Story and Photos by Reuben Bolieu
If you love the outdoors there is little that can stop you from enjoying all that winter activities have to offer.
But what unseen dangers lurk in the wintery wonderlands? One of the biggest dangers in the backcountry isn’t what most people would think. It isn’t the 800-pound grizzly bear or the fierce mountain lion—it’s the cold!
In this article we will take a look at the dangers cold can present and how to combat them.
I first became aware of these heat loss mechanisms from the Godfather of survival, Ron Hood, who’s WoodsMaster video/DVD series touches on this heavily.
There are 5 different ways in which the human body loses heat in cold weather. Whether constructing shelter or pitching your own man-made shelter, all 5 heat loss mechanisms should be considered to ensure a safe, peaceful night’s rest when in cold environments.
Conduction is felt by losing body heat when contacting colder surfaces.
Convection is another way of saying wind, and it zaps the heat out of your body almost as fast as water.
Radiation is heat loss through head and neck.
Respiration is experienced when we are exhaling warm body heat.
Perspiration/Moisture is any water (sweat) that may conduct cold convection currents and further chill us.
Whenever the subject of shelter arises, people often talk about the latest-greatest tent or superlight ultra-warm sleeping bag they just purchased, but often overlook the most important part of keeping warm and dry—clothing. It is said that clothing is the first line of defense against the elements in the city or wilderness.
During a Randall’s Adventure & Training weekend survival course, in the winter months, our main goal was staying warm and alive! The temperatures hovered a little bit above freezing, with nightly bouts of rain, wind and snow. Aside from our overhead protection (shelters), which were protecting us from convection and moisture, our warmth came from layering our clothing.
Three and four layers of synthetic materials will usually do the trick.
The first layer was long underwear, up against our skin. The second layer was a long-sleeved shirt and our regular hiking/ski pants for the bottom. The third layer was an insulative layer, like a fleece or down jacket. The fourth layer was used around camp, but not to sleep (although it definitely could be), and is referred to as the shell—being a wind breaker or rain gear. Working on skills throughout the day kept everyone warm and layers were stripped off, as necessary, to prevent overheating and perspiration.
At night, the campfire kept us cozy and comfortable but when it came time to retire to our sleeping shelters, all these layers were used in conjunction with our sleeping bags, pads and bivies. Sleeping with layers of clothing adds to the rating of our sleeping bags, allowing us to sleep in much colder temperatures than the manufacturer’s suggested rating for the bag.
The layering system is vital in outdoor cold weather survival.
C.O.L.D. is an acronym that applies to wearing clothing in cold weather.C: Keep it clean.O: Avoid overdressing and overheating.L: Wear clothing loose and in layers.D: Keep clothing dry.
Hypothermia is when a person’s internal body temperature drops below 95º F from its comfortable, normal 98.6º F.
Loss of 4 or more degrees F in body temp can put a person dangerously in a hypothermic state. This can occur anytime you are exposed to cool, damp conditions—not necessarily sub-freezing conditions. The symptoms of Hypothermia begin slowly and only get worse from there, so slowly that they may even be difficult for us to recognize ourselves.
A few symptoms to look for are shivering, loss of coordination, slow speech, stumbling around and drowsiness. If you or someone in your party becomes drowsy, do not let them lay down or take a nap. In severe cases of hypothermia, when a person who is shivering uncontrollably suddenly stops shivering and feels fine, it usually means they are close to death.
Here are a few helpful ways to treat the symptoms of hypothermia.
Replace any wet clothes with dry clothing, if possible, or ring out clothing and zip up in a sleeping bag or wrap up in a blanket. Wrapping up in a space blanket is recommended.
Apply hot water bottles wrapped in clothing to groin area, and armpits. Hot drinks and food are always a plus, as they warm the body slowly, which is ideal. The human body produces heat naturally in two ways: through metabolizing food and by movement. If you are hunkered down or can’t move, then eat—but don’t gorge if water is limited. Ration food, but not water.
Dehydration means your body does not have as much water and fluids as it should. We lose a great deal of water from our bodies in the winter due to respiratory fluid loss through breathing. Our bodies are also working harder under the weight of extra clothing, and sweat evaporates quickly in cold, dry air.
Much like hypothermia, dehydration is a slow creeper. In cold weather, people simply don’t feel as thirsty as they would in hot weather. This is why dehydration is known as the “stealthy killer”.
In snowy conditions, refrain from putting snow in your mouth as a means of hydrating. Eating snow will only aid in hypothermia, by lowering your body’s core temperature. There are a few helpful ways to keep hydrated using snow if water is not readily available:
The 1960’s movie, The Savage Innocence displays the Eskimos’ survival in the extreme arctic wilderness, as well as their raw existence and struggle to maintain their lifestyle against encroaching civilization. The film covers a very big danger that is not life threatening, but life altering and should be taken very seriously—frostbite.
Frostbite and hypothermia are both cold-related emergencies. Hypothermia is the condition of developing an abnormally low body temperature, which can then lead to frostbite as the body naturally redirects blood flow to the core, often leaving hands and feet void of much needed blood flow for the cells in the extremities to keep living.
Frostbite happens when tissues freeze. This condition usually occurs when human skin is exposed to temperatures below the freezing point of skin. Frostbite is caused by two different means: cell death at the time of exposure and further cell deterioration and death because of a lack of oxygen.
In the first, ice crystals form in the space outside of the cells. Water is lost from the cell’s interior and dehydration promotes the destruction of the cell.
In the second, the damaged lining of the blood vessels is the main culprit. As blood flow returns to the extremities upon rewarming, it finds that the blood vessels themselves are injured, also by the cold. Holes appear in vessel walls and blood leaks out into the tissues. Flow is impeded and turbulent and small clots form in the smallest vessels of the extremities.
Because of these blood flow problems, complicated interactions occur, and inflammation causes further tissue damage. This injury is the primary determinant of the amount of tissue damage that occurs in the end.
Prevention for Frostbite:
Treatment for frostbite:
In The Savage Innocence, the star, Anthony Quinn, helps his capturer’s frostbitten hands by slaying a sled dog with a knife and then stuffing his foes frostbitten hands into the animal’s warm carcass. In the movie, the man screams, “It hurts” when his hands start to regain warmth. Anthony Quinn says, “Good, that means life is coming back, only death is painless!”
Insulate between ground and sleeping bag. Use closed cell foam pads, inflatable pads, backpacks, cushions, tree bows, a layer of pine needles and anything that will cut down on conduction from the cold ground.
Relieve yourself before sleeping and prevent having to get up and out of a warm shelter and into the cold. Once a person is cold, it is very hard to become warm again. Warming up water and putting them in bottles inside a sleeping bag is a method that has been used for years in the outdoors.
Eat lots of junk food to keep warm. Yes, here is a time when everything your dentist has told you can go out the window. Shivering burns calories and the more calories you can put in you, the better. If you are in a group, try huddling together to maximize body heat, it works for Penguins.
With the help of the above tips and a strong state of mind you will definitely have an edge when battling Old Man Winter! K&G
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Adventurer, writer, photographer, gear designer and survival instructor for Randall’s Adventure & Training, Reuben has spent most of his life hiking and backpacking through the wildernesses of the world. He has traveled abroad in extreme environments, from Alaska to the desert heat of Egypt – as well as the humid conditions of Southeast Asia and South America. He continues studying primitive survival techniques, construction and uses of knives and edged tools from places such as: South America, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, and numerous countries in the South Pacific and Scandinavia. Reuben has published many articles on survival, knife and tool use, woodcraft, shelters, and remains a lifetime student of survival.
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