As I write this, word is coming out that NY Police are finding bodies frozen in vehicles all along the highways in areas impacted by the storm. Buffalo is finding frozen people buried in the snow. It’s a horrible tragedy, but all the more so because it was 100% avoidable.
Over the weekend, we also saw mass looting in Buffalo and the stories said, “People turn to looting when stranded without supplies during blizzard.” That’s fake news, for sure. For 10 days, the nation was warned ad nauseum about the coming blizzard and frigid temperatures. The only reason anyone was without supplies was willful negligence. I’m sorry for those who died, but it’s absolutely true.
then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head.
We have become soft. Humans survived thousands of years in the cold and heat. Our modern lives of convenience and comfort have made us forget that Nature exists and will try very hard to kill you if you don’t give it the respect it deserves.
What do I mean by us becoming soft? We live in climate-controlled bubbles of 66-70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. We leave our climate-controlled homes, get in our climate-controlled cars, and drive to our climate-controlled offices or shopping centers. Our exposure to Nature is the walk to and from the car.
Step one in winter preparedness is acclimatization. Start getting used to the cold. Your body has mechanisms to protect you, it’s just forgotten about them. I live in Michigan and am constantly shocked at the number of people who live here who can’t handle the cold. I don’t wear a jacket until the air temperature is below 32 degrees. Then, I wear a light jacket until under 20. The first step is train your body to get used to cooler air. The same applies in the summer.
The next step is to understand layering. We live in a consumerist society which believes that if we just buy the biggest and heaviest winter coat, we will stay warm no matter what. Unless you are just going to be standing completely still outside, this is actually COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE. Let me explain…
I learned cold weather survival at the USMC Mountain Warfare Training Center. It’s among the best places in the world to learn about cold weather survival. There I learned that if you are just wearing your big, heavy parka, and you are exerting yourself even just by walking, you will soon overheat and start sweating. You will eventually unzip that parka, and cold air will hit that sweat, making you actually COLDER than if you weren’t wearing the parka. Heavy and high-loft gear is for when you are standing still.
Instead of buying one heavy item, invest in a layering system. Begin with some type of silk-weight base layer with wicking properties against your skin. In the US military system, they call them exactly that “silk-weight base layer”. The purpose of this is to provide a light layer to trap body heat that also pulls moisture from sweat and condensation away from your body to prevent accidental cooling. That’s the first layer.
Next, add what we call the “Mid-weight” layer. These are also moisture-wicking and can either be worn alone or over the silk weight, depending on how cold it is. Mid-weight is generally polypropylene or similar. The idea is to be cool, but not cold or too warm. If you feel “warm and cozy” while standing still, you are wearing too much, as you will overheat when you begin moving.
If it’s very cold, use the mid-weights for the base layer and add on a “waffle-grid” layer. This is a layer with a grid that allows pockets of warm air to be trapped, keeping you warm. These come in various thicknesses, so I keep on hand a mid-weight and a heavy-weight version. I generally wear the heavy-weight ones when standing still or sleeping.
A wool sweater, like the USMC “Wooly-Pully” (wool pullover) is a great extra item as well, as they retain heating qualities even when wet.
As far as outerwear is concerned, resist the temptation for a heavy parka as the only option. I have one, but generally I wear an Extended Cold Weather parka that has 2 parts. The outer layer is windproof and waterproof and is made from GoreTex. It has a zip-in fleece liner. Generally, while moving, I wear just the outer shell. When I stop, I zip in the fleece. The USMC also has several fleece pullovers that can fill this role as well.
For extreme cold, like we saw in NY State and here in Michigan last week, I carry in a compression sack a set of ECW high-loft pants and parka. These are over-sized and meant to be pulled on over your other gear whenever you stop moving in extreme cold. It’s a pair of heavy-duty snow pants and a parka with heavy insulation and a hood. There is also a vest that you can add to keep your core warmer. I highly recommend keeping this gear in your car in the winter.
Now, I know that the military version is hard to find and very expensive, but you can do something similar with a pair of heavy-duty off-the-shelf snow pants and a parka made by a good company. I have a Columbia parka that is heat-reflective lined for extreme cold use.
You need to worry about extremities especially. For the head, you need a knit or fleece hat that can also cover your ears. I use a waffle-grid balaclava that covers my whole head and a hat over it. For the hands, I always start with a pair of lightweight liner gloves and then add on. I carry mid-weight gloves in all my packs, and I keep extreme cold weather gloves in my vehicle kit.
For feet, you need to start with waterproof boots. I get it, you might need to wear something else for work, but carry waterproof boots in your car at a minimum. The possession of actual leg gaiters is a superpower. Mine are made of Cordura and come all the way up to my knees. If you don’t know, gaiters are a waterproof leg wrap that go around your lower legs, and strap around the bottom of your foot. They can literally save your life by keeping water out of your feet. Thick wool socks and a lightweight liner sock are a minimum in each boot. In areas of extreme cold, where you might have to walk, invest in boots that come with felt liners. I use US military old-school MukLuks. These are canvas boots with heavy felt liners that are fantastic in extreme cold. If they are good enough for Trondheim, Norway, they are good enough here.
Anytime you are driving in the winter, but especially when a storm is coming, you need certain things in your car. First, keep a quality wool blanket in the car. If you get stranded, it will help and it retains it’s warmth when wet. You can keep the snow pants and parka combo we mentioned in your car for when you get stranded.
Keep food and water (non-perishable) in the car at all times. A warming candle is not a bad idea – although we would normally not recommend an open flame, the UCO tent warming candle has a glass globe around the flame for safety. Extra gloves and warm socks should be kept in the car.
Several signaling devices need to be in your car. I keep little flare disks, which are LED lights, in my car. They have a variety of flashing patterns and are magnetic. You can put it on top of your car to draw the attention of rescue crews. I also keep a VS-17 signal panel, which is a pink and orange flag, in my car. Keep multiple flashlights. Spare batteries and candles all the way around. I keep a sleeping bag and a tent in the vehicle year-round. A mylar emergency bivy bag is a good idea to stay warm.
One note about cars – a lot of people kept them running the entire time, until they ran out of gas. First, if your vehicle is stuck, get out and clear the tailpipe, so that you aren’t dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. Next, only turn the car on to heat it as needed. With the gear you SHOULD have with you, you should only need to turn it on once in a while for extra heat. This will preserve your fuel longer. If there are more than one person in the car, get in the back seat, so that you can huddle together for warmth.
If your vehicle runs out of fuel and there is no indication that anyone is coming, it’s time to leave the vehicle. You can generate warmth through movement, as long as you have the required gear as outlined. You can walk to the nearest house or business for help. This is where a Get Home Bag and a cross body bag to carry the extra gear come in handy. If you are trekking out on foot, leave a note on the vehicle listing the planned route. Also, take a map and compass.
Having an axe and a shovel in the car can help you build fires and dig a snow shelter as well. Collapsible versions can be carried with you if you must leave on foot.
Having a handheld and a vehicle radio of some type can also summon help. In an emergency, to preserve life, you can call for help on any frequency without a license. Just be sure that you know where you are. I keep a vehicle mounted VHF/UHF radio in the car and I always have handheld VHF/UHF radio. Throughout most of North America, you can find someone on VHF or UHF within range. If leaving on foot, take the handheld with you and make regular calls.
Learn these lessons. You cannot rely on technology in a fight against nature. Cell networks fail and cold weather drains batteries. Learn the skills and acquire the gear to survive.
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