Winter is a time for all sorts of amazing activities—skiing, snowboarding, curling—but cold weather brings its own special hazards. One of the most common first aid situations you’ll see when it gets cold is frostbite.
What Is Frostbite?
Frostbite is the freezing of tissue, commonly seen on fingers, toes, and ears, which causes cellular damage as ice crystals between cells rub together or blood clots stop circulation in small blood vessels. It can be caused by cold stress, low temperatures, moisture, poor insulation, contact with supercooled metal or gasoline, or interference with blood circulation.
Frostbite is classified into stages as superficial frostbite, or frostnip, partial-thickness frostbite, and deep or full-thickness frostbite (many experts classify frostbite only after it has thawed and the extent of damage is apparent). While frostbite isn't life threatening, it can have serious results, such as loss of function and amputation.
What Can I Do to Prevent Frostbite?
Here are 7 ways you can prevent frostbite when you're adventuring outside in winter (many of these principles are also helpful for preventing hypothermia).
1. 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.
2. 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. Keep snow out by wearing gaiters over your boots and keeping jackets zipped.
3. 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 susceptible 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.
4. 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.
5. Avoid restrictive clothing
Tight clothing, tightly laced boots, or remaining too long in a cramped position can restrict your blood circulation, 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.
6. 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 someone's face—an early sign of frostbite—stop immediately to cover and warm up the exposed area.
7. 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.
Learn to recognize and assess the stages of frostbite and how you can treat them on a NOLS Wilderness Medicine course.
Editor's note: Post updated 12/17/2018
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