The human body is not meant to withstand cold temperatures for long periods of time. That’s why, whenever you might be faced with the need to survive in cold weather or may face the prospect of a winter storm while outdoors, you need to be prepared. Your life may depend on it.
Understanding the threats, how to stave them off, and what the best cold weather survival management tools are will help you prepare for a potential life-threatening disaster.
The Three Biggest Cold Weather Survival Threats
The three biggest threats you face when stranded in the cold is hypothermia, frostbite, and hypoglycemia. Keeping these three threats at bay will go a long way to see you through a cold-weather survival situation.
Hypothermia is when your core body temperature drops. More precisely, your internal organs operate in a very limited temperature band, and when those organs – your heart, lungs, kidney, brain, and others – drop to 95 degrees, they start to shut down.
Mild hypothermia presents itself as shivering and clumsiness or a lack of coordination. These are the first signs of a problem and you must take action immediately. Severe hypothermia – the symptoms of which include a weak pulse, low energy, feeling warmer for no reason, and slurred speech – is almost impossible to fully reverse.
Frostbite is caused by the water in your cells freezing, creating crystals that damage the tissues and cause them to die. The damage is irreversible.
Wind combined with cold increases the speed at which frostbite occurs. For instance, if there is a gentle 5 mph wind, it would take 30 minutes at -34 degrees F to begin to develop the condition. On the other hand, frostbite begins to occur in only 10 minutes in a 55 mph wind.
It takes a lot of energy to keep your body warm. Your body takes stored and available energy – such as fat stores – and turns that into warmth. But it takes a lot of energy to keep it up, and it takes time to convert fat to useable energy. Your body will always start with the quickly available energy found in the food you’ve eaten. In particular, carbs and sugars provide quick fuel.
Once that available energy is depleted, your body will go into a state of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia can cause confusion, heart arrhythmia, and headaches. It can lead to poor decision making – a deadly side effect in a survival situation.
Dry, Heat, Shelter, and Food
There are four elements that will combat the three threats – dry surroundings, a source of heat or warmth, shelter from the elements, and food.
In a cold-weather survival situation, staying dry is critical. The fastest path to hypothermia is in wet or damp clothes. If your clothing is wet, you must get out of them immediately. It sounds counter-intuitive – being naked in the cold – but your wet clothes will sap the warmth from your body rapidly. Once off, dress in dry clothing or wrap yourself in a blanket. Cover as much as you can, as long as what you’re covering with is dry.
Staying dry means carrying a change of clothes and extra socks with you. Think in terms of loose layers – you want to avoid overheating, too. Being able to take off a layer to avoid sweating and then putting it back on when you cool down again will keep you from sweating.
Shelter and heat are also important. Having a cold-weather tent with you is your best plan. If you don’t have a tent, throw a small, packable bivvy in your bag. A space blanket is also a great idea.
If you’re trapped without a tent, you’ll still need shelter from the wind, snow, and rain. Find a cave or overhang, or an area under dense trees that can keep some of the elements away.
If you’ve got a multipurpose survival tool with you, like the Woodman’s Pal, you can cut branches to create a lean-to. Use your emergency survival tools and the materials near at hand to lessen the impact of the wind and damp. Having a Woodman’s Pal with you also means you’ll be able to chop wood and kindling for a fire.
Even if you’re only planning to be out for the day, be sure to add a few high carb and simple sugar foods to your pack. In the winter you won’t have access to the kinds of food you can forage for and that will give you a quick blood sugar boost. Granola, chocolate, packets of nut butters, energy bars, and honey are small, light, and portable.
Even if you aren’t planning on being out in the cold for long, you should be prepared for the worst. A few simple items – a bivvy, some granola bars, dry clothes, and a Woodman’s Pal – will keep you safe and alive if you must survive in cold weather.