You are here


How to Survive: Extreme Cold

Using these techniques will enable you to endure until help arrives


If you’re evading capture in the snow, remember that your footprints can give away your position. Keep followers guessing by doubling back often and taking a different route each time.


With 20 years of combat arms experience, New Mexico Guard Sergeant First Class Jim Busse, who led the Guard’s search and rescue team in that state for three years, knows a thing or two about being in the suck. While shelter is important, he says, you have to consider how much energy you’re expending to build it. “A snow cave is a great way to get shelter from the elements,” he says, “but they are time-consuming to build. A hasty trench lined with foliage and a high wind wall built with rocks, limbs or packed snow will get you through the night.”

Take advantage of the environment. Look for natural shelters to improve upon before starting from scratch. Never lie directly on the ground; use foliage or a sleeping mat to insulate yourself.

If you have a gas-burning stove or lamp, avoid carbon monoxide poisoning by ventilating your shelter.


Busse says snow can be an ally when trapping potential food. “Find the best place to trap game by looking for animal tracks in the snow. Use sticks and twigs to funnel small game into your trap.”

Avoid the temptation to eat snow without melting it first, as this can lower your body temperature. If there is no snow in the area, your only other source of water may be a stream or lake. If it’s ice-covered, don’t be discouraged—there’s probably moving water underneath.


According to Busse, layers are key. “To maximize survivability, wear a base layer tight against your skin, then an insulating layer, followed by a layer to protect from the elements,” he says. “Remember the acronym COLD: Keep clothing clean, avoid overheating, wear in layers, and keep clothes dry.”


Fire is your friend, but if you’re evading capture, smoke can be your worst enemy. Light a fire at night when smoke won’t be seen, and trap heat in large rocks. During the day, use smoldering coals to provide heat without disclosing your location.

If you’re trying to be found, follow streams or rivers in the direction of their flow to make your way back to civilization. Or, arrange branches or leaves into signs in the snow; rescuers searching from the air will easily see them.

If you become stranded in a winter storm, think of your car as a ready-made shelter. If the engine is running, make sure your muffler’s exhaust isn’t covered by snow, as fumes can build up in the car. Before setting out to seek help, weigh the risks of leaving shelter—it may be smarter to wait it out.




When your core temperature drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia sets in. You’ll shiver uncontrollably; that’s your body’s attempt to warm itself. Avoid hypothermia by staying dry and covered. Wet clothes (even sweaty ones) can be worse than no clothing at all, as wet skin loses heat faster than dry skin. 


When skin freezes, the body cuts off blood flow to outer tissues, which can cause severe damage. At 32 degrees, you can get frostbite within 30 minutes. Prevent by fully covering skin in cold weather, especially in windy conditions, as wind chill quickens damage. 


Freezing temperatures diminish available food sources. You aren’t likely to find fruits or greens, so look for nuts or root foods, and catch or trap whatever you can.



Fire is crucial for surviving in the cold, but it’s hard to pull off without a spark source. You’re more likely to have a battery available, so learn how to spark fire with a battery and a gum wrapper