Top 5 Ways To Prevent And Treat Frostbite When Hiking

You shouldn’t have to let the weather dictate your hiking schedule. However, low temperatures present an elevated risk for frostbite, and you need to protect yourself. The good news is you can take steps to avoid frostbite, and there are several ways to both prevent and treat frostbite when hiking.

The top 5 ways to prevent frostbite when hiking are:

  1. Wear appropriate clothing
  2. Protect your extremities
  3. Nourish your body
  4. Limit time outdoors
  5. Plan for emergencies

Of course, there’s a lot that goes into preventing and treating frostbite on a hike. Read on to discover how you can make a personalized plan to fortify yourself against it. Plus, you’ll learn how to care for frostbite properly if you do happen to run into it on your journey.

What Is Frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury caused by exposure to cold temperatures. With this condition, the skin on the affected body part begins to freeze. As frostbite progresses it spreads to deeper tissues. If left unchecked, the skin and tissue can die. The worst cases of frostbite cause permanent damage to muscle, tendon, and bone and can even require amputation.

Frostbite comes in three stages. The first is mild, but the second and third are quite serious. Symptoms at onset include burning or tingling in the affected area, then pain and numbness. You might notice your skin turning white, blue, or purple as the condition progresses. The longer skin is left untreated, the worse symptoms get and the higher the likelihood of permanent damage.

Frostbite is most likely to occur in the extremities, or anywhere skin is left uncovered. Places like fingers, toes, nose, chin, and ears are especially susceptible. Severe damage can happen quickly, so you must act immediately when you suspect frostbite. Better yet, you can avoid frostbite altogether by taking some preventative measures.

Frostbite vs Frostnip

You’ve probably heard the term frostnip before. Is it the same thing as frostbite? Not exactly, but close. Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite. It’s a cold injury, but it’s much milder than the later stages of the condition.

Frostnip affects only the outer portion of the skin, and you can usually treat it yourself without going to the hospital. Unlike frostbite, frostnip doesn’t cause permanent damage. When you get frostnip, you’ll usually feel tingling and pain in the area.

You might notice your skin turning white, red, or yellow. If you press down on your skin, it will still have some give to it and won’t be completely hardened. At this stage, it’s critical to get out of the cold and rewarm the skin. If you don’t, frostbite can set in and spread to deeper tissues.

How Long Does It Take To Get Frostbite?

How long it takes to get frostbite will vary depending on how cold it is, and if there is a strong wind or not. At temperatures just below freezing, it can take around 30 minutes to get frostbite on exposed skin, but this time can reduce by half or more at much lower temperatures with a bit of wind.

You can develop frostbite any time the temperature falls below freezing. The lower the temperature is, the more quickly you will develop it. Of course, how fast you get frostbite will depend on several factors, including how well you’re insulated, your body composition, and the wind chill.

Wind chill is the effect of both wind and cold on the body, and it can cause frostbite to develop much faster. You can get frostbite in milder temperatures if the wind is blowing hard enough, because wind chill will bring your body temperature down the exact same way that air temperature will.

For example, if the temperature is 0 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing at 15 miles per hour, the wind chill temperature will be -19 degrees. Your exposed skin will bear the brunt of this negative temperature, and you can develop frostbite in just 30 minutes.

But why does wind chill make us colder? As the wind blows, it takes residual temperature away from your body faster than still air. The effect is amplified if you’re sweating, as the wind will evaporate the sweat and cause your body temperature to drop even faster.

The 3 Stages Of Frostbite

1. Frostnip

Frostnip is the first and mildest stage of frostbite. In this stage, your body begins to get cold. But it’s not about to give up – your body is smart! To keep blood flowing to your vital organs, it restricts blood flow to the more ‘unnecessary’ parts of your body like your fingers and toes. As these extremities get colder, the outer layer of skin begins to freeze and frostnip sets in.

Like all forms of frostbite, you are most likely to get frostnip on uncovered skin. Symptoms will begin with profound coldness, pricking, tingling, and pain. Gradually, the affected area will start to feel numb. You might see your skin turning white, red, or yellow. If you press down on the skin, it will be slightly pliable.

At this stage, you can still treat frostbite without professional medical intervention. If you can, stop the hike immediately and get back indoors. As the area is thawing out, move it around to encourage blood flow. You can gently rewarm the skin by soaking it in warm water, but avoid direct heat sources like hot water, fire, or stovetops. These can get too hot and damage the skin.

2. Superficial Frostbite

If you fail to notice or treat frostnip properly on a hike, it can easily progress to the second stage of frostbite. Make no mistake, superficial frostbite is still dangerous – its innocuous name comes from the fact that it affects only the outer layers or most “superficial” parts of the skin.

During this stage, you’ll notice reddened skin turning white or blue. Ice crystals begin to form on the skin’s surface, and it will have less give to it than before. It may become completely hardened and begin to feel warm, which is a bad sign. Warmth signifies tissue damage, so it’s imperative to stop the hike and get to a doctor at this stage.

As rewarming occurs, your skin can look mottled and blotchy. It can be painful to thaw the skin, and you could get some blisters in the affected area once it has been warmed. A full recovery is usually possible with superficial frostbite since the deeper layers of skin and tissue are still intact. However, some people do have permanent symptoms like cold sensitivity, numbness, or pain.

3. Deep Frostbite

The final and most severe stage is deep frostbite, which affects both the outer and inner layers of skin and the underlying tissue. In this stage, tissue freezes entirely. You’ll notice your skin turning white, blue, or grey. It’s likely you won’t be able to feel anything in the affected area at this point, though it’s possible to feel sensations of pain.

Areas affected by deep frostbite can turn waxy and be completely hard to the touch, with no pliability whatsoever. Eventually it will become difficult to move the affected part. Joints and muscles around the area will become uncooperative as well, and difficulty walking and moving could occur if it’s on your feet or legs.

Deep frostbite requires immediate medical attention, and it’s likely that some tissue will die off. Blisters filled with blood may appear on the skin’s surface. As the skin warms up, some of it may turn black as it dies. It could fall off on its own, but you may have to get it surgically removed.

5 Ways To Prevent Frostbite When Hiking

1. Wear Appropriate Clothing

The most basic thing you can do to protect yourself against frostbite is to dress appropriately. This means dressing in a succession of layers that are warm, weatherproof, and light enough to move around in. Tight clothing will restrict blood flow and encourage frostbite, so loose layers are ideal.

Always wear an initial layer of moisture-wicking shirts, pants, and socks to keep skin from getting sweaty. Synthetic materials are better for this layer, as they get rid of sweat more easily. Never choose cotton because it traps moisture on the skin and lowers your body temperature. Over the first layer, wear additional wool or fleece layers to help insulate your body.

For the outer layer, make sure you have a heavier jacket, pants, and boots. These should be made from synthetics that are snow-resistant, waterproof, and windproof to guard against dampness and wind chill. Wear enough clothing to feel warm and comfortable, but not so much that you get hot and begin to sweat excessively.

2. Protect Your Extremities

We know that frostbite is most likely to occur in the extremities. Places like the hands, feet, face, and neck are all more susceptible because they are the furthest from your body’s warm core. However, frostbite can be prevented if you take extra care to protect your extremities.

Donning a balaclava is a good idea to protect the face and nose. Wear snow goggles to protect your sensitive eyes, as frostbite in your peepers can cause permanent vision damage. Choose heavy hats and headgear to prevent heat from escaping through your scalp and wear a scarf to insulate your neck.

Wear mittens if possible, or heavy-duty gloves if you need to use your fingers. Your boots should be thick and insulated, and you should wear a double layer of socks to protect your toes, ankles, and feet. Always choose gear and outerwear designed to protect against the elements. This will help keep you warmer and stave off frostbite in subzero temperatures.

3. Nourish Your Body

You are more likely to develop frostbite when you are dehydrated or when you haven’t eaten much. Since dehydration and hunger weaken your bodily systems, frostbite can set in quicker and become more severe than when the body is operating at full capacity.

Eat a good meal and drink plenty of water before you hike. Bring snacks and water with you on the trail as well. Take time to listen to your body’s cues and determine when you need to refuel. You should also be careful not to consume anything adverse like cigarettes or alcohol on a cold-weather hike.

Nicotine can cause frostbite to develop rapidly, since nicotine naturally restricts the flow of blood to fragile extremities. Alcohol consumption can cause body heat to escape faster and can also slow reaction time and prevent you from noticing symptoms at their onset.

4. Limit Time Outdoors

If you’re going hiking in the winter wonderland of your dreams, it can be tempting to try and set a personal record for speed on that majestic mountain pass – but hold off. The more time you spend outside, the more likely you are to get frostbite. Limiting your exposure to the cold is much more responsible and could save you some fingers in the long run.

Plan shorter hikes at lower elevations during the winter, especially if you are unaware of the conditions at higher altitudes. Unless you’re a truly experienced wintertime trekker, don’t plan on camping out if there is a risk of frostbite. Stopping to sleep can cause your temperature to drop, so it’s better to keep moving until you’re somewhere safe again.

There’s nothing wrong with taking shorter hikes when the temperature drops. If you dress well and fuel yourself properly, you’ll mitigate your risk of frostbite while still getting to enjoy the great outdoors – and that’s a win-win in my book.

5. Plan For Emergencies

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When it comes to frostbite, having a plan to deal with unexpected circumstances is part of that prevention. Even if you think there’s no chance of catching frostbite, you should come prepared to tackle it if need be. Circumstances can change in the blink of an eye.

Carry a shelter along with you on longer hikes. Ideally you won’t need it, but having a 4-season tent can protect you from the elements in case of injury or other emergencies. Seeking shelter can prevent frostbite from appearing altogether or worsening if it does set in. Also bring along a set of dry clothes in your pack in case someone gets wet, as moisture can quicken the onset of frostbite.

If you know there is a risk of frostbite, hike somewhere with cell phone reception so you can call for help if need be. When you’re deciding on a route, try to find one that isn’t too far from civilization or one that intersects with major roadways. That way, you can make your way to safety or flag down a vehicle if you find yourself in dire straits.

How To Treat Frostbite When Hiking

Sometimes, you can still get frostbite even if you take all the proper precautions. Keep in mind that if you suspect superficial or deep frostbite, medical intervention is necessary in every case. However, you might not have immediate access to a doctor. In the interim, don’t wait.

If you or a member of your hiking party does fall victim to this condition, there are several ways you can relieve symptoms and help prevent this injury from worsening. The first thing you need to do is get the affected person out of the cold as soon as possible.

Get To Shelter

If you planned for emergencies by bringing along a shelter, set it up. If you don’t have one, find rocks, trees, or another natural shelter to escape the wind chill for the time being. It’s vital to get the person to a warmer place, even if it’s still cold. The worst thing you can do is continue exposing frostbitten areas to the elements.

Once you’re out of the wind, assess the situation more deeply. If the affected person is wet from snow or sleet, immediately remove wet clothing, and switch it out for dry clothes. Moisture will make frostbite worse, so try and dry the person off as soon as possible and as thoroughly as you can.

Things To Avoid When Treating Frostbite

It will be tempting to try and warm the frostbitten person by rubbing them vigorously, but this is not advised. Rubbing a frostbitten area can cause skin breakage and tears, heightening the risk of infection. Lighting a fire, bathing them with hot water, and seating them next to a radiator can also be risky.

In fact, it’s a bad idea to rewarm a frostbitten person at all unless you know for sure that they won’t get refrozen. Thawing and refreezing of frostbitten areas can cause rapid tissue death and turn a case of mild frostnip into severe frostbite.

Instead, wrap them in bandages or blankets to keep their core temperature up. Until you can head to a hospital, do not attempt thawing on your own. If the feet are frostbitten, it’s better not to walk on them at all.

Sometimes you must walk on frozen feet to lessen potential damage from staying in the elements. It may be better to go for help rather than sit and wait, so if walking on frozen feet is your only option, then take it. Always use your best judgement to determine the right course of action.

Can You Still Get Frostbite With Gloves On?

You can still get frostbite with gloves on, although it’s far more likely to set in on exposed skin. It all depends on the temperature and wind chill. If you notice your fingers getting numb, check for signs of frostbite even if you’re wearing gloves, so you can catch it early if it is setting in.

To maximize the warmth in your hands, wear mittens instead of gloves if possible. Mittens allow your fingers to share heat, keeping them at a warmer temperature than gloves can. Moisture-wicking mittens or gloves are the best, but make sure they’re at least wind and waterproof.

Does Petroleum Jelly Prevent Frostbite?

Petroleum jelly does not prevent frostbite. Unfortunately, many people apply products like Vaseline in the hopes that their risk of frostbite will be reduced, but it doesn’t work like that. Petroleum jelly can be applied to exposed skin to lock in moisture, but it won’t prevent frostbite.

However, at a certain point, petroleum jelly itself will freeze. This can increase your risk of frostbite injury because your skin will be covered in a layer of ice. The only reason to put petroleum jelly on your extremities is if you already have frostbite and are going through the healing process. The jelly may promote healing and could help to ease the pain.

How Cold Is Too Cold For Hiking?

It’s usually too cold for hiking when you’re not having fun anymore. However, it depends on the gear you have and your skill level. If you’re an experienced cold-weather hiker with all the appropriate gear, you can hike even in sub-zero temperatures as long as you take proper precautions.

However, many people will find this uncomfortable and ultimately not worth it. If you don’t have any experience hiking in cold weather and you lack the appropriate cold-weather gear, you shouldn’t go out when the temperature falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even though this is well above freezing, hypothermia and frostbite are very possible below 40 degrees. If the wind chill is bad enough, you could find yourself in real trouble. Always check the weather forecast and stand on the side of caution when it comes to cold-weather hiking.

Final Thoughts

You can prevent frostbite when hiking by wearing appropriate clothing, protecting your extremities, nourishing your body, limiting the time spent outdoors, and planning for emergencies. To treat frostbite, get out of the cold, remove any wet clothing, and carefully wrap the affected area.