Surviving The Worst In Cold Weather

15 comments / Posted on / by

Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

With brutal cold weather pounding much of the trout water in the US, it’s worth taking a minute to think about safety.

Living in the south, life threatening cold weather conditions are not often a concern, but even here in Georgia, you can find yourself in trouble very quickly. In fact, the most dangerous situations are the ones you didn’t expect to go badly, and didn’t prepare. Something as simple as a stone rolling under foot can turn a pleasant winter outing into a survival situation. Some years ago I found myself in exactly that situation.

Fishing a fairly remote spot along the Appalachian Trail one winter, I took a fall and injured my knee. It was bad enough that I couldn’t walk on it. I was miles from the truck and there was no trail. I had about an hour of light. The temperature was about thirty degrees Fahrenheit and falling. I had three options. I could make my way out along the river. It was the longest route and there were some tough crossings. I could hike over a couple of ridges. A shorter route but I was not sure I could find my way, even in the light. Lastly, I could spend the night out in the cold without the first piece of survival gear.

I made a crutch from a forked tree limb and decided to make my way along the river. I fell a couple of more times but I did finally make it to the truck about ten that night. It was the first time I found myself in that kind of spot and it changed the way I thought about planing a fishing trip. I made some good decisions that day, and maybe some bad ones, but I took the time to learn a bit about surviving in cold weather and I recommend that everyone who fishes do the same.

I am a southerner, which makes me apprehensive about giving advice on cold weather. As our best trout fishing is in the winter, I do spend a lot of cold days on the river and I’m not a survival expert but I do take some common sense precautions. With that in mind, here are some tips on staying safe while fishing in cold weather.

Tips for fishing safety in cold weather.

Be prepared

By far the best way to survive a dangerous situation is not to find yourself in one to start with. That means starting with a good plan. You should know what to expect from the weather and be prepared for the worst. Know the area you’re fishing. Know all of your options for getting in and out, both on foot and by vehicle. If for example, you access your spot by driving in on a forest road, it might be smart to have a saw in the car in case there’s a tree down and a sleeping bag should you break down. Have a map or GPS for any hike in locations. If you expect bad weather, choose your location accordingly. That spot out back of the outlet mall may look a lot more appealing when it’s ten below and you take a swim. A nice warm Gap Outlet might be handy. Be sure someone knows where you are fishing and when to expect you back. Fish with a friend if possible.

Dress smart. That means more than piling on more layers. Wear loose fitting clothes which trap air and inner layers that wick moisture and dry quickly. Be prepared to insulate the areas where you lose the most body heat. Your head, neck, wrists and ankles. A spare stocking hat, dry in a ziplock bag, could make a huge difference.

Some simple survival gear is worth having. A buddy of mine carries a garbage bag and a candle as an emergency shelter. I don’t fit well into a garbage bag so I carry a reflective blanket. Having some way to make fire is great and, while a candle doesn’t sound like a real heat source, it can make a real difference in a confined space and will burn no matter how wet it gets. It’s also a good idea to keep a Snickers Bar stashed away. Hypoglycemia is one of the primary concerns in cold weather survival, along with hypothermia, dehydration and frostbite. Keeping your body fueled with simple sugars helps it generate heat and keeps you thinking clearly.

Handheld GPS units and global spot devices are pretty affordable these days. If you like backcountry fishing, either would be a great investment. Make sure batteries are charged for these devices and your cell phone.

Get to or make shelter

If things go badly the first thing you want to do is make a good plan for getting to shelter. Best case, that’s home but if that’s not possible any shelter is better than none. If you are injured or unable to find your way, that might mean some kind of improvised shelter, like your garbage bag, space blanket or even a forest bed. Here’s a great description of a forest bed that could save your life, from Outside Magazine.

“Stack logs into a rectangular frame about a foot wider and longer than your body. Then, layer two feet of compressed debris (leaves, moss, duff, cattails) on the bottom to keep the ground from conducting away your body heat. Next, pile up about three to four feet of more debris on the edges to create a body-sized trough. When it’s time to turn in, spread flat on your back in the trough and scoop the debris in around you like a blanket, covering yourself from head to toe. Yeah, you’re going to have dirt, rabbit droppings, and pine needles in your hair, ears, and nose, but it beats dying a slow death from hypothermia.” – Tony Nester:Outside.

Here’s a great video on building an improvised shelter with a space blanket at temps well below zero!

Know the basics of hypothermia

Hypothermia is greater danger in cold weather. You can become hypothermic in surprisingly mild weather if the conditions are wet and windy. It’s smart to know the signs of hypothermia and ways to combat it.


“Hypothermia is the lowering of the body temperature. Initial symptom of hypothermia is shivering. First you shiver. Then you shiver to the point that you can’t control it or stop it. This is your body trying to produce heat to warm itself. Sluggish thinking, irrational reasoning or next and eventually a feeling of warmth may occur. This is a critical point. You feel warm but you MUST at this point try to warm yourself up or you will die. But warming up brings on the sensation of pain again. But you must endure this or you will not make it. The will to survive is paramount here and it is at this point that many people give in and stop fighting to live. Death comes at around 77 degree core body temperature.”

The best way to avoid hypothermia is to stay dry and sheltered from wind. It’s important, if you are hiking or building a shelter that you not work up a sweat. Your body’s natural cooling system can get you into a lot of trouble in a survival situation. Here’s a great article on avoiding hypothermia from

How to avoid Hypothermia

Make good decisions

By far the most important thing in any dangerous situation is staying calm and clear-headed. Making good choices that improve your situation is the key to staying safe, In addition to good old-fashion panic, cold weather presents some specific challenges. Hypothermia and hypoglycemia both have negative impacts on judgment and thought process. It’s important to take steps to stay clear-headed and to recognize when you are not. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes.

I hope these tips are helpful. Don’t let cold weather stop you from enjoying the outdoors and some great winter fishing. Just make a plan, be prepared and stay safe. If you have stories or tips for safety in cold weather, please share them in the comments.

Oh, and don’t worry about me this winter. I’ll be in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!

Follow Gink & Gasoline on Facebook:

15 thoughts on “Surviving The Worst In Cold Weather

  1. Good stuff. I make a point when I go out to ask myself a question, “What is the worst that can I happen and what can I do to prepare for it?” I then try to think through every scenario and come up with a solution. What ends up happening though, is the worst doesn’t happen, usually something smaller but because I am prepared, we get through it. What I have learned from years of sailing a boat around the Bahamas, Caribbean and Florida is that it is not the catastrophic event that takes you out but the little event that leads to another little event and another one until eventually your life is on the line. Those little mishaps have a way of dominoing into something life threatening. That is why most rescues in the mountains are people who were out on a day hike and the weather changed or something happened they weren’t prepared for.

  2. Planning for the event of something going wrong comes from things going wrong. Experience is the best teacher. Nobody wants to carry more than they need to catch a few fish but as you get pulled further and further away from comfort (the truck) to pursue fish you may need to think ahead. I know guys who have tracked far and wide with nothing other than a rod and a couple of fly boxes. They are lucky. I have had other experiences in my time especially in winter and late fall.
    Here is a small list of what I will bring on a cold weather or foul weather trout/salmon outing.

    Waterproof pack for the obvious reasons.
    Small canister top stove. MSR makes nice compact stoves and gas bottles.
    Spare set of undergarments in a SMALL vacuum pack bag.
    A couple of packs of ramen or dehydrated food with a small pot.
    Ultimate Survival Technologies Wetfire blocks.
    A few tea bags.
    A couple of space blankets.

    You can add more if you can pack it. Figure what works for you and pack as light as possible without skimping on the necessary items. Also remember that nobody wants to spend the night in the woods alone on a cold night but it is easier to stop early and make as comfortable a camp as you can while there is still daylight versus trying to go as far as possible and making the decision that you have to stop for the night when it is pitch dark. Having something hot to throw down the hatch goes a long way toward your comfort. If you are comfortable and relaxed as you can be then you will make better decisions and maybe even get some sleep.

  3. Good article, Louis. We had a buddy post-hole his leg in the snow by the river last year. Unfortunately, he broke his ribs and had over a mile trek back to his truck. Luckily, he made it, but it was a long hike. We also got lost on snowmobiles close to evening with a snowstorm approaching. We have never been so glad to see our vehicle. Going forward, we have chosen to be prepared. Most of the time, there is no problem, but when there is a problem it’s great to be ready.

  4. I fish alone most of the time. And, my passion is to determine just how far upstream native cutthroat inhabit our many small “cricks.” I find myself in some pretty remote areas as evening approaches. Cell phone coverage is non existent in these holes. At 67 years old, I ‘m beginning to question how much longer I should pursue this passion.

    As a forester, I’ve spent many days alone in the woods. So I feel comfortable. I find myself being extremely careful on every step as I consider a fall to be my biggest risk. A wading staff provides a third leg.

    In addition to the safety/survival items previously mentioned, I carry bear spray and a whistle. I always consult with aerial photos and a topographic map and have them downloaded on my GPS.

    Be safe out there and enjoy the fishing.

    Bill Love
    Sandpoint, Idaho

  5. Louis

    Really enjoyed your article on your getting out of a bad spot and surviving on your winter fishing trip. It’s good to share that with everyone because no matter our background and experience in “being out” it’s a good reminder that there is a decent possibility that you’ll have to take care of yourself with no other assistance at sometime in your life. At 74 I can look back on a life of hunting and fishing and being in the elements and not having an experience where I was in trouble. But I have come close to being in a couple of survival challenges and both were in snow and freezing weather.

    I have spent a lot of time looking at those two experiences and realizing that if left on my own it would have been almost impossible to get through them without fire. From late fall to early summer I always have means with me to make a fire under difficult circumstances. I keep it in a zip loc and that’s in the back of my raincoat. Consists of Waterproof Matches ( ), a small Bic type lighter, and some kind of fuel or firestarter ( ). Personally I use the U S Military Surplus Trioxide Fuel Tabs that come in waterproof packages and burn at least 10 minutes to get the fire started ( ). If a person decides on these the certainly confuse the border and customs folks so don’t use them while traveling on planes.

    A small zip loc with these items takes up no space and is very light and gives immense confidence in being able to get a fire going if you really needed it. If a person uses the Trioxide pacs you only need 2 or 3 (again one burns for 10 minutes to get our wood going) but you need to know that it burns very hot an with no or very little flame so need to be careful.

    In any event this is something I have with me. Hope I don’t have to use it. I have been on remote rivers in BC steel heading and needed to get a warming fire going and it makes it very easy to do.

    Another time I used it was elk hunting a long hike up a ridge and was able to down a nice bull at about 3 in the afternoon. Weather was windy and snowy. Hunting partners were of no assistance (as usual) as they were spread on other ridges etc and after dressing it out and when I was about to start skinning it I realized I was sweating and starting to really chill down. I was lucky in that nearby there was the root wad of a large dead pine the had fallen and I used my kit to get fire going that engulfed the whole thing because of the pitch and I was able to finish the job, quarter and hang all but one quarter and head out back to camp (headlamp) warm and dry. Without that fire I would have been pretty miserable.

    Oh, my opinion on starting a fire is that it is much harder to do it with the “strikers” than is advertised. So just get some of these above mentioned matches and throw in a small Bic.

    Thanks again for getting us all to think about this Louis.

    Loren Irving
    Bend Oregon

  6. A pair of socks, hat, and some other survival essentials can go in couple of doubled ziplocks, but if you (or a buddy) have a vacuum sealer, you can make up small, well-protected package that can live in your (the bag/clothing you always have with you).

    I live in the north so I always have two packages for winter or ice fishing- one “let’s not have a crapp(ier) day kit”, with socks and a hat and some other stuff, and one “let’s not die kit” with the “real” survival gear.

  7. Good reminder to always be prepared!
    I think all the essentials have been mentioned already. But one tip I’d like to add is to have a kit set up so you always have the essentials with you. I have a small pouch that I take with me whenever I’m outdoors, whether it’s fishing, hiking, hunting, biking etc. That way I just throw the pouch in with my other gear.

    I keep the following items in the pouch: matches or cigarette lighter, votive candles, Mini LED headlamp, spare batteries, Whistle, Compass, Advil, roll of gauze, roll of bandage tape, a multi-tool knife, spare boot laces, chemical foot warmer packets, a 5 foot piece of duct tape rolled onto a small pencil and a small wader repair kit.

    The candles can be used to help start a fire even if kindling is damp.
    A compass doesn’t need batteries and it works whether you have a GPS signal or not. A whistle can be heard much further than yelling for help. The boot laces can be used to secure a splint, or heaven forbid if you need a tourniquette, not to mention if you break a boot lace! A leaky wader can be annoying in warmer weather, but in the winter it could be life threatening since you lose exponentially more body heat if you’re wet. Duct tape has too many uses to mention.

    By keeping this all in a small pouch I don’t have to remember to pack those items and I know exactly where they are in case of an emergency. Stay safe out there…… Thanks for all the great articles!

  8. Pingback: Tippets: Big Fish with Conway Bowman, Surviving Cold Conditions - Pesca y Bits

  9. Two thoughts on being prepared and clothing. Cotton as a material is a killer in cold weather. Had you spent the night and had created enough sweat that your cotton garments next to the skin would have been wet, your chances of hypothermia increase exponentially.
    So, as you layer your clothes, be sure to leave the cotton home when low temperatures happen. All sorts of synthetic material can work for warmth and wick away wetness next to the skin. Wool is long term favorite.
    I got caught in a rain storm hunting elk on the coast range of Oregon in December. I was dressed in wool and synthetic under garments. Wet was not fun, but I stayed warm until I got back to camp. Study the clothes you wear, it could make a world of difference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...