How to Survive the Freezing Cold

Water and Clothing

A furlined parka helps keep this Chicago woman warm in subzero wind chill.
A furlined parka helps keep this Chicago woman warm in subzero wind chill.
Tim Boyle/Getty Image News

Once you've built your shelter, you should focus on water and warmth. The human body can survive for about a week or less without water, depending on conditions. Dehydration can set in within a few hours [source: EPA]. It's important to remember that water is just as important in cold weather survival as it is in hot weather. A minimum of two quarts of water is needed for survival and in cold conditions, you should drink even more [source: Wilderness Survival].

Eating snow may seem like a great idea, but it will lower your core temperature and actually bring on dehydration. Melt your ice and snow in a container if you have one. If not, wrap it in cloth and suck the water out as it melts. It's also important to purify the water by boiling it for 10 minutes whenever possible. Snow and ice in remote locations can be safe to ingest, but it's always a risk. Avoid drinking coffee or alcohol if you have them on hand. It may give you a short term warm-up, but it'll dehydrate you quickly. Try to find open water -- rivers, streams, lakes and springs. If you have no means to purify, get your water from a fast-moving body and strain it with some cloth to remove large bits of sediment. You can read more about collecting water in How to Find Water in the Wild.

­Warmth is the next step in your bid to survive the freezing cold. Almost everyone knows that layered clothing is important to stay warm. Use the C.O.L.D. acronym to help you remember these important tips:

  • C - Clean: Keep your layers clean. Dirt and sweat can mat down air spaces, reducing your clothes' warmth.
  • O - Overheating: Sweating dampens your skin and clothes, which leads to further chill. Avoid overheating by adjusting your layers accordingly.
  • L - Loose Layers: Blood flow is essential to staying warm. Tight-fitting clothing can restrict your circulation.
  • D - Dry: Wet clothing is your enemy in the cold. Avoid absorbent cotton fabrics and keep your neck area loose to allow moisture to escape.

Just as you layer your clothing, you should also layer what you have on your feet. Try a thin pair of nylon, silk or wool socks for starters -- then layer with additional wool socks. Keep your feet dry, even if it means taking off your socks temporarily to do so. Mittens are warmer than gloves because your fingers come into direct contact with each other.

While it is a myth that most of your body heat leaves through your head, you still want your head covered for protection against the elements. Get a stocking cap that covers your ears and don't take it off unless you start to sweat. Even a baseball cap can help retain heat. Your parka should ideally be waterproof and lined with goose down or some other fibrous filling. Make sure it's large enough to fit comfortably over your layers and is well ventilated.

Your sleepwear should never be the clothes you wore that day -- chances are they're damp. The best thing to sleep in is some kind of thermal underwear or sweats. Avoid wearing these items during the day to ensure you have something warm and dry to sleep in. Wear your driest socks and keep your hat on. Even though it may feel warmer, don't sleep with your head and face inside your sleeping bag. Your hot breath becomes moist and adds dampness.

In the next section, we'll look at how fire is crucial to your freezing cold survival.