Survival - Preparing and Planning For Extreme Cold
winter temperatures drop low, staying warm and safe can be difficult.
Extremely cold temperatures often accompany a winter storm, so you may
have to cope with power failures and icy roads at the same time.
Although staying indoors can reduce the risk of car crashes or falls
on the ice, you may also face indoor problems. Your home may become
too cold—either due to a power failure or because the heating system
isn't adequate for the low temperatures. When space heaters and
fireplaces are used to stay warm, the risk of household fires
increases, as well as the
carbon monoxide poisoning.
Exposure to cold temperatures, whether indoors or out, can cause
other serious health issues even threaten your survival. Young
children and the older adults as well as those with other health
problems are particularly at risk, but anyone can be affected. To keep
yourself and your family safe, you should prepare by knowing how to
prevent cold-related health problems and what to do if a cold-weather
health emergency arises.
The emergency procedures outlined here are not a substitute for
training in first aid. However, these procedures will help you to be
prepared and know when to seek medical care and what to do to aid your
survival until help becomes available.
When is it Extremely Cold
What is considered extreme cold, and its effects on survival, can
vary across different areas of the country. In regions relatively
unaccustomed to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are
considered “extreme cold.” Whenever temperatures drop well below
normal in your area and the wind speed increases, heat will leave your
body more rapidly. These conditions may lead to serious health
problems if you are not prepared to deal with these circumstances.
Extreme cold is dangerous! A lack of preparation or rapidly
changing weather can bring on survival emergencies in susceptible
people, such as those without shelter or who are stranded, or who live
in a home that is poorly insulated or without heat.
Plan Ahead to Survive
Prepare for extremely cold weather every winter—it’s always a
possibility. There are steps you can take in advance for greater
wintertime safety in your home and in your car.
Emergency Supplies List:
an alternate way to heat your home during a power failure:
furnace fuel (coal, propane, or oil)
electric space heater with automatic shut-off switch and
multipurpose, dry-chemical fire extinguisher
first aid kit and instruction manual
flashlight or battery-powered lantern
battery-powered clock or watch
non-electric can opener
special needs items (diapers, hearing aid batteries,
Winter Survival Kit for Your Home
Keep several days’ supply of these items:
Food that needs no cooking or refrigeration, such as bread,
crackers, cereal, canned foods, and dried fruits. Remember baby food
and formula if you have young children. (A 3 to 5 day supply, this
will keep you off the roads during dangerous conditions)
Water stored in clean containers, or purchased bottled water (5
gallons per person) in case your water pipes freeze and rupture.
(Leaving water trickling from faucets can keep them from freezing if
the temperatures aren't to low.)
Medicines that any family member may need.
If your area is prone to long periods of cold temperatures, or if
your home is isolated, stock additional amounts of food, water, and
medicine to insure you have the supplies needed during a survival
Prepare Your Home To Survive Cold Weather
Although periods of extreme cold cannot always be
predicted far in advance, keeping informed of the local and national
weather forecast can sometimes give you several days’ notice of a
change in the weather. Listen to weather forecasts regularly, and
check your emergency survival supplies whenever a period of extreme
cold is predicted.
If you plan to use a fireplace or wood stove for emergency heating,
have your chimney or flue inspected each year. Build up in the chimney
or flue can lead to a home fire. Being left in the cold and having
your home destroyed or damaged is not worth the risk of saving a
little money. Find chimney sweep in the yellow pages of your telephone
directory under “chimney cleaning.”
Also, if you’ll be using a fireplace, wood stove, or kerosene
heater, install a smoke detector and a battery-operated carbon
monoxide detector near the area to be heated. Test them monthly,
and replace batteries twice yearly.
Your ability to feel a change in temperature decreases with age,
and older people therefore are more susceptible to health problems
caused by cold. If you are over 65 years old, place an easy-to-read
thermometer indoors in your home where you will see it, check
the temperature of your home regularly during the winter months.
Insulate any water lines that run along exterior walls with foam or
pipe wrap insulation so your water supply will be less likely to
freeze. In difficult situations, heat tape can sometimes keep pipes
from freezing. To the extent possible, weatherproof your home by
adding weather-stripping, insulation, insulated doors and storm
windows, or thermal-pane windows. Keeping the cold out is key to
If you have pets, bring them indoors. If you cannot bring them
inside, provide adequate shelter to keep them warm and make sure that
they have access to unfrozen water outside.
Prepare Your Car for Winter
You can avoid many dangerous winter travel problems
by planning ahead. Have maintenance service on your vehicle as often
as the manufacturer recommends. In addition, every fall:
Have the radiator system serviced, or check the antifreeze level
yourself with an antifreeze tester (you can obtain a antifreeze
checker at any automotive store. Ask the sales person to show you
how it works if you need help, instructions are found on the
packaging.). Add antifreeze, as needed. (note: some atifreeze can be
purchased pre mixed and can simply be added straight into a
cool radiator (not hot!) other
bottles of antifreeze have to be mixed with water before adding.
Mixing instructions are on the back of the bottle.)
Replace windshield-wiper fluid (this fluid will be needed
during rainy icy weather) with a wintertime mixture.
Replace any worn tires, and check the air pressure in the tires.
During winter, keep the gas tank near full to help avoid ice in the
tank and fuel lines. This also gives you extra fuel should you need to
detour, take longer to reach a destination or get stranded.
Winter Survival Kit for Your Car
Equip your car with these items:
first aid kit
a can and waterproof matches (to melt snow for water)
a emergency long lasting candle or two, in a can.
bag of sand or cat litter (to pour on ice or snow for added
tire chains (in areas with heavy snow)
container of water and high-calorie canned or dried foods and a
flashlight and extra batteries
canned compressed air with sealant (for emergency tire repair)
brightly colored cloth
Heat Your Home Safely
If you plan to use a wood stove, fireplace, or space heater, be
extremely careful. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, keep items
away from the heater, and remember these safety tips:
Use fireplace, wood stoves, or other combustion heaters only if
they are properly vented to the outside and do not leak flue
gas into the indoor air space.
Do not burn paper in a fireplace. (It can clog the flue or cause
Ensure adequate ventilation if you must use a kerosene heater.
(these heaters burn up oxygen)
Use only the type of fuel your heater is designed to use—don’t
Do not place a space heater within 3 feet of anything
that may catch on fire, such as drapes, furniture, or bedding, and
never cover your space heater.
Never place a space heater on top of furniture or near water.
Never leave children unattended near a space heater.
Make sure that the cord of an electric space heater is not a
tripping hazard but do not run the cord under carpets or rugs.
The cord may get hot and start a fire if it is covered.
Avoid using extension cords to plug in your space heater.
Extension cords often overheat and start fires when used with a
If your space heater has a damaged electrical cord or
produces sparks, do not use it.
Store a multipurpose, dry-chemical fire extinguisher near the
area to be heated.
Protect yourself from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning by
installing a battery-operated CO detector and never using
generators, grills, camp stoves, or similar devices indoors.
Carbon monoxide poisoning kills or sickens many people every
Space heaters cause many house fires and deaths every year.
Light and Cook Safely
If there is a power failure:
Use battery-powered flashlights or lanterns rather than candles,
Never leave lit candles unattended.
Never use a charcoal or gas grill indoors—the fumes are deadly.
Never use an electric generator indoors, inside the garage, or near
the air intake of your house because of the risk of carbon monoxide
Plug in appliances to the generator using individual heavy-duty,
Do not use the generator or appliances if they are wet because
of the risk of electrocution.
Do not store gasoline indoors where the fumes could ignite.
You may need fresh air coming in for your heater or
for emergency cooking arrangements. However, if you don’t need extra
ventilation, keep as much heat as possible inside your home. Avoid
unnecessary opening of doors or windows. Close off unneeded rooms,
stuff towels or rags in cracks under doors, and close draperies or
cover windows with blankets at night.
Monitor Body Temperature
Infants less than one year old should never sleep in
a cold room because (1) infants lose body heat more easily than
adults; and (2) unlike adults, infants can’t make enough body heat by
shivering. Provide warm clothing for infants and try to maintain a
warm indoor temperature. If the temperature cannot be maintained, make
temporary arrangements to stay elsewhere. In an emergency, you can
keep an infant warm using your own body heat. If you must sleep, take
precautions to prevent rolling on the baby. Pillows and other soft
bedding can also present a risk of smothering; remove them from the
area near the baby.
Older adults often make less body heat because of a slower
metabolism and less physical activity. If you are over 65 years of
age, check the temperature in your home often during severely cold
weather. Also, check on elderly friends and neighbors frequently to
ensure that their homes are adequately heated.
Keep a Water Supply
Extreme cold can cause water pipes in your home to
freeze and sometimes rupture. When very cold temperatures are
Leave all water taps slightly open so they drip continuously.
Keep the indoor temperature warm.
Improve the circulation of heated air near pipes. For
example, open kitchen cabinet doors beneath the kitchen sink.
Keep a backup supply of water
If your pipes do freeze, do not thaw them with a torch. Instead,
thaw them slowly by directing the warm air from an electric hair dryer
onto the pipes.
If you cannot thaw your pipes, or the pipes are ruptured, use
bottled water or get water from a neighbor’s home. As an emergency
measure—if no other water is available—snow can be melted for water.
Bringing water to a rolling boil for one minute will kill most
microorganisms or parasites that may be present, but won’t remove
chemical pollutants sometimes found in snow.
Eat and Drink Wisely
Eating well-balanced meals will help you stay
warmer. Do not drink alcoholic beverages (Alcohol may cause a warm
feeling, this is because blood, normally kept circulating in your
organs during cold weather to protect your survival, will come to the
skin, this causes your body to lose it's heat much more rapidly)
or caffeinated beverages—they cause your body to lose heat more
rapidly. Instead, drink warm, sweet beverages or broth to help
maintain your body temperature. If you have any dietary restrictions,
ask your doctor.
When the weather is extremely cold, and especially if there are
high winds, try to stay indoors. Make any trips outside as brief as
possible, and remember these tips to protect your health and safety:
Dress Warmly and Stay Dry
Adults and children should wear:
a scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth
sleeves that are snug at the wrist
mittens (they are warmer than gloves)
water-resistant coat and boots
several layers of loose-fitting clothing
Be sure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven,
preferably wind resistant, to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind.
Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more
body heat than cotton. Stay dry—wet clothing chills the body rapidly.
Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of
clothing whenever you feel too warm. Also, avoid getting gasoline or
alcohol on your skin while de-icing and fueling your car or using a
snow blower. These materials in contact with the skin greatly increase
heat loss from the body. Do not ignore shivering. It’s an important
first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is a
signal to return indoors.
Cold weather puts an extra strain on the heart. If
you have heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s
advice about shoveling snow or performing other hard work in the cold.
Otherwise, if you have to do heavy outdoor chores, dress warmly and
work slowly. Remember, your body is already working hard just to stay
warm, so don’t overdo it.
Understand Wind Chill
The Wind Chill index is the temperature your body
feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. It is
based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by the effects
of wind and cold. As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry
heat away from your body much more quickly, causing skin temperature
to drop. When there are high winds, serious weather-related health
problems are more likely, even when temperatures are only cool.
The Wind Chill Chart below shows the difference between actual air
temperature and perceived temperature, and amount of time until
Walking on ice is extremely dangerous. Many
cold-weather injuries result from falls on ice-covered sidewalks,
steps, driveways, and porches. Keep your steps and walkways as free of
ice as possible by using rock salt or another chemical de-icing
compound. Sand may also be used on walkways to reduce the risk of
Be Safe During Recreation
Notify friends and family where you will be before
you go hiking, camping, or skiing. Do not leave areas of the skin
exposed to the cold. Avoid perspiring or becoming overtired. Be
prepared to take emergency shelter. Pack dry clothing, a two-wave
radio, waterproof matches and paraffin fire starters with you. Do not
use alcohol and other mood altering substances, and avoid caffeinated
beverages. Avoid walking on ice or getting wet. Carefully watch for
signs of cold-weather health problems.
Be Cautious About Travel
Listen for radio or television reports of travel advisories
issued by the National Weather Service.
Do not travel in low visibility conditions.
Avoid traveling on ice-covered roads, overpasses, and bridges if
at all possible.
If you must travel by car, use tire chains and take a mobile
phone with you.
If you must travel, let someone know your destination and when
you expect to arrive. Ask them to notify authorities if you are
Check and restock the winter emergency supplies in your car
before you leave.
Never pour water on your windshield to remove ice or snow;
shattering may occur.
Don’t rely on a car to provide sufficient heat; the car may
Always carry additional warm clothing appropriate for the winter
What to Do if You Get Stranded
Staying in your vehicle when stranded is often the
safest choice if winter storms create poor visibility or if roadways
are ice covered. These steps will increase your safety when stranded:
Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna as a signal to
rescuers and raise the hood of the car (if it is not snowing).
Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area.
Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing,
blankets, or newspapers.
Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health
Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour,
opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is
not blocking the exhaust pipe—this will reduce the risk of carbon
As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your
circulation and stay warmer.
Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body
Huddle with other people for warmth.
Use emergency candles if needed, but be alert to the need for
slight ventilation as the candles can burn up the oxygen in your car
and produce carbon monoxide poisoning.
Cold-Weather Health Emergencies
Serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to the
cold. The most common cold-related problems are hypothermia and
When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins
to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to
cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is
hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that
is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think
clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous
because a person may not know it is happening and won’t be able to do
anything about it.
Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it can
occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes
chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.
Victims of hypothermia are often (1) elderly people with inadequate
food, clothing, or heating; (2) babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; (3)
people who remain outdoors for long periods—the homeless, hikers,
hunters, etc.; and (4) people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.
Warnings signs of hypothermia:
confusion, fumbling hands
memory loss, slurred speech
bright red, cold skin
very low energy
What to Do
If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s
temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency—get
medical attention immediately.
If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as
Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and
groin—using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin
contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or
Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do
not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an
After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and
wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
Get medical attention as soon as possible.
A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not
seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the
victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the
victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while
the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid
becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be
dead can be successfully resuscitated.
Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by
freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected
areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or
toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can
lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with
reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed
properly for extremely cold temperatures.
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin
area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be
beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:
A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it
out because the frozen tissues are numb.
What to Do
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical
care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure,
first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia, as
described previously. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition
and requires emergency medical assistance.
If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2)
immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or
toes—this increases the damage.
Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature
should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the
Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the
heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all.
This can cause more damage.
Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove,
fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can
be easily burned.
These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency and frostbite should be evaluated
by a health care provider. It is a good idea to take a first aid and
emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather
health problems. Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting
your health and the health of others.
Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to
deal with extreme cold-weather conditions. By preparing your home and
car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety
precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the
risk of weather-related health problems.