Frostbite and hypothermia are both dangers to be aware of in cold weather survival situations. Hypothermia is the most dangerous and can actually take place in above freezing temperatures if an individual is poorly clothed or gets wet. Frostbite can result in the loss of extremities and does require freezing temperatures.
In either hypothermia or frostbite, prevention and avoidance are the best choices. Simply put, avoid dangerous winter conditions if you can. If not, have appropriate clothing and shelter available and use it. If you still get symptoms or early warning signs, get out of the cold before you treat the frostbite or hypothermia. If it is too late, build or find shelter to remove the cause of the condition, and then treat it.
Keep in mind as you read this section that Captain Dave is not a medical professional and see our links for more information on hypothermia and frostbite.
When your body loses heat faster than it can produce it and your core temperature drops, you are in danger of hypothermia, which is literally the process of freezing to death. Mild hypothermia starts when your core (internal) body temperature drops from 98.7 to 96 degrees F. Moderate hypothermia kicks in at 95 degrees or below and severe hypothermia starts when your body temperature drops below 93 degrees, so you must act quickly at the first signs. The problem with hypothermia is that once it sets in, it can be very difficult to reverse in a survival situation, especially if you are on your own. They key is to prevent it from occurring by following the tips outlined above.
The first symptoms of impending hypothermia are goose bumps and feeling cold, followed by shivering. It starts with mild shivering and builds to uncontrolled shivering that grips your entire body. Take this as a warning sign and do something to warm up while you still can. If you are not wet, it can be as simple as standing up and doing some exercise so your body’s muscles generate heat. You can also consumer warm beverages or move closer to a heat source, (which might be impossible in an emergency). If you are wet, remove wet clothes and dry yourself, preferably in a warm and dry environment. Then put on dry clothes or wrap yourself in warm blankets or a sleeping bag. Keep your head covered to prevent further heat loss.
Later stages of hypothermia include confusion, loss of motor skills, memory loss and slurred speech, followed by drowsiness leading to sleep from which you do not wake up. This is why early stages of hypothermia need to be addressed, even if traditional medical treatment is unavailable due to the emergency.
If you are with someone else who is experiencing hypothermia and you are not, the old outdoorsman trick of putting you both in a sleeping bag (usually naked so that the heat can transfer from you to the other individual) has merit. Just be sure that you do not give yourself hypothermia in the process.
Unlike hypothermia, frostbite usually affects portions of your body, not your entire system. Danger areas are exposed skin, including nose, ears, cheeks and chin, as well as extremities such as you fingers and toes. As your extremities get cold, your body slows and stops blood circulation to these areas to retain body heat in your core and they turn white or grayish yellow. The area may feel numb or waxy. When circulation returns, it is very painful. If circulation is cut off for too long, and if the affected areas are too cold for too long, amputation may be required. So while hypothermia is more deadly than frostbite, both are serious cold weather related conditions that are best avoided.
To treat signs of frostbite, warm the affected area gradually. (Do not rub snow on it; this is an old wives tale.) The best way is with warm, not hot, water (between 104 and 108 degrees F or 40 and 42 degrees C). Do not place the affected area too near a fire or other heat source as it may be so numb it can be burned before you realize it. If warm water is not available, you can place fingers under your arm pit or another warm body area. Of course, this doesn’t work with your nose or an ear!