how to survive sub zero temperatures

survive sub zero

Illustration: Heri Irawan

Whether you’re carrying out covert missions in the Austrian Alps or simply find yourself off the beaten track when the weather turns, getting caught out in sub-zero temperatures can be lethal. But holing up in the snow can actually prevent you freezing to death.

“Getting out of the wind and elements is key,” says Scott Heffield, an experienced mountaineer, former Royal Marine Commando, and project development manager at Bear Grylls Survival Academy. Heffield should know – he’s survived 36 hours at -30°C on Mount Elbrus in Russia, and 12 hours at -35°C on an Antarctic glacier with no equipment. “There are a couple of ways you could do it: if you have the gear [your own insulation and an ice axe], you could cut out compacted blocks from the side of a snowbank, hollow out a big chamber and then rebuild a wall using snow as cement.” And if you don’t? “Dig a ‘snow grave’ – a hole just big enough to fit your body – and crawl in.”

1. Dig your own grave

“Look out for a built-up bank of snow and dig out a hole in the side, with your hands if you have to. Pull up the snow around you so the entrance is as small as possible and plug it with your rucksack. Snow is a fairly good insulator – with your body heat and without the wind chill, it will be quite a few degrees warmer inside than it is outside, maybe even 0°C. It’s not ‘warm’, but it’s better than -20°C!”

2. Breathe easy

“Snow is pretty good at letting oxygen through, but when the inner walls start to melt and then refreeze as ice, you’re in danger of carbon dioxide poisoning. Make a ventilation hole by shoving a ski pole, umbrella or stick through the ceiling. You can also check C02 levels by lighting a match or lighter – if the flame goes out with no wind, you’ve probably run out of oxygen in there.”

3. Get touchy feely

“Keep your body ready for your window of opportunity by massaging your hands and feet constantly. They’ll be the first to freeze as your core starts to draw all the warm, oxygenated blood back to your organs. Aim for skin-to-skin contact rather than rubbing your feet through your socks, though – you need the friction produced by your hands on your feet to generate heat.”

4. Fuel the tank

“You can survive without food for around three weeks, but it’s more like three days without water. Collect snow or ice in a bottle or container and get it close to your body to help it melt. Try not to eat the snow, though – it’ll lower your core temperature too quickly. Food-wise, I always carry a survival bundle containing a chocolate bar, biltong, nuts and raisins, but be prepared to eat anything.”

5. Make a run for it

“A snow hole will keep you alive and warm for a few days. But the truth is, if no one is coming to rescue you, you need to take a risk and get out of that environment super-fast. Best-case scenario: wait for the sun to come up – instant heat! – and the visibility to improve, as you’ll need a clear sky to be able to navigate. Make your move when you think the conditions will assist you best.”

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11 2015 The Red Bulletin

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