Stay Dry – The First Rule of Survival

There is an old saying that has to do with hypothermia – “Stay Dry…Stay Alive.”  Hypothermia is the #1 killer of people in the outdoors and a serious concern for individuals preparing for both natural and man made disasters (TEOTWAWKI).

If you are caught out in the elements unexpectedly without proper clothes and shelter, survival-knife-survival-rifle-bug-out-bag-teotwawkihypothermia can set in within minutes to hours depending on the severity of your situation. The risk of hypothermia can be prevented (or at least minimized) with some general planning with your Bug Out Bag and know how.

To always be prepared for the unexpected when you travel outdoors is easier said than done, I know, but try to at least plan for the most common contingencies before you walk out the door.  Ask yourself; do I have everything I need in case something unexpected happens?

Keep an emergency bag in all of your vehicles. It should contain food, water, warm clothes, hat, winter gloves, warm socks, flashlight, boots, first aid kit, survival knife, fire starting kit and a winter type jacket & pants.

What to Wear

Have a plan if hiking or camping. Always carry a personal first aid kit and wear the appropriate gear. Always wear clothes that are warm and made of material that continues to insulate even when wet or is quick drying, such as wool (SmartWool), or lightweight moisture wicking synthetic material, such as Polartec or polypropylene.

Always avoid wearing cotton, just remember the saying “Cotton is Rotten” as it loses all its insulating properties when wet and when it is against your skin it can quickly lower your body temperature. There is another saying in the outdoor world, “Friends don’t let friends wear cotton”.

People make this common mistake with cotton especially with their t-shirt and underwear nuclear-winter-survivalselection, look for a synthetic t-shirt and long underwear material.

Clothing worn in loose layers provides better insulation than a heavy single-layer garment. This also allows you to layer up and layer down depending on the temperature.

Unfortunately there is not just “one” coat that you can buy that is perfect for all weather conditions but a good outer shell jacket with a few layers of light jackets and/or shirts will keep you warm and dry in some of the worst scenarios.

It is also important to keep an extra base layer in a water proof bag to change into in case you get wet. If your base layer is moisture wicking /quick drying and you are moving, then your body heat naturally dries out your clothing while you are moving, but if you are forced to stop while wet, it’s nice to have a dry change of clothes.

Bug Out Bag & Emergency Car Kit

When planning your Bug Out Bag or Emergency Car Kit, it is good to have a solid pair of warm survival-clothes-survival-clothing-survival-knifewater-resistant boots or even better, boots that will dry quickly. Some folks keep an extra pair of water proof Gor-tex socks as back up in case their boots do get wet.

That way even with cold wet boots, you can take off your wet socks and replace them with the Gor-tex socks (along with a dry pair of insulated socks) and your feet will stay dry for awhile.  Gore-Tex is supposed to be breathable but the bottom line is that your feet will still sweat inside of them, so they are not a perfect solution.

Remember to water proof all of your clothing items in your Bug Out Bag by putting them in sealed bags, there is nothing worse than needing dry clothes and finding out that all of your stuff is soaked. The best clothing and footwear is going to be items that will wick water away, be breathable and dry quickly after they get wet.

Remember, the cotton rule applies to your feet as well “Cotton is Rotten.”  Check out socks made by Point 6, they make some good merino wool socks.

I have been reading bug out bag lists lately and a lot of people are not including a shelter in their bag. Personally I think that is a mistake. For a few extra pounds in your bag, you could have a shelter that can be assembled in minutes and protect you and your loved ones from snow, rain, and wind. I have seen some people keep small shelters in their cars as well for emergencies.

Medical Conditions

Before medical experts knew much about hypothermia, being cold and wet was simply considered part of of being outside in the elements. If you became cold and wet, you did not complain or whine, you would just keep going.

Hypothermia, however, is a physical condition where the body loses heat faster than it can be replaced. This cycle results in the body core temperature dropping below 98.6 degrees. Exposure to cold water, snow, rain, wind and even one’s own perspiration will accelerate the progression of the condition.

Eventually the brain, heart, lungs and other vital organs are affected. Even a mild case of hypothermia can exhaust a person’s physical and mental abilities and increase the risks of serious accidents.  If left untreated, severe hypothermia may result in unconsciousness and in some cases….death.

A person may be alert, but unaware that he or she has mild hypothermia (described as winter-survival-skills-stay-drya body core temperature drop to 97˚ F or below).  Shivering, cold hands and feet, loss of dexterity, and pain from cold are some of the symptoms. This can easily turn into a moderate case (body core temperature drops to 93˚ F or below) when the person’s shivering slows or stops.

Severe hypothermia will occur when the body temperature falls between 82˚ F and 90˚ F. Confusion, slurred speech, loss of reasoning and muscular rigidity are some of the symptoms.  A person may refuse help or deny that he or she is having a problem. A state of semi-consciousness or even unconsciousness may set in as conditions worsen.

If a person’s body temperature drops below 82˚ F, hypothermia becomes a critical situation. The body starts to shut down and vital signs weaken. A person may appear to be dead as muscle rigidity increases, and the skin turns cold and appears bluish-gray in color.  A victim will not live long in this condition unless immediate medical attention is received.

Recognizing the symptoms of hypothermia is paramount for treatment and preventing further heat loss. With a mild case of hypothermia, allowing the body to re-warm itself and retain body heat will correct the situation. This can be accomplished by replacing wet clothing with warm and dry ones, sipping on a warm non- alcoholic drink, applying a gentle heat source, or doing some light exercises to warm up. Do not exercise to the point of perspiration, as it can limit the body’s ability to warm back up in the cold.

With severe and critical cases of hypothermia it is important to obtain medical help as soon as possible. Treat the person for shock and handle them with extreme care. Do not give the victim any food or drink. Apply a mild heat source to the head, neck, chest and groin to minimize further loss of body heat. In severe conditions, try to put two people in the same sleeping bag, removing any wet clothes to re-warm the person suffering from hypothermia.

Expedient Lean-To Shelter Using Snow or Tree Branches

If you are caught out in the elements unprepared, get out of the wind, rain or snow, find shelter, wilderness-survival-bushcraftand build a fire if possible. Look for naturally occurring shelters such as large trees, dense bushes or a rock out cropping. Know how to build an expedient shelter using a poncho or lean-to using tree branches and other items found on the forest floor. Also, know how and when to build a snow trench or quinzee.

Wrap Up

Hypothermia can occur in almost any environment at air temperatures below or above freezing. However, most cases tend to take place between 30 and 50 degrees, when victims underestimate the danger of exposure to the elements.

Anyone can get hypothermia; it can strike even the most highly trained and experienced individuals in the outdoors. So no matter the scenario, if you are caught out in the elements immediately seek shelter or put on protection against moisture because once you become wet and cold, hypothermia is sure to follow.

Remember “Stay Dry…Stay Alive.”

Photo credits:
The movie “The Road”

Written by Joel Jefferson

Joel is one of the original founders of After college, he joined the USMC where he served as an (0302) Marine Infantry Officer. Joel is an avid outdoorsman and spends much of his free time in the mountains. Joel’s hobby is researching survival gear & weapons as well as prepping. Read his full interview here. Read more of Joel's articles.

39 thoughts on “Stay Dry – The First Rule of Survival”

  1. considering i had more useful information then the article itself i think im ahead of the game.

    i agreed with Pat Miketinac about using VW's, i mentioned vehicles used in harsh 3rd world conditions, i brought up the use of stick shifts over automatics, i did comment on the use of bicycles but i guess i didnt hit the "submit" button, i pointed out the obvious flaws about trying to get fuel out of a storage tank with a piece of PVC (still scratching my head over that one), i was the only one that thought of a lift pump, and i was the only one to point out that this dupont registry of a list was created by a car crazed nation that somehow thinks that luxuries like those will still be available after a horrible event! while you sir havent contributed a damn thing until you decided to bash me!

    may prosperity poo on you.

  2. When I am packing light and do not have room for a tent or tarp I carry a roll of painters plastic. I take a 9'x12' roll and compact it by wraping 550 cord around it a couple of times. You can also roll some duck tape around the 550 cord, but I only do it on one end so the rope is not sticky. You can use the painters plastic for many uses including: Ponchos, emergency shelter(does tear easy though), water traps, solar stills, food storage, blanket and the list goes on. I am new to the site, but I have not read about painters plastic any where so i thought I would mention it. There was a Cub Scout leader and a small troop that got caught in a bad storm here in CO and he claimed that a roll of painters plastic may have saved some lives.

    • GettingReady – thanks for the input, I have never thought about that before. I know from experience (painting experience) that some of the painters plastic you can buy is heavy duty and does not tear that easy.

    • The painters plastic does work pretty good, everyone I have ever told about it asks the smart a$$ question "well how are you gonna secure it, it doesn't have grommets?". Just the type of comment I would expect from someone with NO imagination! I don't know your preferred method GettingReady, but mine is to use rocks found near where you are gonna camp, place them on a corner of the "tarp" about 4" from each side, fold over the edge, tie some para cord around the rock wrapped in the plastic. Repeat on each corner and string 'er up! I used a pitfall similar to this to catch rabbits and squirrels during a survival course I took a few years ago.

      When I went through the "Ordeal" for Order of the Arrow, we used a piece of painters plastic as an improvised sleeping bag. Can also be used as a lightweight ground cover to put under a tent. They also make handy rain catch's and with a little duct tape you can make an improvised "mail bag" for food collection or anything thats not to heavy. Another use that I just remembered is placing a piece over a "pitfall trap" secured with a few light stones and cover with some leaves and light debris, makes an effective trap for small game, if you can pinpoint trails or bait it with something!

  3. Well written, especially the part about avoiding cotton. Here in South-East Asia, we face the opposite of hypothermia when caught in the wild: heat exhaustion. Perhaps you could write an article on that too. 🙂

  4. Might not hurt to keep a few of the chemical hand warmers and MRE heaters in a cold weather gear bag. Has anybody tried any clothing insulated using synthetic down? I saw it in a Cabela's catalog and it looks interesting.

  5. I was working with a guy this week doing insulation and he wore a set ot Tyvek coveralls with a hood and he was complaining about how hot he was. I don't know what he was wearing as far as long underwear but he was sweating in a building just above freezing.

    • I have had to wear one of those TYVEK suits before, had on gym shorts and an old t-shirt (I was helping a friend lay fiber-glass if I remember correctly). It was about 60F outside and in the shop we were working in, and in no time I was cookin'! Those things are definately good for keeping warm!

  6. An idea I got from an old acquaintance of mine is to sprinkle cayenne pepper into your boots before you put them on. As your feet sweat, and the moisture is wicked from your feet, it will activate the red pepper and radiate its heat back up to your feet.
    I also have an idea and a question. The idea is along the lines of what aj52 mentioned about the hand warmers. Would it work to take the large peel and stick heat pads and use them to warm up a persons body? The ones for the small of the back are pretty good size and if it would work it would be an easy way of raising the core temperature.
    The other is a question that I have had for years so I'll see if some one here, maybe with some medical training or something, can answer this. Many years ago I read an article that said that you should carry a can of condensed milk with you for the treatment of Hypothermia but I have never found out why or how it is suppose to be used. If anyone know or can find out anything about this I would be most grateful. My only conclusion is that maybe you have the patient consume it and the process of the body trying to digest the condensed milk might kick start the persons metabolism and heat them up.

  7. Situational awareness is a crucial part of survival anywhere… The temp could climb 40 or 50 degrees in the day while being well below freezing at night. You may have to gather firewood, set out snares, and collect water during the day which requires work. Staying dry is not always possible when out there… So, I recommend you have more than one set of snivel gear. At least an extra set of the stuff you have next to your skin such as socks, watch (ski) cap, glove liners, polypro or other long underwear. Then you can work when you need to change and when you’re done. Let the wet stuff dry out and be warm while you harbor up (rest). Using this method you can now employ cheap and available items like trash bags, ponchos and plastic tarps as expedient parkas. Small plastic bags worn over your socks inside your shoes can help keep your feet warm while working. Not good for long movements by foot as they can cause your feet to slip around inside your shoes.

  8. You bring up a good point. There is a difference between "feeling" warm and being warm. It is possible that the cayenne pepper makes your feet feel warmer by increasing blood flow or something without contributing any actual heat. If that is the case, it could actually contribute to frost bite much like alcohol makes you feel warmer but doesn't actually warm you up. An idea well worth testing carefully before depending on it.

  9. speaking of vodka and water … a mix of vodka and water 1 part to 3 parts makes a good slush for freezing into an ice pack if you need it. After you don't need the cold pack anymore, you can use the mixture for 'pain relief' if need be.

  10. An item that I have used quite a bit is something put out by a company called Headsokz. Their website is at:

    It provides enough coverage to keep my head and neck warm and dry in cold and wet conditions, as well as being able to fit over a baseball cap. The latter is important because that keeps rain/snow off my glasses.

    Another item I have that has been helpful is a baseball cap style hat made out of gore-tex. It helps keeps your head from getting wet, breathes a little, and also provides a little bit of thermal protection. Go to the gore-tex website and enter "hat" into their search function, they have several designs to choose from. To say nothing of their jackets and other assorted gear.

  11. I worked outside for a long time, and the most important thing I wore on job sites were waterproof boots. Wet feet in the cold=miserable day. Gloves, coats and headgear were all important, but I rank great boots as #1. Maybe you could rank the best ones for us in the future.

  12. Can the more experienced or knowledgeable tell me whether or not a 50/50 mix of cotton and a synthetic would be good? Would the disadvantages of cotton take over rather than the advantages of the synthetic? Just a question for my future buying purposes.

  13. Can the more experienced or knowledgeable tell me whether or not a 50/50 mix of cotton and a synthetic would be good? Provided the material has the moisture wicking qualities.

  14. A reusable emergency bivvy bag may also come in handy in order to stay dry and warm in a survival situation. The original bivvy bags are meant to make your sleeping bag water proof as well as warmer. A great thing about this one is that it can be rolled up put into a carry bag that is included I just purchased one from for about 16$. I have not used it yet but my expectations are pretty high. I would recommend this to everybody.

  15. Most folks in FL wear cotton. Either 5.11 Tactical, 'Docker' khakis or Jeans. Long underwear is not a big hit in FL.
    What material do you recommend for under and outer wear?
    (I dumped all my Arctic gear when we left Alaska)
    Most folks down here don't bother with rain gear (too hot). But do gave GORTEX.
    Gloves are seldom seen except for work gloves.

    • I would highly recomend going to a sporting goods store and pick up some Under Armor brand synthetic not promoting that particular brand for any reason other than it is comon all over the USA. And here in Oklahoma most Gortex is a little heavy, so we mainly still use thinsulate.

  16. ive always had trouble keeping my feet warm .but now that problem is solved with MUCK BOOTS. they are awesome!! i dont know if they are sold nation wide ….maybe thats why i never read anything about them on any prep sites. they must be a great boot when you can wear them in the snow with no socks at all and my feet never got cold!!

    • Hello..I like the Muck boots as well! I’m a outdoor worker in Alberta Canada..and I have been wearing my muck boots alot lately.. there are different ones meant more for winter use.. mine are good to about -10 celsius..long as I’m moving ..I got them a size bigger to be able to wear thicker winter wool socks ..I like them alot …very comfortable and lightweight compared to my other winter boots..however if I wear them for about six hours my feet will eventually sweat enough and then they will get feeling cold ..I just switch out to my other winter boots and change wet socks and I’m good to go …I dry them out with plug in boot dryers so they are dry everyday.. I agree with you we don’t hear much about muck boots but they are sure worth it in my opinion

  17. I have read all of the reader comments here and it all seems like good advice. Having done a lot of remote wilderness camping in the last 20 years, I feel like throwing in my two cents.
    When setting up your camp site, try to find a spot about 3/4 of the way up a hill. Cold air stays lower and being 3/4 up, will keep you in a good position from the wind in most cases. Also, have your site faceing north west, as the sun comes in my area of the country in the north east. It might be different for your local. This way, the sun isn't in your eyes when it rises.
    A "lean to" is a critical element to have at night against the cold night air when it is on the move.

  18. I went on an elk hunt one cold december morning (for Oklahoma, that's 17 with wind about 15 mph) I got so cold I used my heater from my MRE. awfully stinky, but my core bodytemp stayed warm. I used it on my lunch first though.

  19. Here's a question… What could this father and sons have done?

    Apparently there was no possibility of shelter around. Should they have tried taking off their sweaters and jogging or exercising shirtless or exercising with whatever water-resistant layer they had? This may have generated some heat between their body and that layer to keep warm. Granted at some point, they were in pitch black darkness, but perhaps just jogging in place til help arrived would have helped.

  20. Take an arthritis cream and look at the ingredients. Capsicum. The ingredient in cayenne pepper that makes them hot. On the label they will tell you not to use with a heating pad as it can cause severe burns. I can only assume it is because heat opens up the pores, allowing the capsicum to get deeper into the skin.

    That being said, I can also only assume that it dilates the capillaries just under the surface and allows better blood flow so that, along with the chemical heat, is what warms up your feet.

    However, there is a very simply solution. Put on a pair of thick, 100% wool socks and then a pair of cotton…yes COTTON socks. the wool wicks away the sweat and the cotton absorbs it, preventing it from touching your skin. With a decent pair of boots, your feet will never get cold using this method. Don't be so afraid of cotton. It isn't the devil. I have done this for years ever since I learned it in scouts. I just turned 50 and have never had a problem.

  21. Correct me if I’m wrong but you say don’t use cotton but if look at what military forces around the world wear a lot of them wear cotton out on the field and yet still survive some of the hardest conditions in the world? Is cotton really that bad???

  22. I do not think cotton is evil too many people fail to see that other blends or man made fabrics will be welded to you in a fire and fire is one of the top incidents when we are using alternative fuels.

    I have traversed the world in cotton Levi's or Wranglers if you want to wear a nuvo era leisure suit go for it.
    from 60 below to 120 in the shade but there was no shade.
    your outer wear is more important this is where man made materials are important bib overalls and a good parka with wool socks and sweater and having a second set of clothing in case you do get wet.

    if your really concerned with cold carry a zippo pocket heater and a can of fluid.

    people that suffer or fall to the elements are ones who went in ill prepared if you drive to a deer stand you need to remember that you may have to walk out vehicles do crap out.
    It never fails to surprise me people go out on snow mobiles dirt bikes and boats miles from anywhere and do not take sh*t some do not even have proper safety gear whistle flotation flares or weapons and blankets and clothing.
    living on water part of my life only an idiot did not have proper gear motor crap out storms I even kept a #10 can to bail if the bilge pump {one of 2 } crapped out.
    I have seen people go out with nothing but a paddle and a vest how stupid it that?

    trot lines kill people if your not ready with a knife you will get drug out of the boat and drown.
    if your in snow and do not have snow shoes again your an idiot if you do not tell someone where your going when you intend to return again your not firing on all cylinders.
    in the world we live in now with all the tech and modern devices and communications there is no reason to fall off the earth except some strange event that could not be foreseen, and that does happen 1 in a hundred times.

    i have seen it a thousand times and I do not bother to say anything as all the reply will be is an excuse.
    because they are too lazy ignorant or proud.

    If your found dead on your body needs to be a knife pistol compass and fire be it bic lighter or another way to make fire, anything less and your not prepared for anything.

    Any activity that takes you into harms way and that is anything you need to plan for you do not leave your house without your cell phone in fact all your items need to be in a specific place so you do not forget them. and in an emergency you can scoop them up and be out.
    the trunk is not just for a spare tire and how many times have I sen a flat spare OMG does anyone ever check it or at least have a can of flat fix just in case ? and NO JACK LMAO.

    People do not check wiper water oil brake transmission or power steering fluid and do not even look at the tires
    on the drivers side so if you think they are going to do any of the really important sh*t your heavily medicated.
    ten people stop at an accident and no one has a blanket ? why did they bother all they are doing is impeding emergency responders.
    How many of you have tampons for a impromptu bandage rubber gloves I mean dish washing gloves those medical ones do not last and then know what to do next ?

    I knew a guy that ice fished he always had 2 ice picks on a cord around his neck now that is forward thinking
    if everyone was that prepared for their situation most people would survive an incident.

  23. I wanted to add that Texas has a short winter but heat is the enemy as well people here go water skiing and do not take warm clothing in case they get stuck on the lake.

    storms come in fast and drop the temperature add wind and you in a bad situation.
    Cold here is funny people I have known from the U.P. have told me it is very cold here at times more than they thought it would be.

    Each area has it's dangers and not to take any of them for granted once I was in Vegas and a sand storm blew in man that was wicked one of the few times I can say a bar saved my life plenty to drink and protected from the storm.

    hail has shattered cedar fence post and killed cattle lightning as well as flying debris like tree limbs and widow makers toppling like match sticks fallen power lines and natural gas in low spots because it is not just one thing that can kill you it is everything.
    should we have a decline in our financial system a lot of infrastructure and protections will be short circuited.
    leaking gas lines leaking chemical tanks tanks on train sidings anything and everything you can imagine in the air water and animal life raised or wild vegetation could be compromised.
    If no one is able or afraid to go to work or worse money is worthless who will check repair and warn if there is a problem who would report it and how if there was an interruption in electricity or man power?

    I do like the new fabrics and technology but most times common sense and caution is as important as gear if not more so.
    I do have a couple of Zippo pocket heaters and I love stainless flasks I have different ones to hold liquids like lighter fuel, I like them as you can place them close to your body and are wind proof very important if your in a storm as that bow drill does not work in a downpour or does any other fire making so either have a fuel lantern
    bottled gas torch or heater candles or a pocket heater and fuel or your going to suffer.

    I don't carry my zippo pocket warmer in the summer I think I should now that this topic as brought to mind
    a few cold wet nights stuck in the woods during change of seasons.
    Life happens I know no matter who it is you will wish you had done something different I hope it is not too bad a fail or one that I cannot find an alternative to I would hate to die knowing that sob is under the seat of the truck wouldn't you <) :=}


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