To survive in cold weather like anything else it takes a certain skill set, proper materials i.e. clothing, shelter and it takes practice/training. You need to know before you have to know that what you are doing and wearing will keep you alive.
First, as a reminder, the human body puts out heat, a considerable amount of heat in fact. It is constantly generating heat when the body is active and when not so active, as well, such as after consuming proteins and warm liquids.
The key to survival in cold weather is how well you control the loss of the generated heat. How is the heat maintained so the body benefits from it? The body generates heat while sleeping if it is digesting foods, in particular, protein-rich foods, so it is a constant cycle of generating heat and losing heat to the cold. Remember, warm air always conducts to colder air. You want to control the loss and use the body’s heat to survive.
Clothing is important and your cover, if you will, is your first line of defense against the cold. Clothing is your shelter. You need moisture-wicking material, and to cut down on the weight you can use synthetic base layers versus wool, both of which are considered warm-when-wet insulation. Down is not something you want by the way.
We are not advocating you use the following method, but it is a method. One among several that can be used to help you survive the cold. We felt it was worth talking about because the traditional methods do not always work. If you have the right clothing and have trained in cold weather conditions, this method does work if all variables line up, and the most important aspect is faith in your gear, equipment, and training.
The following method is used by professionals and is not for everyone, and it can be dangerous to the inexperienced.
The cold is dangerous and not having the right clothing and not taking it off when it becomes soaked with water, can kill you. Know what your clothing can do for you, and know how to dry your clothing while still being protected from the cold. If none of this is possible, then maybe you could consider alternative measures such as the one described below in an emergency.
Certain units in the military go through rigorous cold weather training courses. Those that take the courses are well trained by the end of the training and in turn, would be expected to train others. One of the courses provided is conducted in real-world conditions where the service members wear the proper clothing, which is designed especially for cold weather. The participants wear a base layer of moisture-wicking synthetic material, and then have an outer waterproof synthetic layer stowed in their packs, packs that are a typical combat load out.
Remember the best defense against the cold is to stay dry, but that doesn’t always work out.
The military personnel start out on a hike with only their base layers on. They end up at a frozen lake. The instructor has them drop their packs, and then they break up the ice near the shore and walk into the water until neck deep. They stay until well soaked and shivering and then are ordered out of the freezing water. The air temperature is well below freezing.
Once out of the water what would you have done? Conventional wisdom would have dictated you build a fire, get out of your clothing and what then, try to dry your clothing over the flames while your back end is getting frost bit.
Because of the proper clothing, the personnel were instructed to set up their tents first, then build a fire and start warming water while they climbed inside their tents and put on the outer layer over their wet clothing. The material is designed for optimal moisture wicking. The moisture turns into vapor and is then wicked away from your body. This evaporative process carries the moisture from your clothes and skin to the surface of the material.
The vapor seeks the colder air outside the body so the process is that the moisture in the clothing that they still are wearing is being wicked to the outer layer away from the skin. The vapor actually frosts up on the outside layer, but away from the skin. The body heat generated was pushing the moisture toward the cold through the wicking material while the warm-when-wet insulation kept the heat contained close to the body. Vapor moved away while the heat stayed.
Getting out of your wet clothes, and possibly not having a spare set with you means you are eating up time, time in which the body is getting chilled if you do not have a readymade warm shelter and a fire built.
Combat load outs are heavy and having extra clothing is usually not an option with the exception of dry socks, so you as a hunter, hiker or simply as an outdoor enthusiast who became lost, or stranded due to an injury cannot afford the extra weight in most cases either.
Ideally, you would have a lightweight winter sleeping bag made of the same synthetic material as your clothing, a sleeping bag that allows the vapor close to your body to be wicked to the surface. Your clothing will dry this way, and so you do not have to take your wet clothing off in the cold and stand there shivering waiting for it to dry over an open fire. Get hot liquids and food in you, as well, while your body generates heat.
Your survival hinges on being prepared and knowing what to do if you fall through the ice or otherwise get soaking wet in the cold. You need a shelter that can be put up in minutes and have the proper clothing to begin with. You need fire starting materials, along with food and water.
If you do not have a tent, but have an outer dry layer to put on you can walk it off, re-warm in other words, by letting the body generate heat to wick the vapor away as you walk.
If you have a shelter and can dry, your clothes while still maintaining body heat then do so. The method described above is not for everyone, it does work but you need training, fortitude and the right material and you do need to be in good physical shape.
Cotton is a killer of course because it does not allow for the evaporation of moisture away from the skin. It traps it close to the skin, which will cause frostbite and eventual hypothermia unless you can get your clothing off and dried in a warm shelter. Wool is considered a warm-when-wet insulator but it is heavy and takes considerably longer to dry out. The new synthetic material is designed to allow evaporation while at the same time trapping the body’s heat close to the body while still wet.