Food, water, and shelter-- the three life-sustaining essentials that survivalists preach over and over (and over) again. Not all survival situations are created equal, however, so these three gods of survival don’t always rank in the same order of importance. For example, in a cold weather survival situation, you could be well-stocked with a satchel full of expertly trapped small game, but having a full-belly with preparations for the next few days of food survival won’t do you an ounce of good if you’ve frozen to death your first night in the wilderness.
In a cold weather survival situation, shelter and warmth are king and queen in the survival hierarchy. Whether you’re semi-prepared with a tent and sleeping bag, or completely unprepared, there are lots of little tips that just might save you from frostbite, hypothermia, or even a slow, cold, miserable death. So what should you do to insulate yourself from the cold? As Ben Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” Keep reading to learn some tips that can help you keep warm and dry even when it’s extremely cold outside. Let the investing begin!
How to Keep Warm:
The most important part of keeping warm is making sure that your body is properly insulated. This means that it not just about having enough clothes. What is even more important is that you know how to maximize the warmth that your clothes provide you.
Tip #1: Cover your most vulnerable areas.
Now, before you go and layer on all the clothes you have with you to ward off the chill, you need to remember that there are certain parts of your body that are more vulnerable to losing body heat-- namely your head, neck, wrist, hands, feet, and ankles. In fact, an uncovered head can cause you to lose 40-45% of your body heat. ACK! So it’s extremely important that these areas are adequately covered.
Tip#2: Keep your clothes clean and dry.
Soiled or dirty clothes lose much of their insulation value – they won’t keep you as warm as clean clothes can. “Dirty clothes?” you ask. Yep. This is because dirt and sweat reduce air pockets in your clothes which ends up causing heat to escape more quickly from your body. Dry clothing is important to keeping warm. Wear clothes that are water repellant or at least not made of absorbent cotton so it won't get damp or wet that easily. If your clothes do get wet, make sure to change into dry ones immediately.
Tip#3: Avoid overheating.
Though it may not seem possible, you can actually cause your body to overheat in cold weather. When this happens, you will start to sweat - your body's way of cooling off, and when you cool off, you lose body heat that's essential to keeping warm. Bad news. To top it all, your clothes become damp which reduces their ability to keep you insulated. So, if you feel like your body is starting to overheat, adjust the amount of clothing you are wearing. Uncover your head or use lighter headgear. You can also uncover your hands or partially open your jacket to help dissipate your extra body heat.
Tip#4: Wear loose, layered clothing.
If you want to keep yourself warm, it is important that you wear clothing that won't restrict your blood flow. Blood circulation helps keep you warm. In addition, layering your clothing traps air between your body and the environment which helps insulate your body. To increase insulation, let your inner homeless man out (don’t be ashamed...we all have one) and put fibrous materials such as grass or dried leaves between your layers of clothing. This is a great way, again, to increase the amount of trapped air.
Tip #5: Start a fire.
Not only will a fire will keep you warm, but it can also be used to cook food or heat water. Consuming food and water can also help keep you warm. Fire is also particularly useful for drying out any damp or wet clothes you have. (Imagine that!)
Photo by ilkerender. Used under Creative Commons license.
Tip #6: Stay active.
Staying active can help keep you warm because it helps increase blood circulation. I’m not advocating an hour of intense working out because this would make you sweat (which we’ve already said makes you LOSE heat). A great "passive" exercise you can do to increase circulation without breaking out in a sweat is to tense and relax your muscles for a few minutes.
Tip #7: Think about your internal body temperature.
Your body works really hard to keep its internal temperature at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, snow might seem like a good source for water, but the very fact that it’s cold means that your body has to put out more energy to melt it and bring it to normal body temperature. So, when you are considering food/drink, go the extra mile and heat it up over the fire. If you find yourself lying in your nicely insulated sleeping bag and realize that you really “have to go,” don’t wait. “Holding it” just wastes energy by giving your body extra fluid to keep warm.
Insulating your shelter
Tip #1: Make your shelter just large enough to accommodate you.
Keeping the space inside your shelter small will ensure that you only have a small amount of air to keep warm thereby conserving your body heat. In addition, a smaller space will take less time to heat so you’ll be warm in no time.
Tip #2: Use fibrous materials to insulate your shelter.
Whether you are lucky enough to have a tent or if you’re building a makeshift shelter using your trusty survival knife, you’ll need to add layers to it in order to keep it warm and cozy. Using materials like dead leaves, moss, pine needles, and grass to layer the inside and the outside of your shelter will create additional air pockets that will help keep the heat inside. You’ll also want to use these same materials on the floor of your shelter to prevent the cold ground from zapping your body heat. Do this even if you have a heavy duty sleeping bag to make sure that your sleeping bag will remain dry.
Photo by peupleloup. Used under Creative Commons license.
Tip #3: Insulate your bed.
Place a hot water bottle inside your sleeping bag. You can also opt to stuff your sleeping bag with your loose gear or fibrous materials to lessen the amount of air and space that you poor body is working so hard to keep warm.
Tip #4: Block the entrance of your shelter to keep the heat in and the wind out.
Tip #5: Avoid building shelter on low ground such as narrow valleys or ravines.
Cold air is heavier than warm air, so these areas will be colder (especially at night) than the high ground surrounding them.
What? No Shelter?
Now, if by any chance you aren’t able to build your own shelter or you don’t have a tent, there are some natural wilderness shelters that will go a long way in helping you to stay warm. Natural formations like caves, trees, and rocky crevices can provide you a much needed cover from the wind. Fallen trees and logs can also act as useful windbreakers. If you can, try digging out a small pit beside the log or tree using your survival knife or a sharp rock to give you more cover. Once you find your temporary shelter, you can start insulating it by creating a fire and layering the ground with fibrous materials. If you happen to be in the desert, make sure to use sun heated rocks to keep yourself warm at night. Those sun-heated rocks, incidentally, work as great heat reflectors and wind blockers to keep behind you as you sleep near your fire.
In a cold weather survival situation, keeping yourself warm is the most important thing you'll need to do to be able to make it through the night. Cold weather can make you feel uncomfortable (yes, even more so that you already do given that you are in a survival situation) and can even result in frostbite, hypothermia, or both. Even worse, feeling cold and extremely uncomfortable can make you lose your will to live. So be prepared. Remember these tips. Store them in your mental reserves to be pulled out and used if you ever find yourself in an unfortunately cold survival situation.