top of page

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 avoid crossing ice if possible, but for this article let's assume that you have one choice and one choice only: you must cross.

The two key considerations for ice safety are quality and thickness. For quality, the best ice for walking on is dark but clear. "White ice" forms when there is either bubbles and/or frozen snow in the ice, which diminishes its composition. For thickness, there should be at least three feet of quality, frozen ice to adequately support a human adult - six feet for a vehicle like a snow mobile or ATV.

A third consideration to remember when deciding whether to cross ice includes remembering that ice is virtually never uniform over an entire body of water. Particularly for rivers and creeks, the innermost channels of fast moving water are often the final areas of water to freeze, therefore providing the weakest ice and greatest chance of falling through. Always keep your distance from others when traveling on ice (at least 10 feet apart), and travel in a single-file line so that the group is walking on tested ice and you're accessible for assisting with pulling a fallen comrade out of the water.


For avid outdoor enthusiasts, this scenario is more of a "when" vs. "if" circumstance. Long story short, something has gone wrong: you've lost the trail, your headlamp and/or cell phone died, white-out conditions blew in, and the undefeated depth of mid-winter's darkness has arrived to dash your hopes of making it back to the car that evening. You're forced to swallow one massive, potentially soul-crushing pill.

You will be spending the night in the backcountry. In the winter. Alone.

While some recreationists might panic at this revelation, fortunately you're a reader of Expedition Detroit (shameless plug for ourselves) and mentally prepared for such a scenario. Depending on the conditions of your wintry trail of choice, we recommend building one of three types of shelters: a lean-to shelter, snow cave, or a tree well.

  • Lean-To Shelter. If hiking in a wooded area - which defines most of the Detroit region's trail networks - a lean-to shelter will likely be your shelter of choice for a worst-case-scenario shelter. First you will need to find a sturdy stick or "ridgepole" that runs at least longer than the length of your body. Next, find two trees roughly the distance apart of the ridgepole that have crooks or other features for supporting the ridgepole 3 to 5 feet off of the ground (you can and should secure the ridgepole with rope or paracord if you have it). Once your ridgepole is secure, gather poles to make a roof that angles from the ground to the ridgepole. Cover these poles with pine boughs, leaves, moss, and even snow for trapping heat and deflecting water. Covering the snowy ground with leaves and pine needles will also help keep you dry during the night.

  • Snow Cave Shelter. If a lean-to seems impractical due to difficulty in traversing through dense snowpack, then opt not to fight the conditions but utilize them. If the snow is deep (several feet at least) and stable enough to pack and hold some weight (i.e., not fresh powder), then digging a snow cave shelter may be your best option for a somewhat comfortable night's rest. To build a snow cave, excavate a small cave into a large mass of suitable snow. The size of the cave should be just large enough for you to comfortably huddle within and push some of the snow from the inside of the cave to plug up the entrance. Once the entrance is plugged, you should re-dig a small ventilation opening back through the plug. You should also build a raised "sleeping platform" at least 3 inches above the bottom of the plug in order to allow cold air to sink below you. Always take a "less is more" approach to snow cave shelters: the amount of snow that you burrow into should be just enough to make the cave, and the size of the cave should be just to shield you from the elements. No one has time to suffocate under a massive, collapsed cave.

  • Tree Well Shelter. The third and final shelter is somewhat of a combination of the lean-to and snow cave shelters. If you are hiking in thick snow within a wooded area. The base of a healthy fir or pine tree often provides excellent conditions for a tree well shelter, which occur when deeper snow piles up around the circumference of low-hanging branches. The canopy of branches creates a natural small, sheltered, and insulated resting area around the tree's trunk. If conditions permit, you should reinforce the insulation of your tree well shelter through digging out the snow in the well and building up the outside of your shelter. Keeping "Leave No Trace" principles in mind, branches from the tree may also be used to reinforce your shelter.

Preferably, you should start building these shelters with ample daylight to adequately construct them - don't wait until the dead of night sets in to abandon your hopes of making it back to the trailhead. And remember, we are writing here about circumstances where a winter day hike went terribly awry and you are forced to spend an unexpected night in the backcountry. The shelters described above are not the fully-outfitted, "Alone" style shelters that a survivalist aiming to spend weeks or months in the wilderness would aim to build. These shelters are 1-night, efficient, and bare-minimum shelters for protecting you from the elements until more hospitable conditions return.


Congratulations - you've either escaped the cold entirely or successfully built a fire in the backcountry (stay tuned for an article on fire-building best practices and techniques). But let's say that you've returned not entirely unscathed. You suffered from prolonged exposure to freezing conditions, and now you believe that you may be experiencing symptoms of frostbite, hypothermia, or both. You know that you need to warm your body up ASAP, but you also need to do so responsibly or else you may risk further complicating your complicated circumstances.

  • Frostbite. If you are experiencing symptoms of mild frostbite - skin that appears pale or yellow, exhibits blisters, and feels numb - you will be able to warm the affected areas through either skin-to-skin contact or warm water immersion. Avoid friction and dry heat rewarming sources. Serious cases of frostbite - skin exhibiting blood-filled blisters, gray or bluish color, stiffness, and an acute burning sensation - require professional medical treatment.

  • Hypothermia. Unlike frostbite, hypothermia should always be treated a life-threatening. Symptoms of hypothermia include incessant and intense shivering, drowsiness, confusion, and skin that is cold and red. For treating symptoms of hypothermia, you should remove any wet clothing, concentrate on warming the center of the body (chest, neck, head, and groin), and warm the affected person using skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or any other dry garments that may be available. Chemical hand and body warming packets, heated water bottles, external heat sources like campfires can also be used to warm the affected person. Drinking warm liquids also efficiently warms the core of the body, although never try to give beverages to an unconscious person.


Before closing out this article, we want to wish everyone a very happy holiday season! We took a few days offline around Christmas to celebrate with family and friends (and to sneak in a few much-needed hikes). We hope that you were also able to enjoy some time being present with your loved ones.

This article references materials original printed in the following exception outdoor survival books: The Meateater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival by Steven Rinella (2020) and Surviving the Great Outdoors by Brendan Leonard (2017). Both of these phenomenal books cover not only basic and advanced survival tactics in digestible detail, but also provide instructive information on a broad range of recreational activities. Both of these books receive Expedition Detroit's unsponsored endorsement without reservation, and we recommend that you purchase both as a New Year's gift to yourself.

Trust us - your future self inevitably caught up in a survival scenario will thank you.

bottom of page