A Skier's Guide to Frostbite

The Key is Prevention

Snowshoeing

Darwin Wiggett/Getty Images 

So, you're on a ski vacation and the weather is bitter cold. Most people are hunkered down in the lodge by the fire, but you want to take advantage of the lack of lift lines and powdery snow conditions. Still, the likelihood of contracting frostbite on a day when temperatures have dipped into the single digits is high. But, don't sweat it. (No pun intended.) With a few preventative measures—like wearing suitable layers, covering exposed skin, and monitoring your time spent outdoors—you'll be swishing down the slopes protected ...

and with no one in your way.

Weather Conditions

With temperatures ranging between 14 F to 16.6 F, the risk of frostbite is fairly low. But if it gets any colder, the risk becomes considerable. For example, temperatures around -18 F, without windchill, can lead to frostbite on any exposed skin within thirty minutes. And when it dips to -40 F, 10 minutes is all you have. All it takes to damage exposed tissue is two minutes or less when temperatures dip below -64 F. So if that's the case, wait until it warms up and join your friends by the fire at the bar.

Windchill

Obviously, the colder the weather, the greater the likelihood of contracting frostbite. But you can't entirely rely on the mercury reading. Your standard household or cell phone thermometer won't pick up windchill levels. This meteorological phenomenon can turn a glorious winter wonderland into a frozen sheet of ice with a simple gust of wind. And if you're skiing or snowboarding in it, windchill will only add to the already extreme coldness. Imagine being slapped on a cold face multiple times. This is what windchill feels like, as it speeds up the body's heat loss wherever skin is exposed.

Thus, contributing to the risk of frostbite.

Because wind comes in with most storms, winter weather reports often involve two temperatures: one with and one without the windchill factor. For example, it might be 14 F outside, but if it's windy enough, it could feel more like -4 F. Always use the windchill temperature as your point of reference when factoring in frostbite potential.

Activity Level

Ice skating and skiing get your blood pumping, which heats up your body much more than if you were standing around waiting for the bus. In fact, according to sports medicine doctors, someone running outside in cold temperatures should feel about 20 F warmer than a person who's standing still. But when it's windy you need to use caution, even though your body feels warm on the inside. Windchill effects can be more intense when you're moving fast—like when you're shushing down the mountain on skis.

Use a face mask and goggles to protect any exposed skin, even if, and especially when, you're sweating underneath your jacket.

Preventative Clothing and Accessories

Dressing appropriately for cold weather limits your risk of contracting frostbite. When temperatures drop below the teens, wear insulating layers under your ski pants and jacket, as keeping your body's core warm is the first step in preventing frostbite. Make sure to cover any exposed skin while skiing or snowboarding, too, no matter what the temperatures are. A neck gaiter or face mask will not only protect you from the cold, but it will also prevent sunburn. Goggles, a helmet, and a hat can also be used to cover exposed shin in your head region.

Goggles, a helmet, and a hat can also be used to cover exposed shin in your head region. Goggles, a helmet, and a hat can also be used to cover exposed regions on your head. And insulated gloves and boots (complete with disposable hand- and foot-warmers) add another layer of protection when skiing in frigid temperatures.

Signs of Frostbite and Considerations

You can limit the risk of frostbite by researching the weather and windchill factors before you go, and then dressing appropriately and limiting exposure. However, that's not always foolproof. If you experience cold skin and numbness, with a prickling feeling, or if you notice a red, white, blue, or grayish tint to your skin, go inside and warm up. Anyone who blisters upon warming, experiences pain or swelling of the affected area, or spikes a fever should seek medical help immediately.

Infants, elderly people, diabetics who suffer from poor circulation, and those with a low percentage of body fat are particularly at risk for contracting frostbite in cold temperatures. For these individuals, it's best to stay inside until weather conditions improve.