The Cold Realities of Hypothermia…A few Tips For Staying Safe in the Winter

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.


Basically your body cannot maintain its core temperature and it sucks heat from your extremities to your core until your organs shut down and you fall asleep…and don’t wake up. It takes lives in my home state Vermont almost every year.

It is simple really. There is more heat being lost than produced. The more extreme the energy deficit the faster the hypothermia. From minutes to months depending on the circumstances. How can we avoid this? Stay at home? Run from heated home to car to work to car to home…?

Nah. There is too much fun to be had out there in the snow.

Your body is an amazing heat source. Learn to manage how that heat is generated, maintained, and nourished, and you can enjoy the winter while respecting the real danger that winter presents. Here are several of the tips we have learned over the years that we share at our Winter Survival Courses:


Sweat is the enemy. Why? Water transfers heat 25 times faster than air. Pretty smart to sweat then if you are chasing a gemsbok across the African plains. But, in Vermont at -15 degrees with a stiff wind, its not the best if you want to stay warm. If you sweat into your base layers you lose heat fast. Aim to start and maintain a state of “Comfortably Cool”. You need to make this a priority. Stop what you are doing and layer up and down as necessary. See it as a set of valves you open and close to maintain optimal temperatures.

The folks who really know what they are doing with this will start to foresee the need to shift layers. Movement equals heat. This is the idea of taking off a layer before you start up the hill and layering back up when you stop for a rest before your temperature plummets and you get cold. Quick Tips: Zippers make life easy for venting. Keep layers loose for layering comfort. Many layers is better than one thick Layer. Seal the seams, waist, wrists, ankles, neck, by getting gear with elastic and having a solid wooby. I like the wool neck warmers from Buff.

Go With A Buddy

Every survival type issue is much worse alone. Sprained ankle? Send your buddy for help (make sure they can find their way out and back). Need to make a shelter? Much easier with two. Lost and freezing? Open your buddy like Luke did his Tauntaun in Empire Strikes Back and climb inside. Kidding, snuggling works fine. Keep your clothes on and know this is a bad way to go if one person is already hypothermic. 1 Hypo + 1 Non Hypo = 2 Hypo

Stay Found

The majority of hypothermia deaths in New England start with someone getting lost. So here are a couple tips for staying found.

  • Bring a compass even when you think you will not need it. GPS can die or malfunction.
  • Look at maps of the area before hand. Google and Bing maps have made this easier than ever before. Look at where you are going and ask yourself, which of the eight basic directions do I need to go in this area to hit a road, river, railroad bed, etc, that I can follow to safety?
  • Learn to move in a straight line across terrain using a compass, sight lining, natural features.
  • Look behind you on the way in, it always looks different going in than going out.

Bring Fire

I am really good at bow drill. After 15 years of practice. I rarely find myself unable to create a friction fire. I carry a knife and p-cord in some form almost everywhere so I always have friction fire as an option provided there is wood….

But you know what? I carry a Bic lighter with me all the time and have a back up in my med kit and in my pack. On winter trips I like to tape one to some P-cord and wear it around my neck where it will stay warm and dry. Although if you are treating hypothermia radiant heat from a fire is not very helpful, but being able to dry your layers is key to staying alive. Back up matches are great. Just throw some strike anywhere in a water proof container or bag and have them as a back up back up.

One Is None.

For critical pieces of gear, one is as good as none. If your hike, expedition, or survival in anyway relies on a single piece of gear and it is at all possible, bring more than one. This is the idea behind extra head lamp batteries that live gorilla taped to the band of you head lamp.


Speaking of one is none. For things that keep me and my loved ones alive, I think one back up is too few. Luckily my friend passed along PACE for planning:

Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency

The idea here is that for all of the most important facets of your outing, you have a PACE plan. For example, not getting lost:

Primary-Follow Map and Trail Blazes

Alternate- Garmin GPS with extra batteries

Contingency- Topo Map and Compass with routes established

Emergency- Divide your trip into legs. For each leg pick a emergency route that just requires following a straight line to a land feature that can be followed to safety.

I like a PACE plan for navigation, communication, shelter, water, fire, and food. It can be a simple and quick thought exercise that can change the mental landscape when Murphy shows up and trashes plan A.

Pocket Food

Your body is heated from within by two metabolisms, your Basal Metabolic Rate(BMR) and your Exercise Metabolism. Your BMR is your base line energy consumption and output it keeps you warm when your asleep and resting. When you move, you heat up quickly through exercise metabolism. In order to burn either the long or fast fire, you need fuel.

In the winter it is important to eat a little often to keep a constant stream of fuel adding to the fire. Here is where a trail mix, a jar of peanut butter, or jerky can go a long way. Something fast and calorie rich can change the game.

Please note: This is not a be all end all, the winter time is no joke, respect it. But get out in it and have fun.  There is a lot more to know about emergency shelters and fires, getting water and food, improvising snow shoes, and lost of other cool skills to keep you alive. Just take one bite at a time and you’d be surprise how much you can learn over the years.

The fresh air, peaceful snowy landscapes, and release from too much time inside await. Get out there to track, sled a hill, hike, or camp!

For more information about winter survival subscribe to our blog or check out a Winter Survival Course.