Heat loss is your greatest enemy and leads to the most emergencies. Gretchen Sparling, Scouting Magazine suggests we prevent these emergencies by taking these precautions:
1. Toes cold? Put on a hat. Your body loses up to half of its total heat in 40-degree temperatures. So, when it’s below freezing and your head is uncovered, you could be radiating more than three-fourths of your overall body heat from your head.
2. Get off your rear end. If you’re sitting on a snow bank or a cold rock, you’re conducting the heat from your body into the surface of the object beneath you. Often, Northern Tier cold-weather campers stand and sit atop thin foam pads.
3. Beware of frosty fuel. Pouring fuel into a stove? Put on a pair of thick rubber gloves. If it’s sub-zero outside, so is the fuel (since it doesn’t freeze like water). Spill it on your hands and you will have instant frostbite.
4. Baggy clothes are back in style — at least in the freezing-cold wilderness. Your body heats itself most efficiently when it’s enveloped in a layer of warm air. If your clothes are too tight, you’re strangling the cold right out of your body. Dressing in loose layers helps aid this convection layer of air. Tight clothes or too-tight boots can also restrict blood-flow.
5. The three W’s: Every cold-weather camper needs to dress for the occasion. You’ll need a wicking layer (long underwear), a “warm” layer (fleece) and a “wind” layer (waterproof shell).
6. Bundle up! It might be a phrase often heard from your mother, but mom is right about this one. If you’re moving around outdoors in the cold and suddenly stop to eat lunch or take a break, put your warmer layers on — even if you’re not cold. This change in activity will cause your body heat to plummet. Preempt the cold with an extra layer.
7. Fuel the fire. Feeling cold? Eat a snack. Staying warm is just like keeping a fire burning; every fire needs a steady supply of slow-burning fuel. Unlike a fire, you’re body will also need lots of water to help digest food and stay hydrated.
8. Wet feet? Grab a bag — a bread bag, that is. The long plastic bag can stretch over your foot and serve as a liner between your sock and your boot.
If you prepare well and keep your wits about you, you should seldom encounter cold weather emergencies. But, if bad weather catches you in the backcountry, make camp and crawl into your sleeping bag to wait out the storm.
Visit the backcountry in small groups, but never alone. Use the buddy system, so group members are watching out for one another.
Stay alert for symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite, and dehydration—the medical emergencies most often associated with cold weather.
It may be cold, but sunlight is intense. This can mean sunscreen and a broadband hat are vital protection when you are traveling or camping on snowfields. The sun’s rays reflecting off snow can burn parts of your neck, ears, and face not shielded by clothing. Protect these areas by using plenty of sunscreen with the sun protection factor of at least 15, and apply zinc oxide or lip balm with a SPF 15 or higher to your lips. Shield your eyes and sunglasses or ski goggles to avoid the snow blindness.
Cliff Jacobson, writer for Scouting Magazine suggests we avoid these cold-weather dangers:
“Be very careful around open flames, since you won’t feel the heat of a burning stove or campfire through thickly insulated winter clothing.
“Wearing waterproof clothes in subfreezing temperatures while hiking or sleeping is a recipe for hypothermia. Opt for a breathable, windproof shell that won’t trap perspiration. However, you’re in big trouble if snow suddenly turns to rain and you don’t have a waterproof raincoat. Tuck the waterproof shell away in your pack or sled.
“Double up on clothing that might get wet: two sets of wool underwear, mittens, warm hats (a balaclava and stocking cap) and wool socks.
“Small stuff disappears in snow, so take pre-emptive measures to prevent this. Tie colored plastic surveying tape (available at hardware stores) to small items that might get lost. Each patrol should use a different color. Your pocketknife and compass can be kept on a lanyard attached to your belt. A security strap for eyeglasses is important.
“Days are short in winter, so plan accordingly. Every Scout should have an LED headlamp with lithium batteries. (Store it in a jacket pocket close to your body to keep the batteries from draining in the cold.) A candle lantern provides light and some heat in a quinzee or snow cave.
“With some planning, a cold-weather camping trip might just be the ideal challenge for your Scouts.”
For more on hypothermia, frostbite, avalanches, and other cold-weather emergencies, look at “Emergency Preparedness” (p. 143) and “Hazards” (p. 151) in those chapters of the Fieldbook. However, traveling into areas prone to avalanches is beyond the scope of the Fieldbook. if you’re interested in going in those areas, prepare by taking backcountry travel courses to learn how to use avalanche beacons, probes, and snow shovels
Here are other posts in this series: