Cold Weather Survival Winter Preparedness

Cold Weather Survival

Difficulty of Cold Weather Survival

Surviving the harsh cold might be one of the most dangerous survival obstacles.

As a Texas resident what do I really know about the cold you might ask. Perhaps what is consider cold here is luke warm to others who are more familiar with the frigid northern climates. For me cold weather survival is no joke. The cold is an enemy itself and winter weather can be very unpredictable especially if you have no access to forecast.

In my line of work of industrial construction it puts me out in the elements year round and I would rather be caught in a surprise torrential thunderstorm 100′ off the ground standing on a steel beam than to work an entire day in the cold. Despising everything that has to do with cold for work I must be able to climb and maneuver and when the temps get below 40F it starts to get miserable for me really quick.

Brain Freeze: Chilling Effects

Freezing temperatures is a far greater threat to survival than some may realize. Long before serious life threatening symptoms such as frost bite or hypothermia set in you’ll experience mental & physical effects. Despite common sense that exercise gets the blood flowing and warms you quickly being cold in general removes drive and motivation to do anything. In a cold weather survival situation time is of the essence and undo haste makes waste.

Naturally the human body has to work harder to keep itself warm than it does to cool in what most consider hot temperatures. All that work is the reason the cold makes your tired and hungry. Being tired, hungry and cold all at the same time is mentally challenging to the extent of clouding your thoughts. Judgement is affected as your body becomes uncomfortably cold. Going back to my reference of the cold being an enemy itself, that enemy will attempt to rob you of your will to survive. And that will to survive is the key to any survival situation!

Winter Weather Is Unpredictable

In a survival situation without access to weather forecast drastic changes in weather can catch you off-guard. Being reminded of times I got up for work with temps in the 70s only to come home from a shift with temps down into the 30s. A 40 degree drop in temps over 10-12 hours isn’t uncommon with a strong fast-moving cold front. Add strong north winds and precipitation to those cold temps to see the difficulty cold weather survival can potentially be. Fire-making for example in freezing rain along with high winds is much more challenging.

Some General Survival Statistics

In 2013 there was 2,348 Search & Rescue operations inside National Parks within the United States. That statistic is telling of how ill prepared people willingly venture out into the wilderness. Those are planned trips! A significant portion of those SAR cases was people who are familiar with the outdoors. People who recognize the dangers of the wilderness yet still became victims.

When it comes to cold weather survival please don’t underestimate the significant dangers of the cold. In other survival scenarios there is a lot that one can make do without. But cutting corners when it comes to surviving harsh winter elements could prove deadly.

Hypothermia is the #1 Killer of Outdoor Enthusiast

For the most part I try to keep my survival tactics to practical and logical possibilities. There is a wealth of survival knowledge out there that seems to assume your survival skill requirements involve being able to survive on deserted island. In modern society the average person doesn’t need such advanced survival skills to survive likely scenarios. For most people they could break down, be stranded far away from civilization and survive with little to no skills or gear in a reasonable temperate climate. The cold changes those survival odds significantly!

About 1,300 people on average die each year from hypothermia in the United States. A significant percentage of those who die are in fact homeless people. Frankly the homeless are in a survival situation who are frequently ill-equipped to deal with elements. Unlike frostbite which is caused by much colder temps most cases of hypothermia involved temperatures between 30 and 50F. Everywhere in the continental United States reaches those temps at times during the winter.

Water temperatures don’t have to be anywhere near as cold as air temps to cause hypothermia. 60 to 70F Degree water temps can cause hypothermia and be deadly in as little as 2 hours. And the closer those water temps get to freezing death can occur in as little as few minutes.

Hypothermia Prevention & Treatment

The US Army teaches us to remember the following COLD acronym when dressing out for cold weather survival:

  • Cover: Covering as much exposed skin as possible will help keep maintain body heat. Most body heat escapes from your head so using beanie hats, scarfs and/or shemagh’s to cover head and neck will greatly help in retaining body heat. While gloves allow more versatility with your hands, in extreme cold weather mittens help prevents fingers from getting too cold because they keep your fingers close together.
  • Overheating: When it’s cold outside it’s important to prevent working up sweat. Often times layers of clothing should be removed only for the duration of doing strenuous work that would cause sweating. Sweat prevention will keep your bottom most layers from becoming saturated with perspiration.
  • Layers: Dress in layers appropriately. Wool or silk materials for bottom layers will hold body heat better than cotton fabrics will. Outermost garment should be resistant to rain which will also help prevent wind from penetrating inner layers.
  • Dry: Staying dry is critical to preventing cold related injuries such as hypothermia. Feet and hands are most susceptible to becoming damp especially in snowy or rainy conditions. Wet feet mean cold feet! Moisture wickening wool socks is advised.

Windchill and Frostbite

Cold Weather Survival Windchill

NWS Windchill

The chart above does a great job of showing how wind effects that “feels like” temperature but fails to show more realistic effects from being exposed for many hours. Showing the temperatures required to get frostbite in as quick as 30 minutes doesn’t tell us much about how many hours long exposure would affect us at slightly less cold temps.

 Extreme Cold Survival Basics.

Much of basic survival necessities are universal no matter the climate. You need some sort of shelter whether its hot or cold, what changes with the cold is the importance of those necessities. With colder temps urgency to acquire those basic means of survival is of higher importance. If it’s 90 degrees outside while it may suck to be in caught in a rain storm and left soaking wet it’s not going to have the same impacts as it would in colder environment.

The cold makes you more vulnerable doing without basics having a far greater impact on your survival odds than it would in warmer temps.


Usage of a camp-fire in the cold will help keep you warm and could also be used for melting snow or ice for drinkable water. The ability to drink warm fluids will also aid in knocking some of the chill off. Fire starting in wet & windy conditions often associated with cold winter weather can be difficult therefor once fire is established it should be maintained.  In a survival situation a fire can be a morale booster especially if it’s freezing cold outside.


Survival Shelter

Make shift shelters such as this bivouac survival shelter made from sticks and branches should be small & compact to help trap heat. Finding a fallen tree may provide a sturdy frame for a shelter that would require less work to enclose than the shelter pictured above. While it’s important for the access/egress to the shelter to be as small as possible to maintain as much heat as possible ventilation is important if fire is within your shelter.

In areas that lack trees and are completely covered in snow making a snow cave or pit might be required. A snow cave is a dig out of snow consisting of a tunnel to a small compact sheltered area just large enough to sleep in. When creating a snow cave it is important to make the sleeping area higher in elevation than the access opening. Doing so will help trap heat and allow the cold air to escape due to simply physics. Warm air rises and pushes colder air down.

Implementing Winter Preparedness Into Everyday Carry

Primary focus of this article is to help readers recognize the dangers and vulnerabilities associated with cold weather survival. Many of us keep bug out bags as well as some sort of survival kit within our vehicles which is great. Survival preparedness items should not be done with a set it and forget it mentality. Adjust BOBs, EDC packs, and car kits appropriately for seasonal climate changes.

Normal dress in the winter might be perfectly fine for driving from point A to B without out prolonged exposure outside the comforts of a climate controlled atmosphere. But what happens if you become stranded on the side of the road unable to run your heater and forced to walk for help? Consider adding some cold weather clothing, gloves, scarfs and headgear to your car kits. These items will allow you to have additional layers to put on in the event of such emergencies.

Hot hands brand hand & foot warmers is one item I firmly believe in having for the winter and frequently use. Hand warmers work great in the palm of gloves and don’t interfere with use of hands. Foot warmers on the other hand can make your feet sweat leaving feet cold when the warming finally wears off.

Stay Practical

Adding a bunch of cold weather clothing to an EDC backpack would add significant weight to your pack. All that additional weight might interfere with EDC bag being practical. Therefor you may want to limit yourself to carrying a pair of long-john style thermals. As with any preparedness item the need and importance of an item should exceed the burden. However the great thing about car kits is you’re not carrying the kit on your person but generally aren’t too far from your vehicle.

With current trends of polar vortex and the impacts winter weather has on roadways a car kit makes a lot of sense for cold weather survival. A recent example of winter disaster would be the January 2014 Gulf Coast Winter Storm. That storm caused people to be stranded on the frozen interstate for as long as 20+ hours. The freak winter storm was blamed for 13 deaths.


Self taught victim of circumstance educated by experience while operating on observation. A mere product of what society has crafted me to be.