Survival Skills: 4 Myths About Staying Warm in Winter

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You don’t have to be wandering in an arctic wasteland to die of hypothermia. This slow, cold method of demise can happen at temperatures above freezing, and it can even happen in your own apartment, house, or snowbound vehicle. If the heat goes out, the cold can kill within hours, and it does so without prejudice or preference, taking young and old, fit and fat, healthy and ill alike. Want to make the right choices in frosty weather? Then don’t fall for these four common myths about staying warm.

Drink alcohol for warmth
Many folks think that a pull of whiskey or brandy might warm the cockles, but booze is a poor beverage choice in cold-weather emergencies. Alcohol dehydrates the body (wasting water) and causes flushing of the skin (wasting heat). These effects make a person much more vulnerable to hypothermia. Alcohol can also impact motor skills and increase memory lapses and impulsive behavior, all of which are dangerous in a survival situation. And when the booze wears off, a person is often left tired and confused. Couple the physiological effects of alcohol with a dangerous cold-weather scenario and you have a cocktail for disaster.

Wear two pairs of socks
If one pair keeps your feet warm, then two pairs should keep them even warmer, right? Nope, your boots were designed to hold your feet and one pair of socks, not two. The second pair compresses your foot, cutting of circulation and making your feet colder than they'd be with a single pair. This impaired blood flow makes your feet even more vulnerable to frostbite, a major winter threat.

Suit up with long johns
This one has a loophole. Good long johns made from wool or synthetic fiber will definitely keep you warmer. But if you go cheap, purchasing cotton long johns, then you're in trouble. Even without sweating, the normal moisture that your skin releases will soak into the cotton fibers and cause them to cool your body – not insulate it. If it's cold enough for long johns, then it's too cold to be wearing cotton. If you got suckered into buying cotton long johns like many of us have over the years, treat yourself to an upgrade and use the old ones to make char cloth or wash your truck.

Shivering is the first sign of hypothermia
Slowing muscles is usually the first sign of hypothermia—not fast twitching muscles. The forearm muscles are often the first to become sluggish. A finger dexterity check can tell you as much (or more) than any other test. This assessment is quick, and can be performed at any time in cold conditions. Simply touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of each of your fingers on the same hand. Assuming you can do this in warm weather, this full range of motion means your forearms haven't locked up, and you are not hypothermic—not yet anyway. Failure to touch your pinky and ring finger means that muscles are locking up, and stronger hypothermia symptoms (like shivering, teeth chattering, and clumsiness) will soon follow.

Have you heard cold weather tips and tricks that didn’t pan out? Help us bust a few myths by sharing your experience in the comments.