by Justin Williams
With an abnormally cold fall and with winter around the corner I thought this would be the perfect time to discuss cold weather survival. Being cooped up all season is not feasible for many outdoor enthusiasts. The call of the wild is just too strong. We can’t help it, we just love to be outside no matter what the elements. But with cold climates, it can be dangerous and sometimes deadly. A couple years back, such a tragedy hit too close to home.
A father and his two children decided to embark out on the Ozark Trail one beautiful sunny weekend. It was in the 60’s, and the only equipment they took with them were some light jackets and water bottles. Accompanying them was their faithful dog who loved getting out on the trail. Unfortunately, a few wrong turns were made on the trip back, and the family found themselves lost. As the sun set the family urgently began to try and find their way back. As nightfall fell the temperatures began to drop into the 40’s – a very uncomfortable temperature, but tolerable. Then mother nature took a turn for the worse and halfway through the night the sky let loose over two inches of rain, soaking the family. With no means of taking shelter, they decided to huddle up and try to stay warm, and wait out the night. This was a decision that would cost them their lives. Without the means to conserve body heat the family succumbed to hypothermia and met a very sad and difficult fate. The dog was the only survivor due to his thick coat and k9 cardiovascular system.
With all respect to the father, this could have happened to any of us. I have taken my family into the woods hundreds of times with very little gear if any. I am sure he was a loving husband, father, and family man, but despite everything, nature does not differentiate. In spite of this tragedy, there are some things we can do to avoid and prevent this outcome in our own lives.
It is important to have a thorough understanding of “Heat Loss” if you expect to Survive the Cold. Heat loss occurs in several ways and minimizing it is essential to survival in cold conditions.
- Heat is lost through conduction – direct contact between the body and a cold surface. Wear insulated and waterproof clothing, and create barriers between you and the ground.
- Heat is lost through radiation – your radiant body heat is lost to the colder surrounding. Cover your head, wear layered clothing to trap heat, and build a fire when possible.
- Heat is lost through convection – the movement of air or water across the body. Avoid getting wet, and take/build a shelter when possible. Getting wet is disastrous. Water sucks heat away from the body 25 times (25x) faster than air.
- Heat is lost through evaporation – moisture on the skin begins to evaporate or condensate. Avoid over-exerting, since heat is lost through sweating. Slow down your pace, and make decisive movements.
- Heat is lost through respiration – each inhaled breath contains cold air, which is warmed as it is exhaled. Reduce heat loss by covering your nose and mouth with a bandana, scarf, or shemagh. Breathe warm air from around a fire
By understanding a few of these heat loss mechanisms you can better understand how to prepare for the elements. If the family in our story had simply been able to build a shelter, start a fire, scarecrowed their clothing, or exercised throughout the night then their outcome may have been different.
Hydration, proper gear selection, physical ability and knowledge of the environment all play a part. There are many key aspects to preventing heat loss but here are a few things to remember:
- Preparation is the number 1 key to survival
- Remember the acronym C.O.L.D. – Stay Clean, Avoid Overheating, Wear Loose Layers, Stay Dry
- Research the signs of hypothermia before embarking into the cold (shivering, slurred speech, drowsiness, etc.)
- Regularly check your extremities for frostnip/frostbite (face, nose, toes, hands, ears, etc.) – cover exposed skin
- Take shelter from the wind at every opportunity
- Get off the cold ground – sit on your pack or build a ground barrier with boughs or debris
- If your hands get cold, don’t warm them with your breath (moisture) – tuck them under armpits
- Always gather three (3x) times the amount of firewood you think you will need
- Eat hot foods and liquids whenever possible, particularly hot liquids before bedtime
- No amount of gear replaces adequate training. Attend a survival school and take a winter course.