Conventional wisdom dictates that you have shelter within three hours of becoming lost or stranded in the wilderness. However, in extreme cold conditions if you are not properly clothed you will need shelter and fire almost immediately to prevent hypothermia. Hypothermia is a medical condition diagnosed when your body loses heat faster that it can produce heat. Once your core body temperature drops from an average of 98.6ᵒF/37ᵒC to 95ᵒF/35ᵒC, you are in the initial stages of hypothermia, which is fatal if not treated promptly. Even when properly clothed, you can develop hypothermia if you are exposed to the cold for long periods. Wet clothing or submersion in water will accelerate the process. As the conditions worsens you heart and other organs are under stress and will fail, causing death if the body is not warmed.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
- Uncontrollable Shivering
- Slurred Speech
- Unable To Process Thoughts
- Erratic Behavior Such As Trying To Remove Clothing
- Falling Unconscious
- Unable To Recognize The Fact You Are In A Life Threatening Situation
- Stumbling/Lack Of Coordination
- Weak Pulse
- Drowsiness and Low Energy
The list is not comprehensive and you should consult a medical professional for a more detailed description of symptoms. Any methods described in this article should not be considered medical advice, and are for informational purposes only.
Treatment for Hypothermia in an Emergency
Do not rub the body of anyone you suspect has hypothermia. The heart is under stress and rough handling of a person can cause cardiac arrest. Warm the person with blankets, fire and/or warm compresses found in many first aid kits. You can make your own compresses by placing warm not hot water in water bottles. Place the warm compresses on the chest or in the groin area. Do not place a warm compress on the legs or arms because this can force cold blood to rush to the heart. Provide warm beverages that do not contain alcohol or caffeine. You can also warm a person with your body by skin-to-skin contact. Make contact under blankets. Never use hot water or electric heating pads to treat hypothermia because they can damage the skin and cause an erratic heartbeat bringing on cardiac arrest.
Although temporary, shelter can be anything from the proper clothing to simply finding a windbreak. For overnight shelter in cold weather however, you will need something more substantial. You must evaluate your surrounding and begin constructing a shelter out of materials you find in your environment, most typically forest debris and snow, if you do not have shelter material in your backpack.
A snow cave constructed from snow, sticks and leaves. Mound the snow, leaves and other debris by any means possible and then carve out an area inside the mound big enough so your body is not in contact with the snow. Allow the snow to settle for at least 30 minutes before entering the shelter.
Your body must not make direct contact with a cold surface. Have insulation between your body and the ground to prevent body heat from conducting into the ground. Heat always conducts from warm to cold. Use pine boughs, pine needles, leaves, grasses or any material you have with you as ground cover. Typically, the air inside the snow cave will be 15 to 20 degrees warmer than the outside air temperature without a fire. Fires must be outside of the cave. If you have any material at all, suspend it so the heat from a fire can be reflected inside the cave.
Avoid making a snow cave in large drifts. If the snow collapses, you may not be able to extract yourself. Instead of making a snow cave in this situation, dig down to bare ground and pile the snow up creating four sides. This will provide a windbreak and the snow sides will be insulation. Lay pine boughs, sticks or whatever is available over three quarters of the top. Build a fire where the smoke and carbon monoxide can escape through the top opening, and once again make sure you have ground insulation.
This is an acceptable shelter when snow is not available. It can be constructed without tools from forest debris. The center support is a live tree slightly bent and debris is piled along the sides. Close off the opening using vegetation and build a fire so the heat is directed inside the shelter. Build a small break behind the fire so the heat from it is not conducted into the surrounding air. Ensure you control the fire so you do not ignite your shelter. Large rocks can be used to help conduct heat. However, stones with substantial moisture content can fragment and shatter when heated so choose the stones carefully.
This shelter would not be considered adequate for cold temperatures unless you have fire and a sleeping bag rated for extreme cold. However, any type shelter is better than no shelter at all. You would also need ground insulation under your sleeping bag. You can close off the opening with forest debris to help contain heat inside the shelter.
Cold Weather Clothing
Clothing is your first line of defense against hypothermia. Everyone has probably heard that clothing must be layered for cold temperatures. Do you know why you must layer? Layering allows you to regulate your body temperature. Exertion in cold temperatures will cause you to sweat, which is dangerous because sweating cools the body through evaporation of moisture on the skin. Having more than one layer allows you to cool down by removing one layer before you start to sweat. Once your clothes become damp, your body will begin to cool faster than it can warm itself. If your clothes become damp or wet you must remove them immediately while still protecting your body. The outer layer of clothing should be water repellent if not waterproof.
Wool and fleece are the ideal cold weather clothing because they will retain their insulating abilities even when wet. Wool will also wick moisture from your skin to prevent cooling by evaporation. The neck must be covered to protect the large veins that transport warm blood. Once the neck is exposed, the blood in the vessels will cool rapidly. Your head if left unprotected will conduct body heat into the surrounding air so it must be covered at all times.
Keep your feet dry and if you do not have extra socks you must remove your socks and dry them by hanging over a fire or air-dry. Once dry, warm them in your pockets before putting them back on if they were air-dried.
Cold Weather Essentials
Ideally, if you plan an outdoor adventure in cold weather you would pack accordingly. Shelter, fire, water and food are the essential for surviving the cold. You can become dehydrated in cold weather and you may not realize it so you must be aware that even if you do not have a feeling of thirst you still need hydration. Vaporized breath is water evaporating from your body just like it would in hot climates were you are sweating heavily. Dehydration slows down blood flow and the only way the body can stay warm is by warm blood flowing to the extremities.
The digestive process and glucose (energy) from food will help the body stay warm. Ensure you have more than enough foods that can be eaten without preparation.
Carry a sleeping bag and materials for a shelter and tools to build a shelter. You will need ample cordage and an ax and/or saw for cutting wood for a fire and shelter building. Carry a folding entrenching tool for digging.
Always carry fire staring materials other than matches such as a magnesium stick and Ferro rod. Matches can become damp quickly from being in your pocket or exposed to snow or rain while in your pack. Fire starting aids include cotton balls, petroleum jelly, alcohol wipes and lip balm and even alcohol based hand sanitizer. Alcohol on any combustible material can be ignited with the sparks from a Ferro/flint rod. You can scrap a magnesium bar over a cotton ball saturated with petroleum jelly or lip balm and ignite with the built in flint rod or use a Ferro rod. The petroleum jelly will burn up to four minutes allowing you time to build the flame up.
Magnesium Sticks With Flint Rod
Carry several thermal blankets and they are compact enough so they you can be carried in your pockets. The blankets can be used as ground cover and as an emergency shelter. The thermal blankets are designed to reflect radiant body heat back onto the body. Your body heat will radiate (conduct) from the body to the surrounding air or ground, so your priority is to prevent this from happening by having shelter and the proper clothing on along with fire to help keep the body warm.
If you become stranded in a snowstorm while driving stay with the vehicle unless there is a safety issue. In whiteout conditions, you can become lost just a few feet from your vehicle. Your car is your shelter. Only attempt to self-rescue if there is not heavy falling snow, you are dressed for the cold and only if you know your home or help is close by.
Run the engine for ten minutes every 30 minutes with a window down a few inches. If in heavy snow, make sure the exhaust pipe is not obstructed with snow to prevent fumes from backing up into the car. Always have a cold weather survival kit in your car when traveling.
My Name is Rex Michaels and for the past 30 years, I have had the privilege to train Special Operations Teams, Military Academy Cadets, Military Recruits and civilians in mastering survival techniques and methods.
-Rex Michaels, US Army Retired