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Endurance vs. Frostbite: How Long Can You Truly Survive In Extreme Cold?

Image source: NY Daily News

Image source: NY Daily News

Reflections on the strength and endurance of human history will yield a picture of Inuits and Native cultures around the world surviving the most extreme climates and the harshest weathers.

The older we become as a species, the more we recognize the real dangers that surround us each day, much like growing up from youthful bliss when we would run barefoot through the woods and play with insects when we had no clue what they were. Today, we understand how fragile we truly are and take extra precautions not to harm our bodies. But do we really need to go to extremes to protect ourselves from the cold?

While frostbite and hypothermia are very real concerns, how long can a human body endure the cold, wind, and snow before it becomes too much? There may be no definitive answer here, where layering, protection, and weather conditions are all large variables, but for expedition teams, winter workers and those seemingly crazy enough to brave the outdoors in negative temperatures, there is obviously a limit that human beings can tolerate. So what is that limit, you may ask? What follows is some not-so-common knowledge that anyone who wishes to brave the winter elements should associate themselves with.

What is Frostbite?

Many people understand the dangers of facing extreme weather conditions, especially when wind chills can quickly drop down to -50 degrees Fahrenheit in certain regions. But what is frostbite — and how do you know what to look for before it’s too late? Early warning signs of frostbite are called frost-nip, and will begin to tingle and feel like a burning sensation in exposed areas, smaller extremities, and bare skin before becoming discolored and eventually numb to the touch. Those areas furthest away from the heart and direct blood-flow are typically the first to become damaged by extreme cold, starting with a superficial and rapid cooling of tissue, before completely freezing and destroying the deep tissue.

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Enough exposure will begin to free nerves, muscles, tendons and eventually the blood. If lucky enough to survive, mobility may become lost permanently in those areas. This is known as third- and fourth-degree frostbite. Most people will only ever deal with second-degree frostbite if they recognize early warning signs, and may develop hard blisters that will turn black over a day or two. Proper treatment from this point renders the possibility of salvaging your sensitivity, but some people will become permanently numb to hot and cold. Being prepared and understanding the warning signs and wind chill factors is the best way to keep from experiencing these results.

How Cold is Too Cold: Wind Chill & the Elements

While it may be tolerable to take a morning walk or ski in -10 degrees Fahrenheit on a sunny day, inclement weather such as snow, wind chill and humidity should be considered before leaving home. On a clear, calm day, extra layering and a thought toward frostbite-prone areas should be given, such as fingers, toes, ears, nose and hands, but no more than what is comfortable and unrestricting to blood flow. Depending on the temperature outside, even the slightest breeze is enough to draw heat away from your body, where higher gusts can quickly cool exposed skin surfaces and cause the tissue to become brittle.

Image source: NBC News

Image source: NBC News

The reason that frostbite sets in more rapidly when wind speeds are higher is due to the body’s inability to maintain surface heat. While wind will not be able to lower your body temperature below the true ambient temperature, the harsh effects act as a type of burn in extreme conditions, eventually blistering and causing the exposed area to fall off. Having a good idea of the weather forecast and factoring in wind chill temperatures will keep you free from frostbite during longer periods of exposure.

Wind Chill Calculations

The most widely accepted means of calculating wind chill is the National Weather Service Wind Chill Chart. Formulated by explorers in the Antarctic, the NWS in the 1970s adopted the model, which attempts to calculate temperature minus wind speed and project a nearly accurate description of what your skin surface experiences under these circumstances, and how long it will take for frostbite to set in.

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For example, an outside temperature of -10 degrees Fahrenheit with winds reaching 5 mph will take approximately 30 minutes for frostbite to take place, where the same -10 degrees and winds of 25 mph will only take 10 minutes. Studying this chart, along with how to prevent and treat frostbite could successfully save your life in an emergency situation.

Prevention

Knowing what to expect and being prepared is the best way to prevent frostbite. Always make sure to cover extremities and protect your skin. Dress in layers of loose clothing, consider mittens instead of gloves to keep your fingers working and circulating heat together, and purchase socks and liners that won’t constrict blood flow and wick perspiration away from your body. Staying dry is one of the biggest tips to preventing frostbite. One trick that allows mountain exploration teams and outdoor winter workers to survive extreme colds and harsh winds is to add a layer of protection between the skin and the elements by using Vaseline or petroleum jellies, balms, lotions and aloe Vera on exposed areas. Drink lots of fluids before and during exposure to keep your blood circulating, and consider consuming the herb Ginkgo Biloba, which will broaden capillaries, allowing a larger area for blood flow and more room in your veins to help from freezing.

Treatment

Should you find yourself in an emergency situation, always call for help and get indoors or to a shelter when possible. Since frostbite is the freezing of your tissues, never ever rub or slap the area, as this will break tissue and cartilage, causing permanent damage. Attempt to rewarm the area either with a warm bath or a large number of blankets. Using another person’s body heat is a good way to rewarm as well, but don’t attempt to thaw any area that may freeze again, as the tissue will believe that it is gaining circulation again and suffocate from a lack of oxygen. Try taking some pain pills, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics to treat the frostbite and associated pain from inside, as a return of blood flow will cause intense discomfort to the victim. Always seek medical attention and keep a close watch on the frostbitten area.

Frostbite and hypothermia are no joke. The dangers are very real and not knowing what you’re getting in to, what to look for, and how to prevent these conditions can mean almost certain death if you’re not careful. Fortunately, our bodies can handle a lot more than we give them credit for, but make sure that you understand the risks and how you plan to react should anything go awry. People have been living in extreme conditions for thousands of years, proving that our minds and bodies will work together for survival if we prepare for it.

Again, seek medical attention if you believe that you have been stricken with frostbite or hypothermia, and be mindful of weather conditions before you venture too far out into the wild. Be smart and stay safe out there.

What are ways you avoid frostbite in extreme cold weather? Share your tips in the section below:

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2 comments

  1. Have been living in the upper mid west all my life and layering has always been the mantra here.. A good common sense article. Thank you

  2. ColdWeatherSurvivor

    You can use a semi-sheer scarf draped over your face to block or diminish the wind flowing over it. There’s a trade-off between being sheer enough to get the best sight vs. getting the best wind blocking ability. I keep a scarf like this in my vehicle. This can be useful for children who might need to walk along with you (need to see) but may not be old enough to be old enough to tell you there’s a serious problem. This also works to shield a child’s face for a lengthy walk to/from a building and can easily be draped over my shoulders once we are inside.

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