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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:

*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.

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.


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:

*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.

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