EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
Winter in Alaska can either be a cool experience or a chilling undertaking for the unaware.
With winter comes the blistering cold and here in the interior Alaska temperature could drop as low as negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, winter is not impossible to understand. The first step to overcoming any posing threats is knowing the five basic needs that have to be addressed: personal protection, sustenance, travel, signal/communication, and health.
Having adequate protective clothing and equipment could mean the difference between life and death in an arctic environment.
“One of the biggest factors with the climate here is making sure that personnel are protected by using the proper clothing and material while being outside,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ashley Pascas, the 354th Fighter Wing occupational safety manager. “Frostbite can start to occur in less than five minutes after being exposed to cold weather.”
Wearing multiple layers of clothing is necessary but balancing between maintaining warmth and avoiding sweating is key.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Garrett Wright, the Detachment 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School superintendent recommends three layers: A wicking layer, which is designed to pull sweat from the body, a warming layer which traps heat, and a weathering layer to serve as protection from snow and the rain.
Food and water are essential in all environments and climates but when living and working in the cold the body needs more.
“To heat your body in the extreme cold requires the intake of more calories, compared to most other environments,” Wright said. “If you don’t drink enough water, your body can’t circulate blood effectively and will not transfer heat nearly as well. This will affect your ability to keep your fingers and toes warm, and the risk of frostbite will increase.”
Getting from one place to another, on foot or by car, is more complicated in the winter than in any other time of year. Intermittent snowfall can drastically affect road conditions and visibility making it challenging and dangerous for drivers and pedestrians.
“Make sure your vehicle is winterized and make sure you have a safety kit in your vehicle if you don’t already,” Pascas said. “Just because someone sees you doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to stop their vehicle. So when crossing streets make sure you’re looking both ways and if a vehicle is trying to come to a stop, make sure that it comes to a complete stop before you enter the crosswalk.”
Another threat that should not be underestimated during winter is the darkness. If outdoors, Wright recommends having a headlamp with extra batteries on hand to help stay visible and safe.
Today, most people rely on cell phones for more than just phone calls. Phones are the link to social media accounts, late breaking news and even help users get from place to place. Unfortunately, cellphones are notorious for losing battery life when exposed to the cold and may not be the best communication device when going off-the-grid.
“Cell phones don’t last very long in the cold,” Wright said. “You gotta keep those battery-operated devices in your layers so they stay working for you. If they do die because of the cold, you can heat them back up and after you get them warm again they will probably come back on.”
“If you’re going somewhere where there’s no cellphone coverage, come to the safety office. We have personal locator beacons you can rent for free,” Pascas said.
Upon activation of the locator beacon a rescue team will receive and go to the GPS coordinates to attempt a search and rescue.
Maintaining good physical and mental health is the number one goal whether out in the wilderness or just living in a cold environment.
“In any survival situation, you’re going to need to take care of your health, physical and mental, in order to get through whatever situation you find yourself in,” Wright said. “If you fail on any of your personal protection, sustenance, travel and signal recovery needs, your health is definitely going to suffer from not being prepared.”
Winter survival could be a learning experience for many. Proper training with proper equipment will give you the confidence to be able to continue operating in the winter.
“If anyone learns anything from being up here, you have to stay active during the winter as life becomes a bit more challenging,” Wright said. “Learning how to dress for the elements enables you to enjoy the outdoors and continue to maintain a normal life during this harsh time of year.”