Home News 5 Tips for Surviving Outdoors in the Cold
5 Tips for Surviving Outdoors in the Cold

5 Tips for Surviving Outdoors in the Cold

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For some, the recreation season ends when the days grow short and the thermometer falls below freezing. To some hardy souls, though, winter is just another season in a year-round devotion to the outdoors.

For those in the latter group, cold temperatures bring a host of challenges that make outdoor recreation in the winter a bit more complicated and even dangerous: Frostbite, hypothermia, dehydration, injury.

Surviving Outdoors in the Cold

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the great outdoors when the temperature drops. It just means you need to dress, eat, and act responsibly to keep yourself safe. You can do just that by following a few simple but crucial tips.

Global Rescue provides medical and security advisory to travelers all over the world, with a staff of highly trained specialists who study and analyze best survival practices for all kinds of situations. Here are some of their recommendations.

The right clothing

It seems obvious: In colder weather, you need to wear warmer clothes. But not all of the bulky long-sleeved and insulated garments you own are right for the outdoors.

“Everybody should always start with some sort of moisture-wicking base layer,” says Global Rescue Medical Operations Manager and former Navy SEAL Matt Napiltonia. “If you sweat, you need to get that moisture away from your skin, and preferably evaporating out and not into your clothes, so that you don’t lose the effectiveness of whatever other layers you’ve got on.”

Add on a mid-layer that will hold in the heat your body generates, and top it all off with a jacket that combines insulation with water resistance so you’re covered in the case of snow.

Surviving Outdoors in the Cold

Your feet are both a source of heat and an area easily affected by the cold, so finding the right fit is vital. A boot that fits too snugly will actually make your feet colder by inhibiting circulation. In fact, some outdoor enthusiasts find themselves loosening and even removing their shoes from time to time to get the blood flowing, but that’s far from a good solution.

Your best bet for warmth when it comes to your hands might be a set of bulky, heavily insulated mittens. Of course, if you need to actually use your hands, they might not be the best bet.

Fuel the machine

What you put inside your body is just as important for cold-weather activity as what you wear on the outside of it. Good nutrition is what gives your body the ability to generate its own warmth when there’s none to be found in the weather outside.

“Stay away from things that contain sugars. They give you that burst of energy, but then come with a significant lag or crash afterwards,” Napiltonia says. “What you want are long proteins, carbohydrates, things that are going to take the body a little bit longer than just a little bit of glucose – nuts, dried fruit, dried meats, jerkies – that won’t require a ton of packing space.”

And while the word “dehydration” conjures images of chasing imaginary oases in a blistering hot desert, your body can – and will – get dehydrated in the cold. Even if you aren’t sweating and the snow around you makes it hard to feel “thirsty,” your body still needs a steady supply of water to function, especially if you’re active.

Carry the right gear

If you’re going to go out in the cold to a remote location, you need to give yourself some options if something goes wrong. A cell phone is a good start, but some of the best spots for adventure are the ones farthest from a cell tower. A satellite phone is a worthwhile investment for anyone who ventures away from civilization. And a tracking or messaging device can be a good alternative too.

Also in your pack should be extra supplies to keep the chill away. Hand and foot warmer packets are good for frozen digits. They can also be a good source of quick heat thrown in a pants or jacket pocket.

“If you’re going to be way out in the backcountry, you should have a small survival kit. A shovel, fire-starting tools, a flint-strike setup of some sort. Matches, extra water, and a blanket or sleeping bag,” Napiltonia says.

Avoid hypothermia and frostbite

Hypothermia happens fast – probably faster than you’re imagining. There are several factors that play into how quickly your body will dip below the 95-degree threshold. This marks the start of hypothermia. These factors include any alcohol or drug use, medical conditions, and age. Most of all, submersion in water escalates the danger almost exponentially.

Surviving Outdoors in the Cold“Be mindful of inadvertently ending up in a body of water. Especially if the temperature’s down under 50 degrees,” Napiltonia says. “It’s very easy to succumb within minutes if you’re submerged in a cold body of water.”

Fingers, toes, noses and other vulnerable areas don’t just go from healthy to frostbitten in an instant. There are indicators to let you know that you need to do something before irreversible damage sets in. The first stage of frostbite is known as frostnip. It’s a treatable condition that also serves as a warning that your body is in trouble.

Skin exposed to temperatures under 15 degrees can show signs of frostbite within 30 minutes. Sub-zero temperatures can inflict frostbite in less than 10 minutes.

Know how to handle an injury

While a sprained ankle in civilization is just an annoyance and maybe a trip to the doctor’s office, in wintry wilderness it could cause far more serious problems. A more severe injury like a broken leg brings additional complications. The colder air will impair blood flow, and an injury can exacerbate the issue, which can lead to shock.

That’s how a broken bone or an open wound becomes a life-threatening condition.

“In those situations, time becomes a factor. Staying warm and not losing whatever existing warmth and body temperature you have will save your life in those conditions. So make sure you always have an emergency blanket,” Napiltonia says. “Staying hydrated is also important. It’ll help you with temperature regulation, so your body will not have to work quite as hard to maintain homeostasis.”

Global Rescue has provided travelers all over the world with medical advisory and evacuation services since 2004, with more than 15,000 missions completed. Before your next trip, consider a Global Rescue membership as part of your survival plan. For more, go to www.globalrescue.com.

Corrie

Co-Founder and Lead Editor of Overland Bound. Can often be found behind the camera during trips.


Adventure seeker. Dog wrangler. Writer. Partner in crime to Michael.  Lover of nature and all things outdoors. Here's to forging down new trails, connecting with others, and the unapologetic pursuit happiness! #outfitandexplore

Comment(19)

  1. I love the article, but if the idea of sleeping in the snow is scary, come visit the SouthWest.  For us winter is pleasantly mild and usually sunny, although periods of cloudy weather and freezing cold do occur. Snow is rare and generally light.  In my opinion, it's some of the best camping near the boarder.

  2. Thank you @Corrie  and @Michael  for writing the article! Just because it is snowing, cold or frigid doesn't mean the overland season has to end! A few other things to consider that the article doesn't mention. Most of this is from my Search and Rescue experience where I have slept outside (NOT in a tent, but in a bivy and mummy bag…in the snow to as low as single digits):

    1. "Cotton Kills." This is a saying we say in SAR before every winter and to all new Mountaineers. Cotton clothes retain moisture and moisture in freezing temperatures can remove body heat, cause hypothermia and are almost impossible to dry, even if you can start a fire. Do NOT wear cotton socks, cotton undergarments, cotton underwear, cotton shirts, hats nothing. Ensure all your garments are poly, wool, fleece and 0% cotton. Even a shirt that is a 60/40 split of cotton to synthetic…it's retaining moisture.

    2. Protect your electronics. Whether you sleep in a mummy bag or 0 degree bag, put your electronics; phone, watch, gps, gadgets, tablets etc into the footwell of your sleeping bag in a ziplock bag or stuff sack. Your body heat will protect your valuable, essential and expensive gadgets.  In weather/cold below 15 degrees, I have actually had the saline solution for my contacts freeze over and destroy my contacts…Now, even essential personal safety/hygiene goes into the bottom of my bag.

    3. The article discusses layering clothes, which is the proper technique. A baselayer of synthetic or wool attire, underwear, socks etc. I wear long johns made of synthetic fabric. If I am expecting overly cold weather (talking temps in the teens or less) I will put fleece pants on over my long johns, then my SAR Tactical pants. For a top, over your baselayer, you can wear a cold weather sweater, fleece jacket or wool jacket. Always have a water barrier or waterproof jacket/shell in cold weather. If the weather changes or shifts, you can put your shell on over your fleece/wool or down jacket to add protection from moisture. If you are doing strenuous activity, cutting wood, clearing trail, hiking etc…err on the side of being a bit cold rather than too hot. Sweat/moisture on your body is the enemy.

    4. "You can go alone, as long as you take someone else." Another SAR saying. NEVER camp in cold weather alone. If a mate gets hypothermia, even opening a car door or inserting keys into the ignition can be impossible with frozen or damage appendages or fingers. If you ever want to try this, go to a cold climate and let your hands get cold and try to tie your shoes, zip up your jacket or other fine motor skills and unfortunately, your body doesn't comply. If you have a buddy, you have a fighting chance of working together through adversity, tribulation, challenges or emergencies.

    Also, check your buddy for warmth, hydration, hypothermia, cognition (ask them to tell a detailed story or explain how to do something and be aware of their mental state.) Even if you feel that are "fine" check each other often, especially in freezing climates.

    5. Last bit I will share is use waterproofing spray on everything before you go. Especially the breathable Goretex friendly sprays. Yes, most of the clothes, boots, jackets we buy for winter camping say "waterproof" or "water resistant" on the labels, but as we wear items, wash items and store items, the waterproofing agents in the clothing/fabric becomes less effective. I spray my boots before every cold weather mission, my jackets (especially seams), my tent, my sleeping bag (especially toe box/foot well of bag, I hate wet feet) and any other fabrics I think may find moisture.

    6. OK, last, last tip I will share is practice before you go camping or overlanding overnight. Take a day trip to the snow, try out your gear, take a nap in your rig, tent or bivy and see what gets cold. Build a fire on top of snow, with wet wood…can you do it? Cause if you aren't successful, you would rather learn during practice, than in the real when your hands are cold, your stomach is empty and your situational awareness is fading. Trust me, cold weather compounds frustration and stressful situations.

    7. OK, last, last, last one….Eat a high protein snack right before you go to sleep. A power bar, beef jerky, etc. Your body will work to digest it at night and actually create body heat. No sugary items as the OB article states. Sugar will burn too fast and may actually keep you up. One of my favorite parts of camping in the cold is that I get to eat a good snacky before beddy bye! And urinate before you goto sleep and if you have to really go in the middle of the night, GO! Holding your urine will make you colder, and even colder than had you opened your sleeping bag and peed in that water bottle to relieve yourself!

    Damn, I'm going to have to go camping now this winter!

    #OutfitandExplore

  3. When it comes to your boots not only will a tight fitting boot reduce circulation, but laces that are too tight will crush the insulation. This in turn, will prevent it from doing it's job and your feet will be colder.

    At night be sure to have a complete change of dry clothes. Even if your clothes aren't "wet" from sweat, moisture is still in them. At night they will get cold and you will as well. I like to put on a new pair of socks when I get back to camp too.

  4. Thank you @Corrie  and @Michael  for writing the article! Just because it is snowing, cold or frigid doesn't mean the overland season has to end! A few other things to consider that the article doesn't mention. Most of this is from my Search and Rescue experience where I have slept outside (NOT in a tent, but in a bivy and mummy bag…in the snow to as low as single digits):

    1. "Cotton Kills." This is a saying we say in SAR before every winter and to all new Mountaineers. Cotton clothes retain moisture and moisture in freezing temperatures can remove body heat, cause hypothermia and are almost impossible to dry, even if you can start a fire. Do NOT wear cotton socks, cotton undergarments, cotton underwear, cotton shirts, hats nothing. Ensure all your garments are poly, wool, fleece and 0% cotton. Even a shirt that is a 60/40 split of cotton to synthetic…it's retaining moisture.

    2. Protect your electronics. Whether you sleep in a mummy bag or 0 degree bag, put your electronics; phone, watch, gps, gadgets, tablets etc into the footwell of your sleeping bag in a ziplock bag or stuff sack. Your body heat will protect your valuable, essential and expensive gadgets.  In weather/cold below 15 degrees, I have actually had the saline solution for my contacts freeze over and destroy my contacts…Now, even essential personal safety/hygiene goes into the bottom of my bag.

    3. The article discusses layering clothes, which is the proper technique. A baselayer of synthetic or wool attire, underwear, socks etc. I wear long johns made of synthetic fabric. If I am expecting overly cold weather (talking temps in the teens or less) I will put fleece pants on over my long johns, then my SAR Tactical pants. For a top, over your baselayer, you can wear a cold weather sweater, fleece jacket or wool jacket. Always have a water barrier or waterproof jacket/shell in cold weather. If the weather changes or shifts, you can put your shell on over your fleece/wool or down jacket to add protection from moisture. If you are doing strenuous activity, cutting wood, clearing trail, hiking etc…err on the side of being a bit cold rather than too hot. Sweat/moisture on your body is the enemy.

    4. "You can go alone, as long as you take someone else." Another SAR saying. NEVER camp in cold weather alone. If a mate gets hypothermia, even opening a car door or inserting keys into the ignition can be impossible with frozen or damage appendages or fingers. If you ever want to try this, go to a cold climate and let your hands get cold and try to tie your shoes, zip up your jacket or other fine motor skills and unfortunately, your body doesn't comply. If you have a buddy, you have a fighting chance of working together through adversity, tribulation, challenges or emergencies.

    Also, check your buddy for warmth, hydration, hypothermia, cognition (ask them to tell a detailed story or explain how to do something and be aware of their mental state.) Even if you feel that are "fine" check each other often, especially in freezing climates.

    5. Last bit I will share is use waterproofing spray on everything before you go. Especially the breathable Goretex friendly sprays. Yes, most of the clothes, boots, jackets we buy for winter camping say "waterproof" or "water resistant" on the labels, but as we wear items, wash items and store items, the waterproofing agents in the clothing/fabric becomes less effective. I spray my boots before every cold weather mission, my jackets (especially seams), my tent, my sleeping bag (especially toe box/foot well of bag, I hate wet feet) and any other fabrics I think may find moisture.

    6. OK, last, last tip I will share is practice before you go camping or overlanding overnight. Take a day trip to the snow, try out your gear, take a nap in your rig, tent or bivy and see what gets cold. Build a fire on top of snow, with wet wood…can you do it? Cause if you aren't successful, you would rather learn during practice, than in the real when your hands are cold, your stomach is empty and your situational awareness is fading. Trust me, cold weather compounds frustration and stressful situations.

    7. OK, last, last, last one….Eat a high protein snack right before you go to sleep. A power bar, beef jerky, etc. Your body will work to digest it at night and actually create body heat. No sugary items as the OB article states. Sugar will burn too fast and may actually keep you up. One of my favorite parts of camping in the cold is that I get to eat a good snacky before beddy bye! And urinate before you goto sleep and if you have to really go in the middle of the night, GO! Holding your urine will make you colder, and even colder than had you opened your sleeping bag and peed in that water bottle to relieve yourself!

    Damn, I'm going to have to go camping now this winter!

    #OutfitandExplore

    Thank You Mike!

  5. Agree with much previously written. In particular, take a one night trip (backyard works) to determine the reality vs. theory of all your gear. Completely dry change of clothes for sleeping. My winter nemesis is hydration. Don't feel thirsty. When temps fall under 40°, the humidity drops significantly as well, so your lungs have to do double duty both warming and hydrating each breath. Depending on exertion and temps, can require up to an additional 2 qts. of fluids to make up for this loss alone. I'm normally away from any water sources, so in temps under 20° with several inches of snow cover combined and an active day, I've ended up melting 50 qts. of snow per day just to meet my hydration requirements. Cooking snow ends up being a half day affair if someone else is along.

  6. Back in my scouting days we would go on an annual snow camp out. We always brought a stack of cardboard, the bigger the sheets the better like from refrigerator boxes. We would stack them on the bottom with our gear on top, and after we got our tents set up we’d layer the bottom of the tent with them. It made a nice and free insulating layer for the tent. We’d also bring 4×4’ish pieces of plywood to sit our chairs on to not sink into the snow and keep our feet insulated.

    Sent from my iPhone using OB Talk

  7. This is awesome I'm living out of my 4runner right now and I've got all those bases covered except for window fog overnight. Anyone know how to prevent that?

    Here's a good video by @vagabondexpedition about bedding and window nets to keep condensation down and bugs (not a big worry in the winter, but overall.) Even in the winter cold, leaving a window cracked will help with condensation, but not totally eliminate it. Once in 9 degree weather, sleeping in my Jeep, the condensation was so bad, it actually made stalactites on my roof/hardtop! HAHAHAHA!

  8. Great article with great info! I just got back from a weekend camping trip in North Georgia, the weather brought heavy rains and 40 degree temps on Saturday, and the temp dropped to freezing with sleet on Sunday. I was prepared for the cold in some areas but lacked in others… I want to be better prepared for snow and colder temps this winter.

  9. Absolutely the finest set of cold weather camping/exploring set of instructions you will find anywhere on the planet. Plan on a winter expedition? Print this, memories it, and use it as a checklist anyway. The section about water proof spray is so correct and essential. Do it, and you will never notice it, fail to check this off and suffer the consequences. We are not talking about comfort, we are talking about continued existence. Until they prop us old folks on the ice flow, this is our goal.

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