It's no secret that this is a dilemma that has been debated many times by most survival instructors. There is of course no clear answer. Everything in a wilderness survival emergency or simulation is case specific.
This means that common sense and knowledge of the 7 enemies of survival will answer the question for you.
Most might assume that in the Canadian winter that having a fire is the obvious priority. Well you know what they say about those who assume. It would ring true in this case as well.
In the Canadian winter the daytime temperature could average between -7 degrees and -20. However, that temperature can plummet dangerously in the evening and early morning hours. So having a fire would appear to be a choice that would tip the temperature game in your direction. True, except for one serious survival enemy - wind.
If you have ever ventured into the great Canadian wilderness for a camping or marshmallow roasting good time during a moderately breezy winter day, you will have noted the bone chilling effect it had on your body. That wind chill is so serious that the weather man notes its effect on the true temperature of the great outdoors every single day.
So for those that still pushed on into the bush regardless of the wind chill and decided to start a nice roaring fire, you would have immediately realized the difficulty that it will cause.
That cool breeze will not just steal the beautiful heat normally experienced from a campfire but it will suck the life right out of it. Eating through your fuel source quicker than you can maintain your pace of fuel collection.
Everything in a winter survival emergency has to be about risk and effort vs. reward.
Here in lies the debate. If you are in the throws of a winter survival emergency and the wind chill has created a bone chilling experience that has managed to render fine motor skills non existent your first instinct should be to seek shelter. Shelter will allow you to huddle together sharing warmth and dealing with hypothermia or the onset of frostbite.
Whether that shelter is just a single wind wall to reduce the effects or whether you construct a full survival shelter, it becomes a life or death emergency.
As much as us humans are drawn to the warmth and psychological effects of a fire, that desire to choose fire or shelter can cost you your life.
To survive a real winter survival emergency you must have the knowledge, the skills and the mindset. You must recognize the 7 enemies of survival. You must choose your tasks wisely and carefully given your environment and the weather conditions which mother nature has provided.
It's never enough to just be prepared to make fire in hopes of surviving. You must be prepared to build shelter, make fire, signal help, care for injuries, locate food, find water and maintain the survival mindset. There is no guarantee how long before help is called or how long it will take Search and Rescue Teams to locate you. You must always be prepared to survive for as long as it takes. Never giving up. Never giving in. Never forgetting your number 1 primal instinct - to survive !
Fire vs. Shelter - choose wisely. It could save your life.