by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

As you’ll see in my upcoming five-part series on hypothermia, it’s not the cold weather that gets you. It’s how you handle it.

If it were just the cold, the man stuck in his car for three days near Nome, Alaska, would have perished. But he didn’t.

Sixty hours in the wilderness. It got down to 17 below zero at night, not even counting windchill.He cranked his car once a day (the gauge was on empty) for a little heat and waited, wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a cheap coat. No food. How can somebody survive like that? Personally, I think it was the Coors.

As he relates to the Anchorage Daily News, he stayed in the car, pulled a sleeping bag liner around him, folded his arms next to his body, and shivered like crazy. Shivering is an efficient way to generate your own body heat. He kept the heat from escaping with the liner. The problem with shivering is it takes a lot of energy. I mean, the guy lost 16 pounds in three days. (Some of that was water weight, but not all.)

Energy must have fuel. Hence the Coors. Empty calories, yes, but fuel for energy, shivering, and generated heat nonetheless. Alcohol is usually a no-no in situations like this. As you’ll see in my future posts, it makes hypothermia worse. But this was the exception to the rule.

Other things that helped:

  • He stayed in the car, out of the wind.
  • He layered. He stuffed rags and tissues in his clothes and wrapped his feet, knees, and thighs with towels. The trapped air and the loose material made for good insulation.
  • He was lucky. He was out of cellphone range, but he had colleagues and friends who realized he was missing and were willing to risk their lives to find him. Maybe next time he’ll let someone know where he’s going. And carry supplies, and an extra coat, maybe some flares, keep a full tank of gas. Or at least stay on the main roads.