From building a fire to winterizing your vehicle, learn all about how to be prepared and survive the extreme cold.
In Surviving Extreme Weather (Amber Books, 2017), Gerrie McCall shows how you can survive the worst storms, floods, droughts, and cold spells. Notably, he dedicates a full chapter on surviving extreme cold weather conditions. The human body functions optimally within a narrow range of temperature. Frostbite can lead to gangrene and amputation and extreme cold can be fatal. To survive the cold you must maintain a safe body temperature, avoid cold injuries, find shelter, and prepare your home and vehicle.
Whether you are in a city or the wilderness, extreme cold can be deadly. It is important that you stay warm and avoid any actions that can cause a rapid loss of body heat.
Normal core temperature for the human body is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to remain healthy this core temperature must stay constant within a narrow margin. Variations in either direction can cause irreparable organ damage and death.
Core temperature refers to the temperature of vital internal organs, including the heart, lungs and brain. Since the limbs and extremities have less protective tissue than the torso, their temperature tends to vary to a greater extent. It is important to keep the hands and feet warm to guard against heat loss and injury.
Shivering is the body’s way of producing heat, yet prolonged shivering causes fatigue, which results in a drop in body temperature. To survive in a cold environment you must take care of your basic needs of food, water and shelter, as well as protect yourself from illness.
Wind accelerates heat loss and chills a person by carrying away body heat. Wind chill is a measurement of how wind and cold feel on exposed skin rather than a measure of the actual air temperature. Animals are also affected by wind chill, but plants and inanimate objects are not. Be aware that when wind is present, the temperature your body perceives is colder than what the thermometer reads.
There are many ways to lose body heat in cold environments. To avoid heat loss through evaporation, you must wear clothes that breathe. Insulating your body from cold surfaces helps guard against heat loss through conduction. You can prevent heat loss through radiation by wearing layers of clothing and protecting your skin. Limiting your exposure to wind reduces heat loss through convection.
It is important to keep warm, but without overheating yourself. Sweating cools the body by conducting heat away from the body. Sweat-damp clothing will not insulate you against the cold adequately. Wearing several layers of clothing is the key to warmth and survival. The outer layers of your clothing should provide ventilation while the inner layers provide insulation. Remember that several lightweight layers allow insulation space and will keep you warm more effectively.
For the innermost layer against your skin, use long underwear and a thermal undershirt. Wool or synthetic material that absorbs perspiration and draws it away from the skin works well as a substitute for a thermal undershirt. The second layer should be a loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirt that covers the wrists and neck. For the third layer, wear a light, fleecy jacket or woolen pullover. This third layer can readily be removed to prevent overheating. A hooded windproof or wind resistant jacket is necessary as the outermost garment to protect you from the wind. Features that allow you to vent the jacket in order to avoid overheating are a must. Mountain bibs may be worn over trousers or alone as an outer layer. However, while these bibs do protect your legs from rain, they may cause overheating. They are best worn in subzero environments over lighter weight winter leggings.
In order for you to be able to function in the cold it is essential that your hands remain warm. The layering principle applies to gloves as well. In the coldest situations the innermost layer should be silk glove liners, with woolen middle mittens and heavy, waterproof, insulated outer mittens. Two layers of gloves, with woolen finger gloves as the inner layer and insulated, waterproof mittens as the outer layer, will serve in situations that are not dangerously cold. In subzero temperatures, losing a glove can be deadly. Ensure that your outer mittens are attached to your jacket by a cord to alleviate the risk of dropping or misplacing them. An extra pair of socks can serve in an emergency as outer mittens, but only on a temporary basis. Socks are not designed to provide the level of protection for the hands that gloves are.
The best winter boots are calf-length and watertight. Purchase them in a size that will allow you to comfortably wear two pairs of socks underneath. If you do not own watertight boots, use snow gaiters to protect your feet from moisture. The layering of socks is important for warmth. The inner pair of socks can be thinner, but the outer layer of socks should be woolen and calf-length. It is important that your boots fit properly and are not too tight. Numbness in the feet can signal that the boots are too tight and are restricting circulation. Poor circulation makes you an ideal candidate for frostbite. Wiggle your toes every few minutes to ensure the circulation to your feet is not being cut off.
A significant amount of body heat is lost through the head. It is essential that your head and neck have adequate cover to maintain warmth. An insulated hat with earflaps works well in combination with a warm scarf. In subzero temperatures it is better to wear a balaclava that protects the neck, the sides of the face and the head. The hood from your outermost jacket should then be worn over the balaclava. When in danger of overheating, the quickest way to vent excessive heat is to remove your head protection and loosen your scarf or any garments around your neck.
Your clothing must be kept dry, clean and in good repair for it to properly insulate you from the cold. Before coming in from the cold, brush off any snow, slush or ice that has collected on your clothing. Repair any tears and wash any dirty clothing to maintain its maximum effectiveness in insulating you from the cold. The innermost layer of clothing will need frequent washing to remove the ingrained sweat and soil that can interfere with its ability to insulate.
Because warmth is a fundamental need if you are to survive extreme cold outdoors, building a fire is sometimes a necessity. Whether you are exposed to extreme cold in the outdoors by choice or accident, a small fire can both improve your morale and save your life.
Since winds that often accompany the cold can quench a fire, you must construct a protective barrier before you build and light a fire. A pit fire works best in calmer conditions, but an enclosed fire may be necessary in windier conditions.
A pit fire is built in a bowl-shaped depression. It is most effective to dig to a depth of about 1 foot. This protects the fire from currents and breezes that can cause the fuel to burn too quickly.
An enclosed fire begins with the construction of a rock break about 2 feet high. Not only will the rocks trap the fire’s heat, but they will also prevent the wind from scattering the embers.
Basic Fire Building
To build a fire, lay a base of green sticks side by side. Construct a pyramid of sticks by balancing four sticks against each other, selecting sticks that are larger than your finger in circumference. Their top ends should meet in a point. Continue to build up the pyramid of sticks, making sure it is sturdy and that you’ve left enough space at the bottom to insert the tinder that will get the fire going. Moss, bark, dead leaves, dry grass and small pieces of paper can serve as tinder. Place your tinder in the base of the pyramid and light it. You may add more leaves and twigs to encourage the flames. As the fire catches and grows, the pyramid will collapse inwards, feeding the heart of the fire and eventually producing a bed of hot embers.
Water is your most urgent need in all climates. When surrounded by ice and snow, it is easy to forget that you may easily become dehydrated. Fortunately it is less of a challenge to acquire drinking water when surrounded by snow than in other environments.
No matter how thirsty you are do not eat snow, as eating snow lowers the body’s temperature. By the same token, do not attempt to melt ice or snow in your mouth. Doing so can also lower your body temperature. Snow and freshwater ice can easily be melted for drinking water. Ice takes less time to melt than snow and yields more water than an equivalent amount of snow.
Place ice or snow in a container, such as a can or water bag, near the fire. Once that melts, slowly add more ice or snow and continue the melting process.
Inuit Snow Melter
An ingenious method for melting snow borrowed from the Inuit involves building a snow melter. Select two rocks, one smaller than the other, to provide the base. Build a small fire between the rocks and place a slab of flat stone on the rock base. The slab of stone should rest at an angle to allow melted snow to run off. A v-shaped arrangement of small rocks will hold the snow in place and direct the water down the slab of stone towards a can or bucket. As the fire below heats the stone, the snow melts and runs off into the receptacle you’ve placed at the lower end of the stone slab.
If a fire is not available, a slower method for melting snow involves putting the ice or snow in a bag and placing the bag between layers of your clothing.
Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body temperature drops to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit and body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced. If body temperature drops to below 77 degrees Fahrenheit, it is almost always lethal. This condition is possible even when temperatures are above freezing. For those who survive hypothermia, the legacy is often lasting physical ailments, including kidney, liver and pancreas problems. Symptoms of hypothermia are uncontrollable shivering, incoherence, memory loss, reduced coordination, disorientation, slurred speech, drowsiness and exhaustion.
Seek medical attention for hypothermia victims immediately. In the meantime, get the victim to a warm place. The victim must be warmed up again to restore the body’s core temperature to normal. Remove the victim’s clothing if it is wet. Cold, wet clothing accelerates heat loss. It is best to rewarm the hypothermia victim’s torso first. Use warm water between the temperatures of 100 degrees and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Attempting to rewarm the entire body at once in warm water is dangerous without a doctor’s supervision. Improperly rewarming the body can drive cold blood from the hands and feet towards the heart, increasing the likelihood of shock and heart failure. If the person has not lost consciousness, have him sip hot, sweetened fluids. Do not force an unconscious person to drink.
Frostbite is a result of body tissues freezing. A wind chill of -20 degrees Fahrenheit can cause frostbite to exposed skin in 30 minutes. The feet, hands, earlobes and exposed face are especially prone to frostbite. Superficial frostbite extends only to the skin. Deep frostbite extends to tissue beneath the skin, rendering those tissues stiff and solid. Advanced frostbite can lead to gangrene and the necessity to amputate the affected part.
Loss of feeling in the feet or hands is the first symptom of frostbite. Superficial frostbite appears as grey or yellowish patches on the skin. Deep frostbite appears as pale, waxy skin that feels cold and solid. When rewarmed, areas affected by deep frostbite may turn blue or purple and blister.
Seek medical attention immediately in cases of severe frostbite. Try to get the frostbite victim to a warm place as soon as possible. If symptoms indicate the frostbite is superficial, rewarm the affected area using water no hotter than 106 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 40 minutes. Skin-to-skin contact, such as holding a frostbitten hand between two warm hands or placing a frostbitten hand on a warm thigh also provides a safe method of slowly rewarming. Do not try to thaw severe frostbite. The injury can refreeze, causing more damage than the original frostbite injury.
In Case of Frostbite:
• Do not rub the affected area with snow or ice.
• Do not break any blisters that may have formed.
• Do not apply direct heat, such as fire or hot stones, to warm the affected area.
• Do not give the victim alcohol to drink. This will lower their body temperature.
• Do not rub the frostbitten area with your hands. This could result in tissue damage.
Prolonged exposure to dampness can result in immersion foot. This condition is possible even in temperatures above freezing. Symptoms include cold, swollen, numb feet with a waxy appearance. Gangrene can develop if it is not treated, and in advanced cases the flesh dies and amputation is required.
Keeping the feet dry is the best prevention. Change into clean, dry socks daily. To treat symptoms, dry the feet and wiggle the toes to stimulate circulation. Elevate the legs to relieve pain and swelling, and allow them to warm naturally.
Dehydration and Sunburn
These health hazards are particularly insidious because they are not typically anticipated in a cold environment. Body fluid lost through perspiration and absorbed into the heavy clothing must be replaced — your body requires water in the cold just as much as it does in a hot environment. Check the color of your urine in the snow if you suspect you are becoming dehydrated. Dark yellow urine indicates you are dehydrating and need to replace lost fluids. Light yellow urine indicates that your body fluids are normally balanced.
Even though the temperature is below freezing, your skin is still susceptible to sunburn. White snow is a highly effective reflector of the sun’s rays. Apply sun block to protect exposed skin from sun damage, and wear sunglasses or goggles to protect your eyes.
Should the need arise to walk across a frozen body of water, proceed with extreme caution. Ice that is less than 3 inches thick should be avoided. When walking across ice, always carry a long walking stick or a pair of ice awls, which are two pieces of wood with steel tips that can be stored in a jacket pocket. Both can help you free yourself if the ice breaks and you plunge into freezing water.
If you begin to feel the ice bending beneath you, get down on your stomach. This distributes your weight more evenly. Once on your stomach, wriggle your way back to shore.
If the ice breaks and you find yourself submerged, try not to swallow any water. It will only serve to lower your core temperature. Swim back up to the hole you fell through and lay your walking stick flat across the ice to give yourself a solid object with which you can pull yourself out. If you have ice awls, you can use them to extricate yourself. Simply kick your legs to level off your body in the water as you dig into the surface ice with the ice awls. Once you have a good purchase on the ice with the ice awls, use them to pull yourself out of the water, then roll towards more solid ice.
To rescue someone you have witnessed falling through the ice, toss them a rope or extend a strong branch they can grab. Do not venture too close to the hole or jump in after them. If several people are available to assist, form a human chain by lying on your stomachs and holding hands to pull the person from the area of weakened ice. By lying down like this, everyone’s weight will be more evenly distributed over the ice. It is also convenient in case the ice breaks beneath the rescuer closest to the original victim and you are suddenly faced with two people to fish out of the icy water.
Rolling in snow immediately after being plunged into icy water does absorb some of the excess moisture, but it is not a complete solution. It is essential that you immediately remove all wet clothing and warm up to guard against hypothermia. If you do not warm up, it will take approximately 20 minutes for your body to succumb to the cold and die. Rest for several hours. It will take that long for your body to recover.
As if freezing temperatures alone weren’t perilous enough, winter can also bring storms that create flooding which threatens lives and property. Be certain you are familiar with the terms forecasters use to apprise the public of dangerous winter conditions.
• Winter Weather Advisory: winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous, especially to motorists.
• Frost/Freeze Warning: below-freezing temperatures are expected and may cause damage to plants, crops or fruit trees.
• Winter Storm Watch: be alert, a storm is likely.
• Winter Storm Warning: take action, the storm is in or entering the area
• Flash Flood Watch or Flood Watch: be alert to signs of flash flooding and be ready to evacuate at short notice.
• Flash Flood Warning: a flash flood is imminent; act quickly to save yourself.
• Flood Warning: flooding has been reported or is imminent; take necessary precautions at once.
In 1992, Sir Ranulph Fiennes set out to cross the Antarctic with Dr Mike Stroud. Fiennes describes the excruciating pain associated with frostbite and how he dealt with it physically and psychologically.
‘In the night I woke to stabbing pains from one frostbitten toe. Mike was asleep so I tried to emulate his scalpel incisions with my penknife. That seemed the best way of relieving the pressure. A good deal of pus and tea-like liquid escaped but the pains continued, so I swallowed two painkillers and eventually slept. I woke a few minutes later, or so it seemed, with a head full of rats. Mike checked the infected foot after porridge and squeezed it successfully.
“This is only local pus,” he assured me.
‘I cut out square-inch patches from my bed mat and plastered them all around the wound. This certainly helped the first few hours of travel by about three on a pain-scale of ten.
‘My problem was the ongoing tunnel of pain, which made me irritable. If only it would go away at least some of the time. I found the sharp feel of it trying to wear me down.
‘I realized how lucky I had been for fifty years of experiencing comparatively little pain. Broken bones and teeth, torn-off digits, frostbite and chronic kidney stones had seemed unpleasant at the time. But now I knew real pain and I feared lest it overwhelm me, to my everlasting shame.
‘I tried to think up ways of attacking it mentally on the basis that, whenever there were lethal crevasses about or when navigational worries were preoccupying my brain, the constant pain receded. The pain behaved like a circular railway track with a steam engine chugging relentlessly around it … when it went through the tunnels it was still there but less noticeable. So I tried to invent tunnels, by day and by night, to program my mind with vivid thoughts of past happenings. When this failed, especially after I slipped or caught my boot and triggered raw shrieks from one or the other foot, I tried to imagine the pain as a living thing. Sometimes as a red-hot poker or an electric drill. At those times I would try to imagine I was part of the poker or the drill and I was working to stoke a fire or drill a gatepost. This would lead me to think of a myriad other ‘jobs’ that my pain could attack. I never won the fight with these tactics, but neither did I lose it.’
Extreme cold can be as difficult on a vehicle as it is on the human body. The key to protecting your vehicle from the cold lies in a few simple precautions. By winterizing your vehicle, you reduce the chances that the engine will stall, possibly leaving you stranded far away from assistance. These are a few simple steps you can take and supplies you can store in your vehicle before you venture out on a drive in subfreezing temperatures.
Check the Tires
• Check the tire pressure. Colder temperatures actually lower pressure. Correct pressure is essential for proper traction. Add more air if your pressure falls below what is recommended by your owner’s manual.
• Ensure that your tires have good tread. Bald tires will not allow proper breaking, especially on icy roads.
• If you regularly drive through snow, especially in hilly areas, purchasing a set of snow tires is a good idea. Snow tires are designed to improve traction on snowy roads and perform better under winter conditions than all-season tires.
Check the Battery
• Be sure that battery terminals and cables are free of corrosion and firmly secured.
• Ask your mechanic to test the battery if it is more than three years old. Extreme cold can reduce a battery’s power by up to 50 percent.
• Distilled water should be added if the level does not cover the lead plates in your vehicle’s battery.
Check the Antifreeze
• In normal circumstances the proper mixture of water and antifreeze is 50 percent water and 50 percent antifreeze. This protects your radiator to temperatures reaching -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
• If you are in an area where temperatures are regularly lower than -20 degrees Fahrenheit, you will need to drain a small amount of the 50/50 mix from the radiator and replace the amount drained with straight antifreeze. If you do alter the mix of water and antifreeze in this way, remember that too much antifreeze can cause cooling problems in hot weather. Plan to drain the radiator and replace the antifreeze with a 50/50 mix when spring arrives.
• Auto parts suppliers carry inexpensive antifreeze testers that allow you to test the composition of your water and antifreeze mixture. If the ratio of the mixture is incorrect for the weather conditions, you can correct it by simply adding either antifreeze or water as needed.
Check the Oil
• Make sure you change your oil at regular intervals. Dirty oil does not lubricate the engine as efficiently as clean oil does.
• Check your owner’s manual to determine which type of oil your vehicle requires in freezing weather. A thinner oil of a lower viscosity is appropriate for colder temperatures because it circulates better.
Check the Windshield Wipers and Fluid
• If your wiper blades are more than six months old, replace them. Visibility is key for safe driving in winter conditions and old wiper blades will not clear the windshield effectively.
• Use a wiper fluid that will not freeze. Make sure the reservoir is replenished at regular intervals. Travel on slushy streets and gritty or salted roads will mean that you will need to use your wipers to clean your windshield frequently.
• Before starting your car and turning on your wipers, ensure that they have not frozen to the windshield while sitting in the cold. If you turn them on when they are frozen to the windshield, you could damage the wiper blade, the wiper fuse or the wiper motor.
Check the Belts and Hoses
• Ask a mechanic to check the condition of your belts and hoses before winter begins and replace any that are worn. Extremely cold temperatures are hard on them.
Check the Four-Wheel-Drive System
• Before winter, make sure the four-wheel-drive system engages and disengages smoothly, and that the drivetrain is not noisy when the system is in use.
• Check the transmission and gear oil levels and add more of these fluids if levels are low.
• Be sure that all drivers of the vehicle know how to use the four-wheel-drive system properly.
• Check your owner’s manual to find out at what speeds and in what conditions the four-wheel-drive can be activated.
Protect Your Paint
• Start winter with a coat of wax. The ice, snow, salt and grit of winter can damage your vehicle’s finish.
• Wash your vehicle often during winter, remembering to clean the wheel wells and under the body of the vehicle where slush, salt and grit are splashed.
Carry an Emergency Kit
• First aid kit and manual
• An ice scraper and snow brush
• Snow shovel
• Extra washer fluid
• Tool kit
• Jumper cables
• Distress flag
• Duct tape or electrical tape
• Toilet paper
• Tow chain
• A bag of abrasive material which will allow you to gain traction when a tire is stuck. Sand, snow-melt, salt, or non-clumping cat litter work well.
• An extra change of warm clothing
• Water and non-perishable food
• Change for a pay phone or a calling card
The leading cause of fatalities during the winter season is transportation accidents. Once you prepare your vehicle for surviving the cold, there are guidelines to follow to ensure your safety while driving.
• Always wear your seat belt.
• Slow down and triple the distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you.
• Change lanes and proceed through intersections with great caution.
• Drive with your headlights on. This makes it easier for other vehicles to see you.
• Keep windows, mirrors and lights free of ice or snow.
• If your vehicle has anti-lock brakes, press the brake pedal and hold it there. Do not pump the brakes.
• If you do not have anti-lock brakes and your brakes lock, remove your foot from the brake pedal for a moment.
• If you begin to skid on a slick surface, steer into the skid. For example, if the back end of your vehicle begins skidding to the right, turn the steering wheel to the right.
• Accelerate gently to avoid spinning the tires.
• If you must drive during a winter weather advisory or winter storm watch, travel during daylight, do not travel alone, stay on the main roads and be sure someone knows what route you are taking.
• When at all possible, avoid driving during a winter storm warning.
• Keep your fuel tank full. This will prevent ice from forming in the fuel tank or fuel lines.
• Monitor your radio for the most recent reports on road conditions.
Stranded in a Vehicle
You may easily become trapped far from help if your vehicle stalls or becomes stuck in an extremely cold environment. Should this happen in a remote area, it is important that you stay warm and make your vehicle visible to rescuers.
• Turn on warning lights.
• Remain in the vehicle to stay warm.
• Run the motor and heater for approximately ten minutes each hour to stay warm. Do not run it continuously as this will waste valuable fuel.
• Turn on the vehicle’s interior light at night while running the engine to increase your visibility to rescuers.
• Hang a distress flag or brightly colored cloth from your radio antenna or door.
• Check that the exhaust pipe is not blocked. Dangerous fumes can back up into your vehicle if it is blocked.
• Open a window a little bit to allow in fresh air and prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. If possible, open the window on the side of the vehicle away from blowing wind.
• Keep your blood circulating by periodically moving your arms, legs, fingers and toes vigorously. This will help keep you warm. Do not overexert yourself.
• Try not to stay in one position for too long.
• Huddle up with other passengers.
• Wrap yourself in a blanket. If you have not included a blanket in your vehicle’s emergency kit, you can improvise by covering up with road maps, newspapers, extra clothing, seat covers or floor mats. Anything that will provide extra insulation is helpful.
• If it is not storming and you recall seeing a building where you could obtain assistance or shelter, bundle up and walk along the road to get there. Following the road allows passing motorists or rescuers to spot you. It is easy to become disoriented while walking across open country.
In order to keep warm and reduce heating costs, it is important to prepare your home from the cold before winter arrives. Methods for protecting your home from the cold are discussed earlier. The following list offers additional steps you can take to prevent damage from freezing and minimize heat loss from the home. These measures are particularly helpful in areas where cold snaps, rather than sustained periods of freezing weather, occur.
• Install outside faucet covers. This will protect your outside spigots from freezing.
• Wrap exposed pipes outdoors with newspapers and plastic.
• Drape shrubbery and other plants with a layer of cloth, then a layer of plastic on top of that to prevent them from freezing.
• Close the shades or drapes at night. This will cut down on unwanted air currents.
• Close off all unused rooms. It is more energy efficient to heat only those rooms that are in use.
• The draught-blocking rubber strip across the bottom of your doors should be replaced if it looks damaged or worn.
• Keep space heaters at least 3 feet from any flammable objects.
• If using kerosene heaters, refuel them outside and maintain ventilation while in use to prevent the build-up of toxic fumes.
Remember that, like humans, pets and livestock are susceptible to some cold injuries. Animals can suffer and die if left out in the cold. Ensure that all of your animals have warm shelter and ample food and water.
When exposed to extreme cold, use the buddy system to keep an eye on each other for signs of frostbite or hypothermia. Dress properly using layers to insulate and stay as dry as conditions allow. Even if you are in a shelter, you may want to wrap yourself in a thermal or foil emergency blanket, covering your neck and heat to protect against heat loss.
While some amount of movement promotes circulation and can help you to keep warm, bear in mind that exercise also burns calories and increases your need for water. The strain from vigorous activity in the cold, such as pushing a stuck vehicle, can result in a heart attack. Take care not to overexert yourself.
When stranded, extreme cold and the effects of dehydration can make you feel lethargic. Apathy is deadly in freezing temperatures. It is important to remain clear thinking and remind yourself that the situation you are in is not a permanent one. You must not succumb to indifference. Engaging in mild exercise or even having a conversation with a companion can dispel apathy. When faced with subzero weather, you must draw on your reserves of self-sufficiency. Monitor your physical and psychological condition constantly and, above all, remain calm and alert.