“The most efficient cold weather heat generator is the one you carry with you—your own body,” says the Fieldbook. That may be true, but if you want your body to do its job you have got to keep it fueled by eating plenty of the right foods and fluids.

So yes, it’s something else to PAUSE and think about before heading into winter backcountry.

Food for Cold Weather

When it comes to backcountry winter travel, food is crucial to your comfort. From easy to prepare soups and stews to complicated, social evening meals, Scouts should safely enjoy their winter traveling meals.

gorp-trail-mixThis should be a key motto for winter camping, hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing: “Eat your way through the day” with gorp, trail mix and other energy packed foods.

The Fieldbook reminds us: “Hot food and cold weather just naturally go together, although you can also put together provisions that require no cooking and still provide plenty of nutritional value to help you stay healthy and warm.” Simple meal plans “provide campers with a hot meal, freeing them to attend to other challenges of winter camping.” While “an elaborate meal …requires more time outside of the shelter and may use more fuel.”

Most of these foods can be eaten as they are:

The Fieldbook suggests:

  • margarine or butter
  • hard sausage
  • cheese
  • nuts
  • peanut butter

Boy’s Life Nov 85, p 60 adds these:

  • honey
  • fruit jam or jelly
  • cheese spread
  • canned meat spread
  • dried fruit

food-in-snowThese foods contain fats or complex sugars full of calories which will help you keep warm. Foods high in fat burn calories slowly, making for great night time snacks. However, the Fieldbook recommends slicing “cheese and meat into bite-size pieces before setting out”—just in case they freeze.

Carry plenty of snack food in the pockets of your inner clothing, so the food will remain thawed and in easy reach. Eat whenever you feel hungry or chilled. A ‘stick to the ribs’ evening meal and a bedtime snack will help your body stay warm when you crawl into your sleeping bag. If you awaken cold during the night, have a snack to refuel your body’s furnace.

There is a separate, helpful chapter on “Menus and Meals” in the Fieldbook.

Cold-Weather Fluids

Keeping hydrated in the winter cold is just as important as it is in the summer heat. However, in summer, thirst indicates when you must drink. It’s not that easy in the winter. The best gauge in all seasons is the color of your urine. If it is dark yellow, you are way overdue for a long drink. While a cup of hot cocoa in a frigid morning is a welcome way to get things going, trying to drink water in any season is important.

Collecting Water in Winter

Snow, of course, is the obvious choice when it comes to collecting water. However, it has its downside.

Conserving Water in Cold Weather

In cold weather weather, water scarcity can influence some common camping strategies. Obviously, bathing is out of the question, because of the need to keep your body warm and lack of abundant wash water. Instead, use hand sanitizer before preparing meals and after relieving yourself. (Sanitizer contains alcohol and can become very cold. Stowing your small bottle of sanitizer should keep it at a comfortable temperature.) Dish washing my consist of scouring out pots, bowls and mugs with snow and calling it good.—Fieldbook p. 247

For example, when our team heads to the Beaver High Adventure Base, our first task is to fire up the Franklin stove to start melting snow. You will be surprised at how much snow it takes just to get a liter of water. When you need it for 50 thirsty cross country skiers, it takes mounds of the stuff.

The Fieldbook advises: “Clean snow that has been melted in a pot over a stove is often the best source of water on winter outings. If you already have some water, pour a cup of it into the pot before putting in the snow.” This is a helpful primer “that will speed up and prevent the snow from scorching.” However keeping a good supply of water “requires lots of stove time” and that means lots of fuel too. Plan so that you have enough to cook with and enough to melt snow.

baggie-featureDuring the day, when you don’t want to take the time to fire up your stove,”…put clean snow in a wide mouthed plastic drink bottle or …flexible water bag containing a cup or two of water. Tuck this beneath layers of clothing and let your body heat do the rest. A neck cord secured to the bottle or bag with duct tape makes it easy keep the bottle where you want it. You might also sew a ‘neck bag’ out of fleece sized to accommodate your water bottle or bag and fitted over your neck with a strip of fabric or cord. A piece of closed-cell foam wrapped around a water bottle and secured with duct tape can insulate the container and slow the freezing of its contents.”


There is another simple way to get water during the day. Fill a black trash bag with some snow, and leave it in the sun. Of course, you’ll need sun.

It also helps to place some insulation between the bag and the snow. Try an insulated sleep pad, for example. Be sure to pack the snow in a thin layer and expose as much of the closed as possible.

Water From Streams

Purifying Water in the Cold

Water filters do not work well when the temperature drops below 32° fahrenheit, and residual water can freeze and damage filter parts. Purification tablets can also be hampered by the cold, as can the batteries of purifiers that use ultraviolet light. The best way to purify water when the temperature is low Is by bringing it to boil for several minutes. For more information on purifying water, see the Fieldbook, Chapter “Backcountry Hygiene.” —Fieldbook p.247

dipping-waterA stream flowing too swiftly to freeze also can be a good place to replenish your winter water supplies. To obtain water from a stream without the risk of falling in, hang a wide mouthed water bottle by a cord from a ski pole. Be sure to purify the water before drinking it.

However The Survival Mom makes this important distinction: “To be safe, water must be disinfected, which is defined as ‘the removal or destruction of harmful microorganisms.’ To do this, water must be boiled, treated with chemicals or filtered. “Disinfection” of water should not be confused with “purification” of water.

“Some of the methods used to purify water may not remove or kill enough of the pathogens to ensure a person’s safety so, to be certain that the water you drink is free from illness causing agents, it must be disinfected.”

Keeping Water From Freezing

Take water bottles to bed with you to prevent freezing overnight, but be sure you have tightened the lids. If you fill them with hot water, they make a great foot warmers. The Fieldbook warns: “Guard against ice crystal in the threads that can melt in cause leakage.

You can also take advantage of the insulating nature of snow by burying your water bottles, (top down to prevent freezing of the lid to the bottle), in a foot of snow. You can also do this with covered pots of water, but make sure it’s under a foot of snow. Mark your water cache that accounts for snowfall so that you can find them in the morning for cooking and hot drinks.

Other posts in this series:


Darryl Alder
Darryl is a retired career Scouter with more than 30 years of service. These days he is a Scouting Ambassador and serves on the Council Membership and Marketing Committee. However, his pride in Scouting is his volunteer service as an Associate Advisor, Varsity Scout Coach, Scoutmaster, Cubmaster, Chartered Organization Representative, and Commissioner.


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