Any activities undertaken in extremely cold weather, to say nothing of a legitimate survival situation in cold conditions, is one of the most grueling and serious things that any prepper might undergo.
Cold weather is sneaky and has a way of wearing you down and incapacitating you before you know you’re in real trouble. One of the most common cold weather injuries is frostbite, particularly when it happens to the extremities on the hands, feet and face.
How should you protect your fingers, toes and other body parts from frostbite?
You’ll need to make use of proper clothing and layer it correctly, keep yourself dry and from sweating too much, and limit your exposure to hostile conditions, while diligently checking on people and body parts that are at the greatest risk.
This is naturally the short answer, and since frostbite is so insidious, so common and so potentially serious you would be wise to brush up on every procedure and every trick you can use to prevent it, both for yourself and for other people who might be in your group. Keep reading to learn more.
Frostbite Symptoms and Signs
Just what is frostbite? Frostbite is a category of a cold related injury that occurs when body tissues freeze. You read that right, and I mean freezing complete with ice crystal formation and the whole nine yards.
Frostbite typically occurs in the extremities of the body, with the digits of the fingers and toes being particularly vulnerable as are the extremities of the face like the chin, nose, cheeks and ears.
There are several grades of frostbite but they all have ice crystal formation as a common feature, and when tissues begin to thaw there are usually additional complications such as compartment syndrome, blood clotting and loss of sensation or persistent pain due to nerve damage.
Frostbite generally follows a progression depending upon how deep the freezing action occurs, with first degree frostbite being only the upper and outermost layers of the skin with fourth degree frostbite being muscle and other tissues closest to the bone.
Frostbite typically sets in with numbness or a burning, prickling pain and then often leads to swelling and a reddening or splotchy redness on the affected area. More severe frostbite will lead to the skin firming up, hardening or actually blistering early on with the characteristic dried, blackened or mummified appearance setting in later.
The worst case is a frostbite will see the affected area take on a distinct blue gray color and feel very hard and sensation-less when touched.
Treating frostbite is mostly a manner of warming up the affected area but for any cases more significant than mild first degree frostbite surgery might be indicated.
In the worst cases amputation might be required to prevent sepsis, infection and further tissue death.
It should be noted that you should not warm up any area affected by frostbite until you are certain that the area can be prevented from freezing again. A “double tap” of frostbite leads to drastically worse tissue damage.
When Is Someone at Most Risk of Frostbite?
As you are probably expecting anytime you’re exposed to ferocious cold you could be at risk of frostbite.
Though it is true that exposure to even relatively cool conditions could put someone at risk of hypothermia given enough time frostbite only becomes a problem when the temperature starts dropping close to 0°Fahrenheit.
This can be further aggravated by wet or damp conditions, clothing or skin and sustained winds of any speed, with stiff, strong winds being particularly problematic.
And frostbite is not one of those problems that is out there on your survival horizon, either. When conditions are just right and cold enough frostbite can take effect in minutes, attacking exposed skin with ferocity.
What are Additional Risk Factors?
Though everyone can suffer from frostbite it will not affect everybody equally under the same conditions. Things like overall health, age, fitness (or lack thereof) and adequacy of gear and clothing will all make a difference.
Factors that can make you more vulnerable to frostbite include a lack of or inadequate cold weather clothing, poor shelter or a lack of shelter, poor circulation resulting from incidental or ongoing health conditions, lack of mobility, dehydration, malnutrition and being very young or very old.
Also, perhaps not incidentally, habitual tobacco and alcohol consumption also make people more vulnerable to frostbite.
How Can I Prevent Frostbite?
As mentioned above preventing frostbite might be simple, but it is rarely easy. One of the single, biggest dangers with frostbite is it taking hold without the victim knowing they are in real danger.
This is because the cold often numbs people to the worst of the pain and other effects, making it easier to just keep pressing on when you should be aborting and taking steps to remediate the condition.
Preventing frostbite can only be done through a combination of having adequate gear, paying attention to your condition and the condition of others and strict adherents to correct protocols regarding exposure and treatment.
Assuming you have to be out in the cold for whatever reason, your first and most important step is to properly clothe yourself for the weather.
As any experienced mountaineer, skier or other cold weather adventurer will tell you, this is best accomplished by layering your clothing and doing so in the correct order.
First, closest to your skin, you want a snug moisture wicking layer that will evacuate sweat off of your skin to allow it to evaporate.
Second, a loser, fluffier and puffier layer that will trap warm air against your body keeping you toasty in spite of the frigid air around you.
Lastly, a weatherproof moisture proof shell that will block air, snow and rain allowing you to hang on to that valuable warm air.
The extremities in particular must be protected carefully by proper clothing choices. You should clad your hands and mittens, not gloves, as gloves prevent the fingers from sharing warmth between them.
Similarly, your feet should be shod and proper snow boots that are oversized to accommodate two or even three pairs of socks and preferably a chemical or electric foot warmer.
Your face is also particularly vulnerable and you’ll need proper cold weather headgear, a large scarf or a specialized face wrap to protect your cheeks, nose and ears.
Do not discount the value of hand and foot warmers, either. Be they electric or chemical in operation they might be your best defense against frostbite so long as their energy source lasts.
They could be especially important for periods of prolonged exposure or just exposure to brutal temperatures.
But, assuming you are staying outside frostbite will eventually catch up to. This is why it is so important that you and other members in your group are well acquainted with the signs and symptoms of frostbite.
Frostbite initially comes on as a stinging, throbbing, skin crawling or dull pain. It is sometimes described as a burning sensation or prickly feeling. If this is occurring on the extremities or any exposed skin this should be a “warning bell” that frostbite is closing in.
Should these sensations cease that does not mean you are out of danger, as it might just mean that you have gone numb to the pain and frostbite is progressing!
Also keep an eye out for any tissue that feels strangely hard or firm to the touch and takes on a waxy, pale or discolored appearance. This in all likelihood means that frostbite has already taken hold.
Don’t Make These Mistakes
Screwing up your preparations can make you or someone else more vulnerable to frostbite. Take care that clothing does not become too tight or constricting as this will impair circulation and make your extremities significantly more prone to freezing. Also never wait to get out of clothing that is soaked with sweat or water.
Also, however fun and merry it might be to have a few drinks while you are out in a winter wonderland you should avoid alcohol in cold weather because it promotes more rapid heat loss.
Cold weather exposure presents countless hazards and survival challenges to even the most prepared people but one of the most persistent is the risk of frostbite.
Since frostbite typically attacks the extremities on the hands, feet and face you must prepare accordingly with adequate cold weather clothing and a dogged adherence to correct procedure in order to prevent it from sneaking up on you.
Make sure you’ll still be able to count to 20 on hands and feet by following the tips and this article.