How to survive cold weather
Winter has started in some areas of the southern hemisphere and it’s starting to get cooler in others. Be able to survive cold weather is important for your health whether it is in a home in the city, a cabin in the bush, your stuck in your vehicle or out hiking or camping in nature. Knowing how to stay warm will make you feel more comfortable and reduce your risk of dying from hypothermia.
Whether you are outdoors in winter or caught in a storm out hiking the human body is not designed to handle the cold for long. Get too cold and it can be fatal. Having the knowledge behind you can help be prepared and survive when you find yourself stuck in the cold. Having said that you can get hypothermia in tropical areas or in air-conditioned buildings. I’ve been out in tropical storms with the wind blowing and started to get hypothermia. Medical conditions and age can affect your temperature regulation making it easier to get hypothermia.
To improve your chances of survival in cold weather you need to –
- Be prepared
- Trap the heat
- Stay dry
- Seek shelter
- Keep your environment warm
- Choose the right location to set up your shelter.
The human body works on the principle of losing heat, even in extreme heat we sweat in order to lose heat. To balance the fact that we are losing heat our body works on converting food to energy and generating heat by shivering. But once we run out of energy or our body can’t keep us warm enough, we then become hypothermic. The human body normal core range of temperature is 36.5 to 37.5 degrees Celsius. Once your body temperature falls below 35 degrees Celsius you have hypothermia. Once the bodies core temperature falls below 28 degrees it can be fatal if medical assistance is not immediately applied.
What are the symptoms of hypothermia?
The symptoms of Hypothermia start with mild symptoms such as shivering, and feeling cold. In order to protect the bodies vital organs, blood is moved back to the body core and non-vital systems start to shut down.
As Hypothermia sets in we
- can become lethargic,
- have slurred speech,
- become slow moving,
- have a slow pulse,
- develop pale skin and
- have numb fingers and toes.
As the condition gets worse the shivering will stop as the body runs out of energy. Eventually becoming unconscious leading onto death.
How does the body lose heat?
Radiation, heat is radiated out into the cooler environment. Most common areas that radiate heat are the head, torso, groin and then the arms and legs. Our extremities are not big a losing heat in the cold as the blood vessels constrict pulling the warm blood back to protect the vital organs in the torso and head. This is why we get cold pale hands and feet in any cold weather, leading to frost bite in severe environments.
Evaporation, moisture on the skin is evaporated when the humidity is lower. The moisture can be from sweat, wet clothing, or being caught in the rain. In low humidity the moisture evaporates, in high humidity the sweat beads and runs down our bodies taking some body heat with it. In really cold conditions the moisture doesn’t evaporate but can freeze cooling the body rapidly.
Conduction, coming into physical contact with a colder object such as camping on cold ground or sleeping in the back of a steel tray vehicle. You need to have a good insulator between yourself and other cold surfaces to prevent your body heat being drawn into the cold surface.
Convection, wind or water flows over our bodies removing the surface heat. For example, wind chill effect, it may be cold in your cabin but step outside into the wind and it’s freezing. The body loses heat faster when immersed in water as compared to air at the same temperature as the cold water is in total contact with the skin, with wind there are still pockets of warm air on your body. The faster the wind the greater the wind chill so try to stay out of the wind including wind being on a moving vehicle or vessel such as a boat.
Respiration, you breath in cool air which is warmed by your body and then you breath out warm moist air. This process slowly makes your body lose heat. Most of the heat lose, around 90 percent is through the skin and the rest is from exhaled air.
How do we keep ourselves warm?
If going bush walking take warm clothing, emergency blanket in your first aid kit, fire lighting equipment, food, water and tell someone where you are going and when you are due back.
Check your local weather forecasts to know what weather changes are expected.
When the weather forecast is for cold weather, ensure the wood pile or fuel for heaters are stocked up and readily available without spending unnecessary time outdoors. And to prevent you running out of fuel at the wrong time.
Have warm drinks (not alcohol) and food available.
Keep your shelter in good condition. Seal up any air gaps, ensure the roof doesn’t leak in the rain.
If you are in an area where the pipes freeze, have enough water inside for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene.
Have means to warm yourself up if you start to get hypothermic. Such as hot water bottles, warm shower, warm drinks.
Don’t forget your pets and animals outside who will need some extra preparation too. Running around outside because your forgot to get the dogs, cools you and your home down every time you open the door.
Brush up on your first aid so you can identify and treat cold related injuries when you see them.
Have your emergency kit ready for the colder weather.
Trap the heat
Rug up with warm dry protective clothing ensuring to cover your head, hands and feet where the blood vessels are closer to the skin radiating your precious heat.
Cover your nose and mouth to reduce heat loss.
Breath the warm air into your jacket or sleeping bag pulled over your head.
Block any air leaks in your shelter. Your body will naturally warm the room around you and any air leaks will drop the air temperature.
Have a physical break between yourself and the cold surface.
If outdoors don’t sleep on bare ground, build a bed of dry leaves, branches, animal skins and so on.
If you find yourself stuck outdoors with only light clothing pack dry leaves, grass, feathers, newspaper and the like inside your clothes for insulation.
Don’t drink cold liquids or eat snow as this chills your body from the inside.
In colder climates insure your home has insulated walls, roof and floor. If you don’t have double glazing have think curtains to minimise heat loss.
As well as warm clothing you need to keep it dry so wear some water proof clothing like a rain coat and gum boots.
If you do get wet, get out of the wet clothes as soon as possible. Ensuring your skin is dry and out of the wind and rain.
If you get stuck in a storm in the bush take shelter until it’s over. Trying to get home in pouring rain isn’t going to be successful if you get hypothermia on route.
Moderate your body temperature. Putting on too many clothes can cause you to sweat making the clothing wet over time which can then be problems outdoors.
Keep your environment warm
Who doesn’t love a fire in cold conditions? Doesn’t matter if you are at home, in a log cabin, or cave you need a fire in freezing weather. Just keep in mind your safety with regards to carbon monoxide poisoning or starting a bigger fire you can’t control such as setting your shelter on fire. Destroying your shelter won’t help in an emergency.
Limit the number of times you open doors or windows letting the warm air out. Block any air leaks around windows, doors, vents or other holes in building.
If you only have a small heater block off larger areas of the house and heat a smaller area more efficiently.
Share the warmth, if there are multiple people or you have a dog or cat cuddle up together. With less body surface area exposed to the cold you are more likely to stay warm longer.
Moderate your heating. You need your environment to be warm enough to stave off hypothermia, it doesn’t have to be a balmy 30 degrees C. This will also make your fuel/wood resources last longer.
Choosing the best location?
If outdoors camping or hiking choose the best location to stay out of the cold.
- Cold air falls so stay out of low areas or hollows where the cold air pools and frosts can occur.
- Stay off the top of hills where the wind is greater, causing increased risk of wind chill.
- Choose a location on the non-windy side of the object, so you are out of the wind.
- This also applies to finding a location to build your home or cabin.
Whenever you find yourself in freezing conditions, wet weather or outdoors in high winds with little or no protection remember to get shelter, keep yourself warm and isolate yourself from cold surfaces, remove wet clothing to prevent your body temperature getting too low which can be deadly.
Preparing for the cold, having your shelter in good condition, having a good supply of fuel, food, water will limit your need to go out into the cold. And when you do go outside rug up to protect yourself from the wind and rain.
To get your free emergency kit checklist click here.