Make no mistake about it, if you end up accidentally in cold water in a frozen environment, your body is going to struggle to stay alive. Notwithstanding the work of Wim Hoff, cold water exposure is dangerous. This blog post is not about improving your T levels or breathing control in a controlled environment in your backyard but rather in a remote setting where you are at the mercy of mother nature. Cold water rapidly drains the heat from your body faster than any other heat-loss mechanism. Unlike controlled settings, you are going into the drink with all of your clothes on meaning you will not have dry clothes to don when you need them. As we get nearer to full-blown winter, here are some tips to help you understand what happens when you experience this accidental immersion and what you can pack to improve your survivability once you pull yourself from the waters.
It takes your breath away. That is the common expression used to explain how your body reacts to cold water. The blood from your extremities rushes to your core to help it survive and all the places that can get cold easily, get cold quickly. You feel it in your feet, crotch, armpits, and back. Cold water immersion is even worse if you go in over your head. In that case, what is referred to as the mammalian diving reflex kicks in. It’s hard to fight as you have generations of evolution fighting back. I’ve participated in cold plunges for charity in the past for the sake of a good cause as well as inconspicuous training. It is very different when you can prepare yourself for the cold than when the surprise factor hits you like when you are cold-water canoeing/kayaking. The first step in surviving an unexpected dunk is to survive the psychological effect it has on you. It’s easy to write but REMAIN CALM. Think about getting out of the water and to a place where you can strip out of your clothes to ring them out. Think quickly and act quicker. What may cause you some concern are thoughts about the water resistance of your kit and clothing. If you lack the awareness of what it can resist or how it reacts to water, you will begin to ask unnecessary questions that slow you down. It is better to have 100% confidence in your kit selection. This is why some “unconventional” training methods of cold-hand testing and mitten testing (that simulates “lobster clawing” your kit) is worthwhile.
A greater chance of recovery and a quicker recovery exists when you prepare for an accidental cold-water dunking. Having a few supplies in an easily opened water-resistant container will help you fight off hypothermia. By “easily opened” I’m referring to having pull tabs you can grasp onto with cold hands or teeth. Once you get out of the water and strip out of your wet clothes, dry clothes are extremely helpful for warming you up. Even a simple set of merino wool long sleeve top and pants along with a spare set of socks and a wool watch cap will start warming up your body. If you don’t have dry clothes, you’ll need to work quickly to build a fire and dry out what you have on. Think about which item will dry out the quickest. If you are wearing wool, it will retain some warmth even when wet. If you don’t have the means to make a fire, you must keep that fire burning inside your body with movement (more on this shortly). Hand warmers can be opened and shaked to immediately start reacting and heating up to provide your body heat it may struggle to produce on its own. Good fire starters like large-head windproof/waterproof matches, large diameter ferro rods with a large striker, or lighters with the child-lock taken off can be used to light a fire fueled with wood found on shore. Make sure to carry a healthy amount of tinder to get that fire going more easily. Carrying an emergency bivy you can completely get inside of up to your neck will help block the wind from you and reflect body heat back. This bivy won’t stop the conduction cooling you’ll experience so getting up off the ground is important. This is where it helps to sit on top of your backpack or pull out a kneeling pad from the garden section of your hardware store. This last item may seem odd but it will keep your feet warmer and the closed foam construction will provide buoyancy for your kit. In fact, you’ll be impressed with how much weight it can keep afloat.
Make no mistake about it, having a kit and some awareness of what happens to your body is not all it will take to help you survive cold water exposure. You will absolutely need willpower and drive to fight off the effects of the cold. Cold water hurts and some will say it feels like a stinging sensation. In the short term, cold water will not cause injury but it will cause pain. You need to fight through that pain or turn that pain into resolve. A common way to combat cold-water effects is to keep moving and exercise. This means running in place, doing burpees, jumping jacks, or even building a shelter by collecting wood and debris. You cannot walk into a store and purchase grit and this one aspect of the success formula is one that folks are not willing to test. We should. I’m not advocating for all of you to dive into a pond in the middle of the winter but I am suggesting you learn to do things the hard way to test your kit. Don’t take the easy way out, it builds weakness. Every so often, give yourself that gut check and see if you truly have what it takes and can honestly say you do or just be the guy or gal that has a bunch of kit and pretends they can.