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Expedition Essentials: 5 Basic Skills for Winter Survival

In recognition of this winter's inaugural snow storm, this edition of our #ExpeditionEssentials Series focuses on five essential survival skills to learn prior to venturing into the snow-blanketed backcountry.

Mother Nature over-delivered on our collective wishes for a "White Christmas." The Detroit area received not only 3-7 inches of fresh snow (much to the delight of our ski resorts), but was also hammered by wind gusts dropping the real-feel temperature to 20 degrees below zero. The high winds blew as strong as 50 to 55 mph during evening hours, which when combined with the snowfall produced near white-out conditions.

While most outdoor enthusiasts opted to move their recreational talents indoors during these conditions, I know that I was not alone in choosing to make a few brazen ventures to the wintry and windy trails. Fortunately, we in the Detroit region can make such borderline rash decisions with diminished risk. Compared to our out west cousins or Yooper brethren, even the most remote areas of Detroit's backcountry are still within range of a cell tower, regularly-maintained trail, or major roadway.

Put differently, if shit hits the fan while on a winter hike, an outfitted extraction force will most likely not be necessary for getting you out unscathed.

That being said, storms as powerful as this Christmas' "Winter Storm Elliot" should never be disregarded just because you're trekking in Pinckney vs. Denali. Across the United States, Elliot has left at least 62 people dead - most of which in Buffalo, NY, a Great Lakes city with a similar climate as our own (although admittedly more in the direct fire of lake-effect snow). Elliot represents an extreme example of the deadly consequences of underestimating the power of winter, and these cold-weather survival skills can greatly reduce your risk of facing a life-or-death scenario if white-out conditions strike.

Fortunately, Elliot's extreme conditions are forecasted to steadily improve, including slightly warmer weather later this week. In other words, now is the perfect time to review and practice these five essential skills for winter survival.


When it comes to wilderness survival, the single most important, universal tactic may be to expect the unexpected. To accept that you can never be prepared for every situation that you could encounter in the backcountry. Understanding that hiking your favorite 5 mile loop could turn dangerous if a few variables like temperature, precipitation, gear failure, and diminishing daylight are introduced into the equation.

Outdoor wilderness education is an initial step towards preparing yourself for the unknown, but a more tangible action includes simply dressing appropriately for the conditions - especially in winter. You can't control the natural elements, but you can properly outfit yourself in anticipation of any inclement weather that Mother Nature may throw your way. As the famous Norwegian saying goes, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing."

Beyond properly layering for cold to freezing conditions, we specifically want to highlight the necessity of proper footwear and wind protection:

  • Winter Footwear. For proper winter footwear, the name of the game is insulation and circulation. A good pair of winter hiking boots - which, yes, should be a different pair from your three-season hiking boots - should be waterproof and include synthetic insulation suitable for below-freezing conditions. Pair your boots with a thick set or two of wool or wool-blend hiking socks. Do NOT wear pure cotton socks, which are prone to getting and staying wet from sweat.

  • Boots vs. Snowshoes. A few years ago, my wife and I decided to take a break from a ski trip out west to go snowshoeing in Glacier National Park. Well, by the half-mile marker on the trail, we found ourselves drenched in sweat and ditching our snowshoes behind a trailside snowbank to continue in just our boots. We found out the hard way that snowshoes are only optimal for certain snowy conditions: traversing through 12+ inches of snow. Below this benchmark, the added weight and awkwardness of snowshoes will greatly diminish your snow mobility. Above this mark, snowshoes will prevent the agonizing pain that normal hiking in deep powder will unleash on your lower back and legs.

  • Wind Protection. As we all recently experienced, high winds in cold conditions can transform a normal winter's stroll into a polar expedition real quick. Even in moderately cold conditions, windburn skin injuries can occur whenever your skin is exposed to cold, dry winds for a long period of time. Fortunately, windburn can be prevented through applying sunscreen to exposed skin and lip balm to your lips and nostrils. The more life-threatening risk comes from frostbite: real-feel temperatures at negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit can cause frostbite to set in within minutes from prolonged skin exposure. To prevent frostbite, dress in layers of warm, breathable clothing and intentionally limit the amount of time that you are exposed to extremely cold wind chills. More on frostbite treatment below.


I have a confession to make: a significant portion of my initial wilderness training comprised of watching episodes of "Man vs. Wild" with Bear Grylls back in high school. Don't worry, I have since gained well over a decade of outdoor knowledge through first-hand experience and conventional research, but I still remember little nuggets of verified, potentially life-saving knowledge that Bear demonstrated in the show. One of which directly applies here:

"When you're on the trail, always drink water before you get thirsty - if you get thirsty, then you're already dehydrated."

That golden rule of trail hydration is relatively easy to follow during the warmer months, especially if you have ample access to fresh water sources to keep your water bottle or hydration bladder full. Winter introduces another variable to the equation: your water freezing within its container. As you probably know, you should never eat snow in a true survival situation due to the calorie-burning work that your body must put in to heat and melt the snow once it is eaten (which leads to further dehydration).

The best practice for keeping your water in its liquid form is to carry your water bottle within your backpack while trekking in freezing conditions. Yes, your natural instincts prefer to carry your water in a readily-available location - or even within the nozzle of a Camelbak-esque reservoir - but such locations expose your water to wind chill while depleting it of your body heat. You should also consider filling your water bottle with warm or hot water before hitting the trail on those especially frigid days.


Spoiler alert: we live and recreate in a fresh water oasis. While that's a huge bonus for our warmer-weather water recreation activities, our abundant lakes, rivers, ponds, and creeks also provide recreational opportunities - and dangers - for winter adventures. While walking on frozen water typically evokes a primal fear of finding yourself trapped in a freezing, claustrophobic death trap, there may be times that traversing a frozen body of water may be advantageous or necessary in a survival situation. Yes, the default rule is to always avo