Camping 101: Beware of Frostbite!

Winter camping in my neck of the woods here in Minnesota means enduring temperatures that can vary between highs of 25 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit by day and possibly below zero at night. My coldest night in a tent was about minus 15 degrees F some 50 miles north of Ely, Minnesota.

We were college kids on a weekend deer hunt. The only reason we didn’t suffer from frostbite was probably because we were just dumb lucky! Being frostbite savvy is a key bit of knowledge every winter camper should know.

Tom Watson

Frostbite occurs when an extremity of the body, a toe or finger usually, becomes so cold that ice crystals form between the cell walls. Untreated, or poorly treated, a severe case of frostbite can lead to severe pain and the eventual loss of that extremity altogether.

Beware of Hypothermia
Frostbite tends to come about when the body is fighting off hypothermia, a situation where parts of the body are less warm than others as warming blood tends to counter the external cold by constricting back in closer to the heart and other inner vital areas. Add to that the constrictions of blood flow to areas due to too tight fitting clothing (boots, gloves, for example), and conditions are ripe for frostbite.

During winter camping, touching extremely cold metal (gun barrels, knife blades, lantern bodies) or other surfaces, or coming in direct contact with cold liquid fuels, can bring on frostbite, too.

The problem is that while pain is usually an indicator of a problem, as the frostbite advances, the sensation of pain can disappear. The victim may think its over or may not even notice the pain in the first place. The extremity continues to freeze making the matter even worse.

I remember as a kid that we were told to rub snow on a frostbitten area. Typically that was our nose or ears, two areas that generally don’t get frostbitten. Rather they get what’s called frostnipped! Frostbite is much more serious and rubbing snow is NOT the remedy!

How to Treat it
A frostbitten extremity should be dealt with immediately in the following manner:

1. Get the victim out of the immediate environment.

2. Be advised: If the frozen extremity is allowed to thaw slowly, it will generate much pain and can do further damage.

3. Place the frostbitten area in water that is about 100 degrees to 108 degrees F, but not hotter. It is crucial that this temperature be maintained by adding hot water as needed to keep the temperature steady in that range. Do not heat the pan itself and do not allow the extremity affected to touch the sides of the container.

4. Usually after about 20- to 40 minutes, a flush color comes over the area and the skin and muscle feel soft and pliable.

5. While some victims don’t feel any pain after rewarming, some require an aspirin. Pain usually subsides after a short length of time.

6. It is also critically important NOT to let the area re-freeze once it is thawed. If a victim must be moved and there is great chance that the thawed extremity will freeze again — better to travel with it still frozen and not let it thaw out in the first place.

Damages Blood Cells
The biggest mechanism of injury in frostbite is the damage to blood cells and the effects on the circulation system, not the frozen cell space. Blood becomes sludge and serious complications occur. If you are apt to spend time outdoors in extremely cold climates (frostbite occurs only at temperatures lower than 32 degrees F), then take a few minutes to learn all you can about frostbite … and hypothermia (we’ll cover it in another article).

Stay warm out there!

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