Cold Weather Injury Protection
Traveling in cold weather conditions can be life threatening!
The information I am including here is for educational purposes and should never be considered a substitute for proper training or even experience in the field. I am not a doctor or a professor or any sort of professional in cold related injury or prevention. I am an avid outdoorsman who, through experience and study has learned about the values or protecting yourself this time of year. With that being said information changes and new practices and gear are being offered every year, you should do your own research and try out different gear to see what works best for you. I am not licensed or certified to teach cold injury treatment, I recommend a course in Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder.
Hypothermia is "a decrease in the core body temperature to a level at which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired." There are several things that can lead up to hypothermia such as: cold temperatures, improper clothing, getting wet, exhaustion, dehydration, lack of food, and drinking alcohol. The fact is anything less than 98.6 degrees could potentially be linked to hypothermia, but the colder it gets the higher the potential and acceleration of that potential.
As outdoor enthusiasts we are susceptible to hypothermia all year-round through all forms of cold temperature transfer such as:
- Evaporation, when the sweat on our body cools
- Conduction, being in contact with the cold element
- Convection, cold wind above tree line
- Radiation, cold air temperature differences
Prevention has a lot to do with your preparation and knowledge of hypothermia and the signs of an onset. Watch for the “umbles” is what I was always taught, stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles which show changes in motor coordination and levels of consciousness and awareness. Shivering will become involuntary and the ability to do some activates will be limited, but the victim may still be able to walk.
There are a few factors in susceptibility to hypothermia that in many cases you might not have control over. A thinner person is more apt to get cold and lose core body temperature faster than a bigger person due to a lack of natural insulation from fat. A person living in cold temperate climates like Alaska are more apt to be able withstand colder temperatures than a person living in Hawaii, due to that person’s body regulations. Proper layering is the one you have the most control over and should not be ignored or skimped on. See my previous blogs on layering basics, layering the core and layering the head for more in depth information.
Cold Appendages, Frost Nip and Frostbite
These are the three stages for a second cold weather injury and one that is seen much more often. This injury is seen mostly to the appendages (fingers and toes, nose, ears, cheeks, etc...).
- Cold reaction, which is the pale look your skin gets when it is too cold, this should be a good warning to cover up your exposed skin. The area could be a bit numb and should be very uncomfortable.
- Frost nip is the freezing of the top layer of skin and attention is needed ASAP to avoid any further damage. The damage can be fixed at this point but you may become more susceptible to cold injury in that area in the future. Rewarm the area gently and DO NOT RUB the affected area. Ice crystals have started to form under the skin and they can cause damage to the tissue. Placing the affected area in a warm region of the body like an armpit or on the stomach of a partner works great. If using a partner it is best to get the permission of the partner first.
- Frost bite is when all layers of the skin are frozen, and with advanced frost bite some muscle and bone. It is very likely to have some permanent damage once this advanced frost bite sets in. You can use the same technique as for frost nip to rewarm the area, but it is very important to get out of the woods and seek medical treatment.
These three cold injuries happen due to some of the same reasoning as for hypothermia.
- Evaporation - when the sweat on our body cools very quickly. Spilling fuel on a bare hand can cause a super cooling effect through evaporation which can cause almost instant frost nip or even frost bite, always wear gloves when in contact with this potential danger.
- Conduction - being in contact with the cold element. Such as, holding or touching bare metal for too long a time.
- Convection - cold wind above tree line. Exposed skin is the first to be affected. Cheeks, ears and the forehead. Even exposed time while trying to take pictures without a liner on your hands.
- Radiation - cold air temperature differences throughout an extended period of time.
Injuries to the face, ears, and nose are typically due to exposure and not being covered. Balaclavas are an excellent source of protection and are lightweight and comfortable. Injuries to the hands are sometimes due to prolonged exposure, but in many cases it's directly related to the hands becoming wet. A pair of waterproof, breathable gloves and/or mitts are essential in the pack as well as glove liners. The glove liners add warmth and protection when you need to remove the outer glove to take a picture or wipe your goggles. The feet most often get injured because they get wet from either water or sweat. Carry a spare pair of socks and a grocery bag (vapor barrier) just in case. Don’t skimp on the footwear, they are always in contact with the snow and cold surfaces, they need to be warm, broken in, waterproof and sized correctly.
To prevent these injuries you should considered reading previous posts on layering basics, layering for the hands and layering for the feet. There is much more, in-depth information in those posts, important information that everyone should know before venturing out.
Hypothermia and frost related injuries are the most commonly reported in the Adirondacks, and with recent arctic temperatures - and the stubbornness of outdoor enthusiasts like me to go out and play anyhow - you should know what you’re getting into. Prevention is the best medicine they say, and that is the truth. But equally so is experience and education. The difference here is education can be done in the warmth of a class room, but I don’t recommend it. Take a wilderness medicine course in the winter with hands-on activities and scenarios outside. I took the Wilderness First Responder through SOLO in January and February, it was ridiculously cold with mornings below zero, we went out anyhow – priceless education. Experience obviously comes from being outside in the winter; start small and close to home if you feel uncomfortable. Your first winter outdoor experience should not be on the biggest and most difficult peak 15 miles back in the woods, but on a half day hike or ski. I could go on for quite some time on cold weather injuries, scenarios, do’s and don’ts but let this be a start in a never ending educational process that should always continue evolving.
Need more information on layering, seek out a local gear shop for more detail or better yet, seek out a local guide service for details on an introduction to winter mountaineering, skiing, hiking or snowshoeing. Getting cold just from reading this? Lake Placid has plenty of places to warm up and get a hot meal to warm you from the inside out.