I’m a big fan of those Alaska wilderness shows. Homesteading, hunting, fishing; even just going outside to the outhouse. It seems like such an inhospitable place compared to the environment we live in, but those are tough people who have perfected cold weather survival skills as a matter of necessity.
I write this as a 3-day warm up is reverting back to another bout of arctic cold. I guess that weather predicting rodent was wrong again. Unless your training plan calls for winter hibernation, you’re going to need to learn how to survive in the cold in order to keep training, running, or rucking.
Cold weather survival starts before you even step outside. It begins with proper fitness, nutrition, and adequate sleep. Studies have shown that a fit person’s temperature regulating system functions at a higher level of efficiency than those out of shape.
Eating right helps supply the body with the extra energy it will be burning to stay warm and do work in the cold. Don’t forget hydration. While the temperature makes it seem like you’re not thirsty, you need that liquid to replace what you’re using up during activities and you can still get dehydrated in the cold. Instead of cold water, drink room temperature water if available to keep from zapping heat from your core.
Working in the cold is tiring. If you are functioning on less than adequate sleep levels, you will be unable to maintain your energy levels and will start losing focus, as well as experiencing other negative mental effects.
Plan ahead. Know the weather where you are going and for how long you’ll be out there and beyond. Plan for contingencies like being detoured around a closed bridge, getting lost, or becoming slowed by an injury. Pay attention to wind chills and the “feels like” temperature. Wind makes a huge difference in the cold.
When dressing for your outdoor training, dress as if it is 20 degrees warmer than it is. This will help account for the increased heat your body will be putting off and keep you from getting overheated and sweating too much, which will eventually cause you to become hypothermic. You can throw a heavy jacket or parka in a pack if you plan to stop for an extended period and stow it once you begin moving again. The idea is to avoid sweating.
For cold weather clothing, there is one rule. Avoid cotton. Cotton absorbs moisture and causes you to freeze. Use wicking fabrics instead.
The military teaches a three-layered approach to cold weather survival: wicking, warming, and weather layers.
Your wicking layer should be a close fitting synthetic, like Under Armour, consisting of your t-shirt, underwear, and socks (socks can be wool or wool blend). This layer pulls the sweat from your skin and allows it to dry quickly. Try to carry at least one complete change of your wicking layer in case you get wet.
The warming layer is your fleece or polypropylene. These usually come in 2-3 weights chosen depending on the temperature and the amount of work you’ll be doing. This layer can be shed if you start getting too hot. Again always dress to avoid sweating.
The weather layer is your windproof and/or waterproof layer that keeps the wind or rain off the layers under it. Gore-Tex and its variants are a common weather layer. You’ll often find that wearing your weather layer over just your wicking layer is sufficient for many outdoor activities. If you stop for an extended time, you can put your warming layer back on or supplement it with a quick donning parka.
The main goal with surviving the cold is to keep from getting wet from within or from the outside.
For shoes or boots, you’d think waterproof would be preferred, but unless all you’re doing is going out for a light walk, you’re going to find that that Gore-Tex “breathable” membrane isn’t so breathable. Gore-Tex makes your feet sweat and just isn’t a good choice for running or rucking. Instead of waterproof footwear, go with something that drains well and carry extra socks and extra footwear if you can spare the room for it. Smartwool and Darn Tough are two good brands of socks for cold weather as well as warm weather. You want to keep your feet dry to avoid blisters, trench foot, and hypothermia. Carry multiple changes of socks and change them often, but don’t double up on sock layers. This tends to make your footwear too tight, which cuts off circulation and actually makes you colder.
If you happen to get wet by sweating or immersing in water, your priority should be to get dry as fast as possible. This could mean stripping down naked in the cold while you change out your wicking layer. You’ve got to keep dry to stay warm and survive.
Your headwear and gloves complete your cold weather ensemble. The saying that the majority of your heat is lost through your head is just a myth. It loses heat no faster than the rest of your body, but you still need to protect it. A neck gaiter or balaclava are good supplementary items that can be added or removed as conditions change. I like to wear light gloves that allow me to keep my hand dexterity if I can get away with them.
With some planning and a layered approach to dealing with cold weather, you can continue your training and not just survive, but thrive in the cold.