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Stuck Outside in Winter: First Aid Tips for Cold-Weather Survival

February 3, 2015 | Dr. Mary Williams, RN, DC | Comments

Winter camping can be as exhilarating as it is challenging; winter landscapes and wilderness can be incredibly beautiful. But winter is a particularly dangerous time for both recreational hiking and necessary travel. If you get stuck in the weather—either in a camping situation or in your car—it’s important to know what to do to survive.

Know what to expect. Survival in cold weather often depends on preparation—which means keeping track of your local weather channel and knowing when big storms are expected. In the United States, most weather stations issue winter storm warnings for weather expected within the upcoming 12 to 36 hours. If you’re planning to travel, this will give you information to help you plan your trip. Generally, winter storm watches are issued for weather events when more than 6 inches of snow are expected within a 24-hour period or less, when wind is expected to gust up to 35 miles per hour, and when you’ll most likely have only about a quarter mile of visibility.

Winter storm warnings are for more severe weather expected within the next 12 hours, or sooner. These conditions make car travel and hiking or walking outside particularly dangerous, as you have little time to prepare.

Winter survival kit

Get a winter survival kit ready. It’s important to have the items, fuel, and equipment ready to survive and stay warm in a winter weather event. Your basic at-home winter survival kit should include:

  • A flashlight with charged batteries
  • A gallon or more of water
  • Canned food
  • Extra supplies of any prescription medication
  • A first aid kit
  • Heating fuel—wood, matches, fire-starting materials (such as paper) and kindling
  • A fire extinguisher
  • A lighter with plenty of fuel
  • A smoke detector and fire extinguisher

Plan ahead for travel. If you must travel in a winter storm, tell a friend when you’re planning to arrive. Be sure your cell phone is charged. Fill your gas tank, and load your car with a supply of food and water. Bring a container of gasoline in case you run out of fuel.

If you get stuck in your car or truck during a snowstorm, you could easily freeze or die of carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to keep warm. To avoid this, run your motor for only ten minutes in a 60-minute period. Make sure your windows are cracked and that your exhaust pipe isn’t blocked by snow or ice. Stay inside the car, but try to move your limbs and body to keep warm. Tie a colored piece of cloth to your car door or the antenna to alert emergency crews. If snow isn’t falling, raise your car’s hood.

Bring the right camping gear. It’s important to have dependable shelter if you’re going to be camping in the wintertime. Even if you know how to build a snow shelter, don’t expect to rely on it. Instead, bring a tent designed to hold up under winter weather extremes, as well as a sleeping bag rated for cold weather. Have a dependable method for starting fires, as well as backups—both a lighter and matches, as well as paper for tinder. Bring a fire starter for emergency fires. Wear waterproof footwear and lots of layers of loose, comfortable clothing.

Stay safe if you’re outside. If there is no available shelter, you can build a snow hut if you know how. If not, try to get to a sheltered area where there’s a natural windbreak—such as a large group of trees, large rock or ridge, or overhang.

Cover all exposed areas of skin if possible. Frostbite is most likely to start in your extremities, and is characterized by very pale or red skin; very cold or hard skin, or skin that looks waxy; and feelings of prickling or numbness. If you have no way to get to a warmer place, put your frostbitten fingers in your armpits to warm them up.

If you can start a fire, you’ll increase your chances of survival. Be sure you have a lighter or matches with you as well as some easy-burning materials that you can use as tinder—such as shredded bark or paper. You can use tree bark as a tinder if you don’t have paper. Build a circle of stones around your fire pit to absorb heat. Starting a fire can be challenging, and it’s important to practice and learn how before your life depends on it. 

It’s important to stay hydrated, but don’t eat the snow. This can quickly lower your body temperature. Hypothermia can be a big danger in winter weather; even if you don’t fall into a river, you risk hypothermia if there has been warm weather recently and the snow is melting; or if you’ve been exerting yourself and sweating in your clothes. When stuck outside in the winter, be aware that you can get hypothermia in temperatures as warm as 30-50 degrees Fahrenheit, and try to avoid exerting yourself too much. Tight or constricting clothing should be avoided.

Symptoms of hypothermia include violent shivering, loss of coordination, drowsiness, mental fogginess, and slurred speech. If you suspect you have hypothermia, first get out of the cold if possible; exchange wet clothes for dry immediately. If you can’t go inside, get out of wind and weather exposure immediately and build a fire if you can. You may need to use your emergency fire starter, as the violent shivering and loss of coordination caused by hypothermia can make starting a fire difficult.

Winter survival mainly comes down to being prepared. Keep track of local weather advisories so you know what’s coming. If you have to travel during a storm or if you’re stuck outside, head off disaster by packing the items you need to stay warm and alive. Bring emergency fuel, warm waterproof clothing, appropriate camping gear, and a lighter, fire starter, matches, and tinder. Take appropriate precautions; avoid overexertion, especially in waterproof clothing, as waterproof materials don’t breathe and you could wind up soaked to the skin inside your clothes—which can lead to hypothermia. Stay prepared, and you should be able to keep alive in cold and stormy conditions.  

 


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