How To Avoid Sickness And Hypothermia During Cold Weather
In the early stages of a critical situation during the fall and winter, it’s not shooting a deer or snaring a rabbit that’s going to keep you alive; it’s your ability to stay dry and warm that will determine your fate.
Remote regions can see lots of activity, even after the summer tourists have packed up and headed home. Hunting, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing and snowmobiling all lure people from their cozy homes into harsh environments. But, a fall in a stream or a break through the ice can turn a winter wonderland into a survival nightmare.
However, you don’t have to let the cold, wet weather “dampen” your enthusiasm for outside activities. Choosing the right gear, practicing certain skills and making smart decisions can leave you high and dry.
And, in this case, “high and dry” is where you want to be.
Keeping Yourself Dry
During even relatively mild weather, staying dry is a key factor in staying warm. In harsh weather, not being able to stay warm increases the likelihood of “unpleasant” situations such as hypothermia, frostbite and death.
A good place to start your efforts to stay warm and dry is with the clothes you choose. Clothing loses much of its insulating qualities when wet. In addition, evaporating moisture sucks heat from your body, essentially working on the same principle as a refrigerator—literally with chilling results.
Synthetics and Wool
Stay away from cotton. It’s soft and comfortable but, like a sponge, it absorbs and retains moisture. Choose synthetic materials or wool, especially for base layers. Merino wool is great, because it’s lightweight, softer and less itchy than other types of wool. Middle layers of fleece made of a synthetic/wool blend are excellent.
But don’t discount down jackets and vests. Down still provides the best insulation-to-weight value. And, down has big advantages, not only because of its light weight, but also because it can be compressed into a small package and stowed away in your pack when not needed. These days, the down in many garments and sleeping bags is treated to be more water resistant.
For outer garments, try to choose tightly knit or woven fabrics that can help block the wind and won’t soak up wet snow as readily. That means you shouldn’t wear those fuzzy mittens your grandma knit for you that allow wet snow to stick, ball up and soak in. An option would be to cover them with a water-resistant nylon outer mitt that allows you to brush away any accumulating snow.
For extremely wet weather, it’s hard to beat a waterproof rain suit consisting of a hooded jacket and stretchy pants. They’re especially effective when wind is also a factor. Choose a suit large enough to fit over other layers of clothing. Many well-made rain suits are too heavy and too bulky to pack when you’re already carrying extra insulating clothing at this time of the year, so keep an eye on the weight.
I prefer suits that, while maybe not as durable as heavy-duty products, excel because they pack small and light.
One I’ve been testing recently is the Frogg Toggs Pro Lite Suit. Selling for a reasonable $44.99, it’s waterproof, breathable and is made of L83 non-woven bi-laminate materials. I don’t have to know everything about what that means to know the suit weighs almost nothing—and it keeps me dry. The jacket has a large hood with a drawstring and elastic cuffs. It also has a full-length zipper for easy on and off, and there’s a snap-down storm flap over the zipper. The jacket and pants have elastic at the waist. This rain suit comes with a stuff sack for storage. If you like, use it to store your rain suit. But I do find that the stuff sack makes a great container for a camp bathroom kit. It even has a grommet at the top to hang it up.
Keep Those Toes Toasty
Keeping your extremities warm depends on keeping them dry as well. I’ve seen lots of hunts and other outings cut short because of cold, wet feet. The key is to choose footwear that keeps you dry and is also light and comfortable enough to cover miles on foot (if needed)—and with soles that provide needed traction in wet, slippery conditions.
I’ve treated leather boots with mink oil or wax, and that helped. And I’ve tried boots that were a mix of leather and synthetics that were supposed to be waterproof, but weren’t for long. Insulated boots with rubber lowers and leather uppers are good in snowy conditions, but they can be very heavy if lots of miles need to be traveled on foot.
For swampy, muddy, conditions with standing water or when shallow streams must be crossed, nothing beats tall rubber boots.
Several companies make very good ones. One excellent product is the Irish Setter (by Red Wing Shoes) MudTrek. These boots happen to be the lightest rubber boots in the company’s history. They come in several varieties. The ones I’m testing are 17 inches tall and have 1,200 grams of PrimaLoft insulation for warmth. Intended as a wet-weather hunting boot, these have a Mossy Oak Break-Up Country Camouflage exterior.
“ … a fall in a stream or a break through the ice can turn a winter wonderland into a survival nightmare.”
If my hike or hunt requires covering many miles, I might opt for the Irish Setter VaprTrek all-leather waterproof boots. Mine are 7 inches tall and extremely lightweight.
For venturing by canoe or kayak and around camp after a long day hunting in snowy, wet conditions, I like the Frogg Toggs Outlander Camp Shoe or the company’s mid-height Grinder Deck Shoe. Both are waterproof, slip on and off easily, and are very comfortable.
The Versatile Poncho
One piece of gear I’m never without at anytime of the year is a waterproof poncho. I’ve used ponchos in summer rainstorms and winter blizzards. I’ve slept on top of them when using them as ground cloths, and I’ve slept under them when they’re rigged into makeshift shelters. I’ve worn them in dry weather to block the wind to keep me warm. In the winter, I’ve draped them over a log for a dry place to sit while I ate lunch. And, I also keep one in my car in case I have to change a tire or crawl underneath the car to cut free a section of broken exhaust pipe (it always seems to be raining when those things happen!).
A poncho that’s large enough not only keeps you dry, it also fits over the top of your pack to keep your gear dry. I’ve carried a rifle tucked under the front of my poncho to keep it dry. In fact, I’ve also rigged ponchos with paracord to form quickie ground blinds for hunting.
Ponchos vary from super-thin models that fold to fit into a pocket to larger, more substantial versions. I’ve found all to have some usefulness. The small, cheap ones are great for pocket or fanny pack emergency kits. They’re handy but basically disposable after limited use.
Inexpensive ponchos made of EVA (an ethylene/vinyl acetate copolymer) last longer, are still lightweight and typically fold small enough for inclusion in a day pack with your other gear. They usually have plastic snaps to keep the sides together.
Always test your gear before you depend on it. Some of these inexpensive ponchos have small hoods that won’t cover your whole head. These ponchos will eventually tear. But, at about $10, if you have to replace them every year or two, it’s not a big expense.
The Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite2 Poncho weighs just 9 ounces. It has side snaps and a substantial hood with a drawstring and cord locks. It comes with a stuff sack that can be used a number of ways and sells for about $20.
My favorite heavy-duty poncho is the Mil-Spec Plus G.I. Style Poncho from Major Surplus and Survival. It’s made of rubber-coated nylon and is much more durable than vinyl ponchos. It’s large enough (56×86 inches) to cover your pack and you. You can use the side snaps to connect two ponchos when rigging them as a shelter. This poncho has rust-resistant metal grommets around the edges and ties at the corners, all of which help secure it when using it as a shelter or tarp. I own several. It sells for $29.95.
Stay Dry? No Sweat
Staying dry isn’t only a matter of weathering the rain and snow. It’s also a matter of not working up a sweat. In a survival situation, you must sometimes gather firewood, construct a shelter, trudge through deep snow or hike with heavy winter gear. All can be rigorous activities and that can mean sweat. On winter hikes with a pack, I’m often down to a T-shirt to limit sweating when I’m moving.
Layering allows you to add or remove clothing as needed to stay warm and dry. Just make sure you leave enough room in your pack to stow your warm clothes. I’ve lashed bulky jackets to the outside of my pack many times.
When you feel that prickly feeling on your skin, you’ve already started to sweat. (That sweater from Grandma that matches your mittens should have been removed and stowed in your pack before that.)
Keeping Your Gear Dry
Keeping your gear and extra clothes dry is critical. I’ve lined packs with garbage bags and sometimes organized clothing items, such as spare socks, in smaller bags within the pack. You can also fit your pack with a water-resistant pack cover.
Of course, there are dry-bags and duffels made specifically for keeping your gear dry. They’re a smart idea when traveling by canoe or kayak, and they can also be handy in a wet-weather camp.
For a dry-bag and water-resistant duffel, I again turned to Frogg Toggs. This company specializes in staying dry, so it’s usually my first online stop for such gear. Its 50-liter FTX Gear Waterproof Dry Bag is made with tough PVC tarpaulin fabric with a reinforced bottom. A cool thing about this bag is that it also includes a removable insulated liner so you can use the bag as a soft-sided cooler. The bag has a shoulder strap to make toting it easier.
The FTX Gear Waterproof Duffel Bag has a top zipper, carry handles on the ends and two that join at the top. It measures 23×11.75×12.25 inches and has a zippered mesh pouch on the inside lid. It features tie-down loops and D-rings for lashing the bag. Made with PVC tarpaulin fabric, this bag can be secured to the roof rack atop your car to free up space inside.
Remember Your Electronics
We can’t help but bring our gadgets with us these days. If your electronic devices—phones, tablets, battery packs, cameras—get a dousing, it can be a costly setback. It’s worse if you made the mistake of depending on a phone app as your sole means of navigation.
LOKSAK makes resealable plastic bags in a wide range of sizes for things you want to keep dry—from passports and maps to phones and laptop computers. These reusable bags feature two seals, instead of just one, to help ensure your gear is safe from moisture, as well as dust and sand. Some of LOKSAK’s products seal in odors (OPSAK)—quite useful in bear country. Some protect against radio frequency intrusion (SHIELDSAK), and some are waterproof to 200 feet (SUBSAK). SPLASHSAKS feature attachment points for wrist or neck straps.
I tested a couple of bags by putting my phone in one and my laptop computer in another. Then, I tossed them into a nearby creek. Not only did the phone and computer stay dry, there was also enough air trapped inside so that they both floated. I was sold right there!
Another option is purchasing Ziptuck sandwich bags from Full Circle. These are really heavy-duty, washable and reusable bags. I use the size that’s approximately 8×8 inches. However, Ziptucks only have a single sealable strip, so I wouldn’t rely on them to be as waterproof as LOKSAKs. Nevertheless, I use them to organize small gear items and to contain small survival kits that will fit in the cargo pocket of my pants. In a pinch, they can be pressed into service as a collapsible canteen, because they’ll hold over a quart of water.
On Your Best Behavior
Staying dry requires good decision-making too.
In other words: Think twice before you hopscotch slippery rocks to cross a stream. You shouldn’t cross a lake with “iffy” ice, either on foot or by snowmobile. Don’t struggle through deep snow until you’re soaked and exhausted; snowshoes—even improvised ones—would be a better choice (read Jack London’s To Build a Fire, and the lesson about such things will be absolutely clear).
Watch the weather. Sometimes, it’s actually easier to stay dry when the temperature’s colder. When the mercury hovers around the freezing point, soaking rain or heavy, wet snow can be a greater threat than when snow brushes right off in colder temperatures.
You’re All Wet
Something went wrong, and now, you’re soaking wet. What now?
If you’ve established a camp, get into your shelter and get out of the wet clothes. You should also have previously prepared firewood so it’s stockpiled and ready to burn.
If you have no camp or can’t get to it quickly, try to find a place sheltered from the wind and get a fire going. The ability to start a fire in wet conditions is a skill you should practice. Shavings from standing dead trees can help. Be patient when drying gear by a fire, and monitor it continually: I’ve seen socks, gloves and boots burned crispy beyond use on several occasions.
A Serious Threat
Hypothermia is a condition as a result of which your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, leading to a drop in body temperature.
So, what should you do? According to the Mayo Clinic:
- Limit excessive, vigorous or jarring movements that could trigger cardiac arrest.
- Get to a warm, dry location.
- Remove wet clothing.
- Cover yourself with dry blankets or coats.
- Insulate yourself from the ground.
- Drink warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.
- Don’t use or apply direct heat, such as hot water or a heating pad.
As a teenager, I went on a solo winter backpacking overnight with the family dog. I was several miles from the nearest plowed road.
I thought I knew what I was doing, but my sleeping bag wasn’t adequate for the conditions. During the night, I started shivering uncontrollably.
I was exhibiting the early signs of hypothermia.
I dragged my dog, a shepherd-retriever mix, into my sleeping bag with me—and that saved me. Toward morning, I got up and built a fire, having been smart enough to have at least gathered wood the evening before. I made hot cocoa and warmed myself by the fire until sunrise, when it was time to move on.
A Risk of Permanent Injury
Frostbite is when your skin and underlying tissue freeze. Extremities—fingers, toes, ears, cheeks, chin—are commonly the first to be affected. Numbness, pale patches of skin and skin that feels hard or looks waxy are all early signs of frostbite.
Frostbite requires medical attention but, according to the Mayo Clinic, there are some things you can do:
- Get out of the cold.
- Rewarm affected areas slowly with warm—not hot—water.
- Don’t rub affected areas.
- Don’t use direct heat from a fire or stove to thaw frozen tissue.
- Drink warm, non-alcoholic liquids to warm yourself from the inside.
- Keep thawed tissue from refreezing.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.