survival gear

What Survival Gear You Might Need in Extremely Cold Conditions

When you find yourself in the midst of brutally cold weather, whether you’re a local resident or just passing through, the looming possibility of being stranded without immediate shelter or rescue can be a downright terrifying prospect.

We’ve all heard the stories of people caught in the throes of unforgiving blizzards, hikers seeking refuge under heavy blankets of snow, or travelers huddled in their vehicles on snow-blocked roads. Shockingly, a staggering 25% of winter-related fatalities stem from individuals caught off guard in such conditions.

However, in the face of the challenging winter environment, having the right winter survival gear is paramount. Many survivors owe their lives to having the right gear to see them through until help arrives or the weather recedes.

winter survival gear
Arctic Survival School students brace while a U.S. Air National Guard HH-60G Pave Hawk, assigned to the 210th Rescue Squadron, hovers overhead March 17, 2022, on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Students experienced how cold and windy it can be during a recovery from a survival situation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Beaux Hebert)

So, whether you’re a seasoned winter camper or merely seeking to bolster your preparedness for unforeseen emergencies, this article is your essential guide to surviving in the harshest cold weather scenarios.

Let’s get into the winter survival gear you’ll need to weather extremely cold conditions and live to see another day.

Cold Weather Survival Gear List

For this cold-weather survival gear list, we’re going to start with what you’re wearing since that is going to be your first defense against what Mother Nature throws at you.

Winter Clothing and Footwear

The following is from a former Air Force SERE instructor with extensive experience in surviving harsh winter climates.

Surviving in an unforgiving winter environment demands more than just resilience; it requires the right gear and the right clothing, or else you risk succumbing to the cold’s unforgiving bite. 

winter survival gear
A sign posted in the Arctic Survival School training area March 16, 2022, on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Beaux Hebert)

In the following sections, I’ll walk you through the gear we trust and explain why each piece is crucial.

I tend to stick to the core principles of layering: wicking, warming, and weather protection. 

The wicking layer’s primary role is to prevent moisture from clinging to the skin and encourage evaporation. Right above that, we have the warming layer, which I adjust or remove depending on my level of physical activity to avoid sweating excessively. Finally, the weather layer is my constant companion, shielding the inner layers from moisture. 

Typically, when I’m instructing, I opt for a Patagonia or Crye combat shirt as my wicking layer, a Beyond Clothing A3 Alpha Sweater to keep me warm, and either a Beyond Clothing Wind Shirt or a Beyond Clothing A6 Rain Jacket, chosen based on the prevailing precipitation.

In temperatures above 15 degrees Fahrenheit, I skip the thermal underwear and go for either Crye Field or Crye Combat pants. When the temperature drops below this mark, I add thermal underwear beneath the pants. I’ve learned through experience that wearing thermals in milder weather leads to excessive sweating. 

Another factor to consider is precipitation. When the temperature hovers around freezing, and the rain persists, it’s a dangerous situation – what we call “prime hypothermia weather.” In such conditions, I don a full Gore-Tex outfit, featuring the Beyond Clothing A6 Rain Jacket and Rain Pants.

Footwear and socks are among the most critical elements of cold weather gear. If your feet sweat excessively, you’re inviting cold-related problems. I’ve tried various approaches and found that the best combination includes a single pair of top-quality, thick socks (such as winter-weight Smartwool or Darn Tough) paired with full-grain leather boots and gaiters. 

The logic behind using a single sock is simple: layering multiple socks reduces space within the boot, compressing the feet and reducing blood flow, ultimately making you colder. Therefore, one high-quality sock is the way to go. You can compensate for this by selecting a slightly larger boot size, although I prefer the single-sock approach.

When it comes to boots, I favor full-grain leather ones. They tend to last longer than their synthetic counterparts and are easier to treat. Before every training exercise, I use a hair dryer to gently warm the leather on my boots, allowing them to absorb as many coats of SNO SEAL as they can. 

This weatherproofing wax prevents water from seeping into the leather, ensuring my feet stay dry and warm. It also conditions the leather, preventing cracks. My go-to boots are either the Asolo TPS 520 GV for snow up to 2 feet deep or, in more extreme conditions, the Kenetrek Mountain Extreme 400 insulated hunting boots. It’s crucial not to lace your boots too tightly, as this can restrict blood flow and make your feet more susceptible to cold injuries.

I always pair my preferred boots with gaiters, like the Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain High Gaiters. Gaiters are excellent at keeping moisture out of your pants, which can otherwise find its way into your socks and boots. I consider them a must-have in most environments, and even when not in use, they don’t take up much space in my pack.

I realize that the gear I’ve mentioned can be on the pricier side, but keep in mind that this isn’t an exhaustive list of winter clothing options. There are many reputable brands, like Arc’teryx and REI, that offer a wide range of gear to suit different budgets. 

Regardless of your gear, always carry emergency equipment when heading into winter terrain. A fire kit, signaling devices, and a means of collecting and purifying water are essential for your safety.

RELATED – Best Survival Schools in the US

Navigation (Map, Compass, GPS)

In cold weather, a map is crucial for finding shelter, thanks to satellite technology that provides maps for almost every part of the world, even remote areas. 

While smartphones offer easy map access, our reliance on them is our downfall.

For reliable navigation in emergency situations, a traditional paper map and a compass are essential, especially in severe weather conditions that can disorient even those with a good sense of direction.

The K&R M1 Sport Compass is a simple sighting compass with some cool upgraded features that make it superior to several other compasses on the market.

Winter Survival Gear

There are really two features that make this compass superior.

  1. The sighting mirror on the M1 Sport is not made from breakable glass like many others. The sighting mirror on this compass is made from unbreakable polished aluminum. No worries If you drop your compass or accidentally step on it, your sighting mirror will be good to go.
  2. The compass needle housing is not made of plastic like most. The problem you see with those is that when you get the smallest hairline crack, you will develop bubbles in the needle housing. K&R has constructed the M1 Sport Compass with a thermo-elastic capsule that has some give to it, creating a durable bubble-free compass.

To get topographical maps of your local area, check out the website mytopo.com.

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Blanket/Shelter

Your favorite couch blanket is not going to cut it here. You’re going to need something that can shield you from the elements and assist in retaining your body heat. If you cannot maintain a proper core temperature, you’re going to die.

Something as simple as a disposable space blanket will work, but they are not that robust. SOL makes a heavier-duty reusable blanket or shelter.

Another proven piece of survival gear is the military-issued poncho and poncho liner combination. Some refer to this combination as a ranger roll shelter kit.

Headlamp for Hands-Free Light

A quality headlamp is a must. This is what our former Air Force SERE instructor has to say and what he recommends.

I found myself shivering uncontrollably as the biting December cold gripped Northeastern Washington. My thin warm-weather Crye multicam gear offered little protection against the harsh chill. It was already 8:30 PM, well past sunset in this northern region, and darkness had enveloped us for the past four hours. Navigating by the light of the moon and stars, we had settled into our third hiding spot for the night, with freezing rain sporadically drenching us.

Huddled together in a defilade, we tried to establish communication using our PRC-112 emergency radio after receiving a text message with new coordinates. However, to our dismay, the radio’s backlight was malfunctioning. “Jones, turn on your headlamp,” I mumbled through chattering teeth. With a nod, I attempted to activate my headlamp, only to find it unresponsive. Frustrated curses followed as I attempted to troubleshoot the issue. Sadly, the headlamp had succumbed to the elements after just three days in the field. Its plastic frame had cracked due to the extreme temperature fluctuations between day and night, allowing water to seep in. It was our only source of light, and its failure made our operation significantly more challenging.

The nightmare of critical gear failing in the field became all too real. I had never imagined that a headlamp could fail so abruptly until I began my Survival and Evasion exercises as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Specialist (SERE Specialist) in the United States Air Force. My equipment had to endure various conditions worldwide, and my demands were high. Upon completing my SERE Specialist training, I was issued an exceptional headlamp from Princeton Tec called the EOS. It’s a headlamp that has earned its reputation, being used by various Special Operations forces in the military for one simple reason: it doesn’t quit. I’ve taken the Princeton Tec EOS headlamp everywhere and subjected it to all kinds of tests, and I have the utmost confidence in its reliability.

 

Survival Shovel

When you’re out in the wild, you might find yourself needing a good survival shovel. Whether it’s for making a fire pit, clearing a path, or staying safe, having a reliable one is essential. 

You’ll quickly realize how important it is to have the right tools when you’re facing unexpected challenges in nature or tough conditions.

It’s crucial not to settle for a low-quality shovel when your safety is at stake. Many of the survival shovels available can’t handle real-world use. They might bend, break, or lack the features you need when things get tough.

winter survival gear
A U.S. Marine with Marine Rotational Force-Europe 19.2, Marine Forces Europe and Africa, builds a shelter during cold-weather survival training in Setermoen, Norway, May 5, 2019. Training in Norway improves the Marine Corps’ cold-weather and mountain-warfare proficiencies, and increases interoperability with allies and partners. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Larisa Chavez)

Even though people often overlook them, survival shovels are incredibly useful and can be a real lifesaver in cold-weather survival situations.

When it comes to cold-weather survival, you’re going to want a shovel capable of moving snow rather than a traditional military-issued folding shovel. Although the folding shovels will work in a pinch, having the right gear for the right job makes all the difference. 

With that said, DMOS makes a product called the Compact Delta Shovel. Think of it as the next-generation E-Tool.

Winter Survival Gear

 

For more information on survival shovels, RE Factor Tactical has a great article on them.

Multi-Tool

The Gerber Diesel Multi-Tool is a tough and user-friendly tool.

It’s not your average multi-tool; it’s a versatile powerhouse built for the toughest tasks, with a convenient wrist-flick deployment feature.

This tool is incredibly strong and reliable, fearlessly taking on any challenge. Each stainless steel tool is not only larger but also exceptionally robust. Safety is a priority, and every part locks securely in place thanks to the Saf.T.Plus system.

Instead of settling for a lesser tool, choose the Gerber Diesel; it excels in any situation and is your go-to tool when you can only carry one. With the Gerber Diesel by your side, you’re always ready for whatever comes your way.

Power Source

With all the dependence on electronic devices (cell phones, GPS units, and emergency radios), you need to have a way to keep them charged.

Remember that cold weather will affect your batteries, causing their charges to be depleted much quicker than in a controlled environment.

Medical Kit

Having a medical kit within your cold-weather survival kit is essential for addressing minor injuries that can unexpectedly occur while navigating the challenging terrain and extreme weather conditions of cold environments.

A well-stocked first aid kit should be a non-negotiable inclusion in your cold-weather gear. It equips you to respond promptly and effectively to cuts, scrapes, burns, blisters, and other common injuries that can quickly escalate if left untreated in the cold.

Beyond the basics like bandages, antiseptic wipes, and adhesive tape, your first aid kit should contain items tailored to cold weather challenges, such as hand and foot warmers to combat frostbite, thermal blankets to ward off hypothermia, and instant cold packs for managing swelling and pain.

winter survival gear

Moreover, it’s not just about having the right items; it’s about knowing how to use them. Understanding wilderness wound management is paramount. Enrolling in a wilderness first aid course can be invaluable, as it equips you with the knowledge and skills to utilize the contents of your first aid kit effectively, assess injuries in cold conditions, and provide appropriate care until professional help arrives.

RELATED – Trauma First Aid Training: Preparing Yourself for the Unexpected

Fire Starting Tools

The tools listed here are simple and robust options that will give you a flame to work with. In a winter survival situation, the last thing you want to be trying to do is rub two sticks together.

winter survival gear
An Arctic Survival School student uses a striker to start a fire March 16, 2022, on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Temperatures in Alaska can drop to minus 50 and below in the winter, fire is an essential tool for anyone in a survival situation.(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Beaux Hebert)

One of the most important things that helped humans build civilization was learning how to make fire. This skill is still super important, especially in really cold weather. So, in your winter survival kit, make sure to have these two tools for starting fires:

  1. UCO Storm Matches: Matches are pretty easy to understand. You use them to light things on fire. But the tricky part can be finding dry stuff to burn, which might be hard in snowy places. The UCO Storm Matches offer an extended burn time and a hotter flame than standard matches.
  2. Magnesium fire starter: This tool can be even better in bad weather. It has magnesium inside it, which is very good at catching fire. You can shave off a bit of magnesium and then use the fire starter to make it burn. This is great for when things are wet, especially when paired with some cotton balls coated with Vaseline (see above photo).

Communications (Radio)

The BAOFENG UV-5R 8W is a powerful two-way radio built with ham radio enthusiasts and emergency communication needs in mind. 

It boasts an impressive 8-watt maximum output, significantly extending its communication range compared to lower-powered models. This radio is versatile, supporting dual-band operation covering both VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) bands, allowing for flexible communication across a wide range of frequencies.

A Reddit discussion discusses whether upgrading to the 8W version of the BAOFENG UV-5R is worth it compared to the 5W version, indicating people’s interest in its performance and value.

The BAOFENG UV-5R 8W radio proves to be an excellent choice for various scenarios, including survival and emergency situations. With its 8W power and dual-band capabilities, it offers extended communication range and adaptability. Its portability and rechargeable battery options make it suitable for on-the-go use, and its affordability ensures accessibility to a wide range of users. It’s worth considering this radio as a backup communication solution for comprehensive preparedness.

If the idea of operating such a radio feels daunting, you might find Radio Made Easy, a company that not only sells the BAOFENG UV-5R 8W but also delivers it pre-programmed for your area, ready to use straight out of the box, a convenient option.

Winter Survival Gear
Students in the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, use a radio to contact a Helicopter to practice ground to air communications at the Air Force Survival School Training Area in Cusick, Washington, Feb. 18, 2018. The overall SERE school objective is to prepare Airmen to be isolated, alone and able to survive for days at a time while using the skills they have learned to make it back home alive. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Sean Campbell)

Toiletries

This category is often overlooked in many survival kits. The fact of the matter is that you’re going to have to go sooner or later. 

Simply keeping a compressed roll of toilet paper and a package of body wipes in a zip-lock bag will come in handy and be more sanitary than trying to use leaves or other unsanitary items.

RELATED – 5 Basic Survival Skills to Learn

Wrapping it Up!

The idea of being prepared isn’t just a smart move; it could be life-altering. When you have the right cold-weather survival gear, you’ll feel confident in dealing with whatever winter weather conditions Mother Nature throws your way.

Whether you’re out in the wilderness or stuck in your vehicle during a blizzard, these essential tools can save your life.

Let TacSkills guide you to the perfect training opportunity in proximity to your locale. Commit to your professional growth today, and ensure you are learning from the best in the field.