The Human Body and Extreme Cold Weather

The human body is outfit with many tools and resources to battle all types of conditions, cold weather included. The hypothalamus is the brain’s way of determining how to respond to the conditions and surrounding environment.  The first noticeable defense mechanism is shivering.  Shivering the muscles is the body’s way of attempting to create heat (accompanied by teeth chattering as it is quite often uncontrollable).  Another auto-response includes the raising of hairs and forming of goosebumps.  Goosebumps are formed from the contraction of muscles trying to get close and tighter to the center of the body, literally causing the hairs to stiffen.   The hypothalamus is most concerned with keeping the core and vital organs warm (this means your torso, abdominal and then the head).  The rest of the body is expendable in the eyes of the hypothalamus, which would not hesitate to kill off your legs and arms (also known as extremities) in order to keep the head in the most crucial locations for survival.  As the hypothalamus begins reducing heat circulation (the warm blood) to the unnecessary parts of the body, the extremities begin to numb and tingle (feels like pins and needles).  These extremities are restricted warm blood flow, so they begin to die.  This is important to know, in order to make it to shelter in time to restore normal blood flow to the extremities (which will not happen if you are too late and the dead limb(s) will need to be amputated).  A dead limb, finger, hand, toe, foot or other body part which has died from extreme cold and ruptured is known as frostbite (Dowling, 2014). It is even dangerous to leave human skin exposed to extreme cold temperatures (below 32 degrees Fahrenheit) and can result in frost nip.  Frost nip is the first sign of danger from developing frostbite and is defined as the freezing of the skin.

Hypothermia is another serious risk of an extreme cold weather exposure of any threatening duration (the duration which hypothermia onsets depends upon the temperature and conditions). Hypothermia means the body temperature has fallen below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.  Normally, the body is a stable 98.5 to 98.7 degrees Fahrenheit (the exact normal temperature varies and is different from person to person).  Hypothermia is life-threatening and needs to be treated as an emergency every time.  As the body’s temperature continues to drop, the organs have trouble properly functioning and thus the heart and respiratory system begins to fail.  Death is almost certain if left untreated (MAYO Clinic, 2015).  Cold bodies of water can also cause hypothermia (still due to cold temperature, but worth mentioning). 


A myth surrounding cold water and hypothermia is widely thought to be true: many people think that swimming will prevent hypothermia which is not true; in fact, swimming may induce hypothermia more quickly as the body will expend more energy and the more energy that is expended, the faster it will cool off.  Swimming will speed up heat loss and lower the body temperature (Schomberg, 2015). 

Even the polar vortex and last winter of 2015 (and the coming winter of 2016) require care and preparation to survive.

How to Survive Extreme Arctic Conditions

To prevent hypothermia and frost nip (and ultimately also frostbite), it is important to keep the body temperature as normal and regulated as possible. Having the proper clothing is very important to surviving a cold winter. The first smart move is to include at least one winter weather beanie hat in your emergency bag, and several in your fallout location.  The head releases the most heat, probably because heat rises as it expands and ends up in the head.  Even resting, the head releases about 7 percent of your total body heat, constantly.  The more the body exercises, the more heat that is released through the head (more than 50 percent can be released through the head, which is why covering the head with a warm beanie is imperative).  As the body begins to shiver and experience hypothermia symptoms, it can be losing greater than 60 percent of its heat! 

Other smart clothing to wear includes several layers of thermal underwear (both legs and chest), more layers for colder temperatures.  Several pairs of thermal socks are strongly advisable, as well as cold weather snow boots. Having a thin, tighter layer gloves covered by thermal snow gloves, will keep the hands properly warmed. This does not mean that the first gloves should be so tight they restrict blood circulation.  The hands must retain their appropriate blood flow, while remaining thoroughly warm to survive. Losing use of your fingers and hands will prevent you from performing any necessary actions to survive.  The neck should not be left exposed either…not only should some form of clothing be able to cover the neck, but an additional scarf is wise!  Many people then prefer to have a type of jump suit on, while others prefer simply thermal jeans and a flannel shirt.  Having a face mask (such as a ski mask) and goggles are advisable for the more extreme weather can help prevent frost nip of the face. Some people prefer only to use the goggles alone when the temperatures are a little more bearable. Goggles are important because the eyes can suffer from certain freezing threats, which are capable of resulting in permanent tissue loss (eyesight problems and even eyesight loss are possible). And finally, high quality snow pants and jacket (resistant to water and wetness).  Do not skimp on the jacket and pants as they are part of your core body protection (there is a reason your body values the core organs the most, it is also what you should value the most).

The right clothing not only has to be chosen and worn but also maintained.  With any snow expedition, even with the best snow boots and gear, the socks will usually find a way to get wet.  As the socks get wet, they need to be replaced.  Some people use duct tape to thoroughly seal any leakage between clothing items (using the duct tape around the opening between your boots and your pants, for example, prevents heat from leaking out). Too much clothing can lead to overheating, so don’t overdo it (layer appropriately for the weather, to keep the body temperature normal, rather than increasing the heat beyond normal and causing dehydration).  Also, it is advised to avoid 100 percent cotton clothing, as cotton absorbs moisture and will contribute to hypothermia more easily than fabric made from synthetic materials.


Survivalist Tip: It is extremely important to stay dry in cold weather. Even slightly cold conditions can become life threatening when the body is wet.

The body benefits in the cold weather from being hydrated. When the body is dehydrated it becomes sluggish and cold from low blood circulation, therefore it is smart to keep bottled water in your pack during any cold weather expedition, emergency or otherwise.  And this means you should drink regularly since the water does no good if it always remains in the pack.  Do not drink the snow without freshly melting it, and ensuring it is properly purified.  It is not always safe to drink freshly melted snow, and it still needs to be boiled (or otherwise purified).  Click here to read our guide for purifying your water in the wilderness.  Skipping meals is poor for your health in general, but even worse during cold weather as it will slow down your body’s metabolism and ultimately your body’s blood flow.

Emergency Water Purification Methods

Here are two emergency water purification must haves, which we recommend on amazon:

AquaMira Military Water Purifier Tablets, Chlorine Dioxide, Pack of 50

Survival Personal Water Filter - Purifier Straw for Camping, Hiking and Prepping | Filters Bacteria and Parasites (Green Paracord Fire Starter)

The body benefits from being active in the cold weather.  The only exception (as previously mentioned) is in cold water (in which you should not swim unless you are close to a shore).  Assuming you are on land, it is better to be moving and active in order to generate more heat. It is important to not sweat, however, as sweating means you are overexerting yourself in the cold weather and producing TOO MUCH heat. Find the perfect balance of physical activity without sweating to best regulate your body temperature. Additionally, do not smoke. Smoking will constrict blood vessels and that will only worsen the situation.  It is also wise to avoid windy places, as wind chill can greatly complicate survival. And if you are dealing with the elements and requiring to wait it out (instead of immediately seeking shelter), building a fire from scratch is an invaluable skill.  Fires can be used to purify water, help keep the body warm in an emergency, and thaw important gear and equipment.  For example, in 1941, the Russians had to use small fires to thaw their tank motors which had frozen during an unexpected arctic blast (Dowling, 2014).  If the body gets too cold, it will become unable to move and eventually consciousness will be lost, breathing will weaken and eventually stop along with the heart.  If things are so bad that you cannot get to shelter, starting a fire is imperative as a last ditch survival effort.  Sometimes, before the body is unable to react, the mind becomes confused and a phenomenon called “paradoxical undressing” causes hypothermia victims to undress and die naked (Martins, 2015). If the death takes place in the snow, the body often mummifies (depending upon geographical location and how long it takes the snow to melt).

Click here to review our guide on How to start your own Campfire in the Wilderness without matches or a lighter.

Survivalist Warning: If you are unable to feel a limb or body part when pinching it, this is bad news and you should seek shelter and warmth immediately.  A survivalist trick to gauge hypothermia risk is to pinch a fingernail and observe how long it takes the blood to flow back to the fingertip.

Surviving Arctic Ice Age-Type Weather: Shelter

It is possible to survive in extremely cold weather, obviously the colder it gets the harder it will be to survive; however, you can give yourself the best possible chance by simply planning ahead of time and ensuring you are prepared.  With the wide range of catastrophes which can induce an extreme arctic condition on Earth (for the rest of our natural lives), it is wise to think in advance and plan for each potential disaster. Ultimately though, surviving extreme cold is nearly all the same no matter how it was induced; this is with the exception of a nuclear winter, where radiation is a huge concern.  Radiation requires an underground fallout shelter or otherwise formidable building constructed with the intention of filtering the air into breathable oxygen. 

Click here to review our guide on constructing your own underground fallout shelter and filtering radiation out of the air.

Arctic weather can be short term (a matter of a few days during a really bad winter), or a season (an unusual winter for example), or longer term.  A glacier period in an ice age means thousands and thousands of years of cold.  If a glacier period or long impact winter (such as the one following an asteroid impact) is triggered, it can last longer than our nature lifespan…nonetheless it is imperative for the human race to survive.  A shelter is one of the most important things you will need and no matter if you choose an underground location or a formidable above ground building, it will need to be prepared in order to survive the extreme cold.   To survive an ice age or serious blizzard, the facility needs to be able to survive a snow-in.  For more serious disasters, the facility should be able to survive decades or longer, since it is possible to get snowed in so badly that it takes decades for the Earth to allow resurfacing. This means that the shelter needs enough food and water supply to last.  It also needs clean air supply and appropriate waste disposal. 

To learn how to outfit your survival shelter with the correct equipment and resources necessary to survive, review these links:

How to grow your own emergency survival garden (even underground)

How to choose your emergency seed bank (and preserve the seeds)

Here are two really great seed banks we recommend on amazon:

135 Variety Heirloom Survival Seed Bank - Emergency Seed Vault

Survival Seed Vault - Heirloom Emergency Survival Seeds - Plant a Full Acre Crisis Victory Garden - 20 Easy-to-grow Varieties

Nutrition necessary for survival

Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs) [specifically take note of the cold-weather MREs]

This is not all you have to worry about.  Although each of these skills are required (growing emergency food supply, picking the right seeds for your garden and preserving them, understanding nutrition and emergency MREs while the garden is starting), the cold weather brings more problems.  If you have been snowed in and a long-term winter is beginning, the intake and exhaust pipes which rely on access to the outside world will need to be long enough and high enough to do their job without obstruction.  This means, it needs to be covered somehow, but still extremely high, or positioned where no snow will surmount.  Additionally, the pipes will freeze in the extreme cold, which will render them useless…therefore they must be freeze-resistant. 

One way to prevent your pipes from freezing is to keep them heated.  If the pipes are heated indirectly, even in the ground, they will be unable to freeze.  One way to transfer heat throughout the pipe conduit would be to include a copper heat pipe.  Heat pipes are usually used to transfer heat from a heat source to a sink, however, they can be used to heat a pipe by itself (usually they are closed systems with a fluid inside).  The pipes should be large enough to ignore any light corrosion build up throughout the years.  There are a few good designs for piping in a shelter meant to survive arctic weather.  One method would be to run all of the pipes through a larger conduit, together, with a large heat pipe in the center.  A better, more redundant idea is to run several smaller heat pipes to surround the center intake and exhaust pipes (all still in a larger conduit).  The larger conduit that contains all of the piping (intake, exhaust and heat pipes) is important because it helps contain heat radiating from the heat pipes and keeps the inner, important piping from getting cold. 

The best system would involve maximized redundancy. In other words, this means pre-constructing SEVERAL piping sets (several sets of air intake, exhaust [including waste disposal exhaust], and heat pipes), each set with its own valve as to ensure only one set will be active at one time without risking any leaks. An alternative redundant plan is to construct just 2 sets of piping, so that a faulty set can be repaired and replaced from the inside of the facility.  This is more than possible as long as a seal-able valve is also installed into the surface side of the piping conduit (it must be operational from within the facility). 

The piping systems are some of the most important parts of the shelter as they supply water, clean air, and exhale carbon dioxide and methane gas (from waste).  If these piping systems are not properly installed and accessible, you will die in your own underground grave instead.  You can never be too careful: emergencies mean something bad already happened, always expect more bad things to happen and pre-plan for everything! 

Survivalist Tip: Keep in mind that extreme cold weather can freeze some doors shut, so it is wise to coat the gaskets used to lock the facility down with silicone spray. If you do not have silicone spray and it is an emergency (if a blizzard is already happening for example), cooking oil can be used. This trick prevents the door from freezing shut.

Having a Portable Arctic Shelter (Thermal tent) Can Save Your Life

Here are some really great arctic shelters (tents that you can basically carry on your back in a bind), which we recommend on amazon:

High Peak Outdoors South Col Tent

ArcticShield Double Layer Ice Fishing Shelter with Floor


Dowling, S., 2014. What effect does extreme cold have on the human body? BBC. Retrieved from:

Martins, D., 2015. Five awful things extreme cold does to the human body. The Weather Network. Retrieved from:

MAYO Clinic, 2015. Diseases and Conditions: Hypothermia. MAYO Clinic Online. Retrieved from:

Schomberg, J., 2015. Hypothermia Prevention: Survival in Cold Water. Minnesota Sea Grant. Retrieved from:

Tags: surviving an ice age, surviving extremely cold weather, how to survive extremely cold weather, surviving arctic conditions, how to live in extreme cold, how do you survive an ice age

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