Fort Wainwright is located near Fairbanks, Alaska about 200 miles from the Arctic circle. It has earned the reputation of being the military’s coldest military installation. And for good reason. Temperatures in the wintertime routinely drop to less than 20 degrees below zero and can stay there for weeks at a time. But the cold doesn’t stop the training. In fact, the fort is home to the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center. About 500 soldiers pass every year through the center. Those soldiers learn the secret to surviving — and operating militarily — in the extreme cold. While there are lots we can’t tell you about their training, we have extracted the three basic principles by which these soldiers live during their cold-weather survival training. Pay attention, as these principles are lifesavers.
Cold Weather Survival Hinges on Ample Calories
The first and most important aspect of surviving in extreme cold weather is to properly fuel your body. An average person operating in a cold-weather environment will burn something like 4,500 calories. High exertion requires close to 6,000. Additionally, the body will need three to five quarts of water per day. It’s also important to spread your caloric intake over a wide range of time; eating your entire meal in one sitting isn’t ideal. Staying fueled requires almost constant caloric intake.
Cover-Up, but Beware of Overheating
Protecting your body with insulative, breathable, and wind-stopping clothing is crucial. But simply grabbing the massive down jacket might spell your end in the long run. Instead of a single insulative jacket or suit, think in layers. Layering up may seem bothersome when getting dressed to go out, but it will allow you to remove layers as your body heats up, eliminating moisture from gathering and saturating your clothes. Removing layers, or ventilating, is more of an art than a science; you must ventilate before you start to sweat. Doing so will allow you to keep your layers dry and will limit the hypothermic reaction you will encounter when you stop moving and begin to cool down.
Cold? Get Moving
If you feel the cold setting in, the best solution is to start moving your body. Movement will also increase the flow of blood to your extremities. Fingers cold? Windmill your arms to force the blood to your fingertips. Frozen toes? Swinging your legs and wiggling your toes will help circulate your blood to your feet. If your core begins to chill, exert yourself by exercising or performing other survival tasks like shelter building or gathering water, food, or fuel for the fire. Moving can also help you mentally: you’ll be less fixated on the cold if you are focused on a task.
While there is much more to learn about surviving in extreme cold weather environments, these three basic survival tips will help you the next time you’re out in the elements. They might just save your life!
This article was originally published in December 2020.