[Additional Notes: I am always glad to get helpful comments on the subject of outdoors adaptation and survival. While this series emphasizes survival in extreme cold, a friend from New England with experience in the White Mountains of New Hampshire just sent this response to remind us all that freezing to death is a relative term and that any cold and/or wet conditions can make you dead. She related incidents of rapidly changing conditions on Mt. Washington and Mt. Lafayette---such as sudden snow squalls---for which mountains are notorious (and why I love them).
A medical worker, she recalls incidents in New Hampshire’s White Mountains of “usually young, inexperienced college students who came from other warmer states, who went missing on hikes and were found dead---not suitably dressed and lying where it appeared to rescuers that they had simply lay down and fell asleep from cold and exhaustion. …the conditions were not nearly so bad as they would be in Alaska, but still cold enough to freeze to death.”
I presume that some of these folks---in addition to being unprepared gear-wise---were also genuinely lost or had simply hiked in too far to get back out.
The condition of dying by cold is called “exposure” and “hypothermia.” “Getting chilled” while lost, stranded and exhausted can cause people to stop moving---to simply give up and succumb to what must be a fairly peaceful (therefore tempting) death by slow cessation of all mental and physical functions.
Survival is not just about the “gear,“ not just about Alaska, and not just about the more obvious and intense of the elemental forces. Regarding the seemingly insignificant details of survival, my friend writes: “It is true that some things that seem simple enough can really be life saving in an emergency.”
See also today‘s (12-3) Anchorage Daily News for a humorous-sounding but very serious incident in Nome, Alaska: “Frozen Coors Light helped trapped man survive.” We do what we have to do. - R.W.]
This series is intended for those who venture outdoors and appreciate the need to be aware of the smallest details if they wish to survive comfortably under conditions of extreme cold.
I’m trying to make this information fit the needs of various people. We all have to keep warm sometime. That’s why I am qualifying by noting what I do and how I do it---just so you can adapt the information to your personal needs. A lot depends on how long you are going to stay or be outdoors. And how fast you are traveling through the land. Moving warmth and non-moving warmth will be covered in the next part of this series.
THE FORMULA -
There is a formula for these things---and you have to figure it out for yourself. Preparing for comfortable, extreme cold weather survival depends on what one is planning to do and how long one intends to spend outside…or how long one may be forced to remain outside. Or, if one intends to go outside at all! Ground squirrels hibernate up to seven months of the year---and some Alaskans hardly ever go out of the house. When I lived in Anchorage I rarely saw people on the streets in Winter except for a few stray teenagers. Also, most Alaskans who actually do go outdoors ride around on motorized vehicles, where keeping warm requires somewhat different clothing and practices.
In reality, most Alaskans scurry from heated home to heated vehicle and then scamper from vehicle to office…usually muttering something like ”Oooh! Oooh! Oooh!” as they race from one heated space to another.
I see some strange things when going for supplies in Wasilla in the middle of Winter. People at the malls in bath robes and flip-flops. No hats, skimpy coats or none at all. I see young things showing their cleavages---and young guys in T-shirts. And they are mostly rushing around because they are cold---an invitation to fall on slick sidewalks and parking lots.
THE WILL TO LIVE -
What I love about surviving in extreme cold is that I am sometimes brought face to face with the intensity (or lack thereof) of my own will to live. When things get tough---like when coming home in the dark after a long day and I have fallen in the snow with skis cabled to my feet and a heavy (30 lb.) backpack pulling me down and it seems easier to just lie there. After a day of exertion it’s so comfy being suddenly at rest in that nice, soft snow---that’s when I find out about myself!
But I have to get up, right? Do I struggle to my feet with skis still on or do I reach down into the snow and undo the cables so I don’t twist a knee trying to stand up?
Do I drop my backpack or keep it on so I don’t have to bother putting it on again? Mind you, I am lying there in a tangle of skis going different directions, ski-poles hung up or pinned underneath my body, backpack askew, held taut by a bungee cord clipped to the pack with my powerful ski-dog on the other end, snow inside my gloves and nothing firm to push off on.
A collection of simple things becomes very complicated when it’s really cold and I am really tired. That’s why I mention the simple stuff. These sound like minor incidents but not when I am on my last legs, so to speak. When every act becomes a trial because I am cold and very tired. Simple acts like even contemplating the lifting of a backpack to my shoulders become minor ordeals. That’s where mental discipline comes in.
First, I get the ski-dog to give me some slack. And of course I must take my skis off if I fall into the snow---especially in deep snow where I can‘t get any purchase. After that, I can sometimes struggle to my feet with the backpack still in place. If not, I take it off and go through the routine of finding my gear, brushing it off and putting skis back on the boots and lifting the pack onto my back.
I would be remiss not to mention this will-to-live thing because, thinking seriously about extreme cold weather survival, the degree of one’s will to survive may get tested whether one likes it or not, seeks it or not, knows it or not.
Actually, it’s just like regular, everyday life---except with more immediate consequences! I presume, judging from one comment to a previous blog, that some of you out there have similar crises about whether or not to get up off the couch. It all involves the same thing…the limits of your will to live.
So, without making too much of it, there might be some survival advantage to evaluating and keeping the strength of one’s will to live in mind---just in case one is actually called upon to get serious about immediate survival.
THE LEGS -
‘Nice legs,’ I thought to myself. Long, lovely and bare as they stretched out to briskly carry the young lady up the embankment from parking lot to heated office building.
‘Kind of stupid, though,’ I thought, ’to be running around in a miniskirt at well below Zero.’
It was our young secretary rushing off to the McKay building in Anchorage and the State of Alaska offices where I used to work years ago. I’d like to say that the sight of those lovely legs in a mini-skirt were a good sight---but frankly, there was not too much enticing about her at that moment. I was more amazed by the fact that this young lady---an otherwise sensible, even modest girl---chose to drive to work with naked legs in sub-zero weather.
DON’T FORGET THE LEGS -
When it comes to staying warm, the most neglected body parts are the legs, which comprise a third of the Human skin surface. Next to a parka, insulated pants are the best garments to really keep warm in extreme cold. I consider them indispensable and you will too when you find that insulated pants make the whole body significantly warmer---especially, and including, the feet!
At the very minimum, every Alaskan should have a pair of shell pants of breathable nylon or something to be worn over regular pants in order take the edge off the cold. Insulated pants would be much better, but even a thin pair of “shell“ type pants over what you are wearing makes a real difference in keeping the cold from creeping right up into your private parts.
I personally prefer to carry insulated pants and shell pants without zippers because they are lighter and less bulky. It is arguably somewhat more convenient to put on insulated pants right over clothing already being worn rather than taking off the boots. But I find it almost as convenient just to take off my boots instead of fiddling with full-length zippers---even if it involves trying not to get snow on my feet. In fact, it’s hard to get shell pants anymore without zippers. But I still prefer to take off my boots rather than fuss with the zippers.
For the legs I definitely prefer a synthetic polar guard type of insulation because of its resistance to compression. Wool might be even better but I don’t use it because of allergic reactions.
I do have a variety of down pants; down-filled half-sleeping bags that zip into pants configurations; different weights and thicknesses of polar guard insulated pants; and insulated pants with the outer shell built right into them. Being outdoors on a constant basis, I am able to draw from a variety of gear to suit conditions. A big, thick layer of down keeps me really warm but provides little insulation from the ground, so I generally prefer the polar guard or a combination when things get really cold.
THE OUTER PANTS SHELL - PROTECTING THE INSULATION
This concerns what material is used to cover the insulation and to protect it from moisture and abrasion. Pants contact the snow and the ground more than other garments. There always comes a time when I have to actually sit or lie down or fall. So, the idea is to have a shell garment of some sort to protect whatever insulation one chooses to warm the legs.
Cold and very dry weather is easier to deal with than the dangerous temperatures just above and just below freezing. But no matter how cold and dry the weather, the garments will be exposed to snow and the body temperature will tend to melt that snow into the garments.
I have not had the opportunity to evaluate the very latest in high-tech, Gore-Tex type shell garments which are called breathable and which, it is claimed, vent moisture out while preventing it from coming in. I haven’t purchased one of these garments in their latest incarnations because they are quite heavy---although I have spent thousands of dollars on earlier models in the past.
Remember, I carry all this stuff on my back, so weight and bulk are a constant concern. But I do have several personal reservations about the high-tech, multi-layered, “breathable” type outer shell garments, aside from their weight and bulk.
First of all, I do not like wearing a “rain” parka when it is not raining. That is, of course, how these “dual-purpose” shell garments are advertised to function---first as “wind-breakers” and then, as rain or wet weather garments. The reason I don’t like them is because I find that using these dual-purpose shells every day as wind-breakers prematurely wears out their water repellent qualities---which are never more effective than when the garment is brand new but which always deteriorate over time and usage. In other words, the water-repelling qualities of the dual-purpose, “breathable” shell garment tend to diminish over time. [For actual rain wear in Summer I use a thin, non-breathable raincoat over a thin, cheap, breathable shell garment.]
Now, here’s the kicker on water-repellency in extreme cold. The newer the shell garment---and the more effective it is in repelling moisture---the more the frost tends to build up inside the garment. I don’t think that breathable shells breathe as well in extreme cold.
Like I said, I can’t test everything, but it is my observation that the outer shell garment---whether it is a pants shell or a parka shell---must be somewhat porous and very breathable when used in extreme cold temperatures. My guess is that extreme cold interferes with the ability of the garment to allow moisture to pass to the outside as advertised. In other words, body moisture freezes before it has a chance to exit the clothing layers through the high-tech, permeable membranes.
Now, this is one of those areas where individual needs and individual clothing types will have to be determined by the user. Just be aware that so-called “breathable” garments may not breathe well under conditions of extreme cold. [In moderately cold but definitely wet weather, a process of “super-cooling” has been known to occur in which the breathable garment becomes a refrigeration device! Whether that problem has been solved I do not know. In any case, it is why I prefer my wet-weather “rain” gear to be truly waterproof rather than “breathable.”]
Things become really complicated when wet snow or rain falls and then the temperature falls. In such instances, water repellency becomes more important than breathe-ability.
As was true for parkas, if you are hard on your gear then the outer layer must be commensurate with the beating it is expected to take---it could be anything from a heavy Cordura nylon to denim or light canvas.
If your insulated pants or parka comes with a built-in outer shell then you are stuck with it---hopefully the manufacturer has struck a balance between water repellency, frost permeability, breathe-ability and strength. And, as always, you must make sure that all those layers of clothing fit one over the other so you can walk and function in them. That means your outer shell garments need to be quite large-sized. And, of course, don‘t forget to take off the heavily insulated garments when doing strenuous activities or you will overheat and degrade the insulation with your own body moisture.
- Rudy Wittshirk
In upcoming parts of this “WARMTH” series I will deal with moving and non-moving warmth---and the vital but complicated subjects of boots and gloves to protect the extremities.