather that will lead to your demise. This is why it is so important for you to familiarize yourself with your surroundings during the daylight hours.
  7. Never sleep on the ground. The ground is cold and often wet especially in the mornings. If possible, build some kind of platform to get yourself off of the ground. Even a layer of plastic bags or a tarp would be better than sleeping on the ground so get creative.

Shelter is your top priority

You better be prepared to work because shelter needs to be your top priority for survival especially in the winter.

Shelter provides protection from the elements (rain, snow, biting winds) and is a place to store your precious gear and supplies. You must hunker down and stay alive and that is impossible without shelter. The winter months are severely unforgiving so build a shelter that can withstand the harshest elements.

5 Types of Winter Wilderness Shelters:

How to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness

1- Tree and Bush Shelters

You should not base your whole winter survival plan on tree and bush shelters. It is uncomfortable and not sustainable or suitable for long-term survival. Also, you cannot start a fire under this kind of shelter and you will need to start a fire at some point if you hope to survive. In a pinch when you have not other option and time has run out, this kind of shelter could keep you alive.

  1. Spruce trees are well-suited for shelters because they provide a sturdy and nearly impenetrable canopy. They often have a thick bed of needles beneath them which can be fashioned into a bed. Plus the trunks are often big enough to provide a natural windbreak.
  2. If you can’t find a spruce tree in your area, you can use any tree that has a thick trunk and an ample canopy. Avoid trees that are leaning to one side or have roots coming out of the ground. Heavy snow could topple them over.
  3. If the branches are too close to the ground then cut or break some off so that you have space.
  4. In a pinch, you can slide under heavy brush or inside evergreen bushes. Just watch out for animals that may be hiding in these places.

Keep this type of shelter small to maximize the warmth. Pile debris around all sides of the shelter. It can act as insulation and keep your body heat from escaping.

How to make a Winter Survival Shelter – Mountain Hut – Solo Bushcraft / Survival Overnight

The shelter that this gentleman constructs is free-standing and more elaborate than what I just described. If you have the time and supplies, it’s worth trying.

2- Hollowed Logs

Hollowed logs work a lot like the tree and bush shelters. You may need to dig into them to create a little more space, but they are raised off the ground and provide cover so it’s a decent trade-off.

  • Find a tree with a trunk that is starting to rot from the inside out. This means that the center of the log will be brittle or partially hollow, but the outside will be intact.
  • Use a trowel, strong shovel, or axe to carve away the center of the log and hollow out an area that is big enough for you to climb inside. Watch out for large insects.
  • Once the tree interior is relatively clean, climb inside.
  • For additional warmth, you can pile debris around the open end of the log to keep the cold air out and body heat in. Make sure that you still have a way for fresh air to get in at night.

A hollowed log can be great in an emergency if you happen to stumble across the right tree at the right stage of decay. It will take too much time to hollow out a tree or log that isn’t somewhat rotten.

Similarly to the tree and bush shelters, you don’t want to rely on a log shelter for too long. In a pinch, it is a great way to get you out of the elements, but it is impractical for an extended stay.

SLEEPING IN A HOLLOW LOG, Survival Shelter, Solo Overnighter, 17 degrees

How to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness

3- Tarp Shelter

A tarp shelter is easy to construct if you have some basic survival gear in your bug out bag. All you need is a tarp and a little military grade para-cord to stay warm and dry. A roll of duct tape would be helpful to close up the ends of the shelter.

For the following draping techniques, keep one end higher than the other. This will give you space to crawl in and will allow the rain and snow to roll off the other side. The duct tape will keep the flaps in the back shut. If you don’t have duct tape, you can use heavy rocks to weigh the tarp down and prevent it from flapping in the wind.

  1. Drape your tarp over a large log, low branch or fallen tree. This will be sufficient for a temporary shelter for 1-2 days. Heavy rocks on the outside edges can keep the wind out.
  2. For a larger shelter, drape your tarp over a tall bush or branch around chest-height or taller. This is typically suitable for 1-7 days. It’s a good choice for a hunting or trapping camp.
  3. For a taller shelter, string para-cord or rope tightly in the trees then drape the tarp over the rope. This cord and tarp shelter offers more space for a survival fire and a little more leg room without sacrificing heat retention. This option is great for a longer stay. It provides an excellent base that you can add layers to for additional insulation. As long as your cord holds and your frame is solid, you can add more wind and rain protection to the top. Plastic sheeting, branches, newspapers, and animal skins work well for this kind of shelter.

15 Shelters with a Tarp | Camping & Bushcraft

How to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness

4- Snow Trench

A snow trench can save your life especially if the conditions are so bad that you can’t get under a tree or construct a tarp tent before dark. A lot of people are hesitant at the thought of constructing a warm shelter from snow because isn’t snow cold?

Well, it is, but it is also an excellent construction material that is highly insulating. I was surprised too, but it’s definitely true!

  1. Dig a narrow trench in the snow to mid- thigh that is slightly wider than your shoulders.
  2. Place sticks, branches, boards or poles across the trench to create a stable roof frame. Use more branches, tarps, blankets, or plywood to completely cover the top of the trench.
  3. Your final roof layer will be snow (which is an excellent insulator.) Cushion the inside of your trench with leaves, blankets, or plastic bags. Now slide in! Your body will provide enough heat to keep you alive until daybreak.

Winter Survival – 15 minutes shelter

How to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness

5- Lean-To

A lean-to is a basic survival shelter that consists of a horizontal main support across the top with branches or sticks leaning against this support on one or both sides.

  1. Find a straight and sturdy branch to place between two trees. You can support it by placing each end of this branch into the V of two branches or bind it to the trees with rope or cordage.
  2. For smaller shelter, construct a lean-two with one end in a tree and the other on the ground. This will create a smaller shelter that will help you keep in the heat.
  3. Lean smaller branches along each side of the shelter. This will complete the structure.
  4. For insulation, pile debris against the framework in cascading layers from the ground up. A thicker debris pile will provide more insulation and help you stay warmer at night.

Lean-Tos are easy to make with a variety of supplies. Branches, wood planks, ski poles, or anything you can find can create a sturdy frame for your shelter. Lean-to’s are excellent for long-term survival.

It is as simple as leaning branches or poles against another sturdy object to create a space below that is big enough for you to lay and sit in.

Bushcraft: How to make a lean-to shelter from only natural materials – survival shelter

How to stay warm in the harsh winter wilderness

Fire Use

Shelter, food, water, and fire are the 4 things that will keep you alive. Fire can be extremely difficult to create and maintain winter conditions so it is best for you to prepare ahead of time. Keep a fire-starting kit in your BOB, your car, and your workplace so that you’re never caught off-guard. If you ever find yourself in the dead of winter with no matches or lighter you can try some of these fire-starting methods that don’t require a lighter.

Start collecting firewood right away. Collect whatever you can find and hang it on your pack to dry as you walk. If it’s snowing or raining, stick it inside of your pack. While it won’t dry very fast in there, at least it won’t get any wetter.

You will require a significant amount of kindling for winter fires. Smaller is better so snap the wood into smaller pieces and bits.

It may be tempting to start a roaring fire, but resist that urge. Everything is scarce and hard to find so conserve your firewood and resources. Keep your fire small and protected and feed it only enough to keep it burning. Prepare to scrounge in the coals the next morning for anything that’s dry and still burnable.

How to stay warm overnight

During the day, you can stay warm by moving your body, but at night your breathing slows down and your body cools off. You will need warm layers, a dry shelter, and good insulation to survive the night. Use the following methods to create a little more warmth.

  • Survival Blankets trap heat and can keep you warm in the coldest weather. They are light enough to pack and carry around, yet sturdy enough for tougher uses like a temporary roof for a snow trench.
  • Tea Candles are tiny, but surprisingly good heaters. They are easy to pack in your BOB and weight next to nothing. In a well-constructed shelter, one small tea candle is enough to stay warm. Make sure that you place your tea candle in a place that won’t set you or your shelter on fire. I like placing them in tall mason jars near the sealed back of the shelter.
  • Plastic bags, newspapers, plastic sheets, leaves, and evergreen boughs make great sleeping mats and can keep you warm if you don’t have a blanket.
  • Handwarmers are lightweight, cheap, and easy to use. Keep a few in your BOB for times when you can’t get a fire going or it would be dangerous to start one.
  • Hot stones from your fire can prolong the heat production in your shelter without the risk of starting a fire. Place them around you at bedtime.
  • Make sure that your socks are dry before you go to bed. It doesn’t take long for damp socks to freeze even inside of a good sleeping bag.
  • Keep your blood flowing with passive exercise. You can tense and relax your muscles for a few minutes to raise your body temperature. This works great in sleeping bags.

Essential Winter Survival Gear

Many online articles cover general survival gear, but I couldn’t find many good ones for winter-specific conditions. Here is my personal winter survival gear list. Add these items to your Bug Out Bag and you will be well-equipped to survive the harshest winter conditions.

  • Small shovel. This will come in handy when you are constructing emergency shelters or foraging for food.
  • Hatchet for cutting down small trees and digging out logs.
  • Three extra layers of clothing. I always wear wool socks. I bring workout clothing and longjohns. Pack whatever will fit under your regular clothes and will fit into your BOB. Choose loose fitting items that will dry quickly.
  • Baclava, ski mask, face shields or a bandana
  • Have two pairs of important clothing so you can wear one while the other dries.
  • Hand warmers
  • Extra wool socks. Pack two more than you think you need.
  • Fire starting equipment: lighter, matches, flint and steel, and some dry kindling
  • Canteen to keep close to your body (under your clothes), to ensure that you always have water.

Tip: Synthetic materials dry very quickly if they get wet and are a good alternative to cotton clothing. Always stay away from cotton underpants in the backcountry.


Winter survival is not for the faint of heart and it is not going to be fun. It can be done if you are prepared. Remember to get creative and don’t give up in the middle of a problem.

Do you have any winter survival tips and tricks? Please comment to share. I would love to hear your ideas.

See you soon!