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Keeping Warm When an Emergency Leaves You in the Cold

Why Warmth Matters

Total Prepare’s retail store is located in Victoria BC, and it’s not unusual to hear “It doesn’t get that cold here, I’m not worried about that part,” when we approach warmth as something to include in a kit. But disasters aren’t limited to the warmer months, or even the in-between times. In fact, Murphy’s Law predicts that if there is a major emergency it will almost definitely happen on Christmas, while there’s snow on the ground. It’s probably raining.


In extreme situations, cold makes us vulnerable to injuries like frostnip, frostbite, hypothermia, and trenchfoot. Severe versions of these can lead to amnesia, dizziness, nausea, limb loss, and even death. They are no joking matter! One doesn’t even need to be lost in the wilderness for these to occur. My brother still has signs of frostnip from an hour-long, gloveless, winter scooter ride he made years ago.

Frostnip and frostbite both occur when body tissue freezes and eventually dies. While frostnip is generally just an uncomfortable freezing of the skin, it can escalate quickly into frostbite and should be treated immediately. Frostbite happens when the cold gets deep, freezing fat, muscle, and bone. Keep a close eye out for blue or black skin on your nose, hands, and feet, especially in the nail beds.

Hypothermia happens in three stages, and is brought on by your core temperature dropping. The first stage is easy to miss, showing itself as simple shivering and reduced circulation. It usually does no long term damage, but can lead quickly to stage 2 and 3. Symptoms of Stage 2 include confusion, a weak pulse, trouble breathing, irritability, a lack of coordination, and ‘sleepy behaviour.’ Stage 3 is where things get scary. There might be little to no breathing or pulse from the subject, and they will likely lose consciousness. In stage 3, it’s not unusual to feel warm as the body tries to compensate.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Hypothermia is that it affects the ability to think. The slowing of blood flow makes thoughts sluggish. It can be difficult to recognize how bad things have gotten, or to react appropriately. Blood pressure and risk of heart attack also rise in the cold due to the same slow blood flow.

Trenchfoot is a cold injury that occurs between 0 and 10 degrees Celsius, when the subject’s feet are wet for long periods of time. The feet lose heat 25x faster when wet, accelerating this condition. As the body cools, it constricts blood vessels to hold as much heat as possible, shutting down circulation to the feet. A lack of blood flow creates toxin build up and denies tissue valuable nutrients and oxygen. The tissue begins to die. Symptoms of trench foot include reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain, blisters or ulcers, bleeding under the skin, and even gangrene.

Comfort and Psychology

Have you ever heard “cold and ecstatic” used to describe the weather? Probably not. Cold and miserable just go too well together. Winter weather, with its gnawing cold and insistent rain and snow can have a powerful effect on our psyches and will. Just try getting out of bed on a cold day – bye bye motivation!

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is influenced by long periods of certain weather. Usually rain, thick clouds, or snow.  It is believed that the disorder is brought on by a lack of exposure to sunlight, and light therapy is the main treatment. During an extended emergency or recovery period, stress is greatly increased and the risk for depression rises. If your emergency happens when the sun’s not shining, risks rise further.

Ways to Stay Warm Without Power


Whether it’s a cozy wool blanket knitted by your Nana, or a mylar option from your emergency kit, the humble blanket is an excellent tool for keeping warm. Keep a few different blankets with your kit including waterproof/resistant ones, and thick, comforting options. Almost all commercial kits will include a version of mylar blankets. These are made from lightweight, durable, water/wind proof materials that reflect your body heat back to you.

If it is very cold, layer your blankets with the reflective option outside your cozy one. The mylar will push back any heat that would be lost and you’ll be snug in no time!

Hot Food & Drink

Hot chocolate anyone? If you find yourself shivering in an emergency, try to avoid eating your food cold. Wherever possible warm up your meals and drinks so your body doesn’t have to work overtime to keep your temperature from dipping. With the power out, the ice cream in the freezer will melt. Let it.

If a fire or camp stove isn’t an option for you to warm your meal, try a chemical solution. Flameless meal heaters activate with just a splash of water and do an admirable job of heating a can of soup or tupperware of leftovers. (Great for picnics too!) I recommend using this option in a ventilated environment though, as the smell the heater produces… well let’s just say it doesn’t smell like home cooking.

Avoid the Spice

They’re called hot peppers for a reason right? So you might think a jalapeno would be the way to go when planning your cold weather meals, but this is not the case! Although peppers make you feel warmer, even to the point of sweating and reaching for ice, it’s actually making you colder.

Spicy peppers contain a chemical called Capsaicin. This chemical tricks the nerves in your body into thinking they’re warm. The body responds appropriately, sweating to cool you down. The result is a similar effect to drinking alcohol, where you feel warmer but your core temperature lowers. This is why spicy food is so popular in hot climates.

The takeaway? Keep your beer-and-pepper siestas for the summer months.


Exercise and movement make your blood flow faster. The chemical reaction that happens during exercise results in excess energy being released as heat. That’s why we sweat during a workout. If you’re too cold, keep moving – even if you only use small movements like wiggling your toes and fingers. Every bit helps!

A word of caution though, extreme cold can increase your likelihood of heart attack. If you’re exercising for warmth, keep an eye on your heart rate. If you begin to get dizzy or confused, stick to smaller movements. Try to also avoid building up sweat, as the extra moisture will wick away your heat quickly. Find the sweet spot where you’re warm, but not worn. A brisk walk often works well.

Hand/Foot/Body Warmers

Technology has an answer to everything and electric-free heat is no exception! Chemical hand, foot, and body warmers are easy to find and work beautifully to keep your boots and pockets toasty warm. Mostly composed of iron powder, these warmers activate when exposed to air, releasing heat as they oxidize. Look for re-usable liquid units at the dollar store if you’re using these regularly and want a non-disposable option.

Hot Water Bottles

This may sound strange, but I was in my twenties before I realized the sheer joy of a hot water bottle. My partner’s family gave me one on a frosty afternoon – just a used 2 liter pop bottle full of hot tap water – and my word! Did it ever work! If you’re stuck without electricity at home, but still have hot water around, this is a fast, cheap, highly effective option for keeping warm. Just make sure the caps on tight!


Getting cuddly isn’t for everyone, but when push comes to shove sharing body heat can be our only option. If you are in an extreme situation, strip down for maximum heat transfer, and wrap up together in your clothes and blankets. If you are in a non-survival situation, keep the clothes on (unless you REALLY like each other – your call), and snuggle up!

Head to Toe

Heat escapes our bodies quickest through our head, then our feet, then everywhere else. If you’re body feels cold, but you’re head isn’t, that’s because it’s acting as a little radiator. If you have the option, insulate your head and feet whenever you’re heading into a frosty situation.

Alternate Shelters

Staying warm is often dependent on staying dry. Our bodies lose their heat 25x faster in water. We’ve written about how to build a shelter here. Naturally, stay in a house or insulated building if at all possible. I know Bear Grylls makes survival look good (really good!) but facing the naked elements is a whole lot more comfortable on TV.

Shelter Building Tips

Keep off the Ground – Even if it’s only a layer of dead leaves, keep something between you and the earth. Make a mat of sticks, use an emergency blanket, or pile up natural detritus to keep yourself from direct contact with the cold ground.

Make or Find a Wind Break –  If you’ve ever worn a wool sweater, you know what a difference a little wind can make to even the coziest insulators. Find or build something to block the wind, or look for natural alcoves to stay in.

The father of one of the owner’s here at Total Prepare once found himself lost in the woods overnight on Vancouver Island. He survived with only a light case of hypothermia thanks to his nighttime refuge inside a rotten log. Get creative with your shelters if you need to!

Best Natural Insulators

The goal of insulation is to trap heat between your body and the elements. Plugging drafts, stuffing your clothing, and layering up are all great ways to insulate. Finding material to use for this task is more simple than you might think.

If you’re a hunter-survivalist extraordinaire you can probably tan enough rabbit skins for a quick fur coat, but the rest of us need to settle with what we can find. Plant fiber makes excellent insulation so gathered leaves (alive or dead, but dead is better), bark, pine needles (ouch!), and grasses can all be used to fill in clothing and insulate you from the ground. If you’re coastal, you can even use seaweed to block any holes in your shelter. If you take this route, don’t get wet!

Snow makes a surprisingly good insulator too, despite its frozen nature. Use it to reinforce shelter walls and block any breezes. For obvious reasons, don’t use it for clothes stuffing -brr!

Urban Insulation

Canada is referred to as the Great White North for a reason – it can get pretty flipping cold here. Our frosty climate coupled with a storm, solar flare, or other unforeseen event can make keeping warm a task even if you’re in your home – especially if the power is out.

If this happens, create a warm room from a closet or other small room. It’s much easier to heat a smaller space. Pile in blankets, sheets, couch cushions, pillows, and anything else that might insulate you and keep your body heat close.

If you have other bodies around – human or pets – get cozy in this makeshift nest to share heat. Dressing in layers also helps.

Caught outdoors in the icy weather, but still on the city streets? There are often insulators around there too. If no other shelter can be found look for cardboard, plastics, and foam to pile up near a windbreak. If supplies don’t lend themselves to building a whole shelter, bury yourself in them. Every piece helps.

Thank you for reading.

This article was written by Zenia Platten -Writer and emergency Preparedness Professional

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