How to Rewarm Your Body When It's Cold & Wet | ITS Tactical

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How to Rewarm your Body When You Become Cold, Wet and Miserable

By Nick H.

Navy SEAL Qualification Training

If you’ve ever fallen into ice-cold waters, you know what it truly means to be cold. We often think that we’re cold when the wind picks up or when we’re underdressed for the weather, but there’s simply nothing like being wet and cold.

During the winter, we as outdoorsmen are often placed in situations that could turn deadly in an instant if we’re not adequately prepared. Preparing for the worst comes in two forms. First, it’s important to ensure that you’re wearing the right gear for the environment and the second is having a solid knowledge base of how to help yourself or your buddy when no one else can.

Geared For Survival


First thing’s first, never wear cotton. I strongly recommend wearing a base layer and some type of Omni-Wick, or clothing that pulls moisture away from the body, whenever you’re out in the wilderness. The base layer is essential when you become waterlogged, because if you’ve selected the right materials it will dry quickly and do its job pulling the moisture off of your body and into the next layer of clothing. If your next layer is also a wicking material. it will in turn dry quickly as well.

Fire Starting Equipment

Another “must” is to always keep waterproof matches in a pocket on your 1st Line clothing. This means that it’s always on your body, in a pocket or pouch on your belt. It’s not survival gear if it’s not on your body. Additionally, you may consider keeping the matches in a pocket sized waterproof bag as well.

If you’re carrying a backpack then you’ll want to keep whatever tinder you like to use and an alternate means of starting a fire ready to go. Personally, I keep a TinderStick and a Swedish Mora FireKnife in my kit at all times just in case.

The FireKnife has a magnesium stick stored in the handle which makes it a great dual purpose tool. You’ve got to love it when a piece of equipment has multiple uses. If you use this tool to start your evening fire, you’re essentially practicing a life-saving skill.

ITS Engraved Swedish Mora FireKnife

Dry Bag

Keep a large waterproof bag in your backpack as a liner to keep everything inside dry and to serve as positive flotation when needed. Always keep a pair of extra socks in a Ziploc or even better, an aLOKSAK bag. Bring a backpacking stove (e.g., Jetboil, MSR WhisperLite) and extra fuel, which can be used to start a fire if you loose too much dexterity to start one the old fashioned way.

Step 1: Get Dry

Act quickly and put yourself in a positive position. Get out of the wind as much as possible and replace your wet clothing for dry ASAP. If you don’t have any dry clothes available, remove your wet clothing, ring out the water and put them back on. If you’re wearing the proper clothing mentioned above, it should dry quickly on its own.

Step 2: Get Moving

Building Fire

Movement, such as gathering firewood, will increase your dexterity in the short term. Collecting firewood should be done in three phases. Start with large logs, which you’ll need later and will create more internal heat. Next, gather mid sized logs and finally, gather kindling. I always recommend storing all three kinds of fuel in three separate stacks so that you can access what you need with ease, even at night.

Step 3: Get Fire

Building Fire

Now you can build your fire. Select a location that’s out of the wind and if available, build it next to a natural backdrop like a hill or large rock. Use waterproof matches, your FireKnife, magnesium, or your Jetboil stove to light the fire. When the temperature is below freezing a Bic lighter may let you down. This is why waterproof matches are a great backup.

Step 4: Reflection

Types of fire walls. Army Survival Field Manual

Now that your fire is burning bright, place a large object opposite the fire from you. This will reflect heat back at you, maximizing the fire’s effectiveness. If you weren’t able to build your fire next to a natural reflector, then use logs to build a hasty wall. Ideally you’ll have a backdrop behind you and the fire, plus another reflector in front of you to provide heat from every angle.

Step 5: Introduce a Heat Source

You’re now comfortable next to a fire in either dry clothes or clothes that are drying quickly. Don’t think that you’re done improving your situation though. Now you can boil water with your Jetboil, or directly over the fire.

SQT Kodiak, Alaska

When the water is boiling, you can fill a Nalgene water bottle with it. Put the water bottle under your clothes, but above your base layer to avoid burning your skin. Introducing an additional heat source will dramatically improve your condition. I like to hold the water to my chest so that it’s heating my internal organs.

Eventually the water will cool down. When this happens, drink the warm water so that you’re getting every ounce of heat you can. Boil more water and repeat the process while you wait. Keep this tactic in mind next time you’re on a hunt and sleeping outside in frigid conditions. You can always boil water, place it in a Nalgene bottle and sleep with it on your chest through the night. I’ve used this trick many times and it always improves morale.

Keep in mind that the above method is ideal for treating yourself quickly and avoiding an emergency. If you’re in the elements for too long though, you’ll advance past mild hypothermia and into the advanced stages. At this point, treatment becomes extremely sensitive and should be conducted by health professionals. For this reason it may become imperative to communicate your situation with whatever means possible so that help will arrive before it’s too late.

For more information on the effects of the cold on your body and heat loss, please read, “Know your Winter Enemy: How to Battle the Elements and Win.”

If you’d like to read about how to bed down overnight should your situation become dire, check out this article that covers shelter building, “Survival Techniques: Building a Shelter to Live Through the Night.”

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Nick recently left the Navy after serving for 10 years as a Navy SEAL with multiple deployments, having been awarded the Bronze Star for operations in austere environments. Nick’s been with us since the beginning here at ITS on our Advisory Board.

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  • texasfredericbastiat

    any brand recommendations for base layer omni-wick in cold and less cold weather?

    • @texasfredericbastiat Nick my have a different suggestion, but in my opinion, you can’t beat surplus PCU uniform pieces for the price you can find them for on the secondary market. Check eBay for PCU Levels 1 and 2. The sizing is much like BDUs (medium, medium regular, medium long, etc.)
      There’s certainly companies that make clothing with wicking properties and the Omni-Wick material Nick referenced is a Columbia Sportswear product.
      Hope that helps!

    • yjoung3ycpedu

      bryanpblack Enjoy your posts. I found the base layer polypro warm in upstate Michigan at the EMED CRTC. Clearly not the same as the conditions you guys were in during worldwide contingencies bu thought I’d chime in.


    • yjoung3ycpedu Thanks, but this article was definitely Nick’s and he’s the only one that might have been in “worldwide contingencies” 🙂
      Polypro was good in its time, but there’s been a lot of innovation in materials since that came out. While it still works, the “wicking” property Nick addressed can’t be found in the PolyPro to the best of my knowledge, though it does “transport” moisture if worn as a base layer against the skin.

    • Reed042

      @texasfredericbastiat The PCU Level 1 that Bryan mentions are made by Milliken, and the PCU Level 2 by Polartec, if memory serves correct. Both are part of the ECWCS system, and can be found on eBay a little bit easier by searching “ecwcs level 1 small regular” for example. 

      If you can’t find a good deal on eBay (which I doubt, if you’re patient), the Milliken base layer is very comparable to the hot weather, moisture wicking UnderArmor line of fabric or its various spinoffs (Wal-Mart, K-Mart, etc). Level 1 isn’t skin tight like UnderArmor, but it does much of the same thing. 

      The Level 2 is just a 3-4mm thick fleece long underwear set. I actually don’t know of any comparable brands, but most sets of fleece long underwear should do fine. 

      The biggest thing to look out for is anything that contains cotton. Cotton doesn’t insulate when wet and doesn’t dry out very fast. You want something with 100% synthetic construction.

    • Reed042 There are actually quite a few companies to search for if you’re after the most recent issue PCU garments: Sekri, Halys and Patagonia.
      Thanks for the comments

    • @texasfredericbastiat I’d recommend taking a look at the PCU system as well. A while back a friend and I jumped into Lake Ontario, did a bit of PT to warm up, then rucked home in the winter to test it. Check it out if you’d like!

  • Jack London wrote a short story, “To Build a Fire,” about what happens when you fail to take the proper precautions in a cold survival situation:

    • Reed042

      InklingBooks When I read that story as a kid I always felt sad for the dog, more than anything.

  • lightfighter

    Even though I realize my risk level is extremely low, one of the things that always sticks in my mind regarding base layers is inflammability and thus I always choose Merino.  In addition to it’s no melt properties one can wear it for weeks and remain comparatively stench free.  

    Another important issue is to understand layering and how best to manipulate your system when moving from times of rigorous activity to rest and back again.

    Lastly, understanding your destination environment before departure is absolutely vital. For example one doesn’t want to be wearing down based outerwear in a cold but extremely wet environment.

  • B3dlam

    Hey I recognize that place….Damn freezing cold Kodiak, AK….

  • alecks_f

    I enjoy most all ITS articles and this was no different, the major steps taken to get warm again were well presented and in a logical order for those of us with a lower experience level.

    As I’m sure a former SEAL knows, you can also become very cold in even luke warm water depending on how long you are in it. As most people would know water conducts heat away from the body faster than air. 
    As a former NAVY and commercial diver I know that six hours on the job in 22 C (71 F) water can leave you shivering, add to that a 15 knot wind when you surface and you can be shivering quite hard by the time you get back to the dock for a hot shower. Even after that I’ve found myself with a lightweight fleece on in the middle of summer, trying to heat myself back up.

    My wife recently found out that even a little water can suck heat from your body rapidly after our daughter knocked over her half empty glass of water while we were out to dinner, by the time dinner finished and we were back in the car, she was feeling quite cold.
    I’m in know way critising NICK’s article, just adding for those of us reading who spend the majority of thier time in the urban jungle, you don’t have to be in the backcountry snow to be cold, wet and miserable.

  • Matt

    Jack London has a great short story on this subject. One of his best.

    • LarrySteiner

      @Matt Mr. Matt.  A few years ago, I solo hiked the north section of the Appalachian Trail in January on snow shoes.  It hit -20 at night in some spots.  While laying in my bag with a candle lantern for light and sox on my hand, I read Jack London, To Build a Fire and the men on the trail.  Thought you would get a kick out of that.

  • Skip Harris

    I would also consider keeping an extra small sterno container with water proof matches inside the can.

    When dexterity goes to ZERO and you need a serious fire, right now!  I have had trouble making fine tender or using some fire starter sets…..  being able to start the sterno and put it in a pile of something flammable and not have to tend it or worry about it going out while collecting fire wood.

    My .02….

  • Dan

    What tent is that?

    • H

      @Dan SFC Solo Assault Shelter by Sierra Designs/ Diamond Brand

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