Surviving Severe Cold Weather

By Suzanne Wiley

The record-breaking Winter Storm Grayson has passed, but it effects still linger. It has left behind winter weather advisories, flooding, airport delays, continued freezing temperatures, and tragically, 22 deaths. For those who live on the East Coast and in the Northern States, March 20 probably feels like it is years away, not just a couple of months.

Meanwhile, back in Mansfield, Texas, our forecast for next weekend says it will be back up to 65 degrees F. However, that doesn’t mean much. We have a saying here… “If you don’t like the weather in Texas, wait five minutes.” My area of Texas has a mild winter that doesn’t last very long, but none of us are out of the clear yet.

Hopefully, you weren’t caught off guard by Winter Storm Grayson, but if you were, the next cold spell or winter storm will be more bearable if you properly prepare. It is quite probable that many of us could experience a power outage at home or get stuck in our car due to snow or ice. Each situation requires slightly different gear, knowledge and preparation.

What’s at Stake?

Severely cold weather and winter storms can be dangerous to humans, especially if you aren’t prepared. We are tropical creatures by nature. It’s only through adaptation that we are able to survive colder climates.

When we get cold, we physically cannot function as well, which makes extreme cold survival preparation that much more important. The most vital aspect of surviving really cold weather is keeping warm and avoiding cold-weather related illnesses. The best way to prevent any cold-weather related illness is to avoid prolonged exposure, dress accordingly and have a resilient mindset.


Farm house covered in deep snow
That’s a lot of snow! But with a little preparation and some winter survival skills, you’ve got this!

When we lose more heat than our body can produce, we experience hypothermia. You might be surprised to learn that when our body temperature drops anywhere below 95 degrees F, we are at risk. The first signs of hypothermia include shivering, lack of coordination, and the numbing of extremities. The beginning can be so subtle, that it might be incredibly hard for the person suffering to recognize they are experiencing any symptoms at all. If not caught and prevented, the victim may start slurring their speech, be lethargic, feel oddly hot, start to remove their clothing, have a weak pulse, and will stop shivering. If you or anyone else you suspect is suffering from hypothermia, you must start to warm the body back up and seek medical attention as soon as possible.


When we begin to experience cold, our blood flows away from our skin’s surface and moves to our vital organs. If our extremities go without blood flow for too long and get too cold, ice forms on the skin cells and they begin to die. The first stage of frostbite is called frostnip and is characterized by pale, pasty skin usually at the tip of the nose, the top of the ears and on the fingertips. One might also lose feeling in the affected areas.

When frostbite is bad, the dead part can blister, the skin might go from blue to black and then harden. This is a very painful process. It is possible to recover completely from frostbite when it is not severe. The skin will slough itself to reveal healthy skin underneath. When frostbite is severe, it can reach the muscle and bone and can cause permanent damage and result in possible amputation.

Frostbite, when severe needs to be treated by a professional. It is possible to warm up the affected parts too fast. If the frostbite is really bad, keep the area frozen and go to the emergency room. If you are sure that the frostbite isn’t severe, or it is just frostnip, you can heat some water from 100 degrees to 105 degrees and slowly warm the body parts back up. Do not ever rub the affected skin.

On the Road

Country road iced over with forest surrounding it.
If you don’t have to, just don’t go out when roads are bad!

You shouldn’t be driving if you don’t have to during a winter storm or when road conditions are hazardous, but if you absolutely must, follow these rules:

  • Tell someone when and where you are going
  • Drive slowly
  • Fill your car up with gas
  • Make sure your cell phone is fully charged
  • Pack your car with cold weather survival gear
  • Stay warm
  • Stay hydrated
  • Avoid carbon monoxide poisoning

Survival for weeks and even months is possible with the right gear and mental fortitude. If you hit a dead end, run off the road, or break down, stay with and in your car. Your chances of survival increase if you do not abandon your vehicle in search of help.

Obviously, the first thing you need to do is call 9-1-1 if you have cell service. Hopefully, you won’t be stuck in your car for too long. Tie a brightly-colored bandana to your car’s antenna, or purchase a distress signal made specifically for vehicle rescues so that first responders or other motorists can easily spot you.

Staying Warm

Yes, it will be cold, but you must turn off the car to conserve gas and minimize your risk of exposure to carbon monoxide. Run the heater for ten minutes once an hour. Before turning the car on, check the exhaust pipe for snow buildup. If snow has blocked the exhaust, you must clear it with a shovel.

Keep an extra set of clothing, a cold-weather sleeping bag rated to at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit and blankets in the backseat of the car. The 12 Survivors Terra-Pod sleeping bag is designed for comfortable sleeping when it’s cold. It also doubles as an emergency signal, when you turn it inside out and expose its bright orange material.

If it is dark, turn on the interior light, so that rescue and first responders can see you. You should use your emergency flashers only if you see a car coming.

Dress in Layers

Woman dressed up in cold-weather gear with frost on her hat and face mask
Dress in layers to stay warm, starting with a moisture-wicking base layer.

It is essential to dress in loose, layered clothing that can be added and removed as necessary per activity level. Tight clothes act the exact opposite of what you think. They don’t insulate and they restrict blood flow, which is a vital part of keeping our body temperature regulated.

Plan for three to five layers, depending on how cold it is. Start with a base layer and end with a shell.

Your base layer, or bottom first layer, is your moisture-wicking layer. Do not wear cotton. Cotton does not absorb moisture. You can wear long underwear or thermals in wool, silk, or other synthetic material that controls and wicks moisture.

Your middle layers are the ones that keep you warm. Fleece, wool, and fleece/wool blends are good choices for this layer.

The outer layer, or shell, needs to be a coat or jacket with a collar, preferably with a waist you can cinch and is completely waterproof. Gore-Tex is a popular choice. Pick a coat that has enough room to comfortably fit your layers, plus leave room for ventilation.

40 to 45 percent of our body heat is lost through our head, neck, wrist and ears, so cover them up! Mittens are warmer than gloves and wear your stocking cap, beanie, or skull cap, even when you are sleeping.

Stay Dry

Being wet speeds up hypothermia. Remove wet clothing as soon as possible and replace with dry clothing. Wear waterproof boots or shoes and make sure you double up your socks. Like your clothing, layer your socks with moisture-wicking fabric. Your first pair should be thin nylon or wool and then put wool socks on top of that. If you don’t have waterproof shoes, you can cover your feet with plastic grocery bags or bread bags in a pinch.

Stay Hydrated

It is just important, if not more so, to drink water when it is extremely cold. However, do not eat snow. You need to melt it first. If you don’t have a fire, you can pack some snow in a water bottle or other container and use your body heat to melt it.  Fortunately, you should have enough room in your car to keep bottles of water. Keep a camp stove, an enamel, stainless steel, aluminum, or titanium cup to melt snow in, and always have a way to start a fire.

Car Kit:

  •         Phone charger
  •         Sleeping Bag
  •         Blankets
  •         Extra set of clothing and socks
  •         Waterproof shoes/boots
  •         Coat/Jacket
  •         Fire starter
  •         Water
  •         Snacks
  •         Small shovel
  •         Reflective emergency blanket
  •         Cup to melt snow
  •         Bright colored bandana or emergency signaling device
  •         Trash bag
  •         Poncho
  •         Knife
  •         Windshield scraper
  •         Flashlight/lantern
  •         Batteries
  •         First aid kit
  •         Camp stove
  •         Road salt or kitty litter
  •         Gloves or mittens, beanie or other wooly hat, scarf, face mask
  •         Hatchet
  •         Essential medications

Power Outage Tips and Tricks

If your power has gone out, there is a good chance road conditions aren’t safe. My first instinct would be to high-tail it to a warm and cozy hotel, but that might just not be possible, so you’re going to need to make the most of it. If you’re a camping family, you might just be able to make it fun!

Everyone should all sleep in the same room. The more bodies, the more heat generation. The living room is the obvious choice because it is most likely the biggest and the most likely to have a fireplace. Make sure your chimney is clean and clear before starting a fire.

Warm yourself from the inside out

Keri Nelson from the National Science Foundation in Antarctica says she likes to warm herself “from the inside out” with warm drinks. Don’t depend on alcohol or coffee to keep you warm. Even though imbibing will temporarily make you feel warm, both alcohol and caffeine dehydrate you.

Alternative Heat

Never use a heater that is not rated for indoor use in your home. Also, do not use your oven or stove as a heat source either. Both these methods emit dangerous carbon monoxide gas and without proper ventilation can kill you.

The Importance of Keeping Active

Interact with each other, play games, solve puzzles, and participate in other activities your family enjoys. Researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada found that people who reported feeling lonely also reported feeling cold, even in a temperature-controlled environment.

Staying active and mild exercise keeps us warm, no matter the situation due to the increase in heart rate. However, knowing your limits is very important. Shoveling snow, trekking, gathering firewood, hauling water, building a shelter—all these things can be quite ambitious and strenuous. Pace yourself.

What to Eat

We create body heat by burning fuel. We get this fuel from the food we eat. The best foods for winter weather are fatty foods, carbs, protein and simple sugars. Honey, mixed nuts, chocolate, peanut butter, granola bars, pepperoni, summer sausage, and jerky are all non-perishable foods you can keep in your cold weather survival kit.

Home Kit:

  •         Extra clothing
  •         Firewood
  •         Sleeping bags and blankets
  •         Coat/jacket
  •         Water
  •         Fire starter
  •         Flashlights
  •         Batteries
  •         First Aid Kit
  •         Essential medicine
  •         Mittens, gloves, scarves, hats/beanies
  •         Non-perishable food
  •         Cooking utensils
  •         Weather alert radio
  •         Shovel
  •         Kerosene space heater
  •         Tarp/plastic sheeting
  •         Duct tape

Of course, both kits are easily adaptable to your different area of the country and the size and needs of your family. Keep your cell phones charged, gas in the tank, and most importantly, keep your wits about you. Surviving the next arctic blast isn’t impossible without a little pre-planning and these cold-weather survival skills.

Check out 12 Survivors for cold weather gear by clicking here.

How have you prepared for winter? Leave your tips and suggestions for other readers in the comment section.