Column: Survival strategies for winter |

Column: Survival strategies for winter

Chadd Drott
Staff Photo |

Outdoor survival is not something that we think about on a daily basis. Urban survival on the other hand is something that crosses our minds throughout every single day.

However, more times than you might think, somebody needs to deploy survival tactics out in the wilderness. Now while you are reading this article, honestly ask yourself, “if something happened to me and I had to survive in the wilderness during the middle of December or January, would I make it?”

As many of you can guess ,the answer to that question is predominately “no.”

I think I would be making a pretty safe bet if I were to say that I am sure just about everybody who has been in a true survival situation said that same thing too, at one point in time. The fact of the matter is if you are a snowmobiler, a cross-country or back-country skier, an ice fisherman, hunter, ice climber, somebody who likes to snowshoe or anybody who has the chance of finding themselves stranded in the wilderness for some unforeseen circumstance, this article is intended for you.

Survival is not something that comes naturally to us anymore. Without proper training and/or preparedness, it can be a very challenging feat to pull off, and almost impossible during the winter months. Ideally, this will enlighten you and hopefully give you a slight edge over mother nature.

It is widely accepted around the world that there are certain steps you take to better your chances of making it out alive, depending on the environment, climate and terrain you are in. Here in Colorado, we have a very unique situation where you could find yourself trying to weather the elements in a sub-alpine situation (below tree line) or in an alpine situation (above timberline) — which, depending on the area in the state you may be stranded in, is roughly 11,000 feet. So without further ado, let’s go over the steps to take to survive in the dead of winter in our beautiful state and the surrounding ones with the same climate.

Step one: Fire Building

During the spring and summer months this would be step No. 2. However, during the time of year where you could easily find yourself in a fight with temperatures well below freezing, this becomes step one. It is critical that you make a fire as soon as possible the moment you realize you are in trouble.

At this point tell yourself the clock is ticking and you are already behind in the race. If you allow your body temperature to drop and allow for your body to fall in a state of hypothermia you might as well throw in the towel, because you have already lost and you just don’t know it yet.

As soon as you get a fire going keep it going; your life will depend on this. As long as a fire is going, you are able to keep your temperature and your spirits up, you will know what I mean if you ever find yourself huddled around one. I recommend diligently studying fire making as this is a step you can’t fail at.

Step two: Shelter Building

OK, you have a good fire going. You are one step closer to making it out of this alive.

The next problem you have to solve is getting out of the direct elements. Remember, a freak and sudden blizzard or a howling wind storm can strike fast and unexpectedly at any time. Finding a natural cave may seem like a great idea for bettering your chances of survival, but I assure you it is not.

Most caves in Colorado are shallow and in turn take the temperature of the outside and so do the rocks, which will be what you are laying on throughout the night. It will suck the heat from your body faster than you think, and starting a fire is a bad idea as wind could keep the smoke in with you or warm the rock above you too fast and cause it to fracture — sending a large piece of slab to fall on top of you.

Study different techniques as it is very possible one may not be logical in your present situation. Your best chance is to build a snow shelter, as snow is insulating (remember to use a lot of pine boughs to keep you off the snow directly about four times higher than you think, as they will compress when you lay on them). Study hard on how to make a proper snow shelter because they are very challenging to make.

If you do not have the means to build a snow shelter, a makeshift lean-to or an A-frame will be your last defense to get out of the weather. Face the opening away from the prevailing wind and keep your fire going at the opening throughout the night.

Step three: Signaling

Once you have a fire going and you have your shelter built, you have a good chance of making it through the night. But what happens if you are going to have to make it multiple days?

Now you have to figure out a way to signal for help. Remember to always tell somebody where you are going and a time you plan on being back. Telling somebody about your plans gives search crews a starting point. Believe me Colorado is not as densely populated as you might think.

You could easily be in an area where other people may not travel to for weeks or even years. There are plenty of ways to signal for help, so research ideas and put them to practice. Sunlight can be seen off glass up to 100 and even 150 miles away so carry a small mirror with you at all times. Find the brightest flashlight you can to signal at night. Have a whistle for two reasons: One, it can be heard farther away than humans can yell, and two, most crews come with search dogs and the dogs can easily hear it from farther than a human can. The game is all about distance here — reach out and better your odds.

Fire at night is great and during the day burn green things if you hear a plane or helicopter, as the green vegetation makes a lot of smoke which reaches up and gives flight crews a land mark to go investigate.

Step four: Finding Water

Water is a must for the body. However, the body can go three days without it and that is why it is fourth on the list. If you don’t get a fire going or a shelter made, then you won’t need to worry about three days because you won’t live long enough to see it. Signaling is only one up because you never know when someone may pass by or fly by.

In winter in the high country, water is not hard to come by. It comes in the form of snow and you have an endless supply. Warning: Snow that appears pink is a form of bacteria that grows on the surface of the snow and will make you very sick if you ingest it. If you find this snow, scrape down 6-12 inches to find pure white snow that will be OK to eat. Eating snow is the fastest way to replace water in your system, but do not eat too much too fast or you will lower your core temperature toward hypothermia. Melting snow over your fire is the best way to get water as you can bring it to a warm temperature, keeping your body heat the same.

Finally, carrying a water bottle with you and filling it up with snow then placing it between layers close to your body will melt it over time. Investigate other ideas on how to collect water in winter, as these are only a couple examples of how to produce water.

Another warning: Do not drink water within a couple hours of night fall, as this will lower your temperature without allowing it to warm up before the outside temperature falls. This is a large reason people freeze to death over night during winter. Drink from morning to mid-afternoon only.

Step five: Finding Food

Finding food is the least of your priorities. You can go three weeks without food, however, do not completely forget about it either.

Hunger sets in quick and can really make it hard for you to concentrate. There are many ways to collect food in winter, so study up on the methods, as your stomach will thank you in the long run.

There are things to eat in the wilderness, however, they are hard to come by during the harsh winter. Plants are pretty much out of the question as the snow buries them and renders them useless. Pine needles are good to put in water and boil to get the nutrients. Discard them afterward. A small handful of pine needles pack more vitamin C in them then a large orange so drink up.

Cambium is a small layer of wood-like substance between the bark and main trunk of trees. Aspen cambium is the easiest to get to. Just peel the bark from the tree then proceed to eat the tiny layer behind the bark — it is packed with nutrients but it is hard to palate.

Pine nuts are good year round. If you can find some eat them, they are high in protein. Lastly, try and find a way to fish or snare, as animals will provide you with the best chance at survival.

Warning: Eating only rabbits leads to a condition known as rabbit fever. Rabbits are very lean and high in protein and have a very low percentage of fat. Living off a diet primarily of rabbit could result in an overload of protein in your blood stream, leading to starvation and eventually death. So remember to substitute some meals with fattier foods such as nuts or animal fats as this will keep you alive.

Good luck, and if you ever find yourself in this position, remember to stay positive. If you’re stranded, then you have to accept the situation and just work the problem. Your life will depend on this.

These steps are methods of survival that can only assist you in a survival situation and cannot guarantee your survival. Every survival situation has many variables and is up to you to take the responsibility to make yourself as informed as possible.

Chadd Drott is the owner/founder of Chadd’s Walking With Wildlife. For more information, please visit, find them on Facebook or email Chadd at

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