The ferocity of Mother Nature. From her bone-chilling cold to her oppressive heat, she can be deadly. In addition to staying hydrated, the most important tool you need to cope with extreme heat or cold is the same thing—your clothing. “Heat and cold are the No. 1 killers in any survival situation,” says Robert Allen, president and head instructor at the Sigma 3 Survival School in Arkansas.
If you’re in an extreme weather situation and don’t have access to a store for gear, your clothing can serve multipurpose uses in both weather extremes, if you know how to repurpose them for additional functions. Following are some tips that can save your life.
Beat the heat
If you’re ever stuck in the sun without access to shade, use your clothes to shade you, Allen says. You can wet your clothing and wrap it around your head and neck to stay cool when necessary, or you can rig your clothes to create a small tent that will shade you from the sun. “Shelter is the biggest priority any time you’re trying to survive,” he says. “Not just if you’re trying to keep out of cold weather, but just as important if you’re avoiding the sun. You need to stay fully covered, because you can bake yourself in a heartbeat if it’s hot outside and you aren’t covered.”
Fight the cold
If you find yourself facing particularly cold temperatures and you don’t have the right gear to stay warm, you can make it yourself.
“Anything that causes dead air space is basically insulation,” Allen says. “You’ve got your base shelter, which is your clothing—then you take that and fill it with grass or whatever is around you to create that dead air space. If you stuff enough dead leaves or pine needles into your clothes, you’ve made your own sleeping bag or parka, and that can retain a lot of heat and keep you warm.”
Prepare for fluctuation
No matter what the circumstances, you should be ready to adjust your strategy once the sun goes down. “I spent a year in Iraq and saw temperatures upwards of 130 degrees during the day,” Allen says. “Then in the evening it can go down into the 80s—which doesn’t seem that low, but that quick fluctuation is a massive shock to your system.” Therefore, before the sun sets, you should have your insulation ready to put into your clothing, and remove any wet gear so you don’t get the chills at night.
Three items you don’t want to forget, no matter what the weather is, are a knife, fire starter and water, Allen says. The knife can help you cut branches to create a shelter or make a fire, among myriad other uses. The fire starter will help you create warmth and a cooking area effortlessly, and the water is a must for your survival.
Water conservation paramount in both heat and cold
Most people know how important it is to stay hydrated in the heat—but it may surprise you to learn that rationing your water is just as important if you’re in the cold weather.
No matter what the temperature where you are and how tempting it may be to chug your last bottle of water, you should stick to taking sips of your water ration, says Reggie Bennett, owner of Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival School in Catawba, VA. “Your body can only process one liter of water an hour,” Bennett says, “so you’re better off taking in small amounts at a time.”
Ration your sweat so you won’t have to ration water, Bennett says. In the heat, stay in the shade so you won’t sweat,” he advises. “In any weather, breathe through your nose and not your mouth, talk as little as possible, and eat as little as possible (especially protein, which takes more water to process). In that way, you’ll be conserving your water so you’ll need to take less in.”
Cold weather tip
Bennett trained for cold weather survival by studying people who live among polar ice caps, where he learned the essential adage, “To sweat is to die in a cold environment,” he says. “If you get dehydrated in the cold, you set yourself up for frostbite because the less water you have in your skin, the less heat you can retain, and you can get severe dehydration.” In addition, he says, the air in cold weather is so arid that “it steals the water from your breath.”
While Mother Nature is usually awe-inspiring, she has a nasty side, too. So be prepared and never take her for granted.