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:
- Stay Dry: If at all possible, keep your clothing dry, including hat, gloves, and boots. It takes a huge amount of energy to dry clothing using just body heat, and wet clothes will not insulate nearly as well as dry clothing. If you must lay down to sleep, break fresh green pine boughs off evergreen trees to make a somewhat insulated “bough bed” that will help you stay drier and warmer than lying directly on the snow.
- Check for numb hands and feet: The extremities of your body will tend to cool and freeze first, so keep a watchful eye on your hands and feet. At the first signs of numbness, you should stop what you are doing and get the blood circulating again, or you will risk frostbite and potentially permanent damage due to freezing your flesh. For the feet, brace your arms against something, stand on one leg, and vigorously swing the other leg back and forth, like a ringing bell in a bell tower. The centrifugal force of the swinging motion will usually restore blood circulation and warm your toes, unless they are already truly frozen and not just cold. If they burn and hurt, that is okay and the painful condition should only last a few minutes, unless the feet had actually suffered frostbite. The easiest technique for restoring feeling and circulation to the hands is similar to the previous technique for the feet. Swing your arms in wide rapid circles to help drive blood into the fingertips. Alternately, take your gloves or mittens off and stick your bare hands under your jacket and into your arm pits until your hands are warm.
- Check each other for signs of hypothermia and frostbite: A few years back a father and son skied out of bounds into the Granite Chief Wilderness and survived several nights out until they were rescued. The father kept the son moving most of each night to keep his feet and hands from freezing, and to help prevent him from succumbing to hypothermia. A couple winters back, a female snow boarder descended out of bounds into the Granite Chief Wilderness. She perished from exposure while trying to hike her way out of the wilderness, not realizing that in the direction she chose, it is about a 50 mile snow covered backcountry trek to reach the nearest all-season road. If you have no companion to help each other check for frostbite and/or hypothermia, you must be vigilant and do this for yourself. Frostbite on the skin shows up as a bright white patch of skin, usually surrounded by pinkish colored flesh. It is caused by freezing of the flesh, and actual frost crystals start forming on the skin’s surface. See below for more details on both frostbite and hypothermia.
- When in doubt, backtrack: Surprisingly few folks who get lost in the wilderness try to backtrack. Downhill skiers and snowboarders who travel out of bounds inherently dislike the idea of hiking back up the mountain the same way they came down, but this course of action would have saved many a life. However, when snows are incredibly deep, like they can be in the high mountains, backtracking may not be a viable option.
- Seek Shelter: Tree wells and snow caves can provide shelter from storms and extreme cold. Snow is an excellent insulator, but try to keep yourself from getting wet both while building your snow shelter and when staying inside the shelter. If you must sit or lie down in the snow, a layer of fresh green pine boughs can provide insulation and help minimize getting wet from melting snow with body heat
- Build a Fire: Your chances of starting a fire in extreme weather, using primitive methods, like a fire drill, or flint and steel, are pretty slim, but if you happen to have matches or a cigarette lighter on hand, by all means build a fire! Look for standing dead wood, or drier branches sheltered underneath fallen logs that may be drier than the rest of the available wood. For kindling, look for branches on trees that have a bunch of dead brown pine needles. The dead pine needles on these branches will usually burn even if they are fairly wet. Make sure you knock the snow off any overhead branches before you start your fire, so they won’t dump snow on your fire as it heats up. You can build a fire directly on top of the snow. Just lay down a bunch of branches to keep your drier wood separated from direct contact with the snow.
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:
- Decreased awareness and inability to think clearly
- Numbness, especially in the extremities
- Pale skin color and skin cold to the touch
- Poor dexterity
As hypothermia advances, and the body core temperature approaches the “death zone”, the following symptoms may occur:
- Feelings of blissful warmth
- Sleepiness and the desire to lie down and take a nap
- The victim may start to feel hot and start shedding clothes
- Difficulty or inability to walk
- Slurred speech followed by inability to speak, or speech not making any sense whatsoever
- Ashen cold skin, looking like a corpse that can still move a little
- May or may not have waves of uncontrollable shivering
Treatment for hypothermia:
- It is absolutely critical that core temperature be raised as soon as possible.
- Monitor pulse and breathing. Give victim artificial respiration, or CPR, if necessary.
- Get the victim out of wet or frozen clothes and immerse in a warm bath (not hot, optimum is from 102°F-105°F/39°C-40.5°C), if available. Change victim into dry warm clothes. Alternatively, wrap victim in pre-warmed blankets.
- Drink plenty of hot liquids, such as tea, coffee, or simply just hot water.
- If prior options are not available, have a warm person crawl into a single sleeping bag alongside the hypothermic victim for body heat transfer from the warm body to the hypothermic body. NOTE: Simply placing a hypothermic victim inside a sleeping bag by themselves is usually not good enough, since their body will at that point be pretty much shut down and not generating enough body heat on its own to rapidly restore correct body temperature.
- Seek medical attention— hypothermia is life threatening, so time is of the essence!