Cold weather brings with it many inherent risks and one of the most serious risks that preppers will have to face is exposure.
One particular danger in extremely cold temperatures or wet conditions is the danger of frostbite, the freezing of body tissues. Particularly vulnerable parts of the body are the extremities, namely the fingers and toes, ears, nose and other parts of the face.
How does one protect extremities from the dangers of intense cold?
Proper layering, keeping dry, utilizing chemical or electric warming devices and limiting exposure at times of highest risk are the best ways to avoid frostbite affecting the extremities. Also make sure youstay hydrated, get proper nutrition, and avoid alcohol.
Frostbite is an ever-present risk and is particularly likely to affect the furthest reaches of our body.
Permanent damage is never out of the question and so you need to be forearmed if you are going to fend off this insidious threat. In the remainder of this article we will arm you with the knowledge needed to do just that.
Table of Contents
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite is a particular kind of cold injury that affects the skin occurring when skin is exposed to temperatures low enough, long enough, that the skin itself and other body tissues freeze.
As mentioned, this most typically affects the extremities, particularly fingers, toes, ears and other parts of the face. Frostbite is treatable but severe frostbite will result in many complications.
Frostbite actually causes damage due to the formation of ice crystals in the affected tissues. Additionally, blood will usually clot whenever the affected tissues warm up, if they warm up, leading to a variety of secondary complications.
The symptoms of frostbite begin with a comparatively mild burning pain and progress through numbness, swelling and reddening of the affected area. In more severe cases blistering may occur early in the onset and tissue will harden, afterwards drying and blackening.
And the worst cases of frostbite the skin may take on a blue or grayish tinge and feel very hard and painless to the touch.
For anything more than mild frostbite surgery is sometimes required to prevent further damage. Although amputation is commonly associated with frostbite injuries this does not always occur even in serious instances, and furthermore time must be taken after recovery has begun to see which tissues recover and which do not.
In such cases that amputation is necessary the affected tissue or digit may actually auto-amputate.
Conditions Conducive to Frostbite
Long-term exposure from comparatively mild cold weather temperatures may still result in death, but it is only when temperatures close in on 0° F (-17° C) that frostbite becomes a constant and major concern.
When temperatures are bitterly cold, and especially in wet conditions or sustained winds, frostbite can attack exposed tissues in minutes.
You must be especially cautious anytime you are outside in near-zero degree (F) temperatures, anytime there are sustained winds further lowering the temperature due to wind chill, or you are perspiring heavily or have otherwise gotten wet.
Any one of these things is bad enough, but combining two or even three factors means that frostbite is all but a certainty! Beyond the weather and other ambient conditions there are additional factors that can increase your risk of suffering from frostbite.
Additional Risk Factors
Aside from direct exposure to very low temperatures, additional risk factors that can increase the chances of frostbite are poor or lack of shelter, inadequate clothing, poor circulation, immobilization and malnutrition.
Frostbite also typically affects people between the ages of 30 and 50, though the very young and very old will often suffer from frostbite more quickly (and more pronounced symptoms) due to their poor circulation.
Pre-existing health conditions, dehydration, and the use of tobacco or alcohol can increase the risk of frostbite due to the restriction of circulation. In short, anything that reduces mobility or impairs circulation should be avoided or mitigated if at all possible!
Preventing frostbite is especially important because many people won’t even know frostbite has begun to set in due to a loss of sensation, sustained numbness and minimal pain.
For this reason a keen understanding of the symptoms and rigid adherents to frostbite prevention and treatment protocols will be essential for preventing severe cases.
First, you must always be a specialty protective of any exposed skin or tissue, and particularly protective of your extremities.
Understand what the initial phases of frostbite look like, typically a red and blotchy appearance accompanied by a stinging or burning sensation, a prickly feeling or a throbbing, dull pain.
The cessation of these symptoms might actually mean that frostbite is getting worse, not better; you just cannot feel it worsening due to numbness!
Any skin that appears waxy, feels unusually firm or hard or has a distinct pallor to it is probably already frostbitten. If you notice this has occurred take action immediately to remediate the situation if circumstances and objective permit.
Your best defenses against frostbite are proper, cold weather rated clothing and correct layering.
Often a triple layered approach is best, with your innermost or base layer consisting of a lightweight moisture wicking layer followed by a comparatively loose, light and fluffy mid layer that will trap warm air against your body and finally an outer layer that will serve as a wind and moisture blocking shell.
You must diligently protect your hands, feet, face and the rest of your head from cold, which is often where frostbite will strike first. Boots should be waterproof, insulated and oversized to allow the wearing of two layers of socks.
You should choose mittens over gloves since this allows the fingers to share warmth. A quality hat and scarf or face wrap is essential for protecting the nose, cheeks, ears and chin. Consider goggles in the harshest temperatures.
If you have access to chemical or electric hand and foot warmers they should be used as much as resources allow, especially in the coldest periods. Lastly, take care to avoid getting wet and change out of wet clothing or dry it out rapidly at all costs since this will rapidly facilitate frostbite in cold weather. Also you must take care to sharply limit exposure to cold temperatures.
Mistakes to Avoid
There are a couple of common mistakes that you should take care to avoid when preparing for and dealing with frostbite.
First, you must ensure that no clothing is too tight, especially if it is tight due to layering. Tight clothing restricts circulation, fast-tracking frostbite, and usually occurs when adding layers of gloves or socks.
Next, don’t be afraid to change out of clothing that has gotten wet. Some people will allow wet parts of their body or clothing to persist in the cold, typically dooming the affected areas to frostbite while keeping the rest of their body warm.
It sure doesn’t feel very good to lose your accumulated warmth, but I promise that frostbite will feel worse. The sooner you can get out of that wet clothing the better.
Lastly, don’t give in to the temptation to sit down or stay still when you get cold.
If you keep moving and keep your blood pumping you can stave off frostbite but you must be doubly cautious that you are not exerting yourself to such a degree that you perspire heavily because this will soak your skin, then your clothing and chill you.
Also be sure to avoid alcohol. A nip of alcohol like schnapps is seen as a traditional method for alleviating winter’s chill, but it will result in your body losing heat faster, the last thing you want in a cold weather exposure situation. If you need to warm up a little bit treat yourself to a cup of hot cocoa or a warm mug of soup.
Exposure to extreme cold weather means that the risk of frostbite is going to be ever present.
Protecting your extremities from intense cold, particularly the toes fingers, face and head is imperative and to do that you’ll need to follow correct procedure and prepare accordingly for facing weather of this magnitude.
Frostbite has a way of sneaking up even on skilled, prepared adventurers so you’ll need to be diligent if you want to avoid the sting of winter.