While working on the next installment of emergency shelter articles (Intro and Basics), I decided to bring you these cold weather survival tips. In cold weather you face the danger of hypothermia, which is when your core temperature drops too low for normal metabolic function. But one way to freeze is to get too hot, break into a sweat, and then freeze later. Some of these tips seem contradictory, but they’re not — they just apply in different situations. Study them, and be wise in their application. So here are some tips for regulating your temperature in very cold conditions:
- Sleep warm. Build a fire in your bedding place and let it burn down. Then push the embers aside and make your bed directly over the warm spot.
- Stay dry. Shelter from rain is a top priority. In very cold weather, “if you sweat, you freeze.” It is critical that you not overheat and get sweat-soaked. That’s why it is so important to dress in layers. If you must get wet — like if you have to cross a water course — strip down, bundle your clothes, and make sure they stay dry as you cross. Hold them overhead or make a raft. Be certain you have the means to build a fire on the other side.
- Remember the Extremities Rule: Wear a hat, gloves, and warm socks to keep your extremities plenty warm, but dress down and keep your torso from overheating. I favor a headband to keep my ears warm and will quickly ditch the hat if I’m getting too hot during strenuous activity. My feet are prone to cold, but not my hands, so I can effectively lose heat as needed by stowing the gloves with the hat. The point is, this rule is really just a reminder to regulate your temperature in whatever way works for you to keep you from getting overheated and breaking a sweat.
- Watch for frostbite. Extremities and any exposed skin is at risk of frostbite. Early warning signs are a sensation of cold, of course, and then itching and pain. Don’t ignore them. If your skin becomes discolored or numb, you urgently need to warm that area. First degree frostbite (frostnip) is when the surface of your skin develops white, red, or yellow patches and becomes numb. It’s not really an emergency situation, yet, but you must give it immediate attention to avoid the onset of second degree frostbite, which is when the skin freezes and hardens. This will result in blistering and possibly debilitating injuries, which can limit your ability to care for yourself in the long run. In either case, avoid much movement of the affected area, which can damage the skin, and warm it gently. Avoid thawing and refreezing, which can result in severe damage of the skin. Deep freezing beneath the skin is a serious condition that requires expert medical attention.
- Stay hydrated! Extremely cold air is very dry, and you can quickly become dehydrated without being wet from sweat. Sweating is not the only way your body regulates your core temperature. You can also dissipate excess heat by expanding the blood vessels near the skin and into your hands and feet — as the blood circulates in the skin cooled by contact with the cold air, you lose heat that keeps you from breaking a sweat. But to properly maintain an adequate blood volume, you must be properly hydrated. Another risk in very cold weather is excessively drying your mucous membranes. If your nose and throat get very dry, you increase the risk of catching an upper respiratory infection (common cold) or flu. In hard conditions, a flu can kill you, but even a common cold will weaken you and put you at greater risk. So drink plenty of water!
- Eat snow. I know “they” say not to, but like a lot of rules, this one is not applicable in some circumstances. If you’re very active and feel yourself overheating, take mouthfuls of snow to cool you down. Let the snow melt slowly in your mouth, though, to keep from injuring your throat. You’ll also get the benefit of a little hydration, although it takes a ridiculous amount of light snow to get even a little water.
- Eat fats. Cold weather activities require gobs of calories to keep you going. If your typical diet consists of 2000 calories per day, you should plan on tripling that in intensive cold weather survival. Fat is an excellent way to get lots of calories.
- Waste nothing. If you fry any fatty meats, save the rendered fat for burning in your shelter or just for eating.
- Drink your fluids warm. If you’re hunkered down for the evening, make tea or coffee, or drink hot broth or soup. Whatever you drink warm, your body won’t need to burn extra dietary calories to maintain your core temperature.
- You need salt. A correct electrolyte balance is needed, among other things, to regulate body temperature. It helps regulate blood pressure, circulation, and proper function of the nervous system.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the emergency shelter series.