Head, Fingers, Nose and Toes:
Keeping Extremities Warm in the Winter
By Sherry Ballou Hanson
Getting cold in winter is serious. Frostbite comes easily, especially to fingers,
toes and ears.
“When you get cold, blood shunts from extremities to the heart and other vital
organs, so hands and feet get really cold,” warns Lucretia Woodruff,
Co-director of Bowdoin College’s Outing Club.
Dehydration and/or inadequate food, especially fatty foods that provide long
lasting fuel, contribute to rapid heat loss. You need fluids and calories to stay
warm, and to fuel your activity.
Prepare and Layer
What can you do to be better prepared for such activities as ice fishing, snow
shoeing, cross country skiing or taking a run on the snowmobile?
First of all, suggests Woodruff, listen to the weather so you know what to expect.
Then prepare accordingly, but always allow for surprises such as getting lost,
falling in water, a blizzard or sudden drop in temperature.
“Always have a full change of clothes when you are going out for such activities
as ice fishing and snowmobiling, even cross country skiing,” she says. Add to
this a little knowledge about today’s fabrics and you can avoid a lot of pain and
Phil Savignano, Director of L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools, deals with the
same problems as Woodruff when preparing people to participate in Discovery
“Stay away from cotton,” both warn. If you are from the old school that always
put on a tee shirt and long johns made of cotton before going out on the
snowshoes, think again. Cotton gets wet as you perspire and does not dry out,
nor does it wick moisture away from your skin. You’re stuck with wet clothing,
and when you stop your activity you can get cold very fast.
Top Down Layers
Layering is the system today, and synthetics are the first line of defense, even for
fingers and toes.
“If you have cold feet, put a hat on,” suggests Savignano. Eight percent of the
body’s heat is lost through the head, so forget the macho image and put one on,
or at least take it with you. You may be comfy while you blast down that cross
country trail, but when you stop for lunch you will cool off fast. This is the time
to put the hat on. Look for one that can roll down over the ears and back of neck.
Gore-Tex works well because it is both breathable and water proof. The balaclava
is great for protecting neck and ears. Fleece or wool works well for the head, too.
Carry a fleece or polyester neck warmer in your pack, or wear it like a turtleneck.
It doesn’t take up much space and can roll up to cover both neck and ears.
Downhill skiers know the value of a face mask on really cold days, as do
snowmobilers going out on the trail. Neoprene is a good fabric for the mask, and
you can roll it up off your face if you heat up.
New Fibers Keep You Warmer
Maybe you’ve had the experience of putting on what appear to be warm gloves
or mittens, only to have your fingers freezing within minutes. Gloves don’t allow
heat to circulate between the fingers, but allow you to use your hands better for
such activities as lacing and unlacing boots or starting a fire.
The solution, says Savignano, is a polyester liner glove underneath wool or
polyester mitts. Add Nylon or Gore-Tex overmitts or shells and you should stay
warm, as these are wind and waterproof.
Cold feet can bring even the most avid skier off the slopes. This aggravation
usually results in the skier finding a better solution next time out. But if you're
out in the woods on a snowmobile, miles from anywhere, cold feet can be
“Once you have had frostbite, you are always susceptible afterwards,” says
Woodruff. When asked what was the most common problem with students on
Bowdoin Outing Club expeditions, she says: "Not having the proper boots. We
see a lot of people without the right foot gear.”
For the feet, like the hands, a thin polyester liner works well, topped by wool or
polyester socks. Don’t wear so many socks that you restrict blood flow to the feet.
“If you feel like your boot laces are going to pop, that’s too tight,” says
Savignano. When you select boots for your sport, make sure they are loose
enough to accommodate both liners and socks. Don’t choose cotton socks! Go
synthetic all the way. This system of beginning with synthetics and dressing in
layers works, no matter what your sport is.
Keep in mind the nature of your activity. Ice fishing and snowmobiling can chill
the body quickly. Wind against you on the sled requires a total wind layer over
insulating clothing. If you are standing on the ice for hours those boots had better
be well insulated and thick soled.
On the other hand, activities like cross country skiing and snow shoeing make
you sweat. When you stop, you cool down fast. You need to be able to put on
and take off layers. You also need to be prepared with a complete change of
clothing in case you end up soaked in sweat many miles from home.
Follow the advice of experts and enjoy!
About the author: Sherry Ballou Hanson has published hundreds of articles in magazines,
newspapers, newsletters, and on line publications Sherry was a Health Correspondent for
drkoop.com in 2001. She also wrote the Mid-Coast chapter or Fodor’s Travel Publications,
Inc.'s 2005 Gold Guide, Maine Coast. Sherry lives in Brunswick, Maine, and in her spare
time, enjoys walking, hiking, inline skating, biking, kayaking, skiing, archery, writing,
reading and star gazing.