If you’re reading this, you’re probably a not-very-hairy mammal with a core body temperature of around 37ºC.
Your body works very hard to maintain this temperature. If it drops even a few degrees, moving, thinking, and other basic tasks become difficult. You will need to warm up quickly or you may find yourself in a dangerous situation.
To prevent cold-related emergencies, it’s important to plan your winter adventures carefully.
Here’s what you need to know to stay safe in cold weather:
1. Stay dry
Getting wet increases the rate at which the body loses heat.
Wear waterproof boots and gloves and always stay off ice that cannot support your weight.
Even shallow water can get your feet wet and lower your body temperature. Don’t risk it!
2. Dress in layers
Skiing, snowshoeing, and skating are exercises and your body will generate heat.
If it generates too much heat, you start to sweat. While this is great in hot weather, sweat is your enemy when it’s cold.
Remember the first rule: stay dry. Wet skin loses heat quickly. Take off several layers of clothing while you warm up to avoid that clammy, sweaty feeling.
Clothing in contact with the skin should be breathable and made of polypropylene or silk. This is your base layer.
Next is you middle layer, which is usually something like a warm sweater. Wool is the perfect mid-layer material, because it will stay warm even if it accidentally gets wet.
Finally, complete your outfit with a shell layer which keeps wind and water out but keeps heat in.
Layers aren’t just for your torso. Long johns and snow pants do wonders for your lower body. Glove liners under the mittens will keep your fingers warmer than the mittens alone.
And when you take off layers, make sure you have them close at hand. If you stop moving, you’ll have to go back to snuggling up in that sweater or jacket!
A warm hat will go a long way to keeping you warm, and mittens will keep your fingers warmer than gloves.
Don’t neglect your feet! Felt-lined boots are a good idea.
Bringing extras doesn’t hurt either. Replacements for hats, mittens, and boot liners will be important if your stuff gets wet.
Packed snow and icy conditions can make trails slippery. Keep an eye on the weather forecast for freezing rain and carry a pair of ice cleats or crampons to slide over your boots in case you need extra grip.
4. Monitor the thermal sensation
Cold temperatures are one thing, but the cold windy the conditions are different.
Wind accelerates the rate at which your skin loses heat, so you can’t always rely on the thermometer alone.
Before you head out, check the local weather forecast to be as prepared as possible. Lower wind chill means warmer layers are needed.
5. Bring water and snacks
Your body will burn more calories in cold weather. Feed high-calorie foods like trail mixes – a classic for a reason!
It’s also important to stay hydrated. Winter air can be very dry, so keep a bottle of water handy. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
6. Know your limits
Pace yourself when doing physical activity, especially if you are learning.
If it’s your first hike of the season, start with a shorter hike or choose the smallest hill. Getting lost or injured could keep you outdoors longer than you would like.
7. Know the signs of an emergency
If someone is shivering, take steps to warm them up as quickly as possible.
If you notice any of the following symptoms in yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately:
- confusing thoughts or trouble paying attention
- slow, shallow breathing
- a weak pulse
- loss of consciousness
These are signs of hypothermia.
If you must wait for help to arrive, move to a warm area if possible. Seek shelter from the wind.
Avoid further heat loss by adding layers of clothing or replacing wet clothes with dry ones.
Fingers, ears, and toes are especially at risk for frostbite. If any of these body parts are pale and waxy looking, medical attention is necessary.
In the meantime, add layers of clothing and move to a warm area. Do not rub the area.
Let the snow come!
Outdoor activity is important in winter for physical and mental health.
Enjoy the benefits of being outdoors and reduce the risk by staying dry, wearing layers, and watching the weather forecast. Do activities within your limits, eat enough calories, and carry more water. And never be afraid to ask for emergency help if you need it.