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Seven Tips to Survive the Frozen Wilderness

by Bruce Haring

The frozen wilderness is hypnotic, but this magnificent beauty can be a deathtrap for those who are ill-equipped to survive it if they lose their way during a hiking trip. With wintertime temperatures dipping to 20 to 30 degrees below zero in some frozen wildernesses, these seven tips to survive the frozen wilderness will make the difference between life and death.

  1. Snow Shelter is Critical

In the frozen outdoors, wind and snow drifts are your biggest enemies. They can result in hypothermia. Even with no trees or wood in sight you can still build a shelter. It will take some hard work, but do it slowly so that you don’t perspire.

Build a snow enclosure that is eight inches thick. Try to reach the ground under the snow while making the shelter so that you can warm yourself a bit from the radiant heat the ground emits.

  1. Keep Yourself Warm

Losing body heat is devastating in the subzero temperature. If you intend to travel into the wilderness, even for a simple hiking trip, make sure you carry clothes that will protect from the icy wind. Always wear a jacket with a collar and drawstring at the waist to prevent the wind from getting to you. Your head also needs to be covered as it radiates heat. Wear a warm cap and cover your neck with a scarf.

Layering is a must in icy temperatures. Keep removing layers if you notice perspiration, as perspiring causes you to lose body heat. The innermost layer of your wilderness attire should be from polypropylene or thermax which has the ability to wick away moisture from your skin. The middle layer should comprise wool, which traps heat and keeps the body insulated. The outermost layer should be of a material that allows water vapor come out, but doesn’t let water penetrate.

  1. Drink Water after Disinfecting It

With all that snow around you, there is no risk of dying of thirst. However, you are still at a risk of contracting a waterborne disease. When venturing into the wilderness keep a water purification kit with you. Alternatively, you can use household bleach to purify water in about 30 minutes. Just add four drops of the bleach for every quart of water. But who travels into the wilderness with bleach, right? So the best way to melt and disinfect snow is by boiling it for 20 minutes.

Yes, you can drink bleach in small amounts with water.

  1. Check Your Extremities for Frostbite

Frostbite is a major problem in the frozen wilderness. It occurs when ice crystals form in the skin or muscle. It leads to the tissue dying and necrosis sets in. Hence, it is important to avoid frostbite. If you notice your fingers, toes, nose, earlobes, or cheeks turning red and have a tingling sensation, it is the first sign of frostbite. You can still avert tissue damage.

Heat water to about 100 deg. F and immerse the affected part into this warm water. If you have a companion with you, body heat of your companion can also help warm up your body. Refrain from rubbing or massaging the affected area as it will result in irreversible tissue damage.

  1. Be Careful about Walking across Ice

You may think a frozen water body is safe, but looks can be deceptive. If the ice breaks, you will plunge into freezing water. You will die within minutes if you cannot get out of the water and warm yourself. There is also the risk of the hole in the water freezing, trapping you inside.

Attempt to cross a frozen water body only if the ambient temperature is 20 deg F or less. Use a pole or ice chisel to first check if the ice is frozen solid. Tapping with the tool should suffice. If you hear a hollow sound, the ice is weak. Change your route. Also, keep your eyes open for cracks on the ice surface.

  1. Stay with Your Group

If you are lost in the wilderness with company, remember there is always safety in numbers. Never leave your snow shelter alone. Always go out with a companion. This way, if anything happens to you, there is another person to help or administer first aid.

In case you are alone and decide to venture out, leave behind a note that gives details of your destination. This will make it easier for rescuers to find you.

  1. Keep Yourself Hydrated

Hydration is as important in the cold as it is in warm weather. Since you are in the cold, your blood vessels will constrict to reduce blood flow to your extremities. This tricks your body into believing there is ample water and hence, you don’t feel thirsty. However, dehydration can occur in cold, subzero temperatures as well, resulting in fatigue, stroke, cramps, loss of coordination, and muscular fatigue.

Even if you are not thirsty, make sure you drink water. If you have a firestarter and tinder, make hot tea or chocolate. Drinking hot chocolate is a good idea as it will not only hydrate you, but also ensure your body gets the calories it requires to sustain it in the wilderness.


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