The notion of preparing for cold weather has radically different meanings between geographic locations. A person living in Louisiana will have different needs than someone in Wyoming, and as such, it’s important to discuss what environments create “cold,” the types of cold, and how they create thermal injuries. There are differing schools of thought, but the following is a good cross-section that should help you get a hook set in Old Man Winter and keep his icy fingers off you as much as possible. Too often these days, people dress for the “indoors,” in which the climate is controlled. That’s fine, so long as you can absolutely guarantee you won’t be exposed to the elements. Otherwise, it’s smart to plan ahead.
Types of Cold
Cold can be defined as an absence of heat. It is the ‘de facto’ state of the universe, and as such, we are remarkably lucky to live on a planet that has heat sinks, rather than scorching heat during the day and incomprehensible cold at night. The absence of heat can generally be looked at as the by-product of the seasons. As the earth rotates around the sun, a 21.5 degree “tilt” about its axis creates uneven thermal heating and gives us the four seasons we enjoy (or hate, if you’re a tropics lover). Without that tilt, we would only have two seasons, and weather as we know it would be entirely different. So our first type of cold is ambient cold. It’s simply a lack of heat, and it’s an environmental phenomenon.
With ambient cold, we typically see less dramatic impacts, as the sun can still be shining (in the mid and equatorial latitudes, and at the poles for a solid 6-months-on/6-months-off pattern). Because of the solar angle, more light is reflected into space, and thus less hits the Earth’s surface to be radiated about the lower troposphere (where we live).
Because of this, ambient cold often seems to be “warmer” than other types. You’re still collecting some solar radiation (warmth), and even under clear, cold conditions, a tremendous amount of insulation may not be necessary.
Environmental Cold is the cold we experience due to meteorological phenomenon; it’s the combination between Ambient Cold and “x”, with x being variable weather conditions. The most common cold-inducing environmental effects are wind and rain. They can lead to deadly thermal injuries if not managed, and fortunately, they’re the conditions that we have the most influence over. If you look back to the Survival Saw, behind breathable oxygen, shelter is the second most potent impact and we can survive exposure for only around 3 hours – though in severe cases, the impacts of thermal injury will set on within minutes.
While this might seem self-evident, the first and best way of mitigating environmental cold is just simply avoidance. If you don’t have to go out, don’t! Set yourself up so that you don’t have to go out or can minimize the amount of time you spend outside.
A little pre-planning here will go a long way – most of our outdoor activities during cold revolve around other things that are similarly impacted by cold: our vehicles, pets or livestock, or tasks such as collecting firewood. Insulation on or around watering troughs, raising your windshield wipers, and bringing in wood in advance of an ice storm or freezing spell, for example, will help make your job easier and keep you out of the cold as much as possible. If you live in a cold climate, consider how these temperatures will impact your vehicles, especially. Fluids left in the vehicles can freeze, and this can lead to cracked heads, hoses, and radiators, if not protected. Long story short, it behooves one to keep the garage clean enough to park one’s car in it, or you may well be risking serious damage to your vehicle.
Protection Against the “X”
When you set out into the cold, it’s important to consider which variables you’re going to face. A stiff wind will sap the heat off your body from the exterior; this makes the ambient temperature feel colder than it is, and this is commonly referred to as “wind chill.” Wind chill can be estimated by using some pretty simple observations, called the Beaufort Scale, which is extremely well represented in the following graphic:
Figure 1: The Beaufort Scale