The Best Cold Weather Wilderness Winter Survival Packs (backpacks, gear & essential items you need)

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Winter Survival Packs

As I sit here staring out the window at the rain turning to snow, I cannot help but worry a little about this weekend. Every year I complete five or six survival challenges, and one always has temperatures below freezing. I attempt to make each winter challenge a little different from the others, so they tend to have a theme. Last year was extreme weather. I endured temperatures as low as -1F and wind chill down to -20F. The winds were strong most of the time, and it snowed consistently. With little more than a firestarter, a knife, and some paracord, making it through the nights was tough.

During my last challenge I was able to build a dome shelter and a raised bed. I kept a fire going the whole time, and was able to find and purify water. However, food was scarce. My only source of calories was some wild edible greens that I found. This was the coldest weather of the season, and the animals did not intend to move about much. The lack of food, the cold, and the long hours of collecting firewood made it a rough challenge. I made it through, but had some minor frostbite and felt the starting symptoms of hypothermia. I was able to get the feeling back in my fingers and toes a few weeks later.

This year my goal is thriving instead of simply surviving. I intend to build a warmer shelter, stockpile wood early, and spend much more time hunting and trapping. I want to focus on a long term survival setup instead of just trying to make it through the night. The temperatures will not be quite so severe, but it will still be well below freezing.

The interesting part about the timing of this article is that I try to take as little gear as possible with me on these challenges. While I am emptying my winter survival pack, you should be filling yours up. In a real survival situation, lots of practical gear is always better until you get to the point of your pack weighing too much. In this article I will cover the basics that should be in any survival pack as well as covering the items that should be added for cold weather.

The Pack Itself

When selecting a pack, you have several options available. I have made it through survival challenges with a full sized hiking pack with an internal frame. I have also survived with just the items in my pockets or in a hip pack. The two biggest factors in determining the size of your pack are your skill level and the physical requirements of the situation. You always want to bring as many practical supplies as possible, but consider how the weight of the pack will affect your mobility. If you are going to be hiking or snowmobiling 30 miles from civilization, you probably want to pack a bit lighter. If you will just be a few miles from the nearest people, you can go heavier on your pack if you want.

Exterior Frame Packs – These packs allow you to carry the most gear inside and outside of the pack, but they are becoming obsolete. The large frame takes the weight off of your shoulders and transfers it to your hips. However, it adds quite a bit of weight to the pack. Rarely do you want to have that much gear with you in a survival situation. These packs are designed more for taking tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads with you. This is in addition to all the other gear you will have in your pack.

Interior Frame Packs – This newer design has the benefits of an exterior frame pack with fewer of the drawbacks. The frame is much smaller and has been installed inside of the pack. It still transfers the weight to your hips making it easier to carry. The pack size is almost as large, but there are not as many options for tying gear to the outside of the pack. The items that are tied to the outside do not have as much support and may move around as you walk.

Chamber Survival/Tactical Packs – These packs are specifically designed for survival or tactical situations. They are just a bit larger than a standard backpack, but they have the primary compartment divided into several smaller compartments. It allows you to divide your pack into specific categories such as clothing, firestarting materials, first aid, or hunting and fishing gear. You may also want to put a smaller general pack in one compartment in case one person in the group has to break off and leave the primary pack. These are generally designed to last longer than standard packs and have reinforced stitching with thick material.

Standard Backpacks – When on a budget, this may be the best option. Most standard backpacks have at least two to three separate compartments. They are the smallest of the options we have listed, which means they are also the lightest. If you are trimming down to take just the most important items, it could work fine. However, do not try to overload the pack. Too much weight will cause it to tear, and do not be surprised if a zipper breaks.

Of these packs, I find the interior frame packs and the chamber survival packs to be the best options. I will be using an interior frame pack on this challenge simply because I expect to need to carry game back to my camp site after I hunt or trap. On most challenges I use a survival pack or even something smaller. In the spring I am planning a knife only challenge where my camp knife will be the only item I take besides my clothing. Again, I must emphasize that your gear list and your pack should be based on your skill level.

Essential Items

There are several items that most people should have with them in any survival situation. These are largely based on the four pillars of survival: food, water, fire, and shelter. Other priorities should be first aid, self-defense, navigation, and signaling. The best items to take are always small and lightweight. Also, if an item can have multiple purposes it becomes that much more important.

A Good Knife – Many people consider this to be the most important tool in your pack. This is because of the dozens of uses it can have. Knives can be used for making other tools, building shelters, hunting, fishing, trapping, cooking, self-defense, first aid, firestarting, and several other purposes. Your knife should be full tang meaning that the blade extends from the tip to the end of the handle. This ensures that the blade will not break as easily during use. Unless it is the only bladed tool you are taking, a five to seven inch blade is good for finer knife skills and for heavier work. The type of steel is also very important. It should have a high carbon content so that you can use it with a ferro rod to start fires. However, it needs to be a type of steel that is strong and will retain an edge for a long time. The type of steel can increase the cost of a knife by four to five times, so do your research and find one that fits your needs and your budget. If you have to splurge on a tool, this is the one.

I do suggest bringing at least one other bladed tool. Whether it be a machete, axe, hatchet, or saw, larger tools will work better for processing wood. However, with either batoning or chopping small poles you can make a large knife work.

Paracord – This is another tool that has many, many uses. Sure you can make cordage in the wild, but paracord is cheap, compact, and versatile. It can hold the weight of a grown man in its conventional form, or you can pull out the inner strands giving you several times as much cordage. For example, I replace all of my boot laces with paracord. If I ever needed cordage I could remove the laces, pull out the interior strands, and use the sheaths for the laces again. Then I would have about 100 feet of three ply cordage that is fine for most tasks.

Sometimes I just take my laces, where other times I take as much as 250 feet of paracord. I use it most often to help with building shelters, but there are plenty of other uses. It can be helpful for fishing, trapping, cooking, first aid, climbing, and several other uses.

Ferro Rod – While I suggest several methods of starting a fire, a ferro rod is the best in my opinion. This simple magnesium rod shoots sparks at 3000F when struck with a high carbon blade. It works when wet, in the wind, and basically provides unlimited fires. You can also get one for just a few bucks from any retailer. I keep several in case I lose one.

You should be aware that finding ideal tinder to use with a ferro rod can be difficult. There are plenty of options found in the wild, but I suggest taking tinder with you. One of the best options is to make char-cloth. This project only takes 20 minutes, an old T-shirt, and an Altoids can. Char-cloth will take a spark every time as long as it does not get wet.

Water Filter – Again, you can always boil water or make a filter in the wild, but bringing a filter is much faster. I used to use a straw type filter for this purpose. They are small and fit in your pocket or in the outer pocket of your pack. However, they require you to get on your belly to drink from a water source if you do not have a container. They also can be hard on your mouth. Mine left sores from the suction. I switched to a water bottle that has a filter built into the lid. It also has a paracord lanyard with a clip on the end. I can scoop up some water, clip it on my belt or pack, and then drink whenever I feel the need. I find this to be a much better value.

I do suggest multiple means of purifying water if possible. I have also used iodine tablets to purify water, but they are not ideal if you are in a hurry. On the first day of my first survival challenge I was dehydrated and my arms were starting to cramp up. I had been chopping poles and grasses with my machete all day. I went to get water and added the iodine tablets, but had to wait 40 minutes until it was ready to drink. I was so thirsty that I was immediately ready to drink more, but had to wait another 40 minutes. I have had a filter with me ever since.

Emergency Blanket – This handy tool has saved my hide on several occasions. There are two primary types of emergency blankets. You have your cheap, disposable mylar blankets and your thicker tarp-style blankets. The mylar tends to rip easily, so I opt for the tarp style. This blanket is reflective on one side to send 90% of your body heat back to you. It is much larger and has grommets along the edges. This makes it perfect to just wrap up. However, you can also use it for building a shelter, catching water, blocking wind, or even smoking meat. I never head to the wilderness without mine.

Two examples come to mind when I think about the usefulness of my emergency blanket. In the springtime I completed a wet weather survival challenge during which it poured rain the whole time. The temperatures were cold enough at night that I could have gotten hypothermia if I had been wet. I fashioned a shelter with only my blanket, some cordage, and a couple poles. I stayed dry the whole time and it ended up being one of the easiest challenges of my career. In the fall I completed a 34 mile challenge hiking up and down steep cliffs. On the fourth day it was getting dark as I was arriving at a safe area to sleep. With no energy left to build a shelter or a fire, I was in trouble. I wrapped up in my emergency blanket and was actually able to get some sleep that night. Despite very cold temperatures, I made it through and completed my challenge.

Suggested Items

When building your pack, there are several items that I would not consider essential. This means that people with some training can get by without them, but it is much more difficult. Despite the season, these are items to seriously consider.

Flashlight/Headlamp – In my opinion it is unsafe to really do much of anything in the dark during a survival situation. This greatly limits your options as even relieving yourself can be dangerous. A good tactical flashlight can be a very important tool for your pack. They are surprisingly bright, waterproof, and practically indestructible. On the other hand, headlamps keep your hands free while lighting your path. This may be even more valuable for your needs. They are typically not as durable, but can be just as bright.

First Aid Kit – While survivalists that have lots of training can often apply essential first aid without a kit, having one can be very helpful. For just a few dollars you can get a small pack with bandages, disinfectant, burn treatment, and oral medicine for fever and other issues. One of the biggest challenges in a survival situation is finding clean materials for bandages. Another issue is finding clean water to treat wounds. This kit covers the most difficult problems to overcome.

Poncho/Rain-suit – The one fact that always runs through my head when packing is that a person can get hypothermia at 60F if they are wet. That means that even in May or September, your life may be threatened at night if you are drenched with rain. Because of this, I always consider a poncho or rain-suit. The poncho is nice because it can be used to build a makeshift shelter. However, the rain-suit does a better job of keeping your legs dry.

Thin Copper Wire – For a few dollars you can get a small spool of wire for your pack. It is only a couple inches tall, but has enough wire for months in the wild. This wire is mostly used for trapping. Making snare traps that work properly is much easier with wire that retains its shape versus cordage that does not. In addition, I prefer wire over cordage for building a shelter when it is cold. Once my fingers start to go numb, the wire is more cooperative than paracord.

Knife Sharpener – You can find a stone and sharpen your blade the old-fashioned way, but that takes a great deal of time and energy. It also takes some practice. For a few dollars you can get a small, handheld knife sharpener that does a great job. It takes very little skill to use this tool, and it will keep your blade sharp enough for any tasks that you may face.

Camp Shovel – Finding or making digging tools in the wild can be difficult and frustrating. If you expect to do any digging of dirt, sand, or snow, having a small shovel is helpful. Be cautious about the quality of the shovel you purchase. The initial shovel I purchased broke the very first time I used it.

Compass and Map– There are plenty of ways to tell your direction of travel without a compass. However, when you are trying to find help you probably do not want to leave it to chance. Compasses take up very little space in your pack and are a nice tool to have. You can most effectively use a compass with an accurate paper map of the area. If you know you will be in a specific location, print out a map and have it laminated before you leave. You can also keep it in a plastic bag if needed.

Signal Mirror – For ground to air or ground to ground signaling, a mirror is one of the most useful tools you can have. You can always wave a makeshift flag or write out ‘SOS’ in the sand, but a mirror is so much easier and more effective. You can reach vehicles that are miles away. Some mirrors even have a small hole in the center to help you aim for longer distances.

Firearm/Bow – Food is one of the last concerns you should have in a survival situation. Most people can survive 30 days without any food. However, the right tool can make it much simpler. They are also helpful with self-defense if predators or other people are a concern. A firearm is the most accurate option, but also makes a great deal of noise. Ammunition runs out quickly, so this is more for short term use. A bow or crossbow covers less distance with less accuracy, but it is silent. You can also make more arrows if you run out. The downsides are that these weapons are expensive, heavy, and awkward to carry. With the exception being a handgun because of its size, I find the crossbow to be the best option.

Fishing Gear – Fishing is one of the easiest ways to get protein in the wild. You can build fish traps without actual gear, but they are not nearly as effective. It also takes a great deal of time and energy to build one. There are plenty of small fishing kits that have line, hooks, weights, floats, and lures. You can also build one for just a few dollars. The downside is that they work best with hand-fishing, and some people do not have experience with that method. Gill nets are an option that does well for catching large numbers of fish at once, but they are hard to set up and take down. They also tangle easily in your pack. Finally, there are pocket fishing rods that operate just like a normal fishing rod. This is my option of choice. They are about nine inches long, but can easily cast 30 feet and bring in a five pound fish.

Communication Method – One of the fastest options to get out of a survival situation is to have a way to literally call for help. You will probably have your cell phone with you, but that is not enough. It should have a waterproof and shockproof case on it at all times, plus it should have a backup power source. I have been in survival situations where my battery died unexpectedly, so power is vital. You can also consider a satellite phone or PLB. These are quite expensive, but they will give you the ability to call for help with no cellular signal. However, they require a clear view of the sky so heavily wooded areas are difficult. They also do not work indoors.

Backups – As I have mentioned before, you should consider having backup plans for your most important survival gear. This means bringing a second full-tang knife or perhaps a folding blade knife. It means having another means of purifying water such as a small metal pot for boiling or iodine tablets. It means have other ways to ignite a fire such as lighters or waterproof matches. It means having other types of bindings such as duct tape or zip ties. One of the most important aspect of being prepared is having a plan B for everything.

Cold Weather

Sub-freezing temperatures are by far the most difficult survival situation to endure. Hypothermia is considered the number one reason why people die in survival situations, so being prepared for cold weather is vitally important. In addition to hypothermia, frostbite can cause the loss of fingers, toes, ears, or your nose. Because of these dangers, modifying your pack for cold weather is essential. I actually start to make minor changes if I expect the weather to drop below 50F. Here are items you should consider for colder weather.

Warm Clothing – I normally plan to rely on the clothes on my back for survival situations, but cold weather is another story. Multiple loose layers are vital to staying warm and preventing sweat from soaking your clothing. Sweat actually has a chemical that speeds the cooling of your skin, so it is even more dangerous than water alone. Having a few extra top and bottom layers in your pack is a good idea. Extra dry wool socks are a good idea as you will likely sweat through them no matter what you do. In addition, having warm gloves, boots, and a hat are vital. Your hands and feet will likely see frostbite before any other part of your body, and your head expels a great deal of heat. I bring boots, gloves, and a hat even for medium-cold temperatures. In addition, make everything one or two sizes too big. Most people do not realize that insulation needs air to work properly. There needs to be a gap between your skin and the clothing.

Fire Assistance Products – Having several ignition methods is helpful, but sometimes you just cannot find good dry tinder. Char-cloth is helpful, but the fastest way to a fire is a synthetic product. There are several small cubes you can buy to shave off and light in place of natural tinder. In addition, there are fire sticks you can buy that will stay lit for 20 minutes even in wind or rain. The combination of these products can allow you to quickly start a fire in any conditions. This can mean the difference between life and death in sub-freezing temperatures.

Large Bladed Tools – When dealing with cold weather, a sturdy shelter and a large fire are important. You cannot achieve either without processing large pieces of wood. This can be accomplished with a knife or by breaking poles with leverage, but larger tools save a great deal of time and energy. Folding saws, frame saws, hand chainsaws, hatchets, axes, and machetes will all process thick wood faster than a knife. However, some of these take up a great deal of space or can be quite expensive. My suggestion is to try out a few options before you decide which to use in your pack. I personally find that the folding saw is the best option.

Large Tarp – Building a shelter that is 100% waterproof and windproof is very helpful. It is tough to completely keep out the wind and rain with a natural shelter or even with an emergency blanket, but a large tarp will do the trick. There are several types of shelters that you can build with this tool, and multiple other functions if you get creative.

Sleeping Bag– If you do not mind the size and weight, a sleeping bag is smart. Most outdoorsmen agree that a good sleeping bag will trump a good fire or a good shelter in most cases. The problem is that the good ones are thick and heavy. They sell survival sleeping bags that are much smaller. They are essentially an insulated emergency blanket sewed into a bag shape. You also might want to consider a sleeping mat as staying insulated from the ground is needed to stay warm at night. Some people make their own beds out of natural materials, but having one ready to go is nice. Again, they are bulky and heavy.

Backpacking Tent – If you are willing to spend the money, a good backpacking tent can replace your tarp. These will completely block the wind and rain, and give you some degree of insulation. They are about the same size and weight as a rolled up tarp.

Pocket Camp Stove – Unlike the giant two burner stove that my father brought on camping trips, you now have some cheap and compact options. My camp stove is small enough to fit in my pocket with the propane attached, and does a great job of cooking food or boiling water quickly. There are times in a survival situation that you want to work right up until dark and do not have a fire. This comes in handy for those situations.

Crampons – If you know you will be walking on ice or compacted snow, one of the easiest ways to get hurt is to slip and fall. You can remain more stable with a simple walking stick, but your feet need to remain planted. A set of crampons to strap to your boots will accomplish just that.

Food and Water – The reason these items appear in the cold weather section is because they greatly affect the onset of hypothermia. Your body needs both fuel and hydration to maintain its internal temperature. If you are hungry, you will not have the energy to stay warm. If you are dehydrated, you end up with that same effect. I am not suggesting that you bring a week’s worth of MREs or that you bring a gallon of water. However, having a small source of calories and hydration is smart. Your food should be fatty and high in calories. It should also stay preserved well.

In Conclusion

Surviving cold weather is just like surviving any scenario. The key is what you do before it happens. The first step is to think about all of the challenges you might face if you ended up in a cold weather survival situation. Be realistic about it. You are much more likely to face hypothermia than to face starvation or being attacked by a bear. Prioritize and get the items you need.

As you buy these items, take the time to do some research. This is never a cheap venture, so read the reviews, look at the size of the item, consider the weight, and pick the least expensive option in which you have confidence. When you receive the item, try it out before you put it in your pack. Some of these items will break immediately while others will be difficult to use. You will even find that some do not serve the purpose for which you thought they were intended. If you make a bad purchase, get a refund and try again.

I do not suggest buying a prepacked survival kit for a few reasons. One is that selecting each item forces you to pick the right item for your needs. Every survival pack should be different based on the person, so buying one that is prepacked defeats that purpose. Also, your items should be used, checked, and rotated by season. It is too easy to throw a premade pack in the closet and forget about it. Finally, they are expensive and usually packed with cheap tools and materials. Making your own pack is always the best option.

You should have practice with every single item in your pack. I am not exaggerating when I mean every item. That means building shelters in your back yard with your tarp and starting a bonfire with your ferro rod. There is no point in taking these items if you are not familiar with how to use them. Start taking them with you on safer hunting, hiking, fishing, or camping trips. This is good practice to get comfortable with your pack in a safer environment. You will get to test the weight and decide if you need to make adjustments. Then you are ready for the next time you have to leave civilization behind.

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