There’s a trail of blood in the snow. You’re following the tracks. You have cold feet but you want to find the animal before it gets dark. You keep walking. Your toes go numb, but you keep going. But how far is too far?
Nature often requires us to push ourselves, but it’s important to know our physical limits. I learned this lesson the hard way and it literally cost me a million dollars.
What is freezing?
Frostbite is a cold-related injury in which body tissues in the affected area freeze. Similar to burns, there are multiple levels of frostbite based on varying degrees of cellular damage. Frostnip is the first stage of the condition, followed by shallow and deep frostbite.
Frostbite can affect any part of your body that is exposed to extreme cold for too long. Extremities such as the ears, nose, cheeks, fingers and toes are the most susceptible. When subjected to cold, blood vessels throughout the body constrict to conserve heat, so the body prioritizes keeping the core warm over the extremities. This is why they are more likely to freeze.
With frostbite, the temporary near-freezing of tissues, the skin turns red, cool to the touch, and may begin to feel numb. Detection of color changes may be more difficult in people with darker skin. If you heat the skin soon after, there will be no permanent damage. If you experience frostbite, continued exposure to cold can result in the next stage: superficial frostbite.
With superficial frostbite, ice crystals begin to form inside the skin as it freezes. This injury will cause permanent damage to the affected tissue. At this stage, the skin may feel hot and itchy. The skin may also appear white and fluid-filled blisters may appear.
With deep frostbite, also called full-thickness frostbite, the skin may feel numb again. Large blisters will form, and the tissue will often turn black and hard as it dies.
With shallow and deep frostbite, you don’t want to rewarm the skin if there’s any chance the tissue will refreeze.
What to do if it freezes
If you experience frostbite, rewarm your skin as soon as possible. Be careful of overheating near a fire. It’s hard to tell if you’re burning if the affected area is numb. It’s safer to warm your hands or feet in a friend’s armpits or stomach. If you’re alone, get into a sleeping bag with a hot water bottle or hot stone. Be sure to wrap hot objects in wool so you don’t burn yourself.
If you have reached frostbite territory and there is a chance that the damaged tissue will refreeze, then you should not reheat the injury. The freezing and thawing process results in aggravated damage that exacerbates the problem.
Rewarming in the field is often difficult because the correct process requires submerging the affected area in a container of water at a recommended water temperature of 98.6 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. In most cases, the best thing to do is get off the field and treat the cold injury in a controlled environment.
How to prevent frostbite
The best ways to prevent frostbite may seem obvious: dress appropriately and keep warm. But this may be easier said than done. Changes in weather, vehicle accidents, navigational errors, and other unexpected circumstances can result in longer-than-anticipated exposure to the elements. With that in mind, here are some tips to prevent frostbite.
Stay hydrated and fueled. Dehydration and lack of calories reduce the body’s ability to circulate blood. The decreased circulation makes it more difficult to keep blood moving to the extremities, and less blood in the extremities means less heat. Therefore, drink plenty of water and eat nutritious snacks to protect the most vulnerable areas of your body.
The windy and dry conditions common with cold weather make frostbite more likely. These circumstances accelerate transepidermal water loss that cools and dries the skin. Have a neck gaiter that can cover your nose and cheeks and make sure you have a good hat that covers your ears. Protect as much of your skin from the wind as you can.
On winter trips to the countryside, I like to carry hot stones in my pockets to warm my hands. Those “Hot Hands” packs work fine too. Even if you don’t want to get used to wearing these items, they are good to have in your daily winter kit. Windmill on the arms is a good way to get the blood flowing back into your hands.
In my experience, the feet are the most difficult part of the body to keep warm. Survival depends on the core staying warm, so our bodies go to great lengths to achieve this. We can live without a foot, but not without a heart. Feet often get trapped inside boots, making temperature regulation difficult.
Stockings: In the winter, socks and shoes are equally important to get it right. If you haven’t already, start wearing wool socks and don’t look back. Wool is my choice for socks, glove liners, neck gaiters, base layers, pretty much everything except a waterproof layer, obviously.
Depending on the situation, I’ll wear two pairs, or even three for extreme cold conditions. Always carry extra socks and change them. At the end of the day, put on dry socks. When you return to the vehicle at the trailhead or campsite, change them. Our feet sweat, so there will almost always be moisture in our socks. For the nights, always have dry socks reserved for sleeping. For extended stays in the wild, make sock drying a priority.
Don’t wear socks, shoes, long underwear, or anything too tight. It is very important to let the blood move. Any restriction of circulation creates a vulnerability to cold injury. If you are doubling socks, make sure they are two different sizes that overlap comfortably and loosely.
Boots: Make sure your feet have room inside your boots and that you can wiggle all your toes. Shoes that don’t fit well can increase your chances of frostbite. Compression of the toes restricts circulation and reduces the insulating properties of the socks.
For longer stays in the field, boots that can be dried in the field are an absolute must. I won’t buy a winter boot that doesn’t have removable liners, and wool felt liners are the best. Wool liners allow you to dry them by the campfire or wood stove without worrying about damage.
My favorite winter boot is the mukluk style shoe. I appreciate the width of the toe box, the lack of a heel and the feeling of being barefoot. There are mukluks made for both dry and wet conditions. “Dry” mukluks are made from breathable materials that allow moisture to escape, a crucial component of happy feet. “Wet” mukluks sacrifice some breathability, but they’re worth it if you’re going to be walking in puddles or wet snow.
In addition to the foot care mentioned above, I like to “smoke” my feet. Around the fire in the morning or evening, I make sure to keep my feet in the smoke of a campfire and dry them before putting on my socks.
There are tons of tips and tricks to help you prevent frostbite. But perhaps the most important factor is attitude.
It’s easy to ignore what our body is telling us and move on. That’s how I ended up with frostbite on my toes. He was on the History Channel show “Alone,” surviving in the field and competing for a million dollars. It was December and I was in the Northwest Territories living off the land, eating rabbits and tracking porcupines. I spent the day outside doing what I had to do to survive: gathering firewood and checking my line of traps. I could feel my toes being uncomfortably cold and then numb. I knew I only had a few hours of daylight left and I wanted to use it, so I thought I’d warm my feet after dark. By then it was too late; The damage was already done. The medical team had to remove me from the situation to avoid further injury, ending my hopes of winning the competition and a lot of money.
Don’t be the tough guy or girl and ignore numb fingers and toes. Stop and heat them up. Accidents happen and you may find yourself in a situation where warming up is not an option. If there is an option, choose it. It’s not worth the permanent damage that could keep you from enjoying the outdoors in the future. Even if frostbite does not result in amputation, permanent damage can occur. Frozen tissue is permanently sensitive to cold and future freezing injury. You will have to be even more diligent in taking care of your body when it is cold. Frostbite injuries forever change the way you enjoy winter.
When tracking an animal, it is necessary to pay close attention to details and changes in the terrain. We must use all of our perceptual abilities to navigate the landscape. It is equally necessary to turn our consciousness inward. To thrive we need to listen to the signals our body gives us. Frostbite taught me that self-care is a survival skill.
Until next time, may your fingers be greasy and your toes warm.