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Extreme Cold

Loss of heat can be the most devastating hurdle to deal with in any survival situation. While of course it is important to stay hydrated and avoid overtly life-threatening occurrences (like falling off of sheer cliffs or being mauled by a bear), exposure (the cold) can kill you in a matter of hours. In terms of risk, you are likely at greater risk to die of exposure than of any other outdoor concern. It is incredibly important to understand how the body works and how to counteract the cold in any condition, so that you don’t suffer or die needlessly.

Preparation is key. It goes without saying that in trip planning for an outdoor excursion in any kind of inclement weather, you already have a heightened sense of preparation and an increased awareness for those things which might help you in a bad situation. It’s equally important to have contingency plans for when things don’t go quite as expected, even where there are no obvious signs that you would be at risk. For example, if you were planning an excursion in the desert. you need to account for the fact that many of the world’s deserts are extremely cold at night and pose an increased risk of exposure. You must plan thoroughly to avoid simple oversights, and to give yourself the best chance of survival in a worst case scenario situation.

To understand how to combat extreme cold, it’s important to understand how the body reacts to the cold. Hypothermia poses the greatest risk of death, and it starts to become a problem when your core body temperature drops by just a few degrees.

The first stage of hypothermia is mild. The body will enact physiological responses with the goal of maintaining the temperature it is at. Shivering and increased blood pressure are two signs of mild hypothermia. You may also feel mental confusion with mild hypothermia, which will manifest itself in an inability to create and focus on achieving goals. This is one of the reasons that it’s important to head off potential hypothermia before it becomes a bigger problem. Usually no long-term negative effects will be seen if your core temperature stays at, or warmer than, the mild hypothermia level. It won’t be comfortable, but you will live.

Moderate hypothermia is defined clinically as the condition existing when your core body temperature is between 82°F and 90°F (28 to 32°C). Shivering will increase, your mental focus and motor capabilities will decrease, all actions will be laborious, with more severe (but still mild) confusion. Your fingers and toes, as well as parts of your face, may become blue as a result of lack of blood flow (which occurs because the blood moves towards your internal organs to maintain your core temperature). Prolonged exposure to temperatures at this level could result in death, but more commonly will simply perpetuate further temperature drop.

Severe hypothermia, when your core body temperature is between 68°F and 82°F, brings with it poor focus and decision making, fuzzy memory, slurred speech, and an inability to perform normal actions. Heart rates can drop below 40 beats a minute, breathing is strained, and blood pressure decreases substantially. If prolonged, the victim will eventually suffer clinical death as the major organs fail, followed by brain death.

The goal of this article is not just to keep you from experiencing severe hypothermia and potentially death, but to avoid anything past mild hypothermia. In almost all cases, hypothermia is preventable. The biggest part in the prevention of hypothermia is the planning and preparation phase in which you will determine which items and techniques you will employ to avoid such concerns.

The off the grid lifestyle relies heavily on planning and preparation, but it also relies heavily on ingenuity, creativity, knowledge, and practical implementation, all which will be factors in helping you survive a potentially life-threatening hypothermic condition. Throughout this article, you’ll find techniques, tools, and knowledge which will help you stay alive in any situation where cold temperatures could be fatal.

Now that the body’s normal reactions to cold have been briefly discussed, it’s important to understand the basics in the planning process to avoid concerns in extreme conditions. Most importantly will be the physical tools that you plan for and bring on any trip which may involve cold weather. Tools will be the most immediately effective of all of your options, and while knowledge and skills are important, without tools, it very difficult to implement the procedures that may save your life.

If it hasn’t been rehashed enough… pack a survival kit! It doesn’t matter if you’re only going to the grocery store… have something for emergencies in every vehicle you own.

The proper attire will be one of the best tools in combating extreme temperatures in the outdoors:

  • Layering: Layering is important for several reasons–it creates extra spaces of dead air in between your heat loss area (your skin) and your outerwear (jacket, etc.). These pockets of dead air have insulation value in protecting you from the cold.

*Important note: Cotton may feel great against your skin, but it’s easily the most dangerous fabric (next to wet down) when dealing with cold, wet situations. Replace the cotton with wool or synthetic fabrics which can insulate even when wet.

  • Appropriate Use: Simply put, you will need to determine the most effective attire in a given situation. Choosing to merely wear a cotton hooded sweater on a five-mile hike through a snow covered boulder field doesn’t make sense, even if you know you’re going to get sweaty and hot while hiking with more than that on. Layer your clothing for the weather conditions, and if you begin to get hot, take off the outer layers and toss them into your backpack (or tie them around your waist, or something!) Temporary conditions should not be factored into your planning for long-term exposure to the elements. Remember, it can be life-threatening to avoid this warning. Base your attire on the weather, and the most extreme shift in that weather historically, not on personal preference.
  • Extras: Proper planning will always include a contingency plan for unexpected events or results. While you may have the best technical gear available and have it matched up perfectly to the conditions you’re facing, you will still want to plan for a worst-case scenario. Having this contingency plan in place could be the difference between living to tell a survival story or dying.
  • Resourcefulness: Knowing how and when to use specific types of clothing, or how to increase the functionality of that clothing, will also play a big role in keeping you out of hypothermic conditions.

A good basic knowledge of the area you’re traveling in as well as a knowledge of the different properties of materials found in nature will also serve you well in the event you must react to a situation you’re unprepared for. Knowledge is like insurance—the more of it you obtain, the better chance you have of avoiding complete disaster. In the end, success will be determined by the outcome of a given situation. Preparing yourself with tools and techniques to swing that outcome in your favor will pay off. With a heavy knowledge base and understanding of the conditions you’re facing, as well as ways to improve those conditions, you will be able to substantially increase the odds of making it back home alive.


  • The body radiates heat. The more of it that you can capture before it dissipates into the environment the better. The greatest heat loss is through your head. Cover your head to help retain body heat.
  • Dead space can create a barrier against cold if it has a heat source and an insulation source. For example, adding dead leaves in between two layers of clothing can create enough dead air pockets as well as add insulative materials to recapture quite a bit of your escaping body heat. Pine needles, crumpled up paper, or anything dry that creates space and has mass without adding additional weight can be used. Generally speaking, the smaller the item and the more surface area it has, the better. You will want to look for things that are lightweight and do not drain heat from contact. Rocks for instance, would not be a good idea. You want bulk without weight.
  • Surprisingly, snow has an excellent insulative capacity if used properly. Properly does not mean on your bare skin. However, it might include a tiny snow cave just a foot or two larger in circumference than your body.
  • Being wet will always cause you to lose core body temperature more rapidly than being dry, even in warm water.
  • Just like opening an oven, opening a door on a tent, going outside of a temporary shelter, or even simply removing layers of clothes, will result in temperatures being dramatically reduced and more energy expended to regain temperature.
  • When looking for insulation, you’ll want to look for materials that create bulk without weight or contain air within their structure. Anything fibrous or capable of expanding can be made into effective insulation. This can include twigs with broad leaves and needles on them.
  • Metal will not insulate well. It is not thermally efficient and heat can pass through it too easily. If you have to utilize a shelter that is made of metal, you will still need to figure out a way to add insulating materials to ensure stable temperatures.
  • There are creative ways to survive the cold if you plan ahead, and things may come in handy that you may never have thought could. For instance, did you know that cayenne pepper can be applied to your skin (underneath a sock, for instance), and the reaction between your skin and the capsaicin in the cayenne pepper will increase blood flow to that area, increasing heat output as well. The heat output, combined with the insulative properties of the sock, will allow you to maintain better temperature control.
  • Lying directly on the ground will suck the heat right out of your body. There are a few ways to minimize this heat loss, however. One is to heat rocks and put them under the surface that you’re lying on, and another is to insulate between your body and the surface of the ground properly.
  • Fire is extremely important. Don’t go outdoors without a way to create fire, even if it’s a small fire piston or a magnesium block and a knife. By being able to produce fire, there will be very few situations that you cannot get through. Don’t forget that you will need something as fuel, so be resourceful and look for items that are dry, and that do not waste precious fire-making supplies. The goal is to create a fire one time, the first time. Also figure in proper ventilation, as carbon monoxide poisoning can kill quickly as well.

On any trip where colder temperatures will exist, it’s important to bring food in excess of what you already plan on using. It’s harder to catch animals in snow and ice and it exposes you to the elements. You want that extra energy and calories being burned to sustain heat levels longer. Eat higher fat and higher protein items in the cold, as well as higher carbohydrates, but stay away from simple carbohydrates like sugars (if you have a choice).

However, there are many animals available even in the extreme cold, so if you can reasonably and safely set up passive traps and lures for them which will provide you a safe and easily obtainable food source, then do so. An example might be a hole in the ice with an ice fishing snare, or a beaver trap in a small beaver pond. The emphasis is on heat retention. Don’t stay out too long, and don’t exert too much energy. Don’t actively lower your body temperature to catch food. You can last many days without food, but maybe only a one night when you are exposed to the elements.

Think of yourself as a nuclear reactor. You generate energy, and the space around you can contain it. If you build a good, confined space around yourself, you can control and contain the energy that you are expelling, harness it for heat. It’s the same concept that igloos employ. Even though they are made from extremely cold snow, they create a block for the heat captured in the dead air between your body and their interior walls. While an igloo won’t be toasty warm, it will be a source of consistent temperatures and warmer than the outside (in most situations where the conditions exist to build one).

There are many items and tools on the market that may be important to have on hand to keep you safe in your outdoor adventures. Some of them will save your life:

  • An Icebox® igloo construction tool.

*Important note: If you do go with the snow cave/igloo method, try not to raise the interior temperature above about 42°F as this can cause structural damage. 42°F may seem extremely cold to some of you, but think of it this way—with a jacket and gloves, 42 degrees is simply cold. The outside temperature might be -20°F. It’s all relative.

  • Reflective emergency blankets, including those with hoods.
  • Gloves, not so much because you love your hands, but because having your hands to do things with will give you a chance to do some life-saving maneuvers like building a shelter and starting a fire, etc. Look for waterproof outer gloves and heavily insulated inner gloves.
  • A windproof and waterproof lighter with a protected fuel source, as well as some well protected fuel to help start wet wood, etc. (cotton balls covered in Vaseline in a plastic zip-lock bag, or some fire paste).
  • Gore-Tex or fully-sealed technical or plastic-based fabrics which can create a water barrier, combined with synthetic or natural wool layering pieces, can provide incredible protection inside or outside (preferably inside where it’s warmer and less windy).

If you are in your vehicle, you can still be hurt by exposure. As metal is not the best insulator and glass is also poorly built for the job, you will want to grab those old moving blankets or more preferably wool army surplus blankets from the trunk or from behind the truck seat (the ones you are buying and stowing away after you read this article). Put them between any open vents, exposed glass, and on the floor of your truck to make it more capable of retaining heat. Also avoid using the heater on the vehicle for several reasons, not the least of which is carbon monoxide poisoning. Use it only if you must, and watch for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. (However, if the tailpipe is covered with mud or snow, do not use the heater. The exhaust fumes will back up inside the vehicle.)

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a silent killer and there are rarely symptoms. However, if you become light headed, feel nauseous, or notice cherry red coloring on your facial features, you need to get air circulation immediately. Get out into open air quickly. This concern can arise any time there is an open flame as well, so try your best to provide adequate ventilation for your igloo if you’re cooking in it or have a fire in it.

For survival situations where you are exposed to water in the ocean awaiting rescue and you have a life vest or flotation device, try to conserve body heat in your core (internal organs/center mass) by curling up into the fetal position and keeping your head above water. The extra insulation provided by your extremities and the compactness of your shape will help to slow the loss of temperature around your vital organs (the body parts, which, when too cold, will cause you to die).

If you do not have a life vest or flotation device, then float on your back. If the ocean is rough, float in the “dead man” position, bobbing as though you were standing in the water loosely and with your arms hanging over the edge of a pool, and lift your head to keep breathing. Start praying.

The last comment is more than just a joke. It’s probably a low likelihood that you are bobbing somewhere in the South Pacific, accessing this article on your smartphone, so it’s time for a blunt commentary. There is a pretty heavy chance that if you are out in the ocean without some supplies or a raft or vest, that you could have done something more to plan for this worst case scenario. In the end it comes down to the outcome, which is directly proportionate to the level of planning and preparation.

The goal to surviving is to plan and implement with efficiency, and then look for the other variables that can ensure your successful outcome. Without that base of planning and preparing, the foundation is shaky, and the outcome uncertain. It’s time to tilt the scale in the direction of certainty, so you can survive extreme situations.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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