The Basics of Cold Weather Survival

Cold Weather Survival Basics

Let’s get back to the basics, because sometimes writers, authors if you will, tend to assume things about their audience. Like an instructor that assumes their students come to the class with a certain level of training or a degree of knowledge that they may not have, and of course, this creates a knowledge or skills gap among some of the students or audience.

Someone that has lived in an urban environment their entire life will not have the same skill sets or knowledge base as someone that has lived in a rural environment their entire life. If there is no need for a certain skill, then some people will not acquire that skill.

Once a need is identified however, it is incumbent upon you to gain the knowledge and skills needed to survive. If you move from the city to the country and expect to hunt, hike, or enjoy the wilderness, then you have to gain the knowledge and skills needed to not only survive but to thrive in the new environment.

The philosophy in the military at one time was to teach as if everyone was a third grader. Instruct at a third grade level so no one is left behind.

This is not meant to insult anyone, if you know the subject matter, then look at this as a reminder, it never hurts to be reminded. Keep in mind, just because you know the subject matter does not mean that someone else does, and by the way are you passing along your knowledge to others.

There are those new to prepping, to camping, hunting, and hiking, and those that have never spent more than a few minutes in what many of us would call the woods, the wilds, or the back country.

The Official Definition of Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6° F (37 C). Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature passes below 95° F (35 C) (Mayo Clinic, 2015).

Once your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs slow down and eventually fail if the condition is not treated. It is a progression, and often times the patient is not aware they are progressing toward certain death, because they lose the ability to think clearly. If you do not know, then you cannot treat yourself or seek help. Prevention is important, particularly if you are traveling alone.

The “buddy system” works well when there are others traveling with you. Everyone checks everyone else out, so symptoms can be spotted early on, and treatment can begin to reverse the condition. Is someone in the group shivering uncontrollably, slurring speech, stumbling and acting erratic by taking clothing off, for example.

Heat conducts to cold, so your warm body heat is constantly trying to escape to the colder air surrounding it. The body loses heat by radiating it away from an unprotected body, and through direct contact with snow, water, or cold ground.

When your warm body is exposed to the cold ground it immediately begins to conduct heat to the ground. This heat conduction can be prevented or slowed by proper insulation, which starts with the proper clothing, and then other insulating materials placed between you and the ground. Insulating materials can be pine boughs, dried grasses, leaves, pine needles, sleeping pads and thermal blankets.

Shelter is important to break the wind and to keep snow and cold rain off your body, and the most important part of a shelter in cold weather is ground insulation. Worry about insulating your body from the ground before you worry about overhead cover. Overhead cover can be as simple as wrapping yourself in a tarp or thermal blanket, but this does you no good if the cold ground is literally sucking the heat from your body.

If you get wet it is important that you get out of the wind and get out of the wet clothing as quickly as possible. Do not panic if you stumble and fall into a river or stream. Take a minute to assess the situation, and then move to correct the problem. You have just minutes to prevent the early stages of hypothermia.

However, first things first, so when out in the cold always have an emergency shelter with you, so if you do get wet you can put up a shelter and get a fire going so you can strip out of the wet clothing and have a protected area to do so. You need thermal blankets, fire starting materials and shelter material at all times when hiking in cold weather. Wind is the enemy at any time when it’s cold, and it is deadly when you are wet.

The body loses heat through the head quickly if left unprotected, so make sure you have the entire head covered. The neck needs to be covered at all times, as well, to protect the blood flowing through the large arteries that supply blood to the brain. Once the blood chills, the brain function is reduced.

There are large arteries in the thighs as well, so cover the legs properly. A long parka than hangs to the knees is ideal as are insulated pants and undergarments.

Wet feet are dangerous and can quickly lead to immersion foot (trench foot). Have extra socks in your pack and if you do not have extras, you have to take the time to properly dry your socks, shoes and feet. Again this means you need a sheltered area and the ability to create a fire.

Never Leave Home Without

Without the proper cold weather clothing, emergency shelter, fire starting materials, extra socks, thermal blankets, water, and emergency rations.

Carry a quality fixed bladed knife, cordage, and the means to signal for help, such as a whistle, orange/red garbage bags or other brightly colored materials.

Mayo Clinic. (2015). Retrieved 2015, from