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9 Tips To Survive Extreme Cold Weather

So, what should you do if you find yourself outdoors in sub-zero weather? Check out these 9 tips on how to survive extreme cold weather.

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Whether hiking, skiing, camping, or snowshoeing, staying warm while outdoors during winter is a constant challenge. Cold weather survival is even more difficult when the temperatures drop below -20 degrees Fahrenheit.

And no matter how much we wish it, human beings do not hibernate. So, what should you do if you find yourself outdoors in sub-zero weather?

Check out these 9 tips on how to survive extreme cold weather.

Pack extreme cold weather clothing

Clothing strategy when the temperatures are too low is the key to cold weather survival.

Layers, layers, layers

Wearing several layers of clothing is probably the best decision you’ll make on how to stay warm in cold weather. The layers trap heat, thus keeping you warm, and you can peel them off if it gets too hot.

Start with long underwear capable of keeping the skin as dry as possible. The middle layer should consist of puffy or fleece jackets, and rain gear will protect you from the elements.

The middle and outer layers should be able to glide on and off as required. Blood circulation and making adjustments become difficult if the layers are too tight.

Avoid anything made from cotton because it soaks up water quickly and dries slowly. This heightens the risk of hypothermia. Rather than wait for the weather to get brutal, start layering at the first signs of rain or wind.

Gloves, mittens, hat, and footwear

Dressing for cold temperatures also includes keeping the extremities warm. Invest in great gloves, boots, and hats.

Synthetic and wool bunnies provide ample protection, and your shell jacket’s hood can shield you from the rain. Avoid fleece gloves since they only provide basic warmth.

Gloves insulated with waterproof or breathable shells will be more effective in cold weather.

Mittens are quite effective at keeping your digits warm. While they limit mobility, mittens cluster your fingers and allow the production of extra body heat.

Investing in quality footwear is a MUST if you plan on venturing outdoors in the winter. Waterproof boots specially designed for winter offer more protection and traction on the ice.

Look for winter-rated boots, preferably with removable insulation that makes drying them out easier. Make sure they are not too tight as this could constrict circulation. 

Double boots feature an inner felt lining and a high-top outer boot. They’re comfortable and warm, but pricey.

Display of multiple cold weather survival clothes, gear and accesories

A rugged mountaineering boot offers the same advantages at a lower cost. Foam-lined rubber boots are just as effective at keeping your feet, but they cause more perspiration.

Wear a pair of thin-lined socks and thick wool ones for optimal warmth. Consider packing a third pair for sleeping in.

Wearing a vapor barrier like plastic bags over your feet in extreme temperatures traps more heat while preventing sweat from reaching the socks.

Cover any exposed body parts

Exposing the skin, however small an area, is a quick way to lose heat and expose yourself to snow and cold water.

And even with all the aforementioned clothing, it's easy to forget about the ears and neck.

Cover the top of your ears to retain more heat without losing the ability to listen for predators. A scarf, fur-lined hats, ski mask, or jacket hood with fur ruff for the neck will suffice.

A face mask and winter goggles will cover the remaining exposed skin and allow you to breathe comfortably in case of strong winds.

Check out this video on how to dress for extremely cold weather, created by The Planet D.

Stay dry

It may seem like an obvious precaution, but staying dry is a priority. Cold has a way of sneaking up on you while outdoors. Puddles of water, sweating beneath the layers and snow slushes are different ways you can get wet.

If that happens, remove the wet clothing and dry it as soon as possible. Wearing clothing made from synthetic materials is a great way to avoid sweating beneath the layers.


Prepare winter survival food and hydration

Putting together a winter survival food kit before your trip might just save your life.

The ideal kit includes a heat source, food & water container, hot chocolate and cider packets, tea bags, packets of sweetener and honey, oatmeal, packets of dry soup, ramen, as well as packets of coffee and lemonade mix.

One of the lesser-known methods of how to stay warm in extreme cold is eating spicy food. Spicy seasonings like chili peppers contain capsaicin that does more than provide a delicious kick. They increase body temperature, thus keeping you warm.

If you would like to learn more about food that can increase your chances of survival, check out our guide on the best survival food.

Hydration is crucial to cold weather survival. Most people associate dehydration with hot weather, but it is also a risk in the winter.

Your body will not tell you that it needs fluids when it’s too cold and as such, dehydration is easy. Drinking water improves the body’s ability to retain heat and ensures the proper function of the nervous system.

Don’t make the mistake of melting snow with body heat as this quickens the onset of hypoglycemia and hypothermia.

Alternatively, pack an immersion heater. It heats up almost immediately, allowing you to turn snow to drinkable water without risking your health. Using an insulated bottle can keep your water from freezing.

Learn about methods of making water drinkable in our guide on how to purify water.

Check out this guide on how to build and use a winter survival kit, made by Taromovies.

Stay on schedule

Setting up and dismantling tents take longer in extreme cold weather conditions compared to the summer. This is why it’s so important to stay on schedule.

Time regular breaks to snack and hydrate during the day. Stop early to allow enough time for preparing camp before it gets dark. A weatherproof watch goes a long way towards easing scheduling.

Maintain a constant heart rate

Body positioning, weight, medication, and body temperature are a few of the factors that affect resting heart rate.

Cold weather reduces the core body temperature, which lowers the heart rate and slows down blood flow. This increases the risk of hypothermia, a life-threatening condition in winter survival.

Getting your heart rate up can slow or stop hypothermia. One way to do that is by working out outside in the cold. High knee running or jumping jacks will boost heart rate and generate much-needed heat.

It's also important that you keep moving and not stop for long periods. Set a pace that keeps you warm while keeping the perspiration at bay. Striking a balance between warming up and not sweating too much in your core is the ultimate goal.

The ideal pace should have you breathing heavily. Slow down if you start panting.

Build a fire

Fire is the most effective method of warming up in extremely cold weather, but building one is not always possible. Nevertheless, knowing how to build a fire in the winter and maintain it is crucial to night-long comfort.

Always bring three methods of starting a fire that you know how to utilize. These may include fire starting sticks, Tesla lighter, fire laces, or Bic lighters. 

Learning how to start a fire with sticks could be a lifesaver in cold weather survival situations. You'll need a dry straight stick, kindling, bunch of dry sticks, dry flat wood to use as fire hearth, and a dry, fine bundle of tinder.

You can use one of three techniques to start the fire i.e. fire plow, hand drill, and bow drill. All of these methods are friction-based.

Check out this video about starting a fire in winter conditions, created by The Outside Files.

Cold weather survival shelter

A shelter that protects you from the cold ground and elements is critical for surviving the cold in the woods.

You can count on a 4-season rated cold weather tent to keep you warm in extreme scenarios. It is an essential extreme cold weather gear that boasts less mesh netting and larger vestibule areas than three-season tents.

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This allows for increased heat retention and storage for snow-covered outerwear and footwear. When looking for a place to pitch your cold weather tent, pick a spot that is away from avalanche danger and sheltered from the wind.

If possible, look for a spot that will expose you to the sunrise to warm up faster in the morning.

Other factors to consider when pitching a tent include water source, nearby landmarks to help you find the camp in the dark, unstable, or damaged trees and privacy.

Pack the snow to create a level base before setting up the tent. Pack snow onto the bottom of external edges for added wind protection. Use standard snow stacks for optimal support and keep anything that may tear the tent away from the shelter.

A tent won’t be enough to keep you warm at night. Pack a sleeping bag, a cold weather camping blanket and a couple of sleeping pads as well in your cold weather survival kit.

One sleeping bag should be made from closed-cell foam and the other an insulated inflatable. Invest in a Nalgene bottle, fill it with boiling water, and put it in the sleeping bags. It will generate heat for up to five hours.

If you don’t have a cold weather tent, building a snow survival shelter will help you throughout the night. An abandoned cabin, while not always available, is a lucky find when you are stranded.

Check out this video from Ray Mears on how to build a snow survival shelter.

Cold weather illnesses to avoid

Hypothermia, hypoglycemia, and frostbite are real dangers of cold weather exposure.

Frostbite occurs when the water molecules in skin cells freeze. Once frozen, the cells die quickly leading to irreversible nerve and muscular damage.

Exposed skin can develop frostbite in less than thirty minutes in -5 degrees Fahrenheit and 10 MPH winds. Stronger winds can cause frostbite in five minutes. This is why blizzards are considered so dangerous. The first sign of frostbite is frostnip and if it develops, rewarm the affected areas.

Hypothermia starts developing when the core body temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The internal organs start shutting down if the body temperature falls outside the required range for proper function.

Unfortunately, it's not easy to know you're entering hypothermia because the symptoms occur gradually.

Mild hypothermia presents in the form of shivers and lack of coordination. If you start experiencing unexplained heat, slurred speech, low energy, or a weak pulse and shivering stops, you're in trouble.

To avoid hypothermia, avoid getting wet. Wetness and coldness are not a good combination, especially in survival mode. Monitor breathing and heart rate to monitor the progression of the illness.

Drink warm water and wrap the bottle in a clean, dry cloth then place it on the chest, groin, or neck. Avoid drinking out of a bottle that is cold to the touch. Skin-to-skin contact, if you are not alone, can alleviate symptoms of hypothermia.

Last but not least, don't walk across ice if you aren't sure it can hold your weight. Avoid crossing it altogether because the cost can be terrible.

Hypoglycemia occurs after depletion of the body's energy, often due to a combination of cold and survival activities. When exposed to cold weather, the human body converts energy to warm through uncontrollable shivering.

Survival situations stress the body, which turns fat stores to quick energy in preparation for either fight or flight. Both are a huge waste of energy that could come handy in cold weather survival.

Symptoms of hypoglycemia include cardiac arrhythmia and mental confusion. Staying fueled is the most effective method of avoiding hypoglycemia. Eat plenty of carbohydrates and simple sugars like those found in fruits and vegetables.

Make sure you pack sugar foods such as granola bars, honey, dark chocolate, mixed nuts, granola, and nut butter before embarking on your trip. They will provide all the energy needed for extreme cold weather survival.

Check out this video with winter camping tips, from REI.

Essential cold weather survival gear

Regardless of the nature of your trip, bringing basic cold weather emergency gear is a MUST.

The ideal kit should include a spare hat and gloves, extra mid-layer fleece jacket, chemical heat packs, fire-starting kit with lighter and waterproof matches, closed-cell foam pad insulation, space blanket, and a bivy bag.

These essentials will increase your chances of surviving brutal temperatures in case you are injured, stranded in the middle of nowhere, the weather changes, or your car breaks down.

Cold weather survival conclusions

Now that you know everything about extreme cold weather survival, you should calm down and focus on what you need to do.

Layer your clothes, protect the extremities, eat, hydrate, build a fire – all of these winter survival tips and your intuition will keep you alive regardless of what happens.

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