Cold Weather Survival: Basic Principles

Learning how to effectively deal with cold weather is key to your survival. A little knowledge, planning, and good equipment will allow you to defend yourself from the elements.


Always keep your head covered. You can lose 40 to 45 percent of body heat from an unprotected head and even more from the unprotected neck, wrist, and ankles. I deer hunt and I learned this lesson the hard way. I use to bundle up to the extreme but after sitting for a while on a deer stand in cold weather I invariably got cold. I tried more and more clothes but that didn't seem to help. Now that I recognize just how much heat can be lost through your head (especially when you are losing hair as fast as I am haha) I don't have the getting cold issues that I always had in the past thanks to wearing insulation for my head. Your head is basically a radiator. It has lots of blood flow for a couple of reasons but has very little fat for insulation. Good insulation on your head and neck is half the battle. Forgo this area and you are doomed. Now that you realize your head is an important part of the heat loss equation we can look at how to keep your body warm by identifying four basic principles.

Four basic principles to keep warm!

Keep clothing clean. Avoid overheating and sweating. Wear clothes loose and in layers. Keep clothing dry.

  • Keep clothing clean. This principle here is that your clothing is your insulation. Contaminate your clothes with dirt and oil etc reduces their insulating value.
  • Avoid overheating. Overheat and you will sweat! Get your insulation/clothing wet and your insulation become a conductor. And when water evaporates it takes the hottest molecules away, leaving the colder ones behind. Effectively sucking the heat out of you like an air conditioner. That is what sweat is designed to do after all... cool you off. So sweating/turning on your bodies AC can kill you in a survival situation. This one issue probably contributes to a very large percentage of hypothermia deaths when people find theirselves in a survival situation. Keep a cool head and think. Be smart! Remember your head is a great radiator. So if physical exertion starts to overheat you, removing head gear is the first line of action to keep yourself from sweating.
  • Wear your clothing loose and in layers. This goes for your feet as well. Wearing tight clothing restricts blood circulation and you need good circulation to keep your extremities warm. Feet and hands do not produce much heat. Most of your heat comes from the large muscles. Tight clothing reduces the amount of trapped air and it is this air that also acts as insulation... it isn't JUST the clothing themselves that is going to keep you warm.
  • Keep clothing dry. In cold temperatures, your inner layers of clothing can become wet from sweat and your outer layer, if not water repellent, can become wet from snow and frost melted by body heat or rain or standing water or even dew. Wear water repellent outer clothing, if available is a great advantage.

Drying Damp Items

OK so you know not to get wet but eventually you will get wet and you need to know some techniques to remedy the situation if you want to survive. Hanging wet articles of clothing is one method of drying them. Getting direct sun light on them is a big help as well as in the wind. If this is not an option then maybe your body can be used as a dryer. Body heat can raise the garments temperature to facilitate evaporation. But first you should wring out as much excess water as possible. In a campsite you should hang damp clothing inside the shelter near the top because heat rises. Using fire is the best option as it will dry clothing much faster than any of the other alternatives. Just be careful to not try and dry to quickly as you can shrink leather and burn clothing if they get to hot. Drying shoe and boots is one area that you are probably most likely to screw up. These articles do not dry easily so warping them or worse because you got them to hot is a big concern. A heavy sleeping bag can be a life saver in a cold weather survival situation. Sleep in a survival situation where you don't have adequate equipment can be almost impossible and a sleeping bag allows you to sleep much longer in cold weather than you would be able to without one. Like your clothing it is imperative that you keep your sleeping bag clean and dry. Placing it directly on damp ground can quickly turn your one chance at a good nights sleep into a struggle for survival. Take the time to prepare a bed of leaves and such to keep the sleeping bag from contacting the wet cold ground.

Wet Cold Weather Environments

During wet AND cold weather conditions you are facing a double threat. Water is very efficient at exchanging heat. So you must concentrate on protecting yourself from the wet ground and from freezing rain or wet snow.


Windchill is often given on weather reports because cold coupled with high winds saps your heat much faster than the cold alone. Keep this in mind. Understand this. Knowledge is the key to survival.


Click here for Part 2 Cold Weather Survival: Cold Injuries


Sources: Survival Manual, Practical Survivor

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  • Harriet Falchick on

    would love to have this

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