Surviving Extreme Cold

The extreme winter weather this week made me decide to share another cold water video and give you some quick tricks for cold weather survival.

I’m going to get right into it and try to skip the silly fluff that news anchors are putting out.

Surviving cold weather emergencies is about maintaining temperature.  You do this by minimizing heat loss and effectively adding heat to the system (your body or the clothes/shelter/container that’s separating your body from the environment).

This week, I shared a video of my 13 year old son and I taking a dip in an ice bath in 0F weather.

If you watch the full thing, you’ll notice that we weren’t freaking out.  The water was cold, and the air was colder, but we built up to this over time so it wasn’t THAT big of a deal.

Your ability to handle cold weather emergencies or a worst case scenario like cold water immersion is going to depend on several factors, but let’s take a look at what you can do to tilt the odds in your favor.

Two of the most important factors are attitude and grit.

Attitude that you will make it through and grit to endure and embrace the suck…or not “recognize” the suck.

One of the best ways to build grit is exposure to cold…as an example, my 15 year old son went on a survival campout last month when it was 3 degrees without a tent or sleeping bag.  My 13 year old son wanted to solo-camp outside in a hammock last night because it was supposed to be below zero again (they rocked it.)

It doesn’t need to be that extreme…something as simple as turning on your shower and hopping in when the water temperature is in the 50s instead of waiting until it warms up can have a profound effect over time on your ability to endure cold.  First let it hit your legs & arms.  Then your body.  Finally, your face.

For many of you, the need to stay warm is RIGHT NOW…not a few weeks into the future, so how do you do it?

Some quick/easy ways to retain heat to maintain the body heat that you generate:

  1. Clothes (duh)  Try to avoid cotton and stick with wool, silk, and/or insulated polyester.  I’m particularly fond of King Of The Mountain winter clothes.  I got one of their “street fighter” coats before they were released to the public and it’s the most amazing coat I’ve ever owned.  They’re not cheap, but the combination of wool, kevlar, and carbon fiber can do things that no other combination of materials can.  King, (the owner), runs almost every facet of the business and that means a couple of things for you…first, he’s got a vested interest in everything getting done perfectly.  Second, it means that if they don’t have what you want in stock, you may have a long wait until they do another run of that particular garment.  They mostly do seasonal items and bigger orders for units, agencies, and schools, so call and talk with King and see what they have in stock before you order.
  2. If things are bad…a pocket survival bivvy.  I carry one when I run in the fall and winter months and we have them in our vehicles and in our quad.  They allow me to go out dressed in ways that would otherwise be considered irresponsible..  (Don’t ask me why…if you get it, you understand.  If you don’t get it, my answer probably won’t make sense.)  My sons and I go trail running for a half hour or more in a t-shirt or no shirt with when the temperature is in the 20s or teens–but I’ve got a pocket survival bivvy with me and we wear fleeces tied around our waists.A buddy of mine who runs winter Ultra Marathons (100 miles) and double Ultras (200 miles) uses the pocket survival bivvy as his secret weapon to keep from getting hypothermia when he stops to take naps during the 2-4 day, 24 hour a day races.  It’s allowed him to keep going in races where other runners were dropping like flies and even getting evacuated by helicopter.

    You can slit one side and the bottom of these and turn them into a traditional blanket and/or use them to add a 2nd, reflective, layer to a tent or other shelter you have.

  3. Double tent or set up a tent inside your house.
  4. Save your pee.  If you can, dedicate a wide mouth water bottle for pee and not drinking and pee into it.  Simply screw the lid back on, wipe it down if necessary, and keep it in your coat or sleeping bag with you as a hot/warm water bottle.  It’s your heat…be selfish about it.  If you like the people you’re with, you may even want to mark it.

If you’re approaching the point where you can’t generate enough heat…even if you’re retaining most of it with a pocket survival bivvy or other methods, you need to add heat to the system.

Quick ways to gain heat (besides fire, car heater, heated building, exercise, & shared body heat):

  1. Drink warm water.
  2. Eat a combination of carbs (will warm you short term but cool you long term) and fats like coconut oil, grass fed butter, and fish oils.  I think of it as building a fire…the carbs are like kindling and the fats are like logs.  If you’ve geared your body to run on straight fats, then it’s a slightly different story, but you still want a mix of both.  If possible, try to have honey or maple syrup instead of ultra refined sugars like high fructose corn sweetener.  One of my secret weapons is to warm up honey/maple syrup and butter/ghee, blend them together, and put them in squeeze tubes with a pinch of salt.  I use more honey & butter in the warm weather and switch to maple syrup & ghee in the winter so that I can still squeeze it.  * I also use this mix whenever I’m doing all day instructing or taking an all day class as a quick/clean/effective source of fuel.
  3. Put a hot water bottle under your arms, or high up between your legs.
  4. Use hand warmers, body warmers, battery powered heated clothing, instant hot packs from first aid kits.  Hand warmers take up to 20 minutes to warm up…I put them into cold gloves/boots 30 minutes before I intend to put them on and I put them into my gloves when it’s extremely cold regardless of whether I need them so that they’re warm if someone needs handwarmers in a hurry.  I also put my water bottles in a doubled-over wool sock and slip a handwarmer in between the sock and the bottle right under the sip-hole to help it stay unfrozen a little longer.On handwarmer expiration dates…I recently opened up a bunch of handwarmers that had expiration dates of 2023, 2018, 2011, and 2008.  All of the handwarmers worked great.  Only the 2023 footwarmers worked and I’m not sure why.

***A few hacks for when your core is warm, but your extremeties are cold…especially for people like me who have a history of cold hands/feet and a family history of Reynauds***

It’s really important to realize that cold hands/feet can be a protection mechanism for the body…you only want to use these when your body is generating enough heat to warm your extremities AND maintain core body temperature.  If your body is struggling to maintain core temperature and you increase bloodflow to your cold hands/feet, it will cool the core to (possibly) dangerous levels.

  1. Check with your healthcare professional to see if it’s safe for you to take niacinamide.  I take it morning and night when I know I’ll need to use my hands without gloves on.  It dilates capillaries in the hands & feet.
  2. Check with your healthcare professional to see if it’s safe for you to take citruline.  It causes system-wide vasodilation.
  3. Blood flow to your hands & feet is controlled to a large extent by the hypothalamus and the HPA axis.  If you can do things to calm the hypothalamus, it will oftentimes increase bloodflow to the extremeties.  I use progressive relaxation, biofeedback, binaural tones, vagus nerve stim, and other techniques.
  4. Consider trying slow breathing techniques to rapidly warm your hands and feet.

What else can you do ahead of time?

  1. Avoid alcohol
  2. Frequent small exposure to cold…check with your doctor to see what’s safe and appropriate for you.  Sudden exposure to cold can shunt blood to your core, increase pulse rate and blood pressure, and cause a heart attack.  Don’t screw around with this unless you know it won’t hurt you.  If you’re OK, gradually shift from a warm shower to a cool shower to a cold shower and learn to calm yourself and breathe through the shock.
  3. Stay hydrated and make sure you’re getting enough Omega 3 fats.
  4. Check with your doctor to make sure you’re getting enough B vitamins, and that your thyroid and adrenals are working correctly.

I know there are several cold weather survival experts subscribed…and even a handfull of winter survival SERE instructors…if you’ve got questions or other things that you know of that would help, chime in by commenting below.

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  • Glenn Clover

    Reply Reply February 19, 2021

    Pocket bivvy – a lifesaver and easy to carry and keep on your person!

    On a related topic, there is a body of research on the positive effects of exposure to cold. This has been spearheaded by Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman” for his advocacy for cold weather exposure and the study-verified results in the areas of increased control over autonomic nervous system functions. This includes things such as maintenance of and deliberate raising of body core temperature, documented increased resistance to study-induced bacterial infections, etc.

    I recommend Hof’s materials to anyone interested in both the novelty and experience of cold exposure. Also the book by Scott Carney “What Doesn’t Kill You” is a fun and informative read.

  • Allen A.

    Reply Reply November 13, 2019

    Thanks Ox.
    I usually wear wool with poly underwear. At work I have to stick to cotton because of static and nuke safety, but I have wool pants, jacket and a hat to go over it when I am outside the buildings. Smartwool socks are what I wear in my boots all of the time.

  • Dave Randolph

    Reply Reply November 13, 2019

    brrr…rather than test this myself, I believe I’ll take you on your word.
    My choice for winter clothing is wool. Not worsted wool but woollens. When I added Merino wool long johns to my layers, I wondered why I was still getting chills while tramping up and down the mountains around here. Then “Click!” The light came on. I was still wearing a cotton t-shirt and undies under the long johns. Ditched the t-shirt and went with poly undies: problem solved.
    A huge plus with wool is it will still keep you warm when wet. Yes, it weighs more than synthetic cloth but not enough to make me trade in my wool.
    By the way, I enjoyed watching this one!
    Keep up the good work!

    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 13, 2019

      Thanks, Dave. Believe it or not, it’s not that bad once you get used to it. It was worse than normal when I was filming this because of the fact that I was paying attention to the camera. When it’s just me, I zone out and it’s actually pretty relaxing.

      ++++ on Wool. As a bonus, it doesn’t get as stinky as synthetics and it reacts to a hot ember from a fire better.

      • Dave Randolph

        Reply Reply November 13, 2019

        Welcome, Ox.
        I know the zone of which you speak. It’s just I never went there by way of extreme cold.

  • Bub Lawson

    Reply Reply January 17, 2019


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