Let’s face it, much of Britain is not famed for particularly harsh winters, with our occasional and generally light snowfalls (compared to other countries) nearly always causing chaos. Because of our relatively mild climate and modern luxuries like central heating, many of us never really have to consider survival situations. Yet any one of us could very quickly and unexpectedly find ourselves caught out in a cold environment through scenarios such as a car breakdown or getting lost while hiking. Temperatures do not need to be freezing to put your life at risk. Being prepared is key to survival in cold weather, here’s what you need to remember:
The combination of trying to keep your body warm and the stress of trying to survive will burn through your energy reserves very quickly. Eating anything edible is better than nothing but ideal choices would be simple sugars and carbohydrates that your body can quickly convert to energy, like fruit, chocolate, nuts and energy bars.
You can get easily dehydrated in cold weather because your body is working harder than usual. Cold weather is often accompanied by dry air, your lungs need to work harder to humidify and warm the ar you’re breathing and you may not realise how much you may be sweating as it evaporates quicker.
Avoid caffeine as it is a diuretic (makes you pee more) and alcohol is a definite no-no as it raises the risk of hypothermia by increasing blood flow and heat loss. Neither should you eat snow, it may carry bacteria and your body will waste energy warming it up. If you need to use snow or ice to hydrate, make sure it is boiled first.
Stay active and keep moving around to keep your heart rate up and your circulation flowing but remember to keep it at a moderate pace. You want to avoid getting sweaty as this will cool your system down when you need to be preserving heat.
In very cold environments, water is your enemy. Because water exchanges heat up to 25 times faster than air, the risk of hypothermia is much greater if you are damp. In a planned situation you would have gone out dressed in warm and waterproof clothing but obviously in a survival situation that might not be the case. Shelter quickly from falling snow hail or rain, avoid getting sweaty and do not take the risk of walking on ice or through water.
Wind will sap your warmth very quickly while snow or rain will make you wet. If you can’t find a natural shelter, try and build one if you have any usable materials to hand. Try a simple ‘A’ frame or a lean-to with branches and a tarp. If there is heavy snow, dig a hole just large enough to curl up in comfortably, cover it with branches and another layer of snow for insulation. Don’t forget to cover your entrance with branches and to leave yourself ventilation. Whatever shelter you find or build, you will get better insulation if you put a barrier between you and the ground.
If you have the means and materials available, build and light a fire to keep you warm, boil snow and ice for water, dry clothing and to keep your morale up.
The biggest immediate dangers in very cold environments are hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia is when the body’s temperature drops dangerously below 35 C (normal temperature is around 37 C) and the body’s vital organs start to shut down. First symptoms, when someone’s temperature has fallen to between 32 C and 35 C, may include uncontrollable shivering, cold or pale skin, tiredness, confusion and slurred speech. By the time they have reached severe hypothermia stage with a body heat of less than 32C, they will stop shivering and will probably pass out.
As soon as the first signs are suspected, the affected person should try and warm up gradually. Shelter and wrap them in warm clothing or blankets, protecting them from the ground and place a warm (not hot!) bottle inside the garments near their torso. If they can swallow normally, then give them a warm drink and some energy rich food. Get them to a place of safety and professional help as soon as possible.
Frostbite happens when exposed to freezing temperatures, it usually occurs to extremities such as noses, ears, fingers and toes. The fluids within cells freezes, potentially causing irreversible damage and tissue death. It begins by feeling very cold and painful, then it may progress to pins and needles as the circulation to the area decreases. In the early stages, the affected areas need to be warmed gently. Someone with suspected frostbite should get medical help urgently as they may well have hypothermia as well. The extent of frostbite injuries may not be apparent for days and can be extremely painful.