Six Basic Winter Survival Skills Help You Avoid Health Hazards

Winter makes survival much harder, from trying to stay warm to moving around in the snow. Add to that the very high possibility of hypothermia and even frostbite. These are all hazards that winter brings that summer weather doesn’t.

It’s nearing the end of February right now and in some places in the country this is one of the most snowy months of the year. For instance, right now even as I type this, there is a widespread winter storm named “Pandora” that is impacting parts of the South, Midwest, and Northeast with sleet, freezing rain, ice, and snow. Some areas are expecting to get as much as 18″ of snow. It is also about to bring snow to the Rockies and the adjacent Front Range.

For a lot of you, that means winter weather is heading towards you right now. That’s why today’s post is about winter survival. Everything below applies to weekend-long winter storms as well as situations when you may be stranded indefinitely in an arctic landscape. Also, all of this information is mostly winter and cold-weather survival specific (this means that information on generic survival skills, like trap-building, has been omitted).

First, I’m going to list the top 5 health hazards that winter can bring and how to stay safe from each. These hazards can effect you either physically or mentally.

1. Hypothermia

Around 700 hypothermia-caused deaths occur each year in the United States alone. A human’s normal body temperature is averaged at 98.6°F (37°C). Hypothermia occurs when your body’s temperature drops to just 95°F (35°C). Severe hypothermia occurs when that temperature falls to 82°F (27.7°C) or less.
People who are at the most risk of hypothermia include the elderly, infants, and anyone without the appropriate clothing or heating source.
The symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slow and shallow breathing, confusion and memory loss, drowsiness or exhaustion, slurred or mumbled speech, loss of coordination, a slow and weak pulse, and in severe hypothermia – a person may be unconscious without obvious signs of breathing or a pulse. For infants, you’ll want to watch for any signs of cold-to-touch, bright red skin as well as unusually low energy.
To prevent hypothermia wear warm, multilayered clothes with care taken to protect your hands, arms, feet, and legs. If you recognize any hypothermia symptoms in either yourself or someone else, immediately remove any wet clothes, hats, gloves, shoes, and socks. Protect the individual against wind and give them warm, dry clothes and blankets. Next, move to a warm and dry location. You can drink/offer the individual hot beverages, but NO alcohol or caffeine. Also, never try to give an unconscious person a drink.

2. Colds and the Flu

The average adult gets about 3 colds a year, with 1-in-5 adults getting the flu. During cold weather months, getting the cold and/or the flu becomes more of a risk.
Cold symptoms that you’ll want to look out for is a dry, scratchy sore throat, sneezing, headaches, runny nose with watery mucus, watery eyes, chills, and a fever. Late-stage symptoms include a blocked nose, sinus pain, a painful cough (that can keep you up at night), muscle aches and pains, tiredness, and a loss of appetite.
Flu symptoms are usually worse than cold symptoms and happen more quickly. They include a fever of around 100°F – 104°F, a dry cough, muscle aches, headache, and feeling extremely tired.
Luckily, usually you’ll get over a cold in a couple days and the flu within a week with medicine for both illnesses. So you’ll want to have a supply of these medicines just in case. Avoid antibiotics since they don’t work for viruses and they also have side effects.

3. Frostbite

Frostbite can permanently damage body tissue and in severe cases lead to amputation. In extremely cold temperatures, the risk of frostbite is very high in those individuals with reduced blood circulation and in those who are not dressed properly.
Reduced blood flow to the hands and feet, numbness, tingling or stinging, aching, and a bluish or pale, waxy skin are all signs of frostbite.
To help prevent frostbite, wear warm, multilayered clothes and keep dry. If you notice signs of frostbite you’ll need to get into a warm area as soon as possible. Immerse the affected area in warm water or use body heat to warm the it. Do not rub or massage the frostbitten area since that can cause more damage. Also, do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat from a stove, fireplace, or radiator since the affected areas are numb and can easily be burned.

4. Depression

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons, and is a disorder that around 5% of Americans (about 3/4 being women) experience. SAD is also the most prevalent during the winter months.
Sadness, fatigue, excessive sleepiness, social withdrawal, and trouble concentration are all symptoms of depression. Those with SAD usually move slowly, crave carbs, and gain weight.
If you think you may suffer from SAD you need to consider participating in 60 minutes of outdoor aerobic exercise in the morning to help. For more persistent cases of SAD or other depression, talk to a doctor about taking therapy.

5. Heart Attacks

Did you know that the risk of a heart attack increases during the cold, winter months? Causes of this may be because the cold increases blood pressure and puts strain on the heart and also your heart needs to work harder to maintain body heat when it is cold.
Watch out for the warning signs of a heart attack, including chest pain, shortness of breath, sudden fatigue or dizziness, sweating, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, or a blue tinge to your skin.
To help decrease the risk of a heart attack during the winter, do not exert yourself when outdoors in the cold and dress warmly. If any symptoms occur, CALL 911.

Those were the top 5 health hazards to watch out for during winter. Practicing emergency first aid that directly relates to these dangers is an excellent idea, especially for those of you who live in areas that experience severe winter at any time throughout the year.

Next we’ll look at the basic cold weather survival skills that you’ll want to freshen up on and make sure you are efficient at before a winter storm strikes or you’re outside in these conditions. This article assumes that you are not comfortably holed-up in your apartment or house next to your fireplace. Instead, these survival tips are for those of you who may find yourself camping or somehow otherwise caught outside.

6. Keeping Warm

Making sure you stay warm is the staple of winter survival. Winter is all about the cold weather and the hazards it brings that make survival that much harder. The ability for you to keep warm depends on 3 main things:

proper clothing
proper shelter
ability to make fire
Without any of these 3 elements you’re chances of survival in severe winter weather drastically decreases to fatal levels. Let’s look at each one a little more closely.

Clothing – The basic rules of cold weather clothing is to wear warm, thick, multi-layered clothing. This means, for example, a t-shirt, hoodie, and jacket starting from your body and working out. The base layer (closest to you) will wick away moisture from your skin (which could freeze on your body otherwise). The middle layer absorbs and wicks away that moisture and provides insulation. The outer layer is what will protect you from the wind and rain, as well as added insulation. A 4th layer, the reinforcement layer, is something you put on when you are resting or while you are setting up your campsite. A thermal jacket with synthetic padding or down is a good example of this 4th layer. You’ll also want to keep a spare change of dry clothing, in case you get wet and need to change to avoid hypothermia. One final thing – always keep your head covered. A lot of your body’s heat escapes through your head, so keeping a beanie on will help prevent this.

Shelter – Protecting yourself from the wind is the first step you need to take when building your winter shelter. The wind will make it feel a lot colder (hence the term “wind chill”) and so you want to avoid exposing yourself to it. Also, the wind will effect your fire and probably extinguish it or not let you start one in the first place. A water-proof reflective tarp or other body heat-reflective material is a must, such as a thermal bivvy. You can also build natural shelters out of wood, dirt, leaves, and even ice (think igloo). Whatever shelter you are able to build, make sure that the area you will stay and sleep in is tight so that your body heat is better reflected back to you.

Fire-Making – One of the most important skill of any prepper to have in their arsenal is the ability to make a fire. Fire provides light, the means to cook food, the means to purify (boil) water, is a great motivation-booster, it wards off predators like coyotes or wolves, it can help get you rescued by the light or a smoke signal, and most especially in cold weather survival – it provides warmth. You should have at LEAST 3 different ways to make a fire, if not more. Some excellent methods include:

ferrocerium rod
magnesium fire starter
stormproof matches
steel wool + battery
You’ll need some tinder to help start the fire. Cotton balls ignite extremely easily and are great for that initial spark needed, but more plentiful tinder like fungus from birch trees, bark, grass, “old man’s beard”, and pine needles. You should also have some synthetic tinder options on-hand at all times. A great example of this is WetFire tinder cubes.

I’ll quickly re-cap everything I’ve mentioned and reiterate the most important key tips for winter survival in a final easy-to-read roundup and then I’ll leave you with a short Les Stroud video.

Wear appropriate clothing – warm, multilayered clothes and head gear
Keep a spare change of dry clothes in case you get wet and need to change to avoid getting hypothermia
Know how to make a winter shelter – heat reflective material and protect yourself from the wind
Have 3+ ways to start a fire
Avoid over-exerting yourself when outdoors – helps prevent heart attacks as well as helps prevent sweating (very dangerous in severe cold since it will lower your body temperature)
Keep alert for any symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite, and even colds and the flu
Stock up on water, food, winter shelter materials, winter clothing, and fire-starting supplies (keep some in your primary residence and especially your Bug-Out-Bag
Out of water? Dying of thirst? Gather some clean snow or ice and boil it to melt it down into water and purify it

Les Stroud – Stranded in Norway for 10 Days