Frostbite & Hypothermia

Polar vortex? Arctic mass? Canadian winters are serious business. Learn the basics of identifying, preventing and treating hypothermia and frostbite.


It doesn’t take freezing weather for Hypothermia to happen; hypothermia can set in at temperatures as high as 10 degrees Celsius. The first sign of hypothermia is cold hands and feet, as the body starts to conserve heat to protect the core. This is usually followed by shivering, although an exhausted person may not have this response. This is followed by difficulty speaking and it progresses into stupor and unconsciousness. Hypothermia can be deadly and it’s better to prevent rather than treat it. 

Frostbite means your flesh is freezing. Exposure to cold alone is rarely a cause of frostbite — fatigue, dehydration and illness are common contributing factors. Frostbite is usually described in one of three stages:

Frostnip. Minor tissue damage, usually from exposure or touching cold objects. This happens frequently to fingers, cheeks, ears and the tip of the nose.

Superficial Frostbite. Damage to the skin and the tissue just beneath it. This is what most people consider "frostbite."

Freezing/Frozen Tissue. Muscles and bones freeze. Ice crystals can form in the tissues. This can lead to loss of body parts, or severe, permanent damage to surface tissues.

When an exposed are of your body feels cold to the touch, there is a risk of frostnip. If exposure continues, the area may begin to feel warm as the nerves shut down. The skin may go from red to white as the vessels are closed off. As superficial frostbite sets in, the skin will start looking waxy and become hard to the touch. Frozen tissue turns gray and the area will be hard to the touch.


Cover up. Wearing a hat, hood or thick scarf over your head is an excellent way to prevent loss of body heat. Wrap a scarf around your neck to keep heat from escaping through the opening of your jacket. Mitts keep your fingers warmer than gloves, but either one is better than trying to keep your hands warm in your pockets.

Slow down. This seems a bit counterintuitive, but activities that heat you up enough for you to sweat actually lead to rapid heat loss. Sweating is meant to cool the body and damp, sweaty clothes can chill you right into hypothermia. Keep moving to stay warm, but don’t overdo it.

Wear layers. Use light, loose layers to trap air and insulate your body. Wool, silk and polypropylene are excellent choices for base-layers. The outer layer should be wind- and waterproof.

Sty dry. Remove wet clothing as soon as possible and keep snow out of your boots and gloves. Brush snow off hats, scarves and gloves before it starts to melt.

Stay hydrated. Dehydration decreases blood volume and causes your body to reduce the blood flow to fingers and toes. This starts a scary spiral that leads you to become chilled more quickly and recover more slowly. Also, don’t drink alcohol. Not only can it lead to dehydration, alcohol also impairs judgment and can affect your ability to take care of yourself in the cold.


Ideally, go into a warm area, have a warm meal and some warm fluids. If you can’t get indoors right away, try the following suggestions:

Reduce exposure. Get out of the wind or rain as soon as possible. Replace wet clothing with dry and add more layers, if possible.

Provide heat. Warm (not hot) food and liquid helps warm the core and provides the body with energy to produce more heat.

Gentle movement. This works in the short term and only if the person is not already exhausted. Gentle, continuous motion that doesn’t lead to sweating is best.

Insulate. If the person can’t move, they need to be insulated from the weather. A sleeping bag is ideal, with  pads underneath to provide protection from the ground. In a true emergency situation, don’t overlook the value of fallen leaves or evergreen boughs to use as ground insulation.

Frostnip and superficial frostbite are easily treated by warming the area. Treat the tissue gently to avoid causing damage. Frozen tissue is a much more dangerous situation and usually requires medical attention. Warming and refreezing in the field causes more damage than leaving the tissue frozen.

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