Did you hear that it snowed in 49 of the 50 States one day recently? It’s cold out. When the temperature gets down into the single digits, frostbite occurs easily. If you are participating in an activity, like skiing, where there is fairly rapid movement involved, it becomes even easier to freeze your skin.
Frostbite is the freezing of skin tissue. If you’ve ever had white spots on your cheeks, the tip of your nose, or ears, you have experienced the early stages of frostbite. Some people will call this frost nip, as if giving it a cute name means it’s not painful or harmful. Consider the little white spots a warning and take action to warm the skin and prevent further damage.
When most people get cold toes and fingers, it’s common to want warmer footwear or gloves. This is logical. When it’s the face that’s cold, most people pull up their neck gaiter or put on a scarf. While this is somewhat effective, it is not addressing the real issue behind the chill.
There are two key ingredients to keeping your extremities warm in extremely cold temperatures: maintain a warm core temperature, and stay hydrated.
It may not make sense to put on another layer under your jacket when feet are cold – but that’s exactly what should be done first. The body is an ingenious system. If the entire system is cold, it will prioritize where the blood flows to keep those parts from freezing. Simply put, it will let the fingers and toes die in an effort to save the organs that are essential to life. Keeping the major organs and large masses of tissue warm will allow the body to pump warm blood further from the core.
One of my favorite tools for staying warm when it is really cold is to put on a pair of shorts. No kidding. Take a pair of old soft shell pants and cut the legs just above the knees. When it’s ridiculously cold this is a great layer because it insulates some big muscle groups with a lot of blood. And it does it without adding bulk between your knees and boots. It’s a huge help on chairlifts.
Of course, all these clothes won’t help a bit if dehydration is an issue. The body needs to be running well for proper circulation to occur. The worst frostbite I have ever experienced was on a trip to China in January. I was on the Mongolia – China border and it was legitimately cold with a steady breeze. For most of the trip I was managing surprisingly well. Then one day, after a long night with the locals and their favorite homemade grain alcohol, I couldn’t stay warm for the life of me – almost literally. The weather was the same, the clothes were the same, but my body was out of order. I paid the price.
It’s winter. And it’s cold. You should still go outside to play. Keep your core warm and topped up with fluids and your toes will thank you.
Brooks Range Ambassador