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Monday, 5 March 2018

EMERGENCY BLOG POST; Winter Survival Tips

Although the thaw is now in full swing here in the South West of England the effects of Storm Emma are still being felt across the UK so I felt I had to break the normal schedule of posts on the Bushcraft Education Blog to put up a post about Winter survival.

This wont be a post on backwoods winter skills for travelling and bushcrafting in the winter but rather advice and pointers on how to stay safe and well in Winter conditions as you go about your daily activities in severe Winter weather. 

One of the most important things to understand about coping in cold conditions is the potential effects of the cold on your body;

Hypothermia, frost bite and other conditions are all very real risks in cold weather, especially when the windchill is so severe. There were times over the last few day when the still air temperature was only a few degrees bellow zero but the windchill brought it down to ten or fifteen below. We'll come back to combating wind chill shortly but first of all it's important that you can recognise the effects of hypothermia and frostbite and be able to prevent and treat them if necessary.

Dive hand signal OK 1
Divers 'OK' signal By Peter Southwood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the first signs that you are getting too cold is the loss of dexterity in your hands, it’s very important that you halt and reverse this as once chilled to the point of your hands being useless you are much less able to affect a self-rescue in emergencies. In fact the divers hand signal of touching index finger to thumb to form an ‘o’ comes from a test of dexterity to prove you are able to use your hands in the cold.

Beyond loss of dexterity loss of feeling and your skin taking on a pale waxy appearance are early signs of frost bite. These signs are most likely to appear in your extremities, fingers, toes and even nose and ears. If you spot these symptoms you need to act at once, gradually warming the affected area is vital, not over the direct heat of a fire but preferably by using your own body heat. Take an affected hand and reach into your armpit or groin and your bodies heat will warm the hand. If your foot is affected you may have to use a companions armpit! Realistically for most of us this might mean holding our hands up to the hot air vent in the car but that's where common sense needs to take over, if you know what to do to survive when you have nothing then when you have a resource as large and versatile as a car and it's potential contents of survival aids you should have no problem. 

Frostbite is a relatively rare occurrence in the temperate climate of the UK but it is a possibility and each year there are on average 30-60 cases of frostbite reaching UK hospitals, in severely cold years this may be much higher such as the Winter of 2010-11 when there were 111 frostbite related admissions. Frostbite is basically the effects of your tissue freezing, as your body tries to make sure your internal organs are kept warm and supplied with enough blood the vessels in your extremities narrow restricting blood flow to those areas and making them more susceptible to the cold. The fluid in your cells can freeze under these conditions and the ice crystals that form do severe damage to the cells. Thawing out frost bitten areas is extremely painful and should be carried out under the supervision of a medical professional, the NHS provide some details of the treatment and prevention of cold related injuries and conditions on their website HERE.

The affects of frostbite on your cells; By BruceBlaus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Severe frostbite can lead to the death of cells and tissue which may need to be 'debrided' (removed) or even require the amputation of digits or limbs.  

Hypothermia is a drop in your bodies core temperature, between 32 and 35 degrees centigrade you are hypothermic and below 32 degrees you will stop shivering and probably pass out. Hypothermia may manifest itself as a loss of dexterity, tiredness and confusion and needs to be treated immediately before it gets worse. It can be fatal and eventually those suffering from it will just want to sleep and when they do they won’t wake up. Hot drinks, exercise to increase your temperature and warming is what is required, getting into a sleeping bag, ideally with someone else as well to share their warmth and body heat should be enough to bring your temperature back up but it must be treated immediately.

In both cases hypothermia and frostbite prevention is much better than cure and to ensure you prevent these conditions think first about your clothing;

Dress for the cold

While on your commute to work in the Winter, your car, the bus or train may seem likethe first line of defence again the elements. But what happens when you find yourself stuck for hours or even days as some people have been over the last few days. Perhaps the train or bus can't continue, perhaps your get stuck in the car, what then? Are you dressed for the cold, will you need to walk far? Can you leave your car heater on indefinitely? 

The best approach to staying warm in the cold is to use layers not only do these layers trap warm air against your body but they can easily be adjusted and removed if you get too warm unlike a single heavy garment. This is important especially if you do end up walking or being outdoors in the snow, perhaps digging your car out of a drift or walking a few miles from where the bus or train had to stop. IF you are exerting yourself you will sweat and managing moisture is very important in the cold to prevent yourself from becoming chilled by the effects of the wind wicking your sweat away from you. So windchill gets you in two ways, by making it feel colder anyway but doubly so as it chills you even more if you are wet or sweaty for this reason you must have dry clothes, either by keeping yours dry in the first place or by carrying a change. An outer windproof shell is very important as is carrying a spare change of clothes in your car. 

As well as your layers and an outer shell to keep out the snow and protect you from wind remember that your extremities are the most susceptible to the cold, fingers and toes soon loose dexterity, if you have chosen to be outside, perhaps on an expedition in Winter conditions loss of dexterity is a major issue as you will lose the ability to tie knots, use a knife or erect your tent which will put you in a very difficult situation. Even under everyday conditions that loss of dexterity might make it harder to change a tyre, or refill your washer fluid bottle or even put your gloves on. Make sure you protect your hands and fingers, mittens are better than gloves for this and even better is a thin glove, that allows you enough dexterity to perform simple tasks and a thicker mitten over the top. 

To keep your feet warm wool socks and a trick I discovered while living in the Arctic North of Sweden was to use heavy wool or felt innersoles in my boots. Don’t wear so many socks or lace your boots so tight that your feet are squashed though otherwise the circulation to your feet will be reduced and you will start to feel numbness in your toes. 

Be Prepared

As well as your clothing there are a few other things that will make a difference in a Winter emergency. You should always carry a few supplies in your car as your are quite vulnerably during your commute, especially as has happened a lot over the last few days, if you get stuck. 

I would recommend carrying the following in your car in case of emergencies, especially in Winter. 

o Winter sleeping bag
o Insulative sleeping mat
o 2* Wool blankets
o Snow Shovel
o Blizzard Bag or similar mylar survival bag. 
o 2* 5 litre water containers
o Hexamine stove and fuel
o 5 tins of soup 
o 2 tins of hot dogs
o Large first aid kit
o Spare wheel and tyre pump
o Water for radiator
o Spare oil
o Spare bulbs for headlights and tail lights
o Extra washer fluid

The washer fluid in particular is something often overlooked, but after several years of living in Sweden, washer fluid was the most vital spare item to carry in the car in Winter. When it is really cold and you are driving in the snow you will get through washer fluid very quickly as the snow will stick to and freeze on your windscreen and you will only shift it with plenty of washer fluid well loaded with de-icer.


While an 'Englishman's home is his castle' as the saying goes that doesn't mean you are immune to the effects of the Winter chill at home. People have been without power and water over the last few days through frozen pipes and the weight of snow bringing down branches and trees on cables. While you might not be able to fix the power supply or phone line if it comes down in bad weather you should be able to thaw frozen water pipes. To do that you will need to have a stock pile of stored water, a cupboard under the stairs is perfect for this and a few plastic water containers will allow you to store dozens of litres of water to either use to heat up and defrost pipes with or to drink. 

If your boiler packs up due to the cold or frozen pipes and you can't get it going again, you should have a couple of electric halogen heaters or fan heaters which can be picked up cheaply from places like B&M. If the power is out completely, extra duvet's, blankets and warm clothing are a must. Also in case of powercuts make sure you have torches and spare batteries, candles and the ability to cook and heat water. If your home cooker is out of commission because it is electric or for any other reason make sure you have something you can cook with inside, I can make a fire in the garden to cook with if things got really dire but you can cook with a gas camping stove in a kitchen just as safely as cook on a gas stove indoors so make sure that is something you have available, especially those of you who only have an electric cooker. 

Although this post does depart from the normal topics covered on the blog I hope it has been useful to you. BE PREPARED AND STAY SAFE


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