Survival Friday: Cold Weather Survival

SurvivalFinalSurvival Friday: From The Green Beret Survival Guide

I commanded an A-Team in the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne).  10th Group had the distinction of being the ‘cold weather’ Group, since it was oriented toward Europe.  We often sent teams to Finland, Norway, Denmark and other cold regions for training.  An annual event was Winter Warfare Training, where each battalion deployed for almost two months.  We learned to ski, then survive and operate in high altitude and cold weather.  My first winter warfare was an eye-opening experience for me.  There were many tricks of the trade learned, but several key lessons:

  1. Everything takes at least twice as long to achieve in cold weather.
  2. Fire is eventually an essential.  Whether for melting snow and ice into water, cooking meals, drying out clothing and gear, or just warming people up.
  3. Moving on snow with heavy equipment is extraordinarily hard.  Go back to the first case study where it took the survivors days to climb that mountain but when the one man went back it only took an hour.

Edited From FM 3-05.70 US Army Survival Handbook (my comments in italics)

One of the most difficult survival situations is a cold weather scenario. Remember, cold weather is an adversary that can be as dangerous as an enemy soldier. Every time you venture into the cold, you are pitting yourself against the elements. With a little knowledge of the environment, proper plans, and appropriate equipment, you can overcome the elements. As you remove one or more of these factors, survival becomes increasingly difficult. Remember, winter weather is highly variable. Prepare yourself to adapt to blizzard conditions even during sunny and clear weather.

Cold is a far greater threat to survival than it appears. It decreases your ability to think and weakens your will to do anything except to get warm. Cold is an insidious enemy; as it numbs the mind and body, it subdues the will to survive.

Cold makes it very easy to forget your ultimate goal—to survive.

Cold Regions And Locations

Cold regions include arctic and subarctic areas and areas immediately adjoining them. You can classify about 48 percent of the northern hemisphere’s total landmass as a cold region due to the influence and extent of air temperatures. Ocean currents affect cold weather and cause large areas normally included in the temperate zone to fall within the cold regions during winter periods. Elevation also has a marked effect on defining cold regions.

Within the cold weather regions, you may face two types of cold weather environments—wet or dry. Knowing in which environment your area of operations falls will affect planning and execution of a cold weather operation.

Wet Cold Weather Environments

Wet cold weather conditions exist when the average temperature in a 24-hour period is -10 degrees C (14 F) or above. Characteristics of this condition are freezing during the colder night hours and thawing during the day. Even though the temperatures are warmer during this condition, the terrain is usually very sloppy due to slush and mud. You must concentrate on protecting yourself from the wet ground and from freezing rain or wet snow. When we conducted a security test of the Alaskan pipeline in October, we ran into these conditions.  I ended up having to medevac one of my weapons sergeants because he’d been a previous cold weather casualty and walking through the Alaskan tunra (frozen at night, thawing in the day) took him down.  This is something else to consider with team members:  who has had previous cold or hot weather injuries.

Dry Cold Weather Environments

Dry cold weather conditions exist when the average temperature in a 24-hour period remains below -10 degrees C (14 F). Even though the temperatures in this condition are much lower than normal, you do not have to contend with the freezing and thawing. In these conditions, you need more layers of inner clothing to protect you from temperatures
as low as –60 degrees C (-76 F). Extremely hazardous conditions exist when wind and low temperature combine.


Windchill increases the hazards in cold regions. Windchill is the effect of moving air on exposed flesh. For instance, with a 27.8-kph (15-knot) wind and a temperature of -10 degrees C (14 F), the equivalent windchill temperature is -23 degrees C (-9.4 F). Figure 15-1 gives the windchill factors for various temperatures and wind speeds.  Wind always exacerbates the situation, which is why your outer garment should not only be water resistant, but wind resistant.  A key in building shelter is to get out of the wind.  Remember Frodo trying to cross the Misty Mountains in the blizzard?


Remember, even when there is no wind, you will create the equivalent wind by skiing, running, being towed on skis behind a vehicle, working around aircraft that produce wind blasts.

Basic Principles Of Cold Weather Survival

It is more difficult for you to satisfy your basic water, food, and shelter needs in a cold environment than in a warm environment. Even if you have the basic requirements, you must also have adequate protective clothing and the will to survive. The will to survive is as important as the basic needs. There have been incidents when trained and well-equipped individuals have not survived cold weather situations because they lacked the will to live. Conversely, this will has sustained individuals less well-trained and equipped.

There are many different items of cold weather equipment and clothing issued by the U.S. Army today. Specialized units may have access to newer, lightweight gear such as polypropylene underwear, GORE-TEX outerwear and boots, and other special equipment. Remember, however, the older gear will keep you warm as long as you apply a few cold weather principles. If the newer types of clothing are available, use them. If not, then your clothing should be entirely wool, with the possible exception of a windbreaker.

You must not only have enough clothing to protect you from the cold, you must also know how to maximize the warmth you get from it.

For example, always keep your head covered. You can lose 40 to 45 percent of body heat from an unprotected head and even more from the unprotected neck, wrist, and ankles. These areas of the body are good radiators of heat and have very little insulating fat. The brain is very susceptible to cold and can stand the least amount of cooling. Because there is much blood circulation in the head, most of which is on the surface, you can lose heat quickly if you do not cover your head.  This is also why scalp wounds tend to bleed profusely.

There are four basic principles to follow to keep warm. An easy way to remember these basic principles is to use the word COLD—

  • C keep clothing Clean.
  • O avoid Overheating. (once more:  sweating is very dangerous in the cold)
  • L wear clothes Loose and in Layers.
  • D keep clothing Dry.

C Keep clothing clean. This principle is always important for sanitation and comfort. In winter, it is also important from the standpoint of warmth. Clothes matted with dirt and grease lose much of their insulation value. Heat can escape more easily from the body through the clothing’s crushed or filled up air pockets.

O Avoid overheating. When you get too hot, you sweat and your clothing absorbs the moisture. This affects your warmth in two ways: dampness decreases the insulation quality of clothing, and as sweat evaporates, your body cools. Adjust your clothing so that you do not sweat. Do this by partially opening your parka or jacket, by removing an inner layer of clothing, by removing heavy outer mittens, or by throwing back your parka hood or changing to lighter headgear. The head and hands act as efficient heat dissipaters when overheated.

L Wear your clothing loose and in layers. Wearing tight clothing and footgear restricts blood circulation and invites cold injury. It also decreases the volume of air trapped between the layers, reducing its insulating value. Several layers of lightweight clothing are better than one equally thick layer of clothing, because the layers have dead-air space between them. The dead-air space provides extra insulation. Also, layers of clothing allow you to take off or add clothing layers to prevent excessive sweating or to increase warmth.

D Keep clothing dry. In cold temperatures, your inner layers of clothing can become wet from sweat and your outer layer, if not water repellent, can become wet from snow and frost melted by body heat. Wear water repellent outer clothing, if available. It will shed most of the water collected from melting snow and frost. Before entering a heated shelter, brush off the snow and frost. Despite the precautions you take, there will be times when you cannot keep from getting wet. At such times, drying your clothing may become a major problem. On the march, hang your damp mittens and socks on your rucksack. Sometimes in freezing temperatures, the wind and sun will dry this clothing. You can also place damp socks or mittens, unfolded, near your body so that your body heat can dry them. In a campsite, hang damp clothing inside the shelter near the top, using drying lines or improvised racks. You may even be able to dry each item by holding it before an open fire. Dry leather items slowly. If no other means are available for drying your boots, put them between your sleeping bag shell and liner. Your body heat will help to dry the leather.

I remember near the end of one Winter Warfare exercise, we were so acclimated, that on a sunny day where it warmed up to around 30, we were lying on top of eight feet of snow on our ponchos catching rays in our t-shirts and fatigue pants.  You do become acclimated to your environment, much more than most people believe.

A heavy, down-lined sleeping bag is a valuable piece of survival gear in cold weather. Ensure the down remains dry. If wet, it loses a lot of its insulation value. If you do not have a sleeping bag, you can make one out of parachute cloth or similar material and natural dry material, such as leaves, pine needles, or moss. Place the dry material between two layers of the material.

Other important survival items are a knife; waterproof matches in a waterproof container, preferably one with a flint attached; a durable compass; map; watch; waterproof ground cloth and cover; flashlight; binoculars; dark glasses; fatty emergency foods; food gathering gear; and signaling items.

Remember, a cold weather environment can be very harsh. Give a good deal of thought to selecting the right equipment for survival in the cold. If unsure of an item you have never used, test it in an “overnight back-yard” environment before venturing further. Once you have selected items that are essential for your survival, do not lose them after you enter a cold weather environment.   This brings up an interesting point—collecting all this gear is great, but if you never use it until you have to—well, that’s not good.  Suck it up and spend at least 24 hours testing everything you have.

Cold Injuries

The best way to deal with injuries and sicknesses is to take measures to prevent them from happening in the first place. Treat any injury or sickness that occurs as soon as possible to prevent it from worsening.

The knowledge of signs and symptoms and the use of the buddy system are critical in maintaining health. Following are cold injuries that can occur.


Hypothermia is the lowering of the body temperature at a rate faster than the body can produce heat. Causes of hypothermia may be general exposure or the sudden wetting of the body by falling into a lake or spraying with fuel or other liquids.

The initial symptom is shivering. This shivering may progress to the point that it is uncontrollable and interferes with an individual’s ability to care for himself. This begins when the body’s core (rectal) tempera- ture falls to about 35.5 degrees C (96 degrees F). When the core temperature reaches 35 to 32 degrees C (95 to 90 degrees F), sluggish thinking, irrational reasoning, and a false feeling of warmth may occur. Core temperatures of 32 to 30 degrees C (90 to 86 degrees F) and below result in muscle rigidity, unconsciousness, and barely detectable signs of life. If the victim’s core temperature falls below 25 degrees C (77 degrees F), death is almost certain.

To treat hypothermia, rewarm the entire body. If there are means available, rewarm the person by first immersing the trunk area only in warm water of 37.7 to 43.3 degrees C (100 to 110 degrees F).

One of the quickest ways to get heat to the inner core is to give warm water enemas. Such an action, however, may not be possible in a survival situation. Another method is to wrap the victim in a warmed sleeping bag with another person who is already warm; both should be naked.


Rewarming the total body in a warm water bath should be done only in a hospital environment because of the increased risk of cardiac arrest and rewarming shock.


The individual placed in the sleeping bag with victim could also become a hypothermia victim if left in the bag too long.

If the person is conscious, give him hot, sweetened fluids. One of the best sources of calories is honey or dextrose; if unavailable, use sugar, cocoa, or a similar soluble sweetener.

There are two dangers in treating hypothermia- rewarming too rapidly and “after drop.” Rewarming too rapidly can cause the victim to have circulatory problems, resulting in heart failure. After drop is the sharp body core temperature drop that occurs when taking the victim from the warm water. Its probable cause is the return of previously stagnant limb blood to the core (inner torso) area as recirculation occurs. Concentrating on warming the core area and stimulating peripheral circulation will lessen the effects of after drop. Immersing the torso in a warm bath, if possible, is the best treatment.


This injury is the result of frozen tissues. Light frostbite involves only the skin that takes on a dull whitish pallor. Deep frostbite extends to a depth below the skin. The tissues become solid and immovable. Your feet, hands, and exposed facial areas are particularly vulnerable to frostbite.

The best frostbite prevention, when you are with others, is to use the buddy system. Check your buddy’s face often and make sure that he checks yours. If you are alone, periodically cover your nose and lower part of your face with your mittened hand.

The following pointers will aid you in keeping warm and preventing frostbite when it is extremely cold or when you have less than adequate clothing:

Face. Maintain circulation by twitching and wrinkling the skin on your face making faces. Warm with your hands.


Do not force an unconscious person to drink.

Ears. Wiggle and move your ears. Warm with your hands.

Hands. Move your hands inside your gloves. Warm by placing your hands close to your body.

Feet. Move your feet and wiggle your toes inside your boots.

A loss of feeling in your hands and feet is a sign of frostbite. If you have lost feeling for only a short time, the frostbite is probably light. Other- wise, assume the frostbite is deep. To rewarm a light frostbite, use your hands or mittens to warm your face and ears. Place your hands under your armpits. Place your feet next to your buddy’s stomach. A deep frostbite injury, if thawed and refrozen, will cause more damage than a non-medically trained person can handle. Figure 15-2 lists some do’s and don’ts regarding frostbite.



When bundled up in many layers of clothing during cold weather, you may be unaware that you are losing body moisture. Your heavy clothing absorbs the moisture that evaporates in the air. You must drink water to replace this loss of fluid. Your need for water is as great in a cold environment as it is in a warm environment. One way to tell if you are becoming dehydrated is to check the color of your urine on snow. If your urine makes the snow dark yellow, you are becoming dehydrated and need to replace body fluids. If it makes the snow light yellow to no color, your body fluids have a more normal balance. You can also smell the sharp odor of the urine when someone is dehydrated.  It’s very hard to make people drink water in a cold environment, which makes dehydration a particular danger.  A team leader must keep track to make sure every person stays hydrated.

About Bob Mayer

West Point Graduate, former Green Beret and NY Times bestselling author Bob Mayer has had over 50 books published. He has sold over five million books, and is in demand as a team-building, life-changing, and leadership speaker and consultant for his Who Dares Wins concept. He's been on bestseller lists in thriller, science fiction, suspense, action, war, historical fiction and is the only male author on the Romance Writers of America Honor Roll. Born in the Bronx, Bob attended West Point and earned a BA in psychology with honors and then served as an Infantry platoon leader, a battalion scout platoon leader, and a brigade recon platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division. He joined Special Forces and commanded a Green Beret A Team. He served as the operations officer for 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and with Special Operations Command (Special Projects) in Hawaii. Later he taught at the Special Forces Qualification Course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, the course which trains new Green Berets. He lived in Korea where he earned a Black Belt in Martial Arts. He's earned a Masters Degree in Education.

Posted on December 6, 2013, in Write It forward and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I may need all this before the day’s over . . . forecast for freezing rain. Rainy right now and temp slowly dropping . . .

  2. It is definitely important that clothing never be so tight that it cuts into blood circulation. An athletic fit works well for base layers, though, because it maximizes skin contact and allows for optimal wicking. And GoreTex tends to breathe better when more rather than less fitted.

    Wet cold is miserable. 34 degrees with rain is worse than 12 degrees with two feet of snow on the ground, if you ask me.

  3. This is all great stuff for us to know. I learned a ton of valuable info here. Thanks, Bob. This post confirms that I made a wise choice in ordering 5 copies of your book for Christmas gifts for hubby, son, sons-in-law, and sister. Wish I could have bought a copy for all my other relatives, too, but I’ll have to do that little by little. I’m looking forward to reading hubby’s copy! :)

  4. Glad you find it useful– I served in the Army’s cold weather Special Forces Group– the 10th. We did Winter Warfare training every winter. Thus I am no longer a fan of getting cold.

  5. And a domestic tip because I just got a call from my property manager in California who is dealing with frozen water pipes: Just keep the cold water dripping from an inside tap and the pipes won’t burst. The flowing water is warmer than 32F and acts as a heat source. Just a dribble is enough. And even in California where water is pricey, it’s cheaper than a plumber. (This tip courtesy of an expat in Canada who can attest that everything–including thinking and writing–does indeed take twice as long in the cold!)

  6. Thanks Bob… Everybody should have a copy of your survival book…
    Stay warm up there. Lovely down here! You know where to come when it’s all a bit cold up there!

  7. I’m going to have to pick up one of Bob Mayer’s Books. I’ve read excerpts of a few of them, and wow they seem very interesting.

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