winter hike backpack

How to Winterize your Bug Out Bag

One of the most discussed topics in survival forums is how to assemble a bug-out bag.  This is a pack stuffed with essential survival items for situations where you may be forced to leave your home.  There are many scenarios that could cause somebody to bug out.

Perhaps there is a pandemic, and you want to get away from heavy concentrations of people.  Maybe there are wildfires or flooding headed your way.  Perhaps your home has been damaged by an earthquake and you have nowhere else to go.  Having your bug out bag ready to go can mean the difference between life and death.

It is suggested that you periodically review the items in your bug out bag to replace outdated items and make adjustment as needed.  You may live in an area where winter is not much of a big deal.  However, I live in an area where summer temperatures reach triple digits and winters get below 0F.  That is a huge swing in temperature, and my bug out bag must be adjusted for this.

In this article I will cover ways to adjust the contents of your bug out bag to cover the coldest, nastiest weather you may face.  I will also discuss ways to determine the quality of winter gear so you know you are getting a good value.  Hopefully, this guide will help you make the needed adjustments so you are ready if the time ever comes that you have to hit the trail in the dead of winter.

General Priorities

When preparing for winter conditions, there are four main areas in which adjustments need to be made.  These are clothing, shelter, food, and fire.  With colder temperatures you will need warmer clothing worn in loose fitting layers and covering your whole body.

The clothing also needs to be water resistant as snow can add moisture to the equation.  The need for shelter from cold winter winds and insulation from the frozen ground is that much more important.  During the winter, finding food is much more difficult.  In addition, a lack of calories can cause you to become hypothermic faster than if you are well fed.  Finally, getting and keeping a fire going is that much more important during the winter.

Your priorities are all based on the need to avoid hypothermia.  Hypothermia is the number one reason why people perish in survival situations.  This fact is true even in warmer temperatures.  With winter weather your efforts will be focused on preventing this condition every minute of the day.  The risk becomes especially dangerous at night when temperatures can drop by 20F to 40F.

Units of Measure

When I first started putting together my winter bug out bag, I realized that there is a wide range of qualities and prices available.  For example, winter boots in my size range from $30 to about $400.  How in the world do you tell which products are worth the money?  Reading reviews can help, but a great deal of the information is anecdotal.  I am a numbers’ guy, and I want hard figures to show how warm my gear will be.  Thankfully I was able to find these figures with a little digging.

winter tent

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We can start with tents.  I sometimes keep a one person backpacking tent in my bug out bag during the winter.  Keep in mind that the less air you have to heat in a tent, the warmer you will be.  That means smaller tents are better for winter.  The key label when selecting a winter tent is three season versus four season.  Three season tents are not designed to handle winter temperatures.  Four season tents are typically sealed better and use thicker material to keep out the cold.

When dealing with sleeping mats, the figure you want to look for is the R value. This figure indicates how well the insulation will retain heat and keep out the cold.  For example, a thin blue foam mat has an R value of 1.  This means that the mat is more for comfort than insulation.  You might as well sleep on the ground. On the other hand, my mat has an R value of 9.66 which is about as high as you will find for a sleeping mat.

Sleeping bags are normally rated to a specific temperature.  For example, my sleeping bag is rated for -25F.  As a general rule you want your sleeping bag to be rated for about 20F below the actual temperatures you plan to face.  Rarely does it get below -5F here, so this sleeping bag is good for just about any conditions for this area.

For clothing, the key figure is the number of grams of Thinsulate.  Most of the high quality gloves, boots, jackets, and hats made these days are stuffed with a material called Thinsulate.  This is a lightweight material that has incredible insulating properties.  The more you have, the warmer you will be.  For example, my boots have 1600 grams of Thinsulate which was about as high as I was able to find.

Specific Gear Changes

When preparing my bug out bag for winter, I always start with clothing.  I like to keep my bag small and lightweight, and I assume that I will already be wearing a warm jacket and boots.

For my bag, I like to add just a few items.  I always add a warm stocking cap, two pairs of wool socks, thermal underwear, and a pair of mittens.  One fact many survivalists are unaware of is that winter clothing needs space between your skin and the clothing.

There must be a gap so the air can be warmed by your body.  I buy everything a few sizes too big because of this.  This is also why mittens work better than gloves to keep your hands warm.  I always have fingerless tactical gloves in my pack, but adding mittens is perfect for cold nights.

When addressing shelter, I have taken a few measures to prepare.  I always add a second emergency blanket to my pack when winter rolls around. This allows me to wrap up in one and use the other for a tent or shelter.

I sometimes bring my four season, one person backpacking tent as it takes up very little space.  I have a quality sleeping mat and a good sleeping bag that I keep near my bug out bag.  If I expect temperatures below freezing I strap these to the outside of my bag.  They add about 15 pounds to the weight of my pack, so I only bring them if I know I will need them.

For food, there are three items that I bring with me.  I always assume that fishing and hunting in the winter will be difficult, so bringing food is important.  I like to have jerky, hardtack, and MREs with me.  I always have a freezer full of venison, so jerky is inexpensive for me.  I normally take one week’s worth of MREs with me as well and ration them accordingly.

For fire I always have a backup plan for my backup plan.  On my first winter survival challenge, I could not get a fire started and the temperature was -1F with wind chill around -20F.  Everything was damp from the snow and I could not get my tinder to take a spark.  I tapped out the first night around 2am with mild signs of hypothermia and frostbite.  The next weekend I tried again and was able to complete the challenge only because I was able to get a fire going and keep it going the whole time.

For winter, I normally have about a half dozen ways to start a fire in my bug out bag.  I like to keep a zippo lighter because it is windproof and can be refueled with several different flammable liquids.  I keep a couple Bic lighters because they are cheap and reliable. I always have a few ferro rods as they are the only reliable fire-starter that is waterproof, windproof, and never requires fuel.


I like to have a fire lens to start fire on sunny days.  I have the means to build a bow drill kit, but I rarely do as any moisture makes using it incredibly difficult.  Finally I keep a pocket camp stove with a small butane tank.  It has a push button ignition and is great if it is already dark and I need to boil water or cook food.

In addition, I always bring fire assistance products during the winter.  You cannot assume that your tinder will light, especially if it has been raining or snowing.  Wetfire cubes are inexpensive waxy cubes that are waterproof and windproof. You simply shave off a bit from the corner and then shoot a spark into the shavings.  It normally lights with one spark and then you put the rest of the cube on top.  A full cube will stay lit for several minutes, or you can just use a piece of the cube if you do not need that much time.

Firesticks require a flame to get started, but they will stay lit for a good 20 minutes even when soaking wet or in strong winds.  These actually allow you to bypass small sticks and move straight to larger ones if you like.  I also keep char cloth in my pack to help with the fire lens.  It catches much easier than any other type of tinder.

In Conclusion

In the end, staying warm is the name of the game. That means protection from the wind and the ground, loose clothing worn in layers, a full belly, and a roaring fire.  Think of your body like a furnace.  It needs fuel to keep producing heat.  If you take the time to make the proper adjustments to your bug out bag, then even the coldest temperatures will not be an issue.

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