I spent a night in the Jura  mountains of Switzerland trying to understand what it takes to survive in sub-zero conditions. I built my own shelter from what was available around me. Here is what I learnt:

  1. Don’t count on building a fire.  Sure, a fire is real comfort against cold but what if you can’t build one? Everything around me was covered in a metre of snow. Finding kindling and wood was practically impossible. Besides, starting a fire in freezing conditions can be a real pain in the ass.
  2. Invest time in constructing a good shelter. Your shelter is your mothership in a hostile environment. Spend a few hours in making it as insulated as possible with what is available. Snow, branches, leaves, and soil create air pockets that keeps the shelter warm.  It should be as small as possible to prevent losing heat through radiation. You should just be able to squeeze into it without touching any portion of it (to prevent conduction heat loss). I used and recommend this survival shelter for cold conditions.
  3. Stay dry. Before you settle into your shelter, make sure all your clothing is dry. It is really easy to lose heat through a single item of wet clothing. My slightly wet trousers kept me from be being fully comfortable and negated a lot of the other preparation I had made.
  4. Don’t fly solo. Things can go horribly wrong real fast. Have someone near you in case this happens. I had left my wet shoes outside my shelter and couldn’t get into them in the morning as they had frozen solid. Luckily, my friends were camping a few hundred metres away. I walked to their camp in my socks and cooked my shoes on their fire before I could wear them.  No toes lost due to frostbite.
  5. Carry a shovel. I didn’t and quickly realized how badly  I needed one. I am not keen on camping gear as I feel it detracts from an authentic wild experience. But I will always make an exception for a portable shovel.  I borrowed one from my friend and it saved me. I used it to clear the ground for my shelter from snow and ice. I also used it to pile snow on my shelter for insulation. Without it I would be doing these tasks with my bare hands or a stick.  It is a real must-have.


Whatever you do, try camping outdoors with your own shelter. You quickly learn what works under a given set of conditions. No YouTube video or survival manual can replace first-hand experience.

Pictures and adventure courtesy: Vincent Kurmaer