Outdoor Life Online Editor

In cold conditions afield, how well you stay dry could mean the difference between life and death. Sound extreme? Not if you’re intent on survival. Hypothermia can strike even in 50-degree weather. And in every case, one of the deadliest factors is being wet.

Moisture transfers body heat into the atmosphere at a perilous rate. In measuring what is known as the waterchill effect, researchers have determined that the thermal conductivity of water is 240 times greater than that of still air. That means saturated clothing can remove warmth from your body at a rate up to 240 times faster than dry clothing can. Makes you want to stay dry, doesn’t it?

Use Your Head
Analyze your moves and keep away from situations that can leave you wet. Survival in extreme conditions challenges you to develop an instinct for avoiding water hazards. Don’t brush up against anything wet. Try not to sit on the snow or damp logs. When you stop to rest, squat so that only the soles of your boots touch the ground. Watch out for overhead drips. Don’t wade through deep snow or wet foliage in absorbent clothing.

Pace Yourself
Staying dry requires pacing your activity to avoid perspiration. Hypothermia doesn’t really care how you get wet. Whether it’s from working up a sweat rushing to your tree stand in Alabama or falling through the ice in a Minnesota slough is insignificant. All that matters is that you’re wet. To avoid sweating, dress in layers that are easy to open or remove. Carry heavy outer layers of clothing in a waterproof bag or backpack, and put them on only when needed. Shell layers should have adjustable armpit ventilation to allow perspiration to escape. Even something as simple as allowing enough time in the early morning to walk to your stand will keep you from sweating.

Cotton Kills
Clothing choice is critical. The insulating layers of fabric should do three things-help retain body heat, quickly move dampness away from the skin and not hold onto moisture.

Cotton absorbs water like a sponge and holds it next to your body, where it can do the most damage. Wool tends to wick moisture away from your skin, reducing the effect of evaporative cooling even when wet. If you don’t like the feel of wool, there are synthetic fabrics that work as well as or better than wool, such as polar fleece, polypropylene and SmartWool (a wool/polyester blend). These move moisture away from your skin and dry quickly.

Outer shell layers of clothing should be waterproof yet breathable. Breathability allows perspiration to escape, while waterproofness keeps moisture from entering from outside. That’s the beauty of Gore-Tex and similar fabrics; they keep all the wetness on the outside and all the dryness on the inside. This kind of clothing is expensive, but your life is worth it.

What Would You Do?

You’re two miles from camp, chasing a six-point elk through knee-deep snow. It’s 10 degrees, and every breath seems to drive a frozen stake into your heart. All that stands between you and your prize is a frozen creek and a hundred yards of forest. Following the tracks, you step onto a snow bridge covering the creek.

Crack! The ice groans, and you stop dead still, thinking you may be able to back off and go another way. Suddenly, the ice shatters, and you plunge thigh-deep into the running water.

As you stumble your way back toward the bank, your insulated hunting coveralls and blue jeans become soaked to the waist. The numbing cold is incredible.

Camp is only two miles away, but the trail is rugged. At your fastest, it will take nearly an hour to get there. In your coat pocket are waterproof matches, a signal mirror and a whistle. What do you do?

A. Use your matches to start a fire so you can dry your clothing.
B. Continue hunting and hope your body hheat will dry your clothes.
C. **Fire three shots to signal for help, then start hiking toward camp.
Build a snow cave and stay the night.

(For the answer, see the side bar)