Every winter you will hear reports about people freezing to death in one cold weather emergency or another. Even during summer months you will sometimes hear reports of people freezing to death at high altitudes. Perhaps our focus on “global warming” took our minds off the fact that the globe can get mighty cold mighty fast, too, and severe cold and hypothermia can kill fast if you don’t know how to deal with cold emergencies. Knowing how to cope with emergency cold weather conditions is vital even if you live where extreme cold is a rare event.
With all of our modern technology and all of our rescue agencies and teams people very often feel just a little bit too safe and protected for their own good. It’s absolutely astounding to hear of families who take scenic mountain drives in their Sunday best during the middle of winter and feel that because they have a cell phone everything is just dandy. Many such families has frozen to death waiting to be found.
The truth is that you can not count on modern technology to save you in a blizzard. Gadgets can fail. You can rapidly get into areas where signals can be interrupted and cell phone communications completely cut off. During an unexpected blizzard even satellites may not be able to locate you. Even though you have been located it doesn’t mean that rescue units can get to you. They might all be wrapped up with others also in crisis or conditions can make it impossible for them to get to you. Sometimes you have to rely on just you in a crisis, which means thinking about the possibilities before you get stranded.
One woman who had survived an unexpected blizzard had set out for work late and in a hurry wearing nothing but her uniform. She had a reliable car, a cell phone and was traveling a route which had fairly heavy traffic. She never made it to work. The snow started coming down very hard on the highway and she ended up sliding off the road. Her cell phone worked and she was able to call for help, but because of the road conditions and the amount of “help” calls coming in, it took time for rescue to get there. Her car was low on gas and she ran out before help arrived and was becoming very cold very rapidly. It was snowing heavily enough that she couldn’t even tell how far she would have to walk to get to another stranded vehicle. Her shoes were not substantial and her feet would have become frostbitten in a matter of a minute or two walking in the rapidly deepening snow.
Had this woman been in an even slightly more remote area, she probably wouldn’t have survived. She was extremely hypothermic when rescuers were finally able to get through to her. Even the rescue vehicle got temporarily stuck after picking her up. Another family a few years ago in Oregon made the mistake of taking drive into the mountains with their cell phones and no real winter gear other than Sunday jackets. They did not survive.
When you go out in winter it is imperative that you have a cold weather kit in your car. Never trust your cell phone, never trust the luck of emergency rescue. Trust only your own ability to survive. Never leave without snow-worthy boots, a few extra layers of clothes, a substantial blanket or sleeping bag, food, water, and some sort of fire source. If you get stuck and are in light clothing, put your emergency clothing on right away. Don’t wait to get cold. It is much harder to warm back up than it is to cool off. Make sure you have a heat source of some sort with you. You would be surprised the amount of people that freeze because they didn’t take a simple bic lighter or matches with them. Many non-smokers don’t think to carry these items with them even though a simple lighter can save your life.
Have at least one of the manufactured fireplace logs you can find in department stores with you. These will burn without needing a lot of kindling and are easy to light on fire. If you are where you can gather more wood and kindling you can add to that fire. If you are going where there is not a lot of available wood, you might want to carry several of these logs with you. Take a stack of newspapers you can roll tightly into a log as well. They will burn much longer rolled than they will if they are loose and don’t take up a lot of space flattened out. Coleman heaters, grills, and any other cooking equipment that will allow you to build a “campfire” could save your life it cold. Sitting around a fire source in several layers of clothes with a nice thick wool blanket draped over you while you wait for help is a heck of a lot more comfortable than huddling in a cold car in your Sunday patent leather shoes any day of the week.
Remember when you go into mountains that it doesn’t need to be winter to get severely cold. Ninety degree days at altitude can quickly become thirty-two degree nights and snow storms are not uncommon at altitudes even in the middle of summer. When driving off into the mountains, no matter what month of the year, take a winter supply kit with you, clothes, blankets, and heat sources.
Never eat snow in severe cold. Melting the snow in your mouth will reduce your body heat. Put the snow in a container and tuck it between your coat and clothing and let your trapped body heat melt it before you drink it. Cold can fool our senses into thinking we don’t need to drink as much, but that is far from the truth. In severe cold, dehydration will do nothing but help you freeze faster, so make sure you drink often. If you are warming snow under your coat to drink, refill your bottle as soon as you empty it.
Outside in the open isn’t the only place you will ever need to deal with cold. Many a disaster has left residents without power for days and weeks in the middle of bitterly cold winter. Make sure you have a heat source that will run when your power is cut. If you can afford to have solar power installed in your home, it is a great idea to do so. Having a generator on hand or a wood burning stove in your home can be a blessing whether you are in emergency conditions or not. Always keep your house stocked with fuel for your heat source. It doesn’t do you one bit of good to have the greatest resource in town if you don’t have fuel stocked to run it when the emergency hits. Remember that if you are using kerosene or propane for fuel for emergency heaters that the fumes are toxic and you will have to have good ventilation. Those are just not the best means of supplying heat indoors, but if they are all you have and you are freezing, you will use them. Use them correctly.
When you have no heat sources, or limited ones, do not wash yourself. It’s better to be a bit dirty than to sacrifice body heat you may need. Washing will lower your body temperature. If you do get wet, change your clothes immediately, wet just compounds cold, and it can do so rapidly. Wear several layers of clothing. Layers trap your body heat better than just one heavy layer can do. Of course, a heavy layer on top of several light ones is always a good idea. When all else fails huddle with others if you are not alone, and that includes the family pet. You would be surprised how much heat a dog will generate and when under a blanket or a tent of blankets, a pet can raise the temperature several degrees. If there are more than one of you, wrap the same blanket around all of you as far as you can, then continue with another blanket or two until you are all surrounded by blankets but huddled so the body heat of each will radiate together. Several people under one blanket can result in a surprising amount of warmth.
If you have a tent, set one up inside an upstairs room if you have no heat source on the main floor. Second story room floors will be warmer than ground floors and heat rises so these rooms will be the warmest. If you don’t have carpets, spread area rugs, mattresses, or blankets on the floor of the tent to allow you cushion against cold floors. If you don’t have a tent, build one with blankets or with industrial strength garbage bags, plastic tarps or any other sheets of materials that can serve to keep warmth in or build yourself a “nest” in a closet. Lay down with as many people under the same blankets as possible. If you have had foresight, you will have at least two extra large, heavy duty blankets such as down or wool in your home before the crisis hits.
It is a good idea to talk with neighbors before a crisis and find out who has resources for heating that others don’t. Your family may need to stay at a neighbor’s home for a few days if power goes out and you just haven’t been able to afford resources to cope with emergencies. If you have heat sources a neighbor doesn’t, they may need to count on your generosity. A lot of people in one room might not be pleasant, but the more people adding body heat to a room, the warmer all will stay. Adding your resources together may make a difference on how well everyone comes out of a cold crisis, depending on the length of the situation.
It might be summer now, but taking steps to ensure that you have resources you can afford or finding out now who near you does have them and is willing to share may someday save your life. Don’t let people discussing what you might have done to save your life be the ones to think of the tip that could have saved you after it’s too late. .