The Essential Winter Backcountry Bug-Out Bag Gear List

By Suzanne Wiley

Spring, summer and fall are popular times to practice wildness survival skills. The kids are out of school, the days are longer and the weather is comfortable. During the winter months, we tend to hibernate inside staying warm and cozy. However, we can’t predict when a disaster or bug-out situation will occur. Training only during ideal conditions is a mistake. Knowing how to survive during different situations and environments prepare you for the worst.

There are multiple stories about people who take a wrong turn while out for a drive and end up stuck due to an unexpected winter storm. Most are unprepared and not all survive. Winter is one of the most dangerous times to be trekking through the woods or mountains without the proper gear. Everything you do will be more challenging in extreme cold, gusty winds and snow.

Cold Makes You Dumb

When trekking in extreme cold, be prepared with the proper cold weather survival gear.
If properly prepared, you can keep your core temperature warm and survive an extreme cold-weather survival situation.

What happens to your body when it gets too cold?

The hypothalamus regulates our core body temperature. It usually does this very well, however, when our body begins to drop below 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia can occur. When exposed to cold, our blood moves away from our extremities to our essential internal organs in order to keep them functioning. Our muscles tighten which limits mobility and you become clumsy and uncoordinated. If you don’t warm up, your entire body slows down, even your breathing.  If your core temperature drops enough, your ability to think and rationalize will shut down and eventually, you’ll fall asleep and could likely die. Hypothermia takes about 30 minutes to set in and only 1 to 2 hours to kill someone.

There is good news, though. If you are in good shape and well-prepared, there is no reason why you can’t survive being in the backcountry during cold weather.


Here are your top three priorities:

  1. Staying Warm

Your priority is staying warm and dry. This begins with the correct clothing. You want a moisture-wicking base layer made of wool, polypropylene or other synthetic fabric. Next goes your insulating later which should be lightweight, yet trap body heat like fleece, wool or wool blends. Your outer layer should be waterproof and durable. It is extremely important to keep all exposed skin covered, especially your face (including your ears,) hands and head. Keep gloves, a ski mask or balaclava, beanie and scarf in your cold weather survival kit.

Avoid sweating and change wet clothing and socks immediately.


A mummy-style cold-weather sleeping bag is designed to help retain heat. The 12 Survivors Terra-Pod sleeping bag is rated to 20 degrees F. and above.
The 12 Survivors Terra-pod sleeping bag keeps you warm from 20 degrees F and up.

Keeping your core warm and blocking yourself from winds, rain and snow are imperative to surviving the night. A mummy-style sleeping bag rated for extreme cold and paired with a pad is ideal. You want to separate yourself from the cold ground with some type of material. Dry leaves and pine needles will work, as well and so will mylar emergency blankets. Sticking chemical warmers in your sleeping bag keeps you toasty. Investing in a four-weather mountaineering tent if you know you’ll be trekking can literally save your life. Whether it’s a hammock, snow shelter, tent or tarp, make sure your shelter is away from wind, avalanches and falling trees or branches.


Regardless of the weather, a fire is one of the most important survival skills you must master. Make sure your fire starters are in good, working order and lighters still have fluid. Add an ax, hatchet or machete for chopping firewood.

Adding an ax to your winter bug-out bag will help chop down wood for a fire.
Starting a fire is one survival skill you must master.
  1. Drink Water

One benefit to cold weather survival is not having to search for water when there is snow on the ground. Keep a cup which can be set directly on the flames to melt snow before drinking it. An ultralight, emergency or backpacker’s camp stove will boil water, melt snow and heat food.

  1. Eat High-Calorie Foods

Your body works overtime when it’s cold. Pack calorie-dense foods like nuts, peanut butter, chocolate, energy bars and your freeze-dried favorites. You’re going to need the extra energy.

Cold Weather Survival Gear List

There are clear distinctions between what should go in your summer vs. your winter bug-out bag. When the leaves start turning and the nights turn crisp is the perfect time to repack or rebuild your bug-out bag.

Staying dry is key to preventing hypothermia. Wear a waterproof outer layer and use a waterproof backpack cover.
Keeping your core warm and blocking yourself from winds, rain and snow are imperative to surviving cold.
  • Mummy sleeping bag
  • Mylar emergency blanket
  • Extra socks and change of clothing
  • Waterproof boots
  • Calorie-heavy foods
  • Chemical warmers
  • Headcover, face mask, gloves and scarf
  • Shovel
  • Reliable fire starters (more than one!)
  • Ax or hatchet
  • Waterproof backpack or backpack cover
  • Sunglasses or ski goggles
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Metal cup
  • Camp stove
  • Water filter/purifier
  • First aid kit
  • Zinc, cold and flu medicines
  • Flashlight and batteries
  • Fishing kit
  • Paracord
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Garbage bag
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Navigation tool
  • Signaling device
  • Instant tea and coffee (but don’t overdo it on the caffeine!)
  • 4mm plastic sheeting or lightweight tarp
  • Sleeping pad
  • Energy drink powder

Most of this should already be in your bug-out bag. If it isn’t, this is the perfect time to reorganize and resupply. The gear list above is a winter bug-out kit purposely built to stay warm and dry to survive a winter bug-out situation.

For more on extreme cold survival gear, click here.

Do you have a winter survival kit or bug-out bag? What do you think is essential for surviving a snow storm? Tell us in the comment section.