People find themselves caught outside in freezing weather for a variety of reasons – maybe you have broken down and the car isn’t safe to stay in for some reason, you may be hiking and an unexpected storm blows in, or even you can’t make it out of the weather because someone is injured and wouldn’t make it on their own so you have to stay with them. There are dozens of variations on the theme and the important thing is knowing what to do about it.
If you had a decent kit packed and ready to go you are a good deal better off than the fair weather hikers and drivers that take a chance by not packing the kit that could save their lives. These people have travelled the same route day after day to and from work and have become immune to thinking anything could go wrong. The same can be said of hikers, they go out on the trail for a day hike in unsuitable clothing and with very little equipment that can get them out of trouble, they have done it before and all was well so they believe that this time will be the same…and it isn’t.
Cold is unforgiving. Unlike a hot day where you can find a tree to sit under until the sun is less intense cold doesn’t give you a second chance. Once you are chilled physiological processes take over and unless you address the issue directly and warm up your core temperature will continue to drop. You will become slower physically and mentally which will most likely cause you to make even more mistakes, mistakes that could cost you your life. Assuming you survive up to this point you will stop shivering, a physiological reaction that is designed to generate heat. Once the shivering stops your body temperature is already dangerously low.
Hypothermia will fatigue you and every step will be a major effort and this is the point where many people sit down to take a little rest and never stand up again. They fall into a deep sleep and slip into death a short while later.
A body temperature of 95º F (35ºC) or less is considered to be hypothermic. At between 89-93º F (32-34º C) you will slip into a coma and unless full hospital grade medical treatment is provided you will die. It should be noted that even with high grade medical treatment there is still a good chance that you won’t recover.
As soon as you find yourself in the open in freezing weather you need to consider that you maybe spending the night out of doors. There really isn’t time to think about walking for another couple of hours to see how it goes. You need to assess your situation logically and assess your capabilities as they are…not as you would like them to be.
Assuming that you have decided you want to live there are two things you need to do and they are simple and straightforward. You need to avoid hypothermia and you need to avoid frostbite.
Staying dry and warm is critical, getting wet in sub-zero temperatures will hasten your demise because your body will cool rapidly and your core temperature will drop alarmingly quickly.
There are many ways to stay warm and dry, from climbing into your sleeping bag or wrapping up in blankets and getting inside a large garbage bag to digging out a snow hole. The weather conditions and your available kit as well as your abilities and there terrain you are in will dictate the choices you make at this point.
There are a few things you should be looking for:
- A tree with low overhanging branches that you could shelter under with or without digging down into any accumulated snow.
- Solid rock overhangs that face away from the wind. Crevices and caves should also be on your radar.
- Fallen trees can provide fuel and shelter.
- If you have a tarp with you any trees close enough together to make an impromptu shelter between them.
- Anything you can use to make a fire quickly such as pine resin on tree trunks that burns hot enough to dry out small twigs even if they are damp.
- Enough snow piled up in a drift to dig into to get you out of the weather, snow is an excellent insulator and inside a snow hole will be many degrees warmer than outside in the open.
- Even a large log/bare tree trunk on the ground can provide some shelter from driving rain and snow if you position yourself on the leeward side of it.
The choices you have to make will be far from ideal but making the very best of what you have, or what you find will make the difference between life and death.
You primary aim is to stay alive and not end up disfigured and disabled by frostbite. To achieve both of these things you need to:
Stay dry: Cold wet skin will not only chill you to the bone but will allow frostbite to get a hold far faster than dry warmer skin. you need to have the ability to start a fire fast and in any weather conditions. A sliver of bicycle inner tube will take a flame and burn even in pouring rain. Putting rocks or even snow behind the fire and covering the mound with a mylar blanket will throw the heat back towards you. They are also ideal for using as a groundsheet and will prevent damp and wet wicking from the ground into your clothes.
These things are cheap and lightweight and they have a place in every pack regardless of where you are heading and for how long.
Keep as much water away from you as you possibly can. Even a poncho tied to support sticks will keep off some water. A tarp can be held in place on branches or held in place on the lower end by rocks or snow and pulled over you in any manner you can to keep you dry.
Maintain your body temperature to as close to normal as you can: Layer on any clothes that you have. Keep your head, neck wrists and ankles covered as the thinner skin in these regions will chill your blood quickly. Pull hats as low over your ears as you can to prevent frostbite. Pull a scarf up over you nose for the same reason.
Keep your feet moving inside your boots and check regularly that they are dry. If your feet are relatively warm you won’t feel that they are wet but once you are sleeping and still your body will divert as much heat as possible to maintain your core temperature and your feet will get colder allowing any dampness to freeze and frostbite is the likely result.
Check your supplies: Once you have the best shelter you can find or make and you have a fire going it’s time to take stock. Go through you bag and see what you have. You will have to consider your food supply and divide it so it lasts you longer.
If you are in a snow situation water won’t be a problem but you need to melt it before you drink it. Eating snow uses valuable energy to melt it and bring it up to a temperature matching your internal temperature. You will lower your core temperature considerably whilst this process takes place and that’s something you can’t afford to do.
Use your environment: You will need fuel to keep your fire going and by shaving the sticks you find will allow you to use even damp wood on your fire as the shaved ends dry fast in the flames or even embers of a campfire.
Rocks can be used to put ‘sides’ on your shelter and are useful to make a hearth to keep the wind off your fire.
Leaves can be piled under your groundsheet to make it more comfortable and fresh pine needles will make a vitamin C rich pine needle tea.
How long you wait before trying to extricate yourself from the situation is impossible to say as the conditions you are in, the condition of members of your party and how close you are to civilisation will all dictate how long you wait before moving on.
Remember this though, regardless of where you are, a mile from home on the side of a snow bound highway or stuck on a trail 10 miles from the nearest town, the cold doesn’t care. It is as lethal if you fall over and break a leg in your back yard as it is in the mountains. If you are exposed for any length of time it will kill you.