Who says life has to slow down during winter? There’s plenty of outdoor fun to be had in the cold months…but this does come with its share of unique hazards. One of the most common—and often less-recognized—risks in the winter is frostbite. This ailment can range in severity, but in any case, it will really put a damper on your winter fun.
Knowing how to prevent frostbite is a key to a safe and wonderful time outdoors in the winter. Read on to learn all about frostbite, including tips for how to avoid it so that you can make the most of a healthy winter experience.
What Exactly Is Frostbite and Why Is it Dangerous?
One of the keys to learning how to prevent frostbite is to know what it is and how to identify it. Frostbite can creep up on you slowly, and if you aren’t familiar with the signs of it, what causes it, and what’s actually happening to your body, you can wind up in serious medical straits.
Frostbite is a freezing of the outer layer of the skin and the tissues below it, and it’s caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Frostbite most commonly affects the toes, fingers, ears, and nose, because these are the parts of the body most often exposed to frigid elements for longer periods of time.
Mild frostbite, also called frostnip, is identified by a stark paling of the skin. Most people will experience this degree of frostbite at some point in their lives, such as while shoveling the driveway or playing out in the snow.
Frostnip usually will not cause any lasting damage, so long as you heed it for what it is: your body’s warning sign to get out of the cold and warm up those frost-nipped body parts.
From frostnip, the state of the skin and tissue will progress over time to frostbite. Frostbite comes in stages–first, second, third, and fourth degree, similar to burns–and if you do not prevent frostbite, it can lead to serious consequences.
In the worst case scenarios, fingers, toes, and other body parts may become unusable and can even develop gangrene and, in time, autoamputate (separate from the body). Obviously, this is not an outcome anyone wants!
It’s imperative to know how to prevent frostbite. This is true whether you are indulging in memory-making snowplay, enjoying some winter sports, going on a cold weather hike, standing in line for some holiday sales, camping in the wintertime, or simply shoveling the driveway or doing outdoor maintenance in frigid temperatures,
Important Steps to Prevent Frostbite
Check the Weather Before You Go Outside
When possible, it’s always wise to have a clear perception of what the weather is going to be like in your area before spending prolonged time outside. This is a key to preventing frostbite because different weather elements will determine how much and what kind of preventative gear you need.
There are also times when the weather may simply be too extreme for outdoor activities. Many weather apps and websites will warn users if there is an extreme risk of frostbite, such as in polar vortex cases where frostbite and hypothermia can develop in as little as 15 minutes.
Whatever outdoor excursion you may be planning, always check the weather first. This is especially crucial if you are planning a camping trip, as you many have fewer options to get out of the cold once it sets in.
Ultimately, dressing appropriately in cold weather is the biggest determining factor in how to prevent frostbite. Even in wicked-cold temperatures, proper attire can go a long way toward protecting your body from the freezing weather and staving off frostbite—at least until you can get somewhere warm and sheltered from the elements.
Whatever outdoor activities you have planned in the cold—or whatever unknowns you’re preparing for—it’s wise to make sure your clothing is fit to withstand the elements for at least a moderate duration of time.
Wearing layers is a great method for preventing frostbite. This method helps trap warm air against you at the same time it keeps the dampness away from your skin. Typically, you want to layer this way: moisture-wicking layer, insulating layer, weather-resistant top coat.
In a practical sense, this may look like synthetic, athletic material against your skin to help keep moisture out. Above that, a layer of wool or fleece (these are better insulators than cotton). Finally, you want something waterproof and windproof, such as a parka and ski pants.
Make Sure You Cover Your Hands, Feet, and Face
Appropriate coverings for your hands, feet, and face are as crucial as protecting your core—and oftentimes even more so when it comes to preventing frostbite, as this condition tends to affect the extremities primarily.
Make sure you have thick socks and sturdy, waterproof shoes when venturing out in cold—and especially damp—weather. For your hands, you may want to opt for mittens over gloves, as they tend to be thicker and more insulating.
You can protect your head with lots of different kinds of gear—some of it more fashionable than practical. We recommend wearing a hat with ear flaps, as this will protect your ears from frostbite better than a simple knit cap.
For your face, consider a ski mask if the weather is particularly cold or windy. Otherwise, you can temporarily wrap a scarf around your nose and mouth to keep out the cold.
Check for Any Gaps in Your Clothing
As another element to prevent frosbite, before heading outdoors in cold weather, make sure there are no gaps in your clothing for the cold wind to sneak into. Mittens or gloves should tuck over shirt sleeve cuffs, pants should stuff into boots, and so forth.
It may not always be practical to tuck in everything, but do be aware that gaps in your clothing will become places where frostbite is more liable to start. So you will want to check those areas often for signs of frostbite.
Pace Yourself and Stay Hydrated
If you are hiking, backpacking, playing, or working in the cold (such as shoveling the driveway or doing some exterior housework), it’s important that you pace yourself and always remain hydrated. This is a lesser-known key for how to prevent frostbite, but it’s no less crucial than the other tips on this list. Dehydration actually increases your risk of frostbite quite a bit.
For optimal safety, always drink a glass of water before engaging in outdoor activity in the winter, and avoid dehydrating yourself with alcohol before or during outdoor winter activities. Be sure to take frequent breaks to rewarm your extremities, and rehydrate when you go indoors.
Prepare for Unpredictable Weather and the Elements
Winter weather is known for changing rapidly. Conditions in the cold months can change from tolerable to treacherous in just a matter of hours, so you want to be prepared for that possibility, especially if you are camping or hiking in the cold.
Plunging temperatures and high winds are two of the most renowned culprits for kicking off frostbite. Be sure that in your outdoor gear or your indoor repertoire, you have the proper tools to prevent frostbite in these conditions. This can include having things like extra layers, a ski mask, a fresh change of dry clothes, hand and foot warmers, a thermal blanket, and more.
If you’re planning to camp in the winter, having a knowledge of winter camping survival skills will help you prepare for all kinds of winter weather. You can also plan to have a winter survival kit in your car in the event you are stranded in a winter storm or stalled in cold weather, as these types of scenarios can pose a risk of frostbite as well.
Avoid Getting Wet and Change From Damp Clothes Immediately
Cold, wet clothing in contact with your skin will accelerate the threat of frostbite like you wouldn’t believe. This is why many people experience the early stages of frostnip when immersed in activities like shoveling, hiking, or a snowball fight.
As much as possible, you want to avoid getting wet down to the skin while engaging in outdoor cold weather activities. If you notice your socks or gloves/mittens are damp through, it’s time to change them, even if this may seem inconvenient at the time.
The same goes for shirts, pants, hats, and undergarments. Driest is safest in the cold weather months.
Seek Shelter Quickly as Needed
Frostbite can develop quickly in conditions with high moisture, high winds, and plummeting temperatures. With this in mind, you should always be ready to seek shelter immediately if you encounter unfavorable conditions while out in the cold.
Whether you are camping, hiking, or working or playing outdoors, make sure you have a game plan to prevent frostbite inclement weather. Know your route or area, the shelter options in the region, and how far you are from the indoors and how to get there in whiteout conditions.
Check for Frostbite Every Half-Hour
Frostbite won’t spring on you all at once, but the way it can creep up is equally as insidious as a sudden onset of symptoms. Often, if you aren’t keenly familiar with frostbite, you might miss that the cold you’re experiencing or the numbness in your extremities is the precursor to frostbite until it’s already progressed into worrisome stages.
Even if you believe you’re fully protected from frostbite, it’s important to check every half-hour for new or advancing signs of this condition. If you begin to notice these emergent or worsening symptoms, immediately begin taking action to address them.
Frequently Asked Questions About Preventing Frostbite
What are the stages of frostbite?
As we have mentioned, frostbite doesn’t come on all at once. It gradates through stages, from first to fourth degree. Frostnip presents with redness and often stinging, burning, or throbbing in the extremities, where the skin is still soft.
Frostnip then progresses to superficial frostbite, where skin may by white, yellowish, or graying, and numb, but still soft to the touch, From there, it transitions to deep frostbite, where the skin becomes more grayish and will feel waxy to the touch or strangely firm. In addition, the frostbite victim may experience dizziness and/or confusion and present with a fever.
At this final stage, medical attention is necessary and should be sought immediately.
What should I do if I think I’ve developed frostbite?
If you believe frostbite is occurring, remain calm and seek relief from the elements immediately. From there, you can take steps to treat the frostbite yourself (if superficial) or seek medical aid (if deep). Before venturing out on an outdoor excursion, you should have a plan for contacting help in the event of frostbite.
How do I protect my kids from frostbite?
This is a tough one, because younger kiddos are often more susceptible to frostbite. This can happen due to removing or adjusting clothing for comfort over safety, as well as them being less likely to recognize and address any warning signs of frostbite on their own.
As a preventative measure, check kids’ hands, feet, and faces frequently for dampness, skin redness, or sensitivity while out in the cold. Keep an eye on how they’re wearing their clothing and make sure they do not remove hand coverings, shoes, etc. to make direct contact with snow, ice, or cold water.
For a general safety guideline, bring children indoors after every hour of outdoor winter play to warm up.
Wrapping up How to Prevent Frostbite
Now that you know how to prevent frostbite during your cold weather excursions, it’s time to take your knowledge to the next level. Check out our guide all about winter camping so you can be prepared for all sorts of scenarios that might come up during your winter camping adventures.