Basics of Cold Weather Survival

Basics of Cold Weather Survival

Andrew’s Note:  Today we present another lesson from our Military Pedagogy series.  This discussion, from FM 21-76, the U.S. Army Survival Manual [Approved For Public Release; Distribution is Unlimited] is on the basics of cold weather survival. 

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 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 [Andrew’s Note:  14 degrees 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.

 Dry Cold Weather Environments

Dry cold weather conditions exist when the average temperature in a 24-hour period remains below -10 degrees C [Andrew’s Note:  14 degrees 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. 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 [Andrew’s Note:  14 degrees F], the equivalent windchill temperature is -23 degrees C.  [Andrew’s Note:  -9 degrees F] Figure 15-1 gives the windchill factors for various temperatures and wind speeds.

Windchill Table

Figure 15-1 Windchill Table

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.  [Andrew’s Note:  see Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion tool]


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.

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.
  • 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.

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 backyard” 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.


Although washing yourself may be impractical and uncomfortable in a cold environment, you must do so.  Washing helps prevent skin rashes that can develop into more serious problems.

In some situations, you may be able to take a snow bath.  Take a handful of snow and wash your body where sweat and moisture accumulate, such as under the arms and between the legs, and then wipe yourself dry.  If possible, wash your feet daily and put on clean, dry socks.  Change your underwear at least twice a week.  If you are unable to wash your underwear, take it off, shake it, and let it air out for an hour or two.

If you are using a previously used shelter, check your body and clothing for lice each night.

If your clothing has become infested, use insecticide powder if you have any.  Otherwise, hang your clothes in the cold, then beat and brush them.  This will help get rid of the lice, but not the eggs.  If you shave, try to do so before going to bed. This will give your skin a chance to recover before exposing it to the elements.

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