Winter Survival Tips, by Mat Stein

Monday, Feb 11, 2013

Note: This article is adapted from my book When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival

Tips for Surviving Outside in Extreme Weather and Subfreezing Temperatures

Every year people get lost in the backcountry near where I live in the High Sierras, and end up spending one or more unplanned nights outside in the snow and extreme cold. Some of those folks live to tell the tale, and some of them don’t. Hopefully you will never need to spend unexpectedly long hours outside in extreme weather, but in case you do, here are a few tips:

An aside:

On a solo trans-Sierra backcountry ski trip, while I was setting up my camp for the night, I made the mistake of not bothering to stop what I was doing in order to swing my feet and regain the circulation in my toes. My route had taken me to lower elevations in the warmth of the midday, and the snow had been quite wet, soaking through my old leather ski mountaineering boots. It was a clear night as I was pitching my tent, and the temperature had dropped to well below zero. Figuring I would soon be inside my sleeping bag, boiling a hot pot of tea on my camp stove, I did not pay attention to my numb toes. Turns out I froze the last half inch of my big toe. It blistered up, became quite sore, and turned black. I eventually lost my toenail and a large hunk of blackened flesh peeled off the tip of my big toe, but I did not need any surgery or have to deal with infection problems, so I consider myself lucky, having learned a valuable lesson that could have been a lot worse.

Warning Signs of Hypothermia

Hypothermia, and its evil twin, hyperthermia, are both very dangerous life-threatening conditions. The human body is designed to function within a relatively narrow core body temperature within a few degrees of 98.6°F (37°C). When the body’s core temperature rises a few degrees above this, hyperthermia (overheating) occurs, and when it drops a few degrees lower, this condition is described as hypothermia (overcooling). When left uncorrected, either case can rapidly lead to impaired mental and physical performance followed by death. When people die in the wilderness due to either overheating (hyperthermia) or overcooling (hypothermia), their cause of death is usually referred to as “exposure”.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of hypothermia is extremely important. Most people who died of exposure probably had ample time to recognize the situation, and may have been able to do something about it had they realized what was going on. The following are warning signs of hypothermia:

As hypothermia advances, and the body core temperature approaches the “death zone”, the following symptoms may occur:

Treatment for hypothermia:


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