Winter Survival Guide: Cook

In and out of the wilderness, food is important for survival. Don't screw it up with these winter cooking tips.

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Melt Snow Like a Pro

It takes as much as 10 cups of powder to create a cup of liquid—and you’ll need more than a gallon of water per person per day. Jeff Ward, co-owner of North Cascades Mountain Guides, has 10 tips for melting the white stuff.

1. Gather dense snow. It has higher water content than powder.

2. Bring a large compactor bag. Use it to haul and store clean snow you collect away from busy (and dirty) camp areas.

3. Use a large pot. Heating one big pot is more efficient than heating two smaller ones. Keep the lid on as much as possible.

4. Fire up two stoves. Pair them under one pot for faster melting.

5. Put an inch of water in your pot before adding powder. Heated metal (without the water) will scorch dust and debris in the snow, making the water taste burnt (and ruining your pot).

6. Add snow slowly. Airspace between flakes is insulating, so stuffing the pot lowers the air temperature and slows melting.

7. Cook out of the wind. “A small breeze can reduce stove efficiency dramatically,” says Ward. With a hanging stove, cook inside a well-ventilated tent. With standard stoves, cook in your vestibule or set up a protected cooking area.

8. Use a stove platform. Prevent your stove from sinking as it heats nearby snow: Place stove legs on a square of plywood, aluminum-wrapped foam, “or a shovel blade if you’re in a pinch,” Ward says.

9. Bring a collapsible container to store extra water.

10. Carry extra fuel. If you’re melting snow, you’ll need at least eight ounces of white gas per person per day—though you may need more in subfreezing temps, if you have an inefficient stove, if it’s extra windy, or you’re cooking extravagant meals. 

Start a Meal from Your Sleeping Bag

“Before going to sleep at night, gather your breakfast and coffee-making supplies and stash them in your vestibule in a stuffsack so snow doesn’t cover them. If you’re using a canister stove, detach the fuel and keep it in your bag overnight. In the morning, you can get breakfast going without getting out of bed.”

Dennis Lewon, BACKPACKER Editor

Keep Fingers Functional

Cold-weather climber Matt Samet, author of The Climbing Dictionary (, has this advice on keeping your fingers nimble sans gloves.

>> “Tape hand warmers to the inside of wristbands or forearm sleeves. They’ll heat blood inbound to your hands, which in turn will warm your fingers,” says Samet.

>> Repeatedly exhale hard into your closed hand or put your palm on your neck or belly (or jam it into your armpit).

>> Windmill your arms. The centrifugal force drives blood from your core to your extremities.

>> Thwack your inactive hand lightly against your leg, which will jolt your nerves and help rekindle sensation. Then open and close your hand rapidly, flicking your fingers “until you feel the pain of blood rushing back into the capillaries,” Samet says.

Collect Water, Save Fuel

“On a warm, sunny day, snow at the bottom of a snowfield will be wet with percolating water and may melt into a drinkable slush. Collect it to heat at camp. Or make a poor-man’s Slurpee: Add drink powder and suck with a straw.”

Blake Herrington, North Cascades alpinist

Graze to Blaze

“I’ve made the mistake of eating a big breakfast, and then having to slow down because I’m digesting. In winter, eat a small breakfast, then make little meals of gels, bars, and dried fruit or nuts throughout the morning. Your main breakfast priority: drinking. I down almost a quart of water or tea before setting off.”

Rolando Garibotti, speed alpinist and mountaineering guide

Stay Hydrated

“High-calorie drinks can be your best friend. Bring a small stainless thermos filled with Lemon Zinger tea, a scoop of Gatorade powder, and honey. Take a sip of this mix at least once every half hour or so.”

Mike Alkaitis, Colorado Mountain School manager