I may have spent the last several decades of my life living in warm or temperate climates—the SF Bay Area, Malibu, and Miami are famous for their mild or non-existent winters—but I grew up in coastal Maine and spent the majority of my time outside, rain, snow or shine. I’ve endured some harsh winters and I think it’s important that everyone be equipped to handle themselves in cold weather.
Part of surviving winter is surviving it outdoors—whether you choose to be there or not.
Part of surviving winter is having the right supplies in your car.
Part of surviving winter is surviving it at home in the event of a power outage. As we saw a little while ago in Texas, simply being at home doesn’t mean much if your power goes out and you’re not prepared.
Today, I’m going to give some winter survival tips: behaviors, tools, and gear you should keep in mind (and in your car, your house, and on your person) to survive a harsh winter indoors and out.
Winter Survival Tips
Most of us “survive winter” by living in warm climates or retreating to simulated warm climates in our homes and offices. Few ever truly get into “winter survival situations.” But you never know how things will go. You never know when your car will break down in the dead of winter. And sometimes, some of you will simply want to test yourself in the cold.
Here’s how to stay dry, stay warm, and stay alive.
Moisture is the death knell, whether it’s from excess sweat, slipping into an icy brook, or failing to cover up and getting soaked in a downpour. Moisture will wick warmth away from your body, leaving you vulnerable to the cold. Always stay dry.
If you want to maintain ground feel and zero heel drop soles, you’ll want something waterproof like the Tracker II FG Men’s or Women’s from Vivo Barefoot, the Boulder Boot Men’s or Women’s from Lem’s Shoes. However, these may not be ideal for true deep winter conditions. If you’re out dealing with heavy protracted exposure to snow, you can sacrifice ground feel and heel drop for insulation against the cold.
This is a great discussion of barefoot waterproof and snow boots broken down by both warmth and waterproofness.
Wool is king. I don’t care if it’s “scratchy.” This is survival, and wool is the best way to survive and stay warm. It works for sheep.
Socks, hats, mittens, base layers, sweaters, long johns. Wool, wool, wool.
You need to wear wool (ideally) against your body but layer other materials over it. You need to wear the most synthetic, plastic-y material on top to prevent any water from getting in.
Base layer should be thin wool and well-fitting. This is what’s up against your body.
Second layer should be light and airy against your body rather than overly tight, allowing more warm air to be trapped. A merino wool, goose down, or fleece second layer works great, depending on how cold the weather is (merino for warmer, down for colder).
The outer layer, or shell, should be a synthetic waterproof material. Some shells will come with warmer mid-layers, usually removable.
Cover your extremities.
Keeping your head and hands warm and covered will conserve body heat and allow you to interact with the environment without losing too much.
Again, wool is a big winner here. For your hands, cover your wool “base layer” with a water/snow-proof outer shell.
Stick a pair of wool insoles into your barefoot shoes for added warmth. Just having that layer between you and the ground will insulate you against the freezing earth.
Get a wood stove.
When the power’s out, you can’t run the furnace. You can’t plug in space heaters. Yeah, a generator will help, but you can’t rely on it indefinitely.
Wood burns hot. Wood keeps for a long time. Wood isn’t going anywhere, and it doesn’t go bad, and it doesn’t degrade. No one—not even father time or the elements provided you cover it—can take your wood stacks away.
Get an indoor heater that doesn’t require electricity.
This propane heater fits the bill. All you need is propane. No electricity required. I would install carbon monoxide alarms just to be safe.
Have a way to cook without power, preferably indoors.
You can heat food using candles. You can cook on the wood stove or in the fireplace.
Unfortunately, butane or propane stoves aren’t safe for prolonged indoor cooking, especially without ventilation. But assuming you’re staying warm with layers, you can go outside to cook.
Charcoal and wood are always reliable outdoor cooking methods.
Get good blankets.
Wool and down are probably the warmest materials—research even shows that wool is better at retaining body heat than cotton. Wool can be a bit itchy at times, but it will keep you warm and that’s the most important thing when trying to survive a power outage during winter. Down is more luxurious and expensive, but it will also keep you incredibly warm.
Create small warm environments.
Put up the smallest tent (or tents) you can all fit inside in the living room and pile the entire family in there with tons of blankets. Dress warmly. Sleep in sleeping bags. Keep it zipped up. Generate that body heat and maintain it. Don’t let it escape.
Get a good whole house generator.
I wouldn’t rely on the generator—you won’t always have fuel, most types of fuel go bad (unless propane or diesel), and your generator has to be of sufficient capacity to run the house like “normal.” It’s far more reliable to figure out how to survive the cold without electricity. then add the generator as extra insurance.
Make sure it’s a good one. Honda makes great generators.
Snuggle with your loved ones. Hug your kids. Spoon your partner (or be spooned).
Board games, card games, role-playing games, word games, puzzles, riddles. They’re all great to play, and they all will help keep your spirits up and your mind from fixating on “survival.” A mind obsessed with staying warm and surviving has the tendency to go mad; playing can keep everyone sane.
When you exercise, you increase heat production in the body. Some of that heat is stored, while some is lost to the atmosphere. The net outcome is an increase in body temperature and, especially, perceived body temperature. We’ve all felt it. You go for a hike in the cold weather wearing a t-shirt, and within a few minutes, you’re comfortable while everyone else who “dressed for the weather” is sweating.
Keep calorie intake high.
Adequate calorie intake maintains thyroid function and keeps body temperature up. If you’re “feeling cold,” you are for all intents and purposes cold.
Forget “dieting” or “cutting” when it’s freezing outside and you’re exposed to it. That’s great for targeted and consensual cold exposure, but not for involuntary or protracted cold exposure. Not when you’re trying to survive. Keep eating lots of food.
Of course, “keeping calorie intake high” requires that you have lots of calories on hand. You should be prepared before disaster strikes. Stock your pantry, maintain shelf-stable high-calorie foods.
For the car…
Two mylar tarps.
One tarp for making a shelter if you need to. One tarp to use as a heat-reflective blanket.
Gotta have the blankets.
I recommend at least two sources of fire starter: a gas lighter, matches, and/or flint. Bonus of the flint is you can correct a magnesium deficiency by shaving a few flecks into your water. Kidding.
Fire starting material.
Extra dryer lint is perfect. So are cotton balls soaked in Vaseline. Store in ziplock bags to keep dry. Or, you can use a Blackbeard fire starter.
Gallon of water.
Water needs are much lower in cold weather, but you still need water.
Freeze-dried meals, canned fish, dense protein bars—anything that will last for years and keep you from starving.
Change of wool clothing in plastic bins.
Wool underwear, hat, long johns, shirts, pants, sweater. Keep a change of wool clothing packed efficiently into plastic bins or large plastic bags (to prevent water getting in) for every member of the family.
First aid kit.
You need a basic first aid kit.
Battery charger, air pump, and jump starter.
If you can make it fit, this device is a huge help. It allows you to charge your phones, jump start your car, and inflate your tires.
Now, I’m sure I missed a few important tips and tools. Let me know down below what you consider essential for winter survival.