Cold is one of the more insidious killers.
That’s not because it kills violently. Rather, it causes a slow death in a way that sneaks up on its victims. Mental confusion, even amnesia, results from extreme cold exposure.
Cold weather can affect your body in several ways.
It’s important to know how cold affects your body so you know how to stay warm and healthy even when you’re trapped in temperatures below freezing.
How Cold Kills
There are three ways extreme cold weather is dangerous. Two are obvious, and one is less obvious but no less deadly.
These are frostbite, hypothermia, and hypoglycemia.
Each one is a bit different, so let’s look at them in detail.
Frostbite is when the water within your cells freeze. Because water expands when it freezes, these ice crystals burst the cell walls and can cause irreparable damage.
The damage to your flesh from frostbite is divided into four degrees.
The first degree is surface-level skin damage that’s not permanent, though you may lose some of your skin.
The second degree starts with blisters and can cause permanent cold sensitivity and partial numbness in the affected area.
The third degree involves flesh under your skin freezing. This can cause long-term pain and ulcers.
Fourth-degree frostbite involves the bone, muscles, and tendons freezing. The skin can turn black and fall off a month after exposure!
You’ll be frost-nipped before you become frostbitten. This is when your skin becomes numb from the cold and starts to turn white. Take immediate action to cover and warm up this skin before the ice crystals form.
Hypothermia is the biggest danger to your life when you’re trying to survive extreme cold.
This is when your body’s internal temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hypothermia is split into minor, moderate, and severe hypothermia.
Minor hypothermia is when your body starts taking actions to raise your body temperature at all costs. Not everyone has the same symptoms, but generally you’ll experience shivering, a fast heart rate, faster breathing, goosebumps, and maybe increased need to urinate or even some mental confusion.
Moderate hypothermia involves greater confusion. Your speech may start to slur, and you’ll lose your reflexes and fine motor control. Forgetfulness is another sign, as is the cessation of shivering.
Severe hypothermia is when your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure all fall. Your heart rate can go crazy high too. Disorientation or hypothalamus malfunction can cause people with severe hypothermia to take off their clothes.
Another surprising killer is low blood sugar connected with the hypothermia.
Your body will burn through energy stores while trying to raise your core body temperature. If you’re in the cold long enough, the cold and stress will deplete your stored calories enough to cause a dangerous drop in your blood pressure levels.
Hypoglycemia can make hypothermia worse by making you more confused so you make worse decisions.
How to Stay Warm
All of the ways cold kills can be circumvented by staying warm.
So, how do you do this effectively?
Stay Fueled and Hydrated
The first step is to give your body what it needs to efficiently keep your body temperature up in the first place.
Be sure to stay on top of hydrating yourself because it can be difficult to realize you’re dehydrated when it’s cold.
Also, this is the time to consume plenty of calories, especially carbohydrates. Carbs are easy for your body to use as energy, so it’s wise to snack frequently when you’re dealing with the cold.
Watch for Water and Wind
Cold air drains heat from exposed skin, but if the air is dry and still then this happens at a slow rate.
Wind speeds up this process. This is called wind chill. It happens because when you’re exposed to cold air, you warm up the air right next to your skin. Wind blows this warmed air away and replaces it with cold air.
Wind alone can take a temperature that’s not cold enough for frostbite and cause the rate of heat loss to increase enough to put you in danger of frostbite!
If you’re traveling in extreme cold, avoid wind as much as possible. It can be worthwhile to take a longer route to take advantage of hills, trees, and other natural features that protect you from the wind.
Water is much worse.
According to the National Weather Service, cold water can drain heat from your body up to 25 times faster than cold air!
Even nonfreezing water can cause hypothermia because of this.
It’s better to be naked and dry in the cold than it is to be clothed and wet! However, without replacement clothes or a means to dry your existing clothes, this amount of “better” is not enough to keep you safe.
Do whatever you can to stay as dry as possible when the temperature is at the bottom of the thermometer.
Keep Your Heart Rate Up (But Not Too High!)
When your heart beats, it flows blood from your warm core to the cold extremities. The faster your heart beats, the better resistance you’ll have to the cold.
If you’re stuck outdoors in the extreme cold, then you want to keep your heart rate up.
Jumping jacks and running in place are both good methods for raising your heart rate, but any method of staying active should suffice.
However, you don’t want to overheat yourself in the cold.
Because of sweat.
Remember how water causes extreme heat loss?
Sweating not only dehydrates you but also covers your skin in a layer of water perfect for cooling you off.
You want to keep your heart rate up, but not high enough that you start sweating.
Wear Appropriate Clothing
Your clothing choices have a huge impact on how well you will be able to survive an emergency situation in the extreme cold.
First of all, take your cotton socks and leave them at home. Your favorite T-shirt? Not a good idea.
In fact, don’t wear anything cotton when it’s extremely cold outside!
There’s a phrase commonly thrown around in Alaska:
Why is this?
Cotton is extremely absorbent. It can hold 27 times its weight in water. This means that if you sweat even a little bit, your cotton socks will hold that water against your vulnerable skin.
What’s even worse is that cotton loses its insulative and cushioning properties once it is wet.
So, not only is that cotton T-shirt holding water against your skin, it’s no longer providing any insulation either!
Wool and most synthetic fabrics (especially nylon and polyester) are all superior to cotton for cold-weather properties. Wool socks, for example, will wick the sweat away from your foot so the moisture isn’t against your skin and does not lose its insulative properties when wet. Polyester fibers do not retain water and but trap insulating air.
Though natural and artificial silk is better than cotton, it’s still not as good a choice as wool or most synthetics. Also avoid rayon for the same reason.
Yes, this means that you shouldn’t wear jeans in the extreme cold!
Wear Loose Layers
Proper cold-weather gear is not a heavy coat over a thin base layer.
If you’re going to be active outside for a long period of time, then you want a large number of layers, loosely worn over each other.
This serves two functions.
The first is that loose layers provide an air gap between the layers that functions as a layer of insulation.
The second function is that this allows you to remove a layer if you start to get too warm. Remember, you don’t want to sweat when it’s cold out!
Wear Clean Clothes
This is simple.
Clean clothes insulate better. Dirt, grime, and sweat all make your clothes worse at insulating you. Keep spare socks, underwear, base layers, and mid layers so you can put on clean clothes if what you’re wearing becomes soiled.
Cover as Much Skin as Possible
It’s often banded about that half of the heat you lose when it’s cold is lost through your head. This is true, but not in the way many people claim it is.
You lose body heat through any uncovered skin. If you wear a hat and face mask but nothing covering your booty, then half of your heat loss would be from your bum!
When it’s extremely cold, it’s wise to have noncotton layers for any part of your body you may expose — especially your face, because people tend to ignore covering their faces.
Choose a face mask that’s not made of cotton and that doesn’t cover your nose and mouth. A little bit extra insulation from covering your nose and mouth turns against you when the moisture in your breath accumulates on the inside of your face mask.
Be sure to cover your ears as well because they are especially susceptible to frostbite.
Shelter Is Important
If you’re stuck in the cold and are lost or otherwise unable to get to safety, then you should find shelter.
Shelter can take many forms. It could be your car, a cave, a hollowed-out log, or even a hole dug into the snow.
Your shelter should be out of the wind, dry, and with minimal air space. Your body heat will warm up the surrounding air. The more air around you, the less effective this will be.
If you’re staying in your car, then close all the windows and leave the vehicle as little as possible. If the engine still runs, then you can use it to produce heat. However, make sure that snow doesn’t block the exhaust system! You don’t want carbon monoxide to build up in the car and poison you.
Space blankets, made from mylar, are excellent for creating an impromptu bivouac. They reflect heat back at you and can be used as a signaling device. They fold up small enough that you should have always space blanket with you.
Natural features such as caves and logs can provide a measure of protection from the elements. However, if you can’t find any, then dig a hole in the snow.
Fluffy snow is a surprisingly good insulator. If you make a tight snow burrow and have a good enough outer layer to keep moisture away, you’ll stay warmer than if you were exposed to the freezing air.
Light a Fire
If you can make a fire then do so.
Smaller fires are more fuel-efficient than larger ones. Stay close to the flame, but not close enough to catch on fire. Evergreen branches are a good fuel source in winter, though watch out for boiling sap that can cause sparks and pops.
Also, if you are using snow for insulation, be sure not to melt it with the fire. Remember, avoid getting wet as much as possible!
Cold Weather Remedies to Avoid
There are some tricks for surviving cold weather that seem like they’ll help but will actually make things worse!
The big one is alcohol. When you drink alcohol, you feel warmer.
So, it makes sense to warm up in winter with some brandy, right?
The problem is that you feel warmer because alcohol causes your blood to flush your skin. This moves heat from your core to your extremities and causes you to lose heat faster!
Save your hot toddies for when you get back to the cabin.
Rubbing Snow to Prevent Frostbite
A folk remedy for frostbite is to rub snow on the affected skin. This is a bad idea and will make the frostbite worse.
Instead, warm the affected area with warm (but not hot!) water.
Also, avoid rubbing frostbitten skin at all.
Dehydration is one of the dangers of the cold. Snow is water, and if it’s white, generally pathogen-free.
However, eating snow straight will cause your core body temperature to drop, robbing your energy reserves.
It’s also generally a bad idea to melt snow under your clothes for the same reason. The exception is if you’re going to be performing enough physical activity to work up a sweat. Only then is it safe to cool down a bit with snow under your coat.
If you have to melt snow in order to drink it, then the safest method is to put snow in a clear or black container and leave it in the sun. You can also pack small amounts of snow in liquid drinking water to supplement your existing supplies.
Snow melts better in water. If you have a pot and a fire, pour a little water into the pot before you add the snow, and only add a little bit of snow at a time.
Cold weather can be dangerous, and the smartest ways to keep warm are not always the most obvious methods.
The best way to stay alive during extremely cold weather is to focus on keeping your wits about you. Poor decisions are what cause people to die in the cold. Be educated, catch yourself before confusion sets in, and you’ll be able to survive getting caught in a snowstorm.