How to Avoid Frostbite on Those Long Days OutsidePublished on 12/10/2021 · 8 min readLooking forward to long days in the snow? Ski Expert Kyle O'Donnell explains how to stay warm and avoid frostbite when you're outside all day.
Photo by Oliver Godbold for Dynastar
Winter is my favorite time of year. The air is crisp, the beer is dark, and the often rocky slopes of the alpine are covered in a thick white coat of snow. This is the time of year that I dust off my skis and start looking for new lines to get after. I spend plenty of time exploring the mountains in the summer, but the experience just isn’t the same. The obvious change is the descent. I can cruise down my line in a few minutes, smiling ear to ear as I’m linking my turns. Compare that to a few hours of walking down a rocky slope in the summer, and it seems obvious why winter is my favorite. But the descent isn’t the only upside for me.
In the winter I’m more observant. I spend more time analyzing my surroundings, and that is by design. You have to be very present in the moment to keep yourself safe. I love that focused feeling, and few other experiences provide it for me. Winter travel brings up a whole host of hazards that summer does not. The one that is ever-present and possibly the most dangerous is the cold. Whether you're skiing at the resort, venturing into the backcountry, or snowshoeing along your favorite ridge, you will be out in the elements. You need to be aware of the dangers the cold poses and what you can do to avoid complications. I’m here to share a few decades of knowledge I’ve used to avoid getting frostbite.
What Is Frostbite?
So what is frostbite and how can you tell if you should be worried? If you don’t know what you're looking for, it's awfully hard to avoid. Frostbite is when your skin or the underlying tissue freezes during exposure to cold temperatures. If that sounds painful and unpleasant, that’s because it is. However, there are several steps between a healthy warm hand and painfully frostbitten skin.
Symptoms of Frostbite
Generally, the first thing you’ll notice is your hands are cold (obviously), but if they are exposed for longer periods of time they may begin to tingle. It will feel like the pins-and needles-sensation of your foot falling asleep. A little bit later that tingling is total numbness. All of these symptoms are relatively mild but are good indicators that you have frostnip. The good news, frostnip doesn’t cause permanent damage; the bad news, warming up your hands is probably going to sting a bit.
If you ignore your numb hands and soldier on, you're beginning to risk tissue damage. You might notice your skin changing color or it may appear waxy and hard. You may have trouble manipulating things with your hands and they are probably in quite a bit of pain. The affected skin may feel warm to the touch. This is superficial frostbite and you want to get to a warm place ASAP. You may be tempted to throw a hand warmer on the area, but at this point, direct heat might burn your skin. You need to let them rewarm slowly, preferably in a warm room. Rewarming your hands will probably hurt and you're going to want to call it a day. That tissue has been damaged and re-exposing it to the cold is only going to make it worse. You may notice milky blisters on the affected area the next day. Don’t pop it! It will drain on its own, and popping the blister increases your chance of infection. You're also going to want to see a doctor so they can assess the damage to the hand.
If you stay out even longer, your hand may continue to change color and more serious damage may occur.
After this long list of nasty unpleasant symptoms, it's time for some good news. All of what I mentioned above is very avoidable. I’ve been playing in the mountains my whole life and I’ve kept my hands and skin very healthy. I’ll walk you through what’s worked for me so you can avoid cold injuries while enjoying the winter!
How to Avoid Frostbite
Eat and Hydrate
One of the easiest and most important steps to stave off frostbite before you even step outside is to eat and hydrate. Your body generates heat by burning calories, so a big breakfast before heading out is a great first step to avoid frostbite. Keeping hydrated also allows for better circulation, meaning your body's extremities will stay warmer, even as the temperature drops. To stave off dehydration, it's also important to avoid heavy alcohol consumption. Even though that whiskey feels like it’s warming you up, it’s actually causing you to lose heat at an even faster rate.
You also want to make sure you're dressed properly for cold weather. Generally, this means a base layer, an insulating mid-layer or two, and an outer shell layer that will keep the wind and the snow out. You want to be warm enough to feel comfortable but not so warm that you're sweating through your layers. This may take a little trial and error, as some of us tend to run hotter than others. Maybe you only need a thin fleece over your base layers to feel warm. Maybe you're wearing two puffy coats to feel comfortable. Something like the Patagonia Nano Puff is a great warm mid-layer for the hill. Conditions will also play a huge part in what layers you’ll need, as colder days will need extra layers for example.
Equally as important is what your layers are made of. If it's made of cotton it is not appropriate for winter use. If cotton gets wet, it will rob your body of heat and rapidly accelerate the onset of frostbite. Synthetics, Merino wool, and most fleece are great to use as an insulating layer. Down can also be great if it’s kept dry. For your outer shell, you want something waterproof. GORE-TEX and the myriad of other waterproof fabrics on the market are great for keeping moisture out and keeping your clothes dry.
Cover Exposed Skin
On top of your layering system, you're going to want to cover areas of exposed skin. Direct exposure to the elements makes skin far more susceptible to the cold and frostbite. You’ll want a hat that covers your ears, and gloves or mittens that cover your wrists. This may seem obvious, but that isn’t the only place your skin may be exposed.
Covering your nose, cheeks and chin can be equally as important on bitterly cold days. Face masks are an excellent way to protect this area. The spot more people tend to miss is the gap between the top of your goggles and the helmet. That exposed skin is equally as susceptible and should be protected on cold days. Making sure your helmet and goggles are tight together, will save you from painfully thawing out your forehead in the lodge.
Bring Spare Gloves and Socks
No matter how cold it gets, your hands and feet will sweat a bit. Your socks and gloves tend to be the first thing to get wet, and wet clothes can cause a more rapid onset of frostbite. Keeping a spare pair of socks and gloves in your bag can be a lifesaver on cold days. Switching your damp gloves and socks for dry ones will keep you way warmer and way less susceptible to frostbite. Even on days where I’m skiing in the backcountry, I carry a spare set of warm gloves and socks. In case you’re wondering, yes, I have stopped to change my socks during a tour. It was cold and the creek crossing was spicier than expected!
Take Lodge Breaks
A few extra runs aren’t worth permanently damaging your skin. If you notice your hands going numb or discolored skin, go inside, grab a coffee, and hang out with your friends in the lodge. Have those friends take a look at your face every once in a while too. If they see discolored skin or other signs of frostbite while you're on the hill, they can tell you. You can work with one another to keep each other safe on cold days.
If the lodge isn’t an option for warming up, you need to keep moving. Physical activity will generate heat and increase blood flow to your extremities. This will keep your susceptible fingers and toes more protected from cold injury. Running in place, jumping jacks, or vigorously shaking your arm and legs will also warm them up. It may look a bit ridiculous, but that moment of embarrassment is infinitely better than frostbitten fingers.
If all else fails, skin-to-skin contact is the most effective way to warm up your hands. Stick your bare hands in your armpits or between your thighs. These two areas have large blood vessels fairly close to the surface and that means they are both very warm. Skin to skin is the key part of this. If you're trying to do this over your layers it won’t work. If you have a really good friend nearby, they can warm your hands in their armpits as well. You're probably gonna owe them a huge favor after that though!
If you take the time to properly prepare for a cold day on the mountain, you shouldn’t have to awkwardly use your friend's armpits as a space heater. Eat a good meal, pack the right layers, and take breaks to warm up. If you do all of that, you can have a great day on the hill, without frostbite rearing its ugly head!
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