Certain previous studies suggest, as hypothesized herein, that heat balance (i.e., when heat loss is matched by heat production) is attained before stabilization of body temperatures during cold exposure. This phenomenon is explained through a theoretical analysis of heat distribution in the body applied to an experiment involving cold water immersion. Six healthy and fit men (mean +/- SD of age = 37.5 +/- 6.5 yr, height = 1.79 +/- 0.07 m, mass = 81.8 +/- 9.5 kg, body fat = 17.3 +/- 4.2%, maximal O2 uptake = 46.9 +/- 5.5 l/min) were immersed in water ranging from 16.4 to 24.1 degrees C for up to 10 h. Core temperature (Tco) underwent an insignificant transient rise during the first hour of immersion, then declined steadily for several hours, although no subject's Tco reached 35 degrees C. Despite the continued decrease in Tco, shivering had reached a steady state of approximately 2 x resting metabolism. Heat debt peaked at 932 +/- 334 kJ after 2 h of immersion, indicating the attainment of heat balance, but unexpectedly proceeded to decline at approximately 48 kJ/h, indicating a recovery of mean body temperature. These observations were rationalized by introducing a third compartment of the body, comprising fat, connective tissue, muscle, and bone, between the core (viscera and vessels) and skin. Temperature change in this "mid region" can account for the incongruity between the body's heat debt and the changes in only the core and skin temperatures. The mid region temperature decreased by 3.7 +/- 1.1 degrees C at maximal heat debt and increased slowly thereafter. The reversal in heat debt might help explain why shivering drive failed to respond to a continued decrease in Tco, as shivering drive might be modulated by changes in body heat content.