If you’re outside in freezing temperatures, you’re at risk for both frostbite and hypothermia. “Frostbite is the more immediate hazard, while hypothermia might be secondary, but more deadly,” explains Rob Gowler, operations and staffing manager for Alaska Mountaineering School and founder of Gowler Gear and Designs.
Although skin freezes at or below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, frostbite is rare above 18 to 20 degrees. “Any area of the body can sustain frostbite if exposed directly to cold enough temperatures (usually below 15 degrees),” explains Ken Zafren, medical advisor for the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group. “Areas of the body that are most susceptible to frostbite are fingers, toes, ears and nose. Frostbite of the penis has also been reported.”
So, if you didn’t plan ahead and find yourself in a frozen pickle, Gowler and Zafren suggest the following:
KEEP MOVING: Don't move so much as to make yourself sweat, but enough to keep your core body temperature from dropping. “By keeping your body's core warm, your extremities will stay warmer,” Gowler says.
EAT AND DRINK: If you have food and water, eat and drink. “Food will give your body calories to burn to keep your ‘furnace’ going, and the water will obviously help keep you hydrated—which is a whole other topic in itself, but trust me,hydration is important,” Gowler says. “Even if it's cold water, drink it.”
KEEP THE BLOOD FLOWING: Any skin that is exposed is in more danger of freezing, especially the fingers, toes, ears, and nose, as blood has a harder time finding these far-from-the-heart places. Swing your hands and feet to force warm blood into your fingers and toes. “Tuck your hands under your armpits or stuff them into your pants,” Gowler advises.
COVER UP: Do what you can to shield your face from the wind. “Wind chill does not change the temperatures required to produce frostbite but increases the rate of cooling and decreases the exposure time needed to cause frostbite at a given temperature,” Zafren says. “At very cold temperatures, frostbite can occur in less than a minute.”
INSULATE: If you’re in the snow, try to insulate yourself from the cold ground. Use whatever you have on hand—dead branches, your backpack, etc. “If you do end of sleeping out with just a tarp, for example, wrap your whole body, feet included, inside the tarp like a burrito,” Gowler says. “Be careful of spending the whole night breathing into your burrito wrap as that will make everything inside wet from your breathing.”
LOOSEN UP: Loosen your laces. “Boots that are too tight or socks that are too thick for boots (or an extra pair of socks) compress the foot and restrict circulation,” Zafren explains. “Since warm blood is the main thing keeping feet warm, boots and socks should not be too tight.”
To sum things up, Gowler quotes Daryl Miller, his good friend and longtime climbing ranger at Denali National Park: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
“That is a good adage for us all to keep in mind when venturing out into the wilderness or anywhere outdoors,” Gowler says. Check the weather, plan ahead, and stay safe.