There are many items critical to surviving in cold temperatures. Here are a few basics:
- Protect yourself from the wind; it can suck the heat out of your body faster than you can replace it. Good outerwear can protect you from the wind, as can physical shelter. If you don’t have one, seek the other.
- Keep your head and neck, hands, and feet covered and warm to avoid frostbite.
- If your clothes are not warm enough, add insulation. Newspaper is a great wind breaker and insulator. It works in everything from your shoes to shirt. Dried grass and even leaves will also work. (Avoid damp leaves, obviously). Stuff them inside the outer layer of your clothes to add insulation.
- Dress in layers. A good thermal underwear for the inner layer, wool or other heavy pants and shirt, followed by your outer layer, preferably a jacket designed to prevent wind and moisture from entering while wicking I away from your body. On very cold days, use multiple middle layers, such as sweaters, fleece jacket liners, etc. Many high-end parkas include layers that can be removed or added based on the weather conditions. If you do not have warm clothes, wear two sets of normal clothing. For example, wear pair of sweat pants under your cargo pants.
- Try to stay dry. Clothes with a nylon or other synthetic exterior are good for preventing both wind and moisture from entering while Gore-Tex is the industry standard for outer layers.
- Try not to sweat, since this can cause excessive chilling when you stop. Remove a glove, unzip a few inches or expose part of your ear to cool off if you are exerting yourself and start to warm up to the point where you may perspire. If you must exert yourself, you can remove a layer or your hat entirely – just be careful as it is a fine line to walk.
- Do not sleep directly on the ground. The frozen ground cools you faster than the air, so pile branches, pine needles and/or a ground cloth under you.
- Drink plenty of water or other fluids, but do not eat snow or suck ice to get water, it will lower your body temperature too fast. You do need plenty of liquids, however, so melt the ice and snow over a fire. If you have a canteen or water bottle, keep it under your exterior layer to keep the contents from freezing.
- Eat plenty of food, if available, since your body will need energy to generate heat. Large meals will make you cold the following half hour, so nibble regularly rather than “sitting down” for a large meal. High carbohydrate foods and beverages are good while on the move, protein and fat are good after or before. Nuts and seeds are great because they offer fat and protein as well as carbs and gorp or trail mix is also useful. For a full meal, Captain Dave is partial to beef stew in a winter survival situation. It has beef, potatoes, some vegetables and is solid and warm. Eating something like peanut butter or rich hot cocoa before you sleep will actually help you stay warm at night by giving your body the fat and calories it needs to power your internal furnace.
In the snow, your most basic shelter can be found at the base of a pine tree with lots of limbs. Lie down or sit with the wind at your back, and your back against the tree trunk. Pile plenty of branches under you to insulate you from the ground. Build up a wall of branches and snow around you, if possible. If you have a drop cloth or tarp, you can wrap yourself in it.
Even if there is no snow, the base of a pine tree with drooping boughs close to the ground can be a fairly sheltered location. You can also add other branches to improve your position, cut the wind, etc. If you are sheltering elsewhere these dry lower branches make good kindling and firewood, even though they will not burn as long as hardwoods.
In deep snow, you can dig a cave into a drift. You can also dig a deep trench and cover the top with branches and then snow. In either situation, dig a trench on the low end of the shelter where water (melting snow) can accumulate. You don’t want to end up lying in a puddle. Remember, as long as you stay dry and are wearing warm clothes, snow can insulate you from the even-colder air and block the wind. (freshly fallen powdery snow is up to 95% air, so it is an excellent insulator.) A poorly designed snow cave can asphyxiate you, so be sure you have proper ventilation. Two small ventilation holes, one at each end, are better than one.
Speaking of caves, if you can find a small, uninhabited one, you’re in luck. Caves offer protection against the wind, snow and rain and you can light a nice big fire just inside the entrance. Caves are also nice and defensible. But don’t waste valuable time looking for one unless you know there is a cave in the area.
If you can’t find a cave, look for an overhang/slanting cliff wall, it will offer you some protection from the wind and snow/rain. You can build a large fire in this scenario, something that isn’t practical in the small snow caves.
If no wall is available, you can build one out of blocks of compacted snow, laying them out like bricks. Don’t just make a straight wall; curve it so it offers even greater protection. If you’re stuck for days, you can build an igloo by moving each layer of bricks in a few inches or so as you get near the top.
Another method is to make a pile of branches and cover it with mounds of snow, packed tightly into place. Then remove most of the inside branches to make room for yourself.
Another shelter can be built by bracing a fallen sapling or limb in the notch of a tree and piling branches against it at an angle. (Think of this lean-to as a tent, with the sapling as a ridge pole and the branches on the side as the tent sides.) Choose branches with plenty of leaves or needles, as these will catch the snow and stop the wind. This is even easier if you have a tarp with you – an 8′ x 10′ tarp will make your lean-to much drier and help cut wind. A hatchet and some parachute cord or other string/rope can make it much easier to build this shelter.
Remember, these home-made shelters should not be large. You should be able to lie down in one and move slightly without knocking it over. But the bigger the space, the bigger the area you’ll need to warm.
You can also build a huge pile of leaves and then borrow into the middle of it. The leaves provide insulation, assuming they are pretty dry. This does not work as well with wet leaves.
Avoid alcohol and nicotine in a cold weather emergency. Nicotine can actually increase your chances of frostbite while alcohol can mask the symptoms of hypothermia.