Tips for avoiding frostbite when playing outside in winter
When the mercury dips in the dead of winter, parents often ask, “How cold is too cold to play outside?” Do a Google search, look on outdoor forums, and you will be advised that 0C or -10C is the absolute coldest you should take kids out in, while some tout -30C (-22F) as safe. For the majority of people, up to -15C (5F) is manageable, provided you are dressed appropriately (exceptions: newborns, people whose airways are affected by cold air). Below -15C is totally doable as well, provided you take precautions to prevent frostbite. Learn more about how to avoid frostbite.
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What factors increase the risk of frostbite?
If I remember one thing from the Climatology courses I took back in University, -18C (-0.4F) is the temperature at which flesh freezes. I like my nose and toes, so I pay close attention to the weather in the winter. Even with mild frostbite (known as frost nip), damage is permanent. Once you’ve frozen your nose, cheeks tips, and/or fingertips, the frostbitten parts hurt whenever they get cold. Not worth the pain if you want a lifetime of winter sport enjoyment. This said, we’ve gone on many a cross country ski or snowshoe trip in -20something C with no adverse effects because we were dressed for the weather. If you’re covered up and warm, you won’t get frostbite!
Besides temperature, you need to consider windchill, the chance of getting wet, time of day, duration of time spent outside, location (how long will it take emergency services / roadside assistance to arrive?), and pre-existing health conditions:
It is possible to get frostbite in mild temperatures if the windchill index is high. For example, if it is -10C and the wind is 20 km/hr, it feels like -18 C! In these conditions, you should take precautions against frostbite.
Safety tips: Cover up all skin. Dress in layers. Do frequent skin checks (see if your child’s skin feels cool to the touch). If your child won’t keep a face mask or mitts on, limit time outside. See more tips below.
2. Being damp/wet in the cold is dangerous
If wet snow or sleet is falling, or the kids want to play in the slush, limit your time outside. I let the kids get wet making a snowman in our yard or park across the street, but would not let them do this when we are in the mountains cross country skiing or snowshoeing because they will get too cold too fast. Besides being miserable, they could get hypothermia!
“Your body temperature can drop to a low level at temperatures of 50°F (10°C) or higher in wet and windy weather, or if you are in 60°F (16°C) to 70°F (21°C) water.”WebMD
Tip: Save snow play for AFTER skiing/hiking/snowshoeing, play near the trailhead, and keep extra clothes and socks in the car (and your backpack), so the kids can quickly change out of wet clothes when they get cold. We keep down blankets in our car too.
Time of Day
Plan to be outside during the warmest time of the day. By mid/late morning, the temperature may be several degrees warmer making it not only safer, but a lot more pleasant! However, heading out too late means you might not make it back before dark. Check when sunset will be and remember that the sun sets earlier in the mountains. As the sun goes down, the temperature will drop rapidly, so you should plan to be back at your vehicle/cabin/tent before sunset.
The colder it is, the shorter your outside playtime should be, especially if your kids are really little. I have taken my kids outside in -20C and colder, but we bundle up, take breaks as needed, and take frostbite precautions (see below). This not only ensures everyone’s safety, but ensures the kids have fun and want to go out and play in the cold again. : ) We played 20-30 minutes at a time in -20C or below when they were toddlers, and 2-4 hours when they were preschoolers. Bigger kids can stay out a lot longer, but whether they like it is another issue.
Stay out of the backcountry when it gets too cold. You may plan to only be out for an hour, and aren’t worried about your baby because she’s bundled up in the Chariot, but what if you come back to a car that won’t start? (Why everyone should have a battery-powered jump starter in their vehicle!) Or, what if you hurt yourself on the trail and have to wait for a helicopter evacuation? Those are challenging enough situations for the toughest of us, but being outside for hours in extreme cold could be dangerous for young children. Another good reason to pack extra clothes and a foam pad to sit/lie on.
On a related note, when trip planning, consider the aspect of the trail. West facing slopes get more sun than east facing slopes, so you will be warmer and have more daylight. Last fall, when we were hiking back from Pocaterra Ridge in the shade, Ptarmigan Cirque (across the valley) was still in full sun.
Pre-Existing Health Conditions
Some health conditions warrant taking it easy or limiting time outside in the cold. If you have Raynaud’s, you will have to take extra care to dress warmly to avoid Raynaud’s spasms. See Surviving Winter with Raynaud’s for my tips on keeping warm and pain free.
Asthma can also be triggered by dry, cold air. Be sure to carry your rescue inhaler, don’t over do it, and protect your airway (a facemask with breathing vents is recommended). More tips in Staying Active With Exercise-Induced Asthma.
If you’re concerned about the cold’s effect on your health, speak with your doctor.
How to avoid getting frostbite
Although activity level can increase your body temperature, it does not reduce your risk of frostbite in extreme cold. Please take the precautions below to avoid frostbite if you must head out in temperatures below -18C (-0.4F). Also, it’s important to remember that babies in backpacks or strollers are not as warm as you because they aren’t moving, so you must do hand/feet/body checks regularly and limit time outside in extreme temperatures.
- Carry extra layers, mitts, face masks / neck gaiters, hand warmers, and toe warmers. For product recommendations, please see our story: The Best Winter Gear for Kids or Fall/Winter Hiking Gear.
- Cover all exposed skin: wear ski goggles to cover the top of your face, and a balaclava/scarf/neck warmer to cover the rest of your face. A hat with earflaps will help protect your ears. Mittens are better than gloves at keeping hands warm; get waterproof mitts for your kids since they always want to play in the snow. *For severe weather, I recommend transporting babies and toddlers in a Chariot or similar sports stroller with a cover to protect them from the elements.*
- Do hand checks every half hour (feel their fingers and make sure they’re not red) to make sure your child’s hands are warm and dry.
- Check your child’s body and feet regularly to ensure she is warm and dry. Change any wet articles of clothing immediately.
- Carry hand and toe warmers for very cold weather and use them before pain sets in. The Magic Bag (oat bag) is an affordable, reusable heat pack you can keep in the stroller at your child’s feet. It’s also safer than a hot water bottle that could crack and leak.
- If the temperature or wind is severe, take shelter. Go indoors if possible. Otherwise, get out of the wind, then set up a siltarp or build a snow shelter if necessary. If you are towing a Chariot, fasten the cover securely to keep heat in (but leave a side vent partly open to prevent condensation buildup).
- Bring extra clothes: Mitts and socks tend to get wet, so extras are a must. Pack an extra toque in case one gets lost, and an extra fleece/down jacket per person. We always put on the extra layer at snack time (you cool down fast when you’re not moving).
- Keep down blankets and a solar-powered lantern in your vehicle in case you get stranded.
Winter is wonderful if you are dressed for it!