For those of you who don’t know, I’m originally from California, the San Fernando Valley, to be more specific, which is a suburb of Los Angeles. Up until the time I moved to Bloomington to go to school, I was blissfully unaware of what winter meant. I guess the Siberians would argue I still don’t, but I”m happy about that. But cold is cold, I say, and it was pretty frickin’ cold last week, and, actually, as I write this, it’s barely above 20 degrees outside.
But that’s a spring day compared to the Arctic Hades that descended on the Midwest last week when the grim Polar Vortex extended southwardly and reminded us all that in Dante’s Inferno, the Ninth Circle of Hell was a giant lake of ice, populated with history’s worst characters.
Yes, it’s been cold. Not news in the winter time, but when it gets as bad as it has, I think it’s time to start thinking about some worst-case scenarios and how we might handle them, if confronted with a survival situation. It could be a dead car away from civilization, a plane wreck, as the members of an Uruguayan rugby team experienced when their chartered flight went down in the Andes mountains and they were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. Or perhaps you’re a fool and plan to go camping in March in Colorado (are you reading this, Tim?) Whatever, cold survival tips are warranted, so here are some, should you find yourself on a mountaintop, greedily eyeing another survivor’s meaty shank, uh, I mean quadricep.
The two problems that instantly come to mind are hypothermia and frostnip/frostbite. Keeping the body warm is always the top priority. Hypothermia is the first threat and, probably, the biggest one. A core body temperature drop of only 3 degrees qualifies as hypothermia, and if it gets much lower a person is in serious trouble. The body will preserve what heat it has left to protect the brain, slowing the heart and other organ activities and constricting blood vessels. This leads to confusion (doubly dangerous as it makes good decision-making less likely), slowed reflexes and slow movement, generally, as the body tries to shut down whatever it doesn’t need to keep vital organs warm enough to function.
Bourbon aficionados, like myself, were disheartened when over a decade ago, the former TV duo, known as the Mythbusters, debunked the notion that alcohol can help stave off hypothermia on their eponymous TV show. Alcohol, it seems reverses the vasoconstriction effect, allowing blood to flow better to the extremities, like fingers and toes, but at the cost of core temperature. So, alas, we’d best leave the bottle of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel at home and not in the car emergency kit.
A much better idea is to keep a good supply of drinking water in the car because dehydration can be a serious concern, too, especially if you’re forced to leave your car, be it wrecked or otherwise incapable, to head out into the cold to find help after an accident or other emergency. If one is stranded further out in the wilderness in the cold, especially if temperatures are below freezing, water in the environment is turned to ice and harder to turn into a drinkable liquid, requiring more effort and energy. A tip from the pros is to carry a canteen, which can be filled with snow, if there is any, and kept close to the body so it can be slowly warmed back into liquid before drinking it. It’s generally accepted that eating snow is a bad idea because it’s cold and will lower your core temperature. Think of how good a cold drink of water feels on a hot day. On a cold day, it could make you more vulnerable to hypothermia.
Frostbite and frostnip can become life-threatening in a survival situation. I heard a story about a man who was stranded after a vehicle he and another man were traveling in crashed. One of the men died in short order from hypothermia, while the other made his way to a cabin he knew was close by, but by the time he got there, his hands were so frostbitten, he couldn’t use them to light the match he used to get a restorative fire going. Fingers, toes, eyes, ears and the nose are all particularly vulnerable to frostbite, so keep a head cover and scarf handy in your car during the winter.
Other good things to keep in your car for cold weather emergencies include a good, heavy, weather-rated sleeping bag, a winter coat, shovel for digging out a stuck car or for digging a shelter in the snow (and about a hundred other things). My favorite survival shovels are ones that have a cutting edge, making them even more useful. A mini stove or cans of sterno can serve as emergency heat and those little heat packs that can be stuffed into shoes and pockets are incredibly useful, especially in large numbers. Tossing a bunch of them into a sleeping bag is a great idea. A flashlight, emergency food, like protein bars or cans of nuts, should be in your emergency kit, too.
There’s so much more here that I couldn’t get to. Suffice to say there’s quite a bit to know about being prepared for the horrid cold weather that we’ve been experiencing. It’s not easy to think seriously about having to survive for any period in extremely low temperatures with the Comfortmaker humming peacefully in the background. But I do know two things: it will be frickin’ cold again at some point and you never know what will happen and when you’ll need the knowledge to deal with what does.
Stay warm out there.
Rama Sobhani's column appears every other Sunday. He can be reached at email@example.com.