As a camping newbie, I used to get mesmerized by the idea of winter camping. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend a night amidst burning woods and slow falling snow. The only thought that held me back from trying was the fear of getting frostbite during the camping.
Medical conditions like hypothermia and frostbite are way more common in winter campers than you think. This is why you find campers say that winter camping is not for the faint-hearted.
But with proper knowledge, frostbites can be easily avoided even during extreme temperatures during winter camping.
So, how to avoid frostbite during winter camping? To avoid frostbite during cold winter camping, you have to take care of two things; keep your body warm & covered and ensure proper blood circulation. To keep your body warm, wear thick woolen clothes to minimize heat loss, ensure unrestricted blood circulation, and avoid tight boots, gloves, and other clothing items.
In this blog you’ll get all the information you need to avoid frostbite during winter camping.
Let’s get started!
What is frostbite?
Frostbite is a medical condition in which exposure to extremely cold temperatures causes the skin and underlying soft tissues to freeze resulting in blisters, dead tissues, and in severe cases, amputation.
In below-freezing temperatures, the fluid in cells tends to form ice crystals and freeze; rupturing the cell’s wall which causes complete cell death.
How does frostbite happen?
A normal human body needs to adjust its body temperature to normal i-e 37 degrees Fahrenheit. When a body part gets in contact with extreme cold, the average temperature of that area goes below the body core temperature.
If the cold contact is for a prolonged period, sensory receptors in the exposed part start sending signals to the brain that the exposure is lowering the blood temperature that is circulating through those parts.
This cold blood then goes to other vital organs and can pose a threat to their functioning by inducing hypothermia.
In response to the sensory input from the exposed parts, the brain sends signals back to the body to contract all the blood vessels and veins in that body part, restricting the blood flow to that area and avoid heat loss.
Think of it as your brain letting your exposed part out in the cold to die so that it can save your other vital organs like heart and lungs from returning cold blood.
When the blood is cut off and shifted to the warmer body parts, the affected parts freeze due to extreme cold and lack of warm blood circulation.
Due to freezing, the water inside your tissue cells turn to ice and rapture the wall membrane resulting in cell death and permanent tissue damage.
This freezing of body parts due to extreme cold exposure and no blood flow is called frostbite.
Below is a short video by seasonal science explaining this in an easy way.
What are the symptoms of frostbite?
The early symptoms of frostbite include
- Cold and tingling sensation in the affected area
- Change of skin color; red to pale skin
- Formation of blisters or red bumps after rewarming
Symptoms of severe frost bite
- Waxy, colorless, and hard skin
- Dark blue, black color on skin
- No feeling or sensation in the affected area
- Inability to move the affected area
What are the stages of frostbite?
There are three stages of frost bite. The stage usually depends upon the time period of exposure. The longer the exposure the more loss it will cause.
#1 Frost Nip:
The first stage is pretty mild and can be handled easily. In this stage the exposure to cold makes the skin red or pale with tingling sensation.
If this happens, all you need is to get back to a warmer place and dip the affected area into warm water till the skin feels soft again.
#2 Superficial Bite
Prolonged exposure after frostnip causes the water inside the skin to turn into ice. Your skin might still feel warm, but your hands will sting a lot and will swell up. Blisters may occur on the skin.
At this point, if you warm up your hands or dip them in warm water, you might be able to save some vessels or cells that are not completely dead.
After warming, you will find mottled patches or blueish patches on the skin. At this point, after warming up the skin, you need to dress up your wounds or apply a sterile bandage to the bitten part.
Any cold exposure to hands after this stage can make you loose your hands!
#3 Severe Frost bite
In this stage, you will stop feeling anything, and your hands will go numb completely and you’ll be unable to move them on your own.
Even the inner layers of skin will freeze, and the cells will be dead completely, turning your affected areas black.
This stage urgently requires medical treatment/ surgery. As the affected part is likely to come off on its own.
This stage is irreparable and requires amputation to save the foregoing body parts.
How to avoid frostbite during winter camping?
Coming to the main topic of this article – how to avoid frostbite during winter camping in extremely cold conditions – here are a few tips that can save you from getting frostbite.
Remember that frostbite can be avoided quite easily and are very rarely dangerous. If you follow these tips below, you can enjoy your time in the cold without having to amputate your hand or toe.
#1 Camp in well-insulated tent
First things first, make sure your gears like your tent, hammock, sleeping pad, thermal fleece and sleeping bag are ready to withstand extreme cold and windy weather.
Most lightweight tents may claim to be insulating but can’t endure heavy rainfall or winds. You might need a heavy, sturdy, and highly insulated canvas-like tent. After getting the right tent, you have to set it up the right way as well.
I have written another detailed guide about insulating your tent for winter camping and how to correctly set it up to avoid winter chills.
Similarly, You are more exposed to chills during the night. So, your sleeping pad has to be warm enough to keep your body, especially your hands and feet, toasty warm all night.
#2 Dress in warm clothes
The appropriate dressing for winter camping includes a minimum of three layers of clothing. Inner thermal wicking layer followed by fleecy mid-layer and moisture repelling front jacket layer.
For freezing cold temperatures, you need to wear woolen or furry hat, layered gloves, and woolen socks. Make sure your sock isn’t tight enough to disrupt the blood flow, as it can cause frostbite.
Remember that warm clothing is your first line of defense against the cold. If you don’t dress up appropriately, you can’t do much out in the cold.
#3 Eat high calorie food & drink enough water
Calories rich foods provide heat to the body when it need it the most.
Foods like cheese, butter, nuts, red meat, rice, chocolates, granola bars, pasta, sushi, and coffee are good for winter camping. Your calorie intake should be around 4000-6000 calories per day including three meals and two snack breaks.
Avoid consuming alcohol or anything that makes you numb as in cases of frostbite or hypothermia you won’t be able to feel the symptoms which can be deadly.
Drinking enough water will keep your blood circulation in check as dehydration can decrease skin blood flow (source). Therefore, it’s a good idea to keep a bottle of warm water with you at all times while you are out in the freezing cold to minimize the risk of getting the bite.
#4 Immediately change wet cloths
If your clothes get wet due to any reason while in the cold wild, immediately remove them as the water inside the fabrics quickly crystalize and start drawing valuable heat from the body, thus increasing the risk of frostbite and, in more severe cases, hypothermia.
It is a good idea to have spare clothing items with you during winter camping so that you can changes clothes in case something gets wet. If you are going for a skinny dip on your trip, make sure you have a warm towel and dry clothes nearby (read our guide on how to shower during winter camping)
As discussed above, it is a good idea to wear a waterproof layer on the outer side so that you can withstand light rain and condensation without the need to change your inner warm layers often.
You should be wearing a waterproof jacket, and more importantly, your shoes should be waterproof as well to avoid water from molten snow beneath your feet.
#5 Stay active & keep moving
Last but not least, don’t sit or layaround in same position for along time as your blood circulation can get disrupted which increase your changes of getting a frostbite.
If you are hiking or trekking, your chances of getting frostbite are really low due to the additional heat your muscles produce that keeps your body warm (make sure you are consuming enough calories to power your muscles)
If you are not moving around much, make sure you change your position frequently to assist blood flow. Slow pacing can also help your blood circulation.
#6 Make a camp fire
Camp fire is your best friend during winter camping. It is not only enjoyable but also helps avoiding hypothermia and frostbite.
Your hands, nose, ears and toes are most exposed to the cold and making a nice camp fire and heating up those parts can help a lot.
#7 Carry a bottle of hot water
Very helpful if you have poor blood circulation and your hands get cold quite often. A bottle of warm water tucked beneath your warm clothing layers can help you heat your hands at regular intervals.
Can you treat frost bite on your own?
This depends on the condition, but the first two stages can be taken care of at home (or campsite).
All you need is to remove all the clothing and dip your hand in warm water (not hot, as you might burn your hand and not feel it due to the numbness). Dip it until it softens up, and then wrap it in a sterile cloth.
Make sure you don’t rub the skin as it may come off.
In case of severe frostbite, avoid re-warming the skin and immediately seek medical attention. If delayed, severe frostbite can result in amputation.
Winter camping can be crucial. Especially when you are prone to such high-risk diseases.
The only way to ace winter camping without any harm is to notice the small signals and signs of the body and not ignore them at any cost. Ignore even the smallest signs can turn out to be deadly in such condition. Be safe!
Recommended Camping Gears: I have compiled a list of my favourite camping gear in one place. The selection is based on my own personal experience using them for many years camping as well as feedback from fellow campers. Check them out on my Recommended Camping Gears page