As a prepper, your goal is to prepare for the worst-case scenario. You could have all the gear in the world, but if you can’t survive in cold climates, you’ll quickly find yourself up shit creek without a paddle. Even if you live in a warmer climate, you’re still at risk for exposure to the harsh reality of extreme cold if a volcanic or nuclear winter occurs.
The best thing you can do to help increase your chances of survival in colder weather is to realize that no matter where you are, you’re still susceptible to all types of weather.
Mother Nature is an unforgiving, humbling force to be reckoned with. This applies especially to extremely cold weather. Don’t test your luck with Mother Nature in the cold, she will win every time. The best thing you can do is prepare, and learn as much as possible should you find yourself exposed to the cold for long periods of time.
In the United States, there are an average of 1,300 deaths per year caused by hypothermia alone. This is a humbling number, as most of these deaths could have been prevented if the proper precautions were met. The worst thing you can do as a prepper is assume you’ll never find yourself in a certain situation. You must account for every worst-case scenario you can think of, including extremely cold weather.
Cold Weather Injuries
While not all cold weather injuries result in death, they can cause very serious long-lasting effects. It’s no secret that colder weather is more dangerous. In fact, statistics show that you’re 20-times more likely to succumb to an injury in colder weather compared to warm weather. This is due mostly to inexperience, and lack of knowledge of how cold weather affects your body.
There are multiple injuries that you could succumb to in the extreme cold. However, I’ll cover the two most common cold-weather injuries that present themselves more often than others to people that are exposed to colder environments. Take these two very seriously, as they both can happen in as little as 10 minutes of exposure. Death can come very swiftly to anyone who doesn’t respect the fragile aspects of cold weather, so knowing the signs and symptoms of these injuries can help save your life.
While most warmer weather injuries are minor and go away quickly, cold weather injuries are more likely to last a long time. One of the more serious warm weather injuries is heat stroke. Having a heat stroke is lethal, and has a high risk of long-lasting brain damage if you manage to survive a serious one. While you can’t have a cold stroke, there’s a very similar injury on the other side of the spectrum. Hypothermia is the leading cause of death with cold weather, making it a very important subject to learn about as a prepper.
This is a very serious cold weather injury that we will go over in-depth, because (I cannot stress this enough) knowledge is power when it comes to prepping. Hypothermia is when your body’s core temperature drops below normal levels. An average person’s core temperature is 98.6-degrees Fahrenheit, while a hypothermic core temperature is usually below 95-degrees Fahrenheit.
A hypothermic core temperature can even drop to as low as 82-degrees Fahrenheit before you reach the “point of no return”. This term is coined when in discussion of a person’s long-term mental and physical health. The most susceptible people for hypothermia are infants, and elderly adults. This is due to their lack of body mass and overall health (you fat-bodies luck out when it comes to cold weather).
Most heat-loss occurs through your skin (up to 90%), while the rest occurs through your normal breathing. This means that your skin should be covered by thick (and dry) clothing when exposed to colder environments. It seems like common sense, but make sure you wear an insulated hat as well. A simple ball cap won’t make much of a difference when it comes to retaining heat, as most heat that escapes through the skin occurs through your head when the hypothalamus (part of your brain that regulates body temperature) begins to work in overdrive.
Symptoms of hypothermia include (from the least to most serious):
- Sudden stop of shivering
- Drowsiness or exhaustion
- Shallow breathing (usually slower than normal)
- Short-term memory loss and confusion
- Inaudible speech
- Loss of coordination
- A slow weak pulse
- Unconsciousness without obvious signs of a pulse or breathing
The temperatures of hypothermia can range for each adult, but if you have a thermometer in your BOB (which I highly recommend), you can check for early signs of this deadly injury. A person with mild hypothermia will have a core temperature of 89-95 degrees Fahrenheit, while a person with moderate hypothermia will have a core temperature of 82-89 degrees Fahrenheit. If you (or the person you’re checking) has a core temperature of below 82-degrees Fahrenheit, it’s imperative that you begin treatment to warm them up before death occurs.
Disclaimer: Just because your core temperature isn’t below 82-degrees Fahrenheit, that does not mean that you can’t die from hypothermia. Everybody’s body is different, this is just a reference. We are not doctors, it is highly recommended that you attend a course related to medical treatments such as first aid.
In order to treat hypothermia, you need to recognize their symptoms so you’re able to treat them (or yourself) accordingly. If you, or someone you know has symptoms of hypothermia, immediately remove any wet clothing that’s on their (or your) body. Then, begin rewarming them with thick, dry clothing. Move them to a shelter (or foxhole) that is sheltered from wind, as wind can speed up hypothermia drastically. Offer them warm liquids (avoid alcohol, or caffeine) unless they’re unconscious.
If they’re unconscious with no pulse, perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) after they’re moved to a warmer area. Don’t perform CPR if there’s still a pulse present. Sometimes when a person has severe hypothermia, their heartbeat can be very faint (making it hard to detect). Be careful, as performing CPR when a person has a heartbeat can cause severe injuries or even death.
Tip – if possible, try to limit the amount of times you urinate. Urination can lower your body temperature in cold weather slightly, but just enough to potentially lower your core temperature enough to get closer to the hypothermic range. Make sure you stay hydrated, as hydration plays a major factor in your body’s ability to remain functional in the extreme cold.
This cold weather injury is a result of body tissue that has either began to freeze, or has already been frozen. Once body tissue has begun to freeze, the blood vessels in the affected area will contract, thus reducing blood flow and oxygen to that body part. In serious cases, frostbite can require the amputation of the affected body part.
Symptoms of frostbite include:
- “Pins and needles” feeling, or numbness in the affected area
- Throbbing feeling, or extreme numbness in the affected area
- Hard, pale skin that feels cold to the touch
- Red, painful skin and muscles (more serious)
- Darkened (blue, purple, or black) skin of the affected area
Frostbite can be caused by prolonged exposure to cold air, as well as cold objects such as water or metal. Most mild cases of frostbite can be treated by first aid measures. To treat mild frostbite cases, remove the affected area from the cold environment. Then, remove any wet clothing around the affected area, and begin warming the affected area gradually. Don’t apply direct heat methods to the affected area, as this can damage skin tissue, as well as muscle tissue in the affected area.
Frostbite usually first occurs in the most outer extremities of our bodies, such as toes, fingers, nose, and ears. If you start observing symptoms of frostbite, make sure you treat them before they develop into more serious symptoms. Do not attempt to walk on toes that are affected by frostbite if possible. Once you develop serious frostbite, seek immediate medical attention as soon as possible. Simple first aid is effective only for minor cases of frostbite, there are sadly no effective methods of treatment for serious cases of frostbite without professional medical attention.
Disclaimer: Do not attempt to treat severe frostbite unless absolutely necessary, you can cause irreversible damage to the affected area. If possible, seek professional medical aid for all cases of frostbite before attempting to treat it yourself. Don’t be that guy that thinks he knows everything, causing irreversible damage. Leave medical treatment up to the professionals if possible.
Top Five BOB Essentials
As a prepper, you should be thinking of every worst-case scenario (you’ll hear me say that a lot). Even if you live in a warmer climate, you should still have at least a few items in your BOB that can help increase your chances of survival in the extreme cold. While this section covers your BOB, I highly recommend having some of these items in high supply at your more permanent bug out location.
- Thermal Blanket
Thermal blankets (AKA Mylar blankets) are made of a thin aluminum sheet vacuum dusted onto a sheet of plastic. This ultra-lightweight design makes them a great tool for your BOB, and can ultimately save your life. The design allows them to reflect up to 90% of your body heat, making them warmer than other blankets as well. Since they’re made of plastic and aluminum (most of the time), they also repel rain and wind, making them perfect for any cold weather survival scenario.
If you’re not sure what thermal blanket you should look into buying, the Vertex Essentials Mylar Blanket has great reviews by preppers just like you. I’ve personally had to use a Vertex Essentials Mylar Blanket before while in the field as an Infantryman, and I can tell you firsthand that they do exactly what they’re designed to do. I was so warm while using it, I even began to sweat (which you don’t want while in the cold) so I had to stop using it after a while. For dire situations where you need to quickly warm yourself, or somebody else up, a thermal blanket is your quickest and most reliable choice.
- Hand Warmers
Every outdoorsman knows what hand warmers are, yet they neglect packing them in their BOB. These small, inexpensive, effective inventions are a great way to reduce risk of frostbite on your hands, feet, or other areas of your body. To use a hand warmer, most of them require only to be shaken to activate the charcoal inside of them. I’ve used hand warmers multiple times while either hunting, or for my job. The only downside to these great inventions, is they can cause minor burns if left on exposed skin for too long. If you feel uncomfortable, or a burning sensation where the warmer is, remove the warmer to reduce the risk of burns.
A great brand of hand warmers is HotHands. Although I haven’t tried many other brands, HotHands warmers have never failed me. The best thing about them, is they’re inexpensive and light-weight. This makes them a great item to keep in a small pouch of your BOB for quick and easy access if necessary.
- Weather-Proof Matches
During inclement weather, regular matches will more than likely fail you. Therefore, you should ditch regular matches, and get some weather-proof ones. Most of them are inexpensive and light-weight. Their design allows them to burn hotter once they ignite, allowing them to burn through rain or wind. They also last longer than regular matches, allowing you more time per match to light your fire if necessary.
When it comes to weather-proof matches, UCO Stormproof Match Kits are a great item to store in your BOB. Costing only $11, these weather-proof matches come with a waterproof case, 25 Stormproof matches, and three strikers (in case one becomes useless). Even looking at these matches, you can tell that they’re made for quality. After reading reviews, one user even claims that he lit one while exposed to pouring rain and it still stayed lit long enough to start a fire (under a tarp).
- Flint and Steel
When in the wilderness, Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) tends to show its ugly face more often than not. If your primary (or even secondary) ignition source fails you, flint and steel are great tools to keep on standby in your BOB. Never rely on just one item when it comes to a live-saving method of survival like fire.
This method of fire-starting involves the use of two simple objects (flint, and steel) to create sparks that can start a fire if used properly. To use this method, strike the flint with a steel object in a downward motion toward the object you’re trying to ignite. Usually, you’ll have your wood configured and ready to ignite before you use your flint and steel.
A reliable flint tool is the Überleben Zünden Bushcraft Fire Steel with a Wood Handle. With a five-star rating on Amazon, and over 400 reviews, it’s no secret that this tool is highly effective in starting fires. On the Amazon item description, you can see the massive amount of sparks that fly off the flint, proving its reliability. When it comes to flint and steel, there are many brands that are effective and reliable. However, do yourself a favor and don’t get the one that looks like a steel rectangle (it sucks).
- Pre-Packed Fire Starters
These are easily the most useful items you could carry in your BOB. They act as a simple, yet effective way to start a fire without having to waste time trying to set fire to the wood directly. While you can purchase pre-made fire starters, I recommend making your own. This will save you money, and leave the reliability of the fire starter on you (not some random company). While most purchased fire starters are very reliable, homemade ones are just as effective and more cost-efficient.
There are many types of homemade fire starters, but my favorite ones are made with cotton balls, Vaseline, magnesium (you can buy some HERE), and wood chips. It only takes a few minutes to make a dozen, and are extremely inexpensive to make (about 50 cents per).
Cotton balls, Vaseline, Magnesium powder, and wood chips.
- Scoop some Vaseline into your hand
- Lather one cotton ball at a time with Vaseline, making sure you cover it entirely
- Roll the Vaseline-covered cotton ball in the magnesium powder
- Insert one or two small wood chips into the cotton ball to ensure a longer burn
- Take the finished fire starters, and place them into an air tight plastic bag (I recommend two bags, this way in case one breaks you have a back-up bag to keep moisture out).
- Only put about four fire starters in each bag, allowing you to roll the bag over them before placing them into the second bag, reducing the room taken in your BOB.
These fire starters are very effective. The magnesium powder creates an extreme amount of heat, making it easier to light damp wood on fire if necessary. I recommend taking one or two fire starters per batch out, so you can test them before you place them in your BOB. Make sure you don’t hold them while you light it, they will quickly become fully engulfed in flames.
Methods of Staying Warm
When you’re exposed to extremely cold weather, there are multiple ways that you can stay warm. While I recommend utilizing all the ways I describe in this article, you can pick and choose which ones you wish to use. Remember, my articles are simply for guidance. Every prepper has his/her own way of doing things, but you’re never too experienced to learn (or try) new ways.
The following methods are simple, yet effective ways of staying warm even in the coldest environments:
- Wearing multiple layers, while leaving no skin exposed
- Friction (rubbing hands together… NEVER blow on your hands)
- Movement (keep moving if possible)
- Body heat (cuddling)
- Heated rocks (we’ll get into this)
- DoD MRE heaters (just don’t get the water on you)
Every situation is different, so the methods you will use to stay warm will also be different each time. However, the more methods you use, the warmer you’ll be. Cuddling with the same sex might seem awkward, but when warmth is necessary for survival, you’ll be surprised just how effective it is. Heated rocks work really well when you have a structure to put them in after they’re hot. Simply heat rocks (about four-inches in diameter at least) in a fully-developed fire, then remove the rocks and put them in a small area where you’re sleeping.
Have at least one person awake at night if you have a group, so they can keep the fire going. You can rotate the person who’s awake in shifts, which will make sleep available to everyone in the group. Whoever is awake will be in charge of rotating out the rocks, thus keeping everyone warm while they sleep. This will greatly reduce the risk of hypothermia at night when most areas are at their coldest temperatures. The best aspect of using heated rocks, is that they are wind-proof (but not exactly rain-proof as they will lose heat quickly).
Starting a Fire
Unless remaining concealed is a priority, fires are an excellent way to stay warm even in extremely cold temperatures. No other method is as effective as fire for staying warm. So, if you can, start a fire as soon as possible and keep it going for as long as possible. Sometimes, starting a fire can be difficult due to the weather. Rain, wind, or snow can cause your fire-starting duty to become nearly impossible.
In the article “Literally Every Way to Start a Fire”, Dan F. Sullivan goes into a very detailed description regarding the building of fires. Make sure you’re responsible with your fire, because even in inclement weather, you can start a forest fire. Make sure you put out your fire after you’re done, including the embers at the bottom of your ashes. The most effective way to put out a fire in the wilderness is to shovel dirt on top of it, this way you can conserve your water.
There are many factors that revolve around staying warm in a cold environment, some of which are myths. Don’t be that guy who tries to kill a large animal and then sleep in it. The moisture from the dead animal will cause you to develop hypothermia very quickly, not to mention any disease you can contract from the wild animal. There are, however, ways to use their pelt to stay warm. You can skin the animal and create a warm and reliable source of heat if necessary.
The easiest way to stay warm, is to stay dry. Any moisture, including sweat, mixed with the cold air will cause your skin to develop frostbite very rapidly. This will also lead to hypothermia, and potentially your death. If you become wet for any reason, make sure you remove that article of clothing and dry it over a fire if possible. Even if the article of clothing is your thickest, most reliable source of heat, it’s no use to you if it’s wet. A little amount of moisture is okay, but if the clothing is wet enough to feel through your skin, remove it immediately.
Wet clothing can also freeze while you sleep. This is an almost definite way to develop frostbite and hypothermia, and you will most likely die a very scary death. Drying clothing once it’s wet is very simple if you have a fire. Even a small fire will work, however make sure you don’t set your clothes on fire (obviously).
Stay Out of the Wind
This is sometimes easier said than done, as wind will almost always be present. If there is a heavy wind while you’re moving from point A to B, try to shelter in place until the wind subsides. If you can, make sure you cover all parts of your skin with at least one layer of clothing. This will help reduce your risk of frostbite, while keeping you warm.
Clothing made of a synthetic fabric are usually the best at repelling wind and light moisture. Some preppers swear by wool clothing, and I agree (to a point). Wool clothing should be worn underneath a layer of clothing made of synthetic fabric. This maximized retained body heat, while repelling Mother Nature as much as possible.
Don’t Drink Alcohol or Caffeine
Drinking alcohol to warm up is a myth. It may feel like you’re warming up, however it’s a trick your body plays on itself. While you may feel slightly warmer, your outer extremities (as well as internal organs) are still going through the process of hypothermia while you may not feel it like you would if you were sober. Don’t make this deadly mistake – however there’s nothing wrong with having a shot or two once you’re hunkered down around a fire at night.
Caffeine is also dangerous in cold weather, because it increases your heart rate. An unnecessary increase in your heart rate can cause hypothermia to set in faster in some cases. If you need to drink something warm, decaffeinated coffee or tea is a great solution. Make sure you don’t drink too much, or you’ll dehydrate yourself (especially with the caffeine). Hydration is key to surviving cold weather environments.
Don’t Blow on your Hands
When the weather drops to colder temperatures, you’ll most likely see people cupping their hands and blowing on them to keep them warm. This is an absolutely terrible idea, because the moisture released from your breath will stick to your hands. Like I said before, any amount of moisture on exposed skin will cause frostbite (or even hypothermia) to develop far more rapidly.
Instead, use friction on your hands by rubbing them together quickly. You’ll find that your hands will warm up faster than they would if you blew on them. If you see anyone blowing on their hands during your cold weather expedition, kindly remind them that it’s a bad idea and why.
Real World Scenarios
There are many cold weather situations that involve preventable deaths around the world every year. I’ve included a few stories from around the world to show you just how deadly the unforgiving cold can be. Most of these deaths from the stories I’m sharing with you could have been prevented with the proper preparation (and knowledge) for cold weather situations.
A sudden cold snap hit East Asia, killing 85 people over one weekend. While the temperatures only dropped to 39-degrees Fahrenheit, it was enough to shock the bodies of 85 people into either cardiac failure, or hypothermia. Most of these deaths (66 of them) were elderly people living in northern villages such as Taipei and Taoyuan. The people in these smaller villages rarely have heating and cooling systems in their homes, and without the proper knowledge on how to survive an extreme cold snap, they sadly succumbed to mother nature.
After a night of drinking, a 20-year-old man was found dead by a set of railroad tracks. At first, the public feared that he might have been hit by a train. After the autopsy report, however, his cause of death was determined to be by hypothermia. His death was 100% preventable, as you should never expose yourself to cold weather after drinking alcohol. Doing so will cause your judgement to be impaired, making you more likely to succumb to injuries.
One of the most famous deaths that was caused ultimately by starvation, as well as extreme cold weather was Christopher McCandless. As portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the movie “Into the Wild”, Chris set out on a wilderness survival expedition in the early 1990’s to survive off nothing but what Mother Nature provided him. While his cause of death was determined to be starvation (from eating toxic seeds in his diet causing his alkaline levels to rise to toxic levels), the extreme cold weather scenarios that he was subjected to had an astronomical effect on his health. This story proves that even with extreme prepping, everyone is subject to mother nature’s cold fingers of death.
These stories prove that Mother Nature doesn’t care who you are. If you’re unprepared, you will die if you leave yourself exposed to extreme cold for too long. Don’t be another statistic in cold weather deaths, prepare yourself and your family. With enough knowledge and preparation, you just might be able to avoid a cold, miserable death.
Remember, as a prepper you need to prepare for the worst-case scenarios. Being exposed to extremely cold temperatures over a long period of time is extremely deadly, so you need to educate yourself with factual information on how to survive. This is not one of those subjects where you should be prideful and too stubborn to learn new ways. Mother Nature has a way of humbling even the most egotistical preppers.
Cold weather can happen anywhere in the world, even in the tropics. Just because the temperature isn’t below freezing, does not mean that you can’t get hypothermia. Any drastic drop in temperature can be lethal if not prepared for properly. While there are hundreds of different aspects revolving around cold weather survival, I decided to touch on the subjects in this article because they tend to be the most relevant in real-world situations. Unlike many other “experts”, I’ve actually put many of these tips to use in real life. Stay safe, and stay warm.
I’m an active-duty infantryman with the U.S. Army, and I’ve served a combined-service of over 5 years. Throughout my career, I’ve learned various survival techniques, as well as self-defense techniques. I specialize in weapons, long-range reconnaissance, distance shooting, and long-term isolation survival. I’m a very conservative, very “to the point” kind of person.