Hypothermia occurs when your body runs out of energy to keep your body warm. When exposed to frigid temperatures, your body starts rattling like an old engine struggling up a hill, in response to the extra work needed to pump blood to the brain. Climb that hill too long, and your body will no longer be able to supply the energy needed to keep warm, resulting in a break down on the side of the road.
Frostbite is a cold injury to your body tissue. It typically manifests in extremities such as fingers, toes, and your nose as the temperature of your tissue drops and causes restricted bloodflow.
There is nothing funny about hypothermia or frostbite, and it doesn’t take much exposure to cold temperatures for your body to show signs.
Here’s a winter walk-through for the prevention, recognition, and treatment of both hypothermia and frostbite:
As is usually the case, good prevention means good planning. Know before you go what temperatures you are dealing with, and what clothes you need to pack and wear. See the gear guide below for a basic understanding of a layering system, and follow the rest of these tips:
- Dress in Layers: let your clothes do the work of keeping you warm.
- Stay Dry: pack backup clothes for emergency situations in the backcountry. Don’t get caught in freezing weather with wet clothes.
- Protect from the Elements: water-proof and wind-proof are always good signs in snowy conditions.
- Eat High Energy Snacks and Drink Water: give your body the fuel that it needs.
- Move Around: keep the blood circulating and keep yourself warm.
Frostbite can occur to any skin left exposed to cold conditions, or any skin not adequately covered in frigid conditions. Most often it’s the hands, feet, and nose and serve as sign to find shelter asap. Redness, pain, numbness, and a grayish-yellow skin tone are all signs of frostbite, and can lead to the more serious symptoms of hypothermia:
- Shivering: Mild to begin with, convulsive to end with it.
- Slurred Speech
- Loss of Coordination, especially in hands
- Confusion or Drowsiness
- Irritable Behavior
And, according to the CDC, there are groups of people that are more susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia. So if you fall into one of their four categories, make sure to bundle up:
- Elderly People with Inadequate food, clothing, heating
- Babies in Cold Rooms
- People who Remain Outdoors for Long Periods of Time: Homeless & Hikers
- People who Drink or Use Illicit Drugs
For both frostbite and hypothermia, seek medical attention from a professional immediately. After medical attention has been called or contacted, follow these guidelines for treating frostbite:
- Get into a warm room or area
- Avoid using frostbitten toes or fingers due to potential nerve damage.
- Immerse effected appendages in warm (not hot) water.
- Or, warm through body heat found in your armpits, knee-pits, and crotch.
- Do not rub or massage the effected area or use heating pad or radiator to avoid potential nerve damage.
And for Hypothermia:
- Move victim to shelter, gently if unconscious.
- Remove wet clothes and replace with warm.
- If conscious, supply with warm (not hot) beverage.
- If conscious and able, get circulation moving with light exercise.
- If unconscious, wrap in warm sleeping bag and insulate the body.
Layering System for Clothing
A good way to go while cruising in cold weather is a layering system. Start with base-layers made of wool or synthetics that can take care of sweat and moisture, and top it off with a water-resistant and windproof heavy coat. Check out this basic layering system for chilly winter days:
- Synthetic or Wool Long Underwear
- Thick Wool Socks with Optional Sock Liner
- Waterproof Boots with Insulation
- Water Resistant Pants, or Insulated Snow Pants Depending on the Weather/Activity
- Wool or Synthetic Long Sleeve Upper-Body Base Layer
- 1,2,3, 4…Layers Consisting of Fleeces, Micro-Puffs, Sweaters, Long Sleeve Cotton Tees, Sweatshirts, or Blouses (depending on how low the temperature is)
- Synthetic, Waterproof, Windproof, & Insulated Full-Zip Jacket with Optional Hood
- Face Mask, Balaclava, or Bandana for Windy Days or Frigid Temperatures.
- Gloves, Mittens, and Glove Liners – All Three if it’s Cold Enough.
- Wool Hat and Something to Cover Your Ears
- Sunglasses or Goggles if the Conditions are Bright
Surviving Under Ice
And for the YouTube viewers out there, a good video is floating around the web-o-sphere of Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, A.K.A. Dr. Ice, as he explains and demonstrates proper technique for surviving once you’ve broken through thin ice. Check it out for yourself:
Resources and Additional Information
Appalachian Mountain Club: How to Recognize Hypothermia
Center for Disease Control and Prevention — Hypothermia
Center for Disease Control and Prevention — Frostbite
Oregon Public Health — Frostbite