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How Cold Does It Have to Be to Freeze to Death?

January 26 2021

Before going on an outdoor excursion in the winter, it’s important to ask yourself: how cold does it have to be to freeze to death?

Winter camping and hiking can be risky, so understanding the dangers is the first step to preparing for them.

The human body’s limits in the cold is a little more complicated than with food or oxygen.

Each person reacts differently, depending on a range of factors, one person might survive while another can succumb to the cold.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at the limits of the human body in freezing temperatures, and how you can avoid the effects of hypothermia.


When Does the Body Freeze?

A man soaked in icy water during winter

Your body will freeze in external temperatures a little below the freezing temperature of water, which is about 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, you can most certainly die before that.

Dying of the cold can happen whenever severe or profound hypothermia kicks in, which can happen before your body technically freezes.

Typically, you are at some risk of hypothermia whenever the external temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but several factors can either reduce or worsen this.

When external temperatures reach sub-zero, you only have minutes to survive while exposed to the elements. At -30 degrees, frostbite will kick in within the first 30 minutes, while below -40 degrees it will only take 5-10 minutes.

Frostbite occurs when body parts are exposed to freezing temperatures, and is an additional risk when you are outside in the winter. Typically, your extremities are most at risk to frostbite - which is when the tissue just below the skin freezes and is damaged. Frostbite can occur anytime you are exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.


When Does Hypothermia Kick in?

body shot of two people standing straight together and holding hands in winter

The onset of hypothermia can vary depending on a number of factors such as age, fitness, and other physiological elements.

On average, it usually kicks in at an internal body temperature of about 95 degrees.

Of course, hypothermia does not immediately mean death. If treated quickly, a person can survive mild and moderate cases. Severe cases are much more likely to result in freezing to death.


What are the Effects of Hypothermia?

a lady in winter clothing during winter

Hypothermia has a range of symptoms that occur at different temperatures, ranging from mild to severe at different points in the body’s temperature.

Mild hypothermia, which occurs at a core body temperature of about 95 degrees, can have fairly vague symptoms as a lot of them are a result of the body attempting to conserve heat. Symptoms would include shivering, a fast heart rate, quick breathing, as well as some more serious symptoms such as mild mental confusion and can also lead to liver dysfunction.

Moderate hypothermia develops at about 89 degrees as symptoms worsen. The mild mental confusion becomes more severe and amnesia develops. Some even become violent and their speech begins to slur. Motor skills and reflexes decline. Shivering, ironically, stops as you from becoming more drowsy.

Severe hypothermia occurs at about 82 degrees. Blood pressure drops alongside heart rate and rate of breathing, and organs begin to shut down. Paradoxical undressing can occur in lethal cases of hypothermia as mental confusion hits and at this point, it’s almost certain death. This is usually the last action of a person who is trying to fight the cold before they fall unconscious and finally succumb to the cold.

While there is still a chance of survival in severe cases of hypothermia this is only if you receive the correct medical attention quickly enough. Death is almost certain if you remain exposed to the elements.

Below 68 degrees, in cases of profound hypothermia, consciousness is lost and no vital signs will be found.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of hyperthermia then seek medical attention immediately.


What Reduces The Symptoms of Hypothermia?

a couple in a winter camping setup

One of the factors that affect whether a person can survive certain temperatures is how well they have prepared for the cold. Bundling yourself up, having an external heat source, and finding shelter can help you to survive colder temperatures.

The body also has its own defense mechanisms against the cold. One of the first things your body does is constrict its blood vessels so that warmer blood can get to your organs and extremities faster. You will also start to shiver which is another way that your body tries to keep itself warm.

These mechanisms are affected by your body itself. Age and fitness can affect how well your body will cope with cold temperatures. The younger and fitter you are, the better your body can warm itself up without damaging itself.

Food can also help to alleviate the effects of hypothermia by providing your body with fuel to be able to produce more body heat.

If you fit any of these descriptions, you should be able to survive at lower temperatures for longer than most, however, I wouldn’t put that to the test.


What Worsens The Symptoms of Hypothermia?

Anything that causes your body to lose heat faster will worsen the effects of hypothermia.

Being underdressed for the weather, or staying exposed to the elements will obviously drop your core body temperature very quickly.

Getting wet is the biggest danger. Water will cause your body to lose heat incredibly quickly, which can cause severe hypothermia much faster than in any other situation. This will mean that you are at risk of dying at a much higher temperature than if you were dry and sheltered.

Certain medications that reduce your heart rate can also increase your risk of developing a severe case, so you may want to consult with your doctor if you are on any medications.

These factors are likely to lead to you being unable to fight off hypothermia as effectively and may result in freezing to death sooner.

How Do You Survive Hypothermia?

a lady in white winter clothing during winter

Once hypothermia kicks in, it is important to treat it right away. If proper care is taken, it is survivable. If not, freezing to death is a risk.

It is important to work fast because severe symptoms and unconsciousness can come quickly and unexpectedly. First, get yourself into a shelter and out of any wet clothes. Then, light a fire or use an external heat source to get yourself warm.

Eat food and drink sugar water as these will act as fuel for your body to produce even more of its own heat.

Insulate yourself once you’ve warmed up a bit, and make sure to stay dry. Get an insulated outdoor blanket to keep you warm after you are dried off. 

Signal for help as soon as you’re able. Even if you feel like you’re in the clear, medical attention might still be needed.


In Summary

So, how cold does it have to be to freeze to death? The answer is: it’s complicated.

We are not necessarily able to test the theories by putting people at risk to find out an exact answer, but we do know that there are a variety of factors that can influence a person’s ability to survive in the cold.

Preparedness, wetness, food, shelter, physical fitness, and age all affect your ability to survive in such harsh conditions. Even the medication that you may be taking could affect your chances.

You risk dying from the cold anywhere below 40 degrees Fahrenheit if you aren’t careful. To survive you need to be prepared if you are going out camping in the cold, especially into wilderness areas where help won’t be close by in an emergency.

Never underestimate the cold and always keep an eye out for any signs of hypothermia.

I hope you found this helpful. Which part did you find the most useful or interesting? Have you ever experienced the effects of hypothermia while spending time in the outdoors? Let us know down in the comments and don’t forget to share.