How Not to Get Frostbite

Posted by: Molly Herber on 12/9/15 11:11 AM

Winter is a time for all sorts of amazing activities—skiing, snowshoeing, curling—but cold weather brings its own special hazards.

Frostbite is one of the most common injuries you’ll see when it gets cold, so here’s how to avoid it according to the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Book.

Editor's Note: many of these principles are also helpful for avoiding hypothermia.

Enjoying Winter
Photo by Adam Swisher.

Cover your skin

Exposure to cold temperatures and biting wind is an easy way to get frostbite. By covering up with jackets, pants, neck gaiters, hats, and gloves, you will protect yourself from the cold and also help your body retain its heat.

Stay dry

It’s easy to get wet when you’re playing outside, usually from sweating or from getting snow in your boots and under your layers. But getting wet makes you much more susceptible to the cold. Avoid getting too sweaty by wearing appropriate layers, not too many or too few, and keep snow out by wearing gaiters over your boots and keeping jackets zipped.

Keep your core warm

When your core (your torso) is warm, your blood circulates easily throughout your body. But when your core gets cold, your body tries to protect your vital organs by restricting the flow of blood to your extremities, leaving them suscepetible to frostbite. Keep your core warm by wearing several layers of non-cotton clothing and keeping yourself moving when you’re in a cold environment.

Pay attention to your extremities

When you start getting cold, you begin to lose feeling, and it can be easy to stop paying attention to how your fingers and toes are feeling. Notice when your extremities are cold or go numb, and stop to check them if you suspect you’re getting too cold.

Avoid restrictive clothing

Tight clothing, tightly laced boots, or remaining too long in a cramped position can restrict your blood circulate, making it difficult to keep your body warm. Make sure your clothes fit properly, you haven’t laced your boots too tightly, and stay moving!

Monitor yourself and your friends

It can be difficult for someone to tell whether their own nose is cold or has gone numb. Observe your group and check in with them regularly when you're in a cold environment. If you notice pale spots on their face—an early sign of frostbite—stop immediately to cover and warm up the exposed area.

Be proactive about staying warm

The line between cold and “too cold” is thin, and has high consequences if you don’t stop soon enough to warm up when you start getting cold. To avoid frostbite, stay away from that line! Dress appropriately to stay warm and, if you're getting cold, take action steps to get warm, like changing out of wet clothing, exercising, and snacking.

With a little planning and self-awareness, you'll have a great time playing outside this winter!

Learn to treat frostbite, hypothermia, and more in a wilderness setting with NOLS.

Staying Warm while Backcountry Skiing
Photo by Jared Steinman.


Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber