Cover of Winter in the Wilderness A Field Guide to Primitive Survival Skills by Dave Hall, Jon Ulrich

Before sharing my thoughts of this book, I'll share my background and experience to illustrate my expertise, ignorance, and bias.

Background on the reviewer

I've spent many weeks backpacking in the winter or in winter-like conditions. For example, when I did a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail, I walked across Colorado in May. When you're in the Rocky Mountains in May, it sure looks and feels like winter, even though officially it's spring. The mountains are buried in snow and freezing temperatures are the norm.

My most memorable winter trip was when Lisa Garrett and I did a 4-day backpacking trip in Yosemite during Thanksgiving (late November). You can see some photos from that snowy experience.

I've also climbed many snowy peaks, such as nearly all the peaks in Cascade Mountain Range (e.g., Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, Mt. Adams, etc...), as well as snowy mountains outside the USA, such as Mont Blanc.

Despite all these situations, I have only once been in a true winter survival situation. That was in late March 2006 when Maiu and I got lost in the Olympic National Park. I've wanted to write about that life-threatening experience for a while years, but until I do, let's just say that we almost died. We spent two nights (one of which snowed on us) in a diabolical ravine. We both ended up with frostbite, but we got out on our own.

Another close call was when I was snowshoeing in Idaho for the day with Julia, my Ukrainian girlfriend at the time. We got lost as the sunset and kept walking until we ran into a man running a snowplow at 3:00 a.m. We were walking the wrong way and he took us back to safety.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I read Winter in the Wilderness. Here are the pros, cons, and verdict of the book.

What the Winter in the Wilderness covers

Winter in the Wilderness is a 216-page book that is broken up into seven sections and four useful appendices. The seven sections are:

  1. Priorities
  2. Fire
  3. Shelter
  4. Water
  5. Sustenance
  6. Helpful Crafts and Skills
  7. Navigation and Orienterring 
The four appendices are:
  1. Motor Vehicle Considerations (where you're told what to do if you're stuck in your car in a remote place in the winter)
  2. Survival Kits
  3. Winter Gear Checklist
  4. Suggested Reading

Strengths of Winter in the Wilderness

  • The appendix, especially the survival kits and winter gear checklist are extremely useful. 
  • Many illustrations, which are useful to visualize how to make a snow cave or how to set a snare. 
  • It gives you all the basic and intermediate things you need to know to survive in the wilderness.

Weaknesses Winter in the Wilderness

  • The cover stinks. Yes, I'm being superficial, but the cover looks like a self-published nightmare, not something done by Cornell University.
  • Although the illustrations are useful, they are the same quality as Tom Brown's classic book, Field Guide to Wilderness Survival. Brown's book was written before the era of desktop computing and computer graphic illustration. I would have preferred surperior graphics and/or photos. Usually, I could see what they're trying to show me, but sometimes a better graphic would have helped.
  • His experience is mostly in New York state. Although talks about situations where you might not find abundant trees or animals, the information is minimal.
  • It's not super comprehensive. At 216 pages, you can't expect it to cover all the possible edible plants in the world, for example. 

Who should buy Winter in the Wilderness?

  • Novices and intermediate backpackers.
  • Anyone who fears freezing to death in the woods.
  • Most mountaineers - because you never know when you'll blow off the mountain.
  • Preppers who want to survive the nuclear winter.

Who should NOT buy Winter in the Wilderness?

Advanced backpackers who have spent significant time in the woods probably won't learn much in this 216-page book.

Verdict

Most survival guides tell you to stay put when you're in trouble. Conventional wisdom says that the biggest mistake people make is trying to walk out.

However, I've always walked out because I sensed that safety wasn't that far away. Indeed, in the USA, it's hard to be more than 50 km (35 miles) from a road. And I always felt strong enough to just keep walking. Had I stayed, I would have to depend on someone saving my ass. Moreover, you tend to weaken with each passing day as the cold and low calories take their toll.

Moreover, finding someone in the wilderness is hard, especially if you're off-trail, which is often where you are when you're lost. I'd rather not be stuck there for days or weeks. Staying put and making a shelter isn't always the best solution. 

Still, this book does an excellent job at teaching how to survive for days, even in the frigid wilderness.

I'm giving Winter in the Wilderness 8 out of 10 stars. 

The official blurb

Here's what the publisher says about the book.

Winter in the Wilderness is a handbook for those who want to explore cold-weather camping and those who might find themselves in need of this critical information during an unexpected winter's night out. Whether used for pleasure or for survival, Winter in the Wilderness emphasizes the benefits of enriching and deepening our connection with the outdoors.

Want to buy it?

Buy it on Amazon, but also consider competing books. The big difference is that Winter in the Wilderness focuses exclusively on winter survival (although many of the tips can apply for the rest of the year, including how to build a shelter).

Have you had to survive in the wilderness during the winter? What did you learn? Have you read any of these books? What do you think? 

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