For those who are willing to brave the ice and snow, winter weather opens up a whole new world. Whether you are hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, sledding, skating, or hunting, an outdoor winter adventure can unlock incredible beauty, freedom, and fun.
Before you strap on your boots, it’s important to remember that winter weather comes with its own unique health risks and safety hazards. Even the most experienced outdoor adventurers can find themselves in a potentially life-threatening situation if the weather shifts.
To help you and your loved ones stay safe outdoors this winter, we brought together two of the top minds in outdoor health and survival.
Dr Grant Lipman has written numerous book chapters and outdoor medicine guides, including the Wilderness First Aid Handbook, Long Distance Runner’s Guide to Injury Prevention and Treatment, and the Boy Scouts of America Scouting Guide to Wilderness First Aid. He serves as the director of the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Wilderness Medicine Fellowship and is the founder of GOES.
Christian Schauf has also had his fair share of winter adventures around the globe, hunting, backpacking, and mountaineering. After seeing dozens of stranded motorists by the highway during a Colorado blizzard, he founded Uncharted Supply Co., a company dedicated to bringing the very best survival and first aid gear.
What’s so different about winter weather? What are the top risks?
Christian (C): When considering winter safety risks, you might go straight to avalanches, but I’m just as interested in safely driving in bad weather. One time I was snowmobiling six miles from my house when the weather turned, suddenly everything was white, and my own backyard became completely unfamiliar. Winter conditions can change rapidly and put you in a dangerous situation if you are unprepared.
Dr. Grant (G): Cold winter weather also presents unique stressors that can interfere with your health. You burn more energy, you need wind and waterproofing, your extremities are at risk… You have to take all of this into account. Spend time with people who have spent years learning themselves. Use the buddy system, take baby steps, and learn.
What’s the best way to stay warm in the cold?
G: Staying warm is all about energy. Being cold is exhausting. Our bodies constantly generate intrinsic heat. This is called thermogenesis. We burn calories constantly just to stay warm, even sitting or standing. Add some wind and cold exposure and your heat loss becomes exponential. You can properly manage cold weather by both consuming and conserving energy.
How do you make sure you consume enough energy?
G: Your body is a machine; it needs FUEL to keep working and stay warm. If you wait to eat until you’re hungry, it’s too late. Sometimes I like to bring candy bars on winter hikes, because they are something that I like to eat, even if I don’t feel that hungry. They have different layers of nuts and sugars that burn at different rates. In the cold, you want that high fat content; it’s not the time to think about your diet. It’s going to give you more bang for your buck.
C: You should also eat what you’re used to eating. A lot of people buy a bunch of goos for their next race or outdoor trek, but if they’ve never eaten those before, that can cause GI issues.
G: Remember you will also rapidly expend energy even if you’re not exerting yourself. Don’t underestimate the calories you need to keep going in the winter. Going out is optional; getting back is mandatory.
C: That’s right. Every time you take a step up, you have to ask yourself: “Do I have enough energy to take that same step down?” To keep up with this energy loss by consuming calories almost constantly.
And what about conserving energy?
G: Once you’ve consumed those calories, you want to use them wisely. The next step to manage your energy in the cold is to limit heat loss.
C: I’m a big layering guy. In the fall or winter, I just have a tub of clothes in the back of my truck. Every body runs hot or cold depending on the activity or the day, so the ability to scale up and down is important. Layers can be very personal and individualized.
G: I like to use the four-layer system…
- Base Layer (Dryness): If your clothes are wet, they will suck heat from your body 25 times faster than if they are dry. It’s really important to have a sweat-wicking synthetic layer next to your skin. We say “cotton kills” because it retains moisture and won’t dry out.
- Middle Layer (Warmth): The thickness of this layer depends on how much energy you are putting out.
- Outer Layer (Wind and Waterproof): Depending on the weather, you need to decide if this layer needs to be somewhat breathable or completely waterproof.
- Emergency Layer: Take an extra warm puff coat for the outside. That’s your rescue.
C: That emergency layer is key, and you can even pad it with extra dry material. It’s an old military hack. They’d just shove stuff like newspaper into their pants and shirt when it was cold. Dead air space is a barrier.
G: Remember that there are different ways to lose heat energy… Blocking wind is one of them, but can lose your heat to the cold ground through conduction. If you need to sit down, put a blanket or a backpack under you if you can.
C: Pay attention to your whole body and remember that heat can be lost even in areas that don’t feel cold. Sometimes extra pants can keep your whole body warmer. There’s also a misconception that 90% of your heat leaves through your head, but it’s not any more than the rest of your body. It’s all about surface area.
G: That’s exactly right. Leaving your head exposed is the same surface area as if you were wearing a tank top with an exposed arm. It just isn’t insulated. We’re all aware of the benefit of wearing masks in the wintertime right now, and that’s a great reminder to cover your face in the cold.
Why is sweat wicking so important? Can you still sweat in the cold?
C: Absolutely. The minute you feel like you’re breaking a sweat, take off some layers. You have to stay ahead of it. If your base is drenched, it’s going to be really hard to dry that out.
G: It’s a weird concept to get your head around, but if you don’t manage your layers, you can actually get too warm and experience overheating too. It’s all about balance… When layering, remember to start cold. Once you begin moving, you are going to quickly warm up. If you start too warm, you are going to sweat, and that’s a bad thing in the cold… When you start cold, you feel motivated to warm up, and you are going to hit that positive comfort zone more quickly.
So what happens if you don’t manage your energy right?
G: If your body loses too much energy and your core temperature drops, that’s hypothermia. Early recognition is the best way to prevent hypothermia — that’s where the buddy system is important. Look for signs of the “umbles” (stumbles and mumbles). Those are signs of early mild hypothermia.
C: When people get cold, they start to shut down, but that’s the exact opposite of what you should do. Walk around. Do rewarming drills. It’s about being proactive, not just curling up. You have to push through.
G: How do you prevent hypothermia? It’s a kindling issue. Throw some extra calories in your body to burn in that furnace. Believe it or not, a quart of cold orange juice will warm you up more than a quart of hot tea water. It’s all about calories … If it’s at night, DON’T go to bed hungry. You will not be able to warm up.
What should you do if you end up in an emergency winter situation?
G: No matter what, the goal is survivability. Coldness isn’t just a nuisance; people can get into a scary situation very quickly. When do you hunker down vs turn around? If you are ill-prepared, sometimes staying put is the best option vs going out looking for help. If you have warmth, shelter, and water, those are your survival foundations.
C: Even if you’re just stuck on the road, you might need to stay in the car. That’s your shelter. Don’t go looking for help unless you are very sure where to find it and how far you’ll have to go. On a trip, tell someone where you’re going and have a plan.
G: And connect your emergency contact people in advance so they can coordinate with each other if need be.
C: Sometimes you can’t see, and you will need to look at a GPS or compass … Use the technology that’s available to you.
G: And have redundant technology! Cold drains batteries.
C: For extreme situations, our survival kits include a little mylar tube tent and blanket that serves as an emergency shelter. You suddenly have waterproofing which is huge. You can even stack stuff outside of that if you need to hunker down somewhere … Those tools might appear flimsy or small, but they are going to be such important tools against the environment.
What about frostbite? Is that something to be concerned about in the winter?
G: Frostbite is a progression of injury that starts with numbness and can lead to frozen tissue inside and outside of the cells. The most dangerous environment for this is when it’s wet, cold, and windy. Keep an eye on your extremities: fingers, toes, nose, hose (for guys), and lobes (ears). If you experience numbness or a pale and “woody” feeling, stop and warm it up. Cover it … If you’ve ever had a frostbite injury before, you are going to be susceptible to further injury again. If you’ve had an orthopedic surgery or other injury, that’s going to put that extremity at risk. Tight boots are doing to squeeze and increase risk there, so watch out for that too.
C: Always stay ahead of it. I’ve probably got 20 pairs of gloves for different conditions and activities. The gloves we include in our survival kids are both nitrile and silicone-dipped and fleece-lined. They’re super warm, waterproof, and high dexterity. We also include hand warmers for when you need that extra heat to catch up.
G: Handwarmers are great, and they last 45 minutes to an hour. Interestingly, handwarmers don’t directly treat hypothermia, instead they treat the restriction of blood vessels in your fingers and toes. They help open your blood vessels to drive blood which warm up your digits.
What final encouragement would you provide to people who are ready to get out there and experience the winter outdoors?
G: I grew up in Oregon where there is this saying, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.” Wintertime hiking is wonderful. Gearing up and planning appropriately will get you some beautiful places. It’s much easier to stay warm than you would imagine. Start on small attainable goals, and plan appropriately.
C: Take baby steps. Make decisions as if your life depends on it, because it does. Every day can be different. Winter conditions can change quickly.
G: And learning to appreciate those risks takes a lifetime of experiences! You don’t have to go it alone. Partner up and get advice from the experts. Over time you will increase your comfort zone and increase the enjoyment you will get out of an outdoor winter adventure.