Natural disasters aren’t the only thing you need to worry about when you’re moving to a new part of the country to attend college, especially if you’re headed north. Wearing appropriate clothing and taking precautions against the weather during all seasons is just as important. Mostly, this comes down to common sense. When it’s sleeting, for example, going out in shorts can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. Below are a few tips for staying smart in the cold.

Beware of ice.

It just takes one wrong step on the ice to fall down and injure yourself. Take care when walking on the ice, though you should avoid it if possible. Snow provides more traction, though if you don’t know how deep the snow is, it can be a hazard on its own. If you live in an apartment or home with a personal outdoor staircase or walkway, you may be responsible for salting or adding traction (with sand or cat litter) to sidewalks to prevent slippage.

Be especially careful if you are participating in an activity that involves you going out onto a frozen body of water. Ice varies in thickness spatially over a body of water. Ice that is less than four inches thick is dangerously thin and will not support walking. If you see puddles or cracks, even if the ice is thick, the structure is degrading, which means you should avoid the area. If you will be participating in activities on frozen bodies of water, make sure you know the proper rescue procedures should there be an accident.

Wear multiple layers of loose-fitting clothing.

Instead of wearing one long-sleeved tee shirt and a pair of jeans, try a tank, a sweater, and a jacket over that, and wear tall socks or long underwear under your jeans. Layers of clothing trap warm air between them, thereby keeping you warmer for longer. Make sure you also are wearing the proper footwear. Insulated boots, not thin Converse-esque shoes are going to keep you warmest in the winter. If it’s snowing or precipitating in any way, wear a waterproof jacket on top of everything else. Being wet and cold is not only miserable, but can lead to hypothermia and frostbite.

Be aware that drinking alcohol will make you feel artificially warm.

You may feel warm after a couple of drinks, but your blood vessels dilate when you’re drinking and you actually lose heat faster. More blood flowing through your veins means that more blood is nearer to the surface of your skin, which is where you’ll lose the most heat. Your skin may even feel warm to the touch, but your internal organs will lose heat to your skin and the cool air if you don’t take care to protect yourself. So, even if you’ve had a few drinks and the next party isn’t that far away, wear a jacket. You don’t want to get frostbite or hypothermia.

Alcohol also relaxes your inhibitions and contributes to increased clumsiness. If you decide to walk home from a bar instead of take a bus, you may underestimate how long you’ll experience the cold conditions, possibly resulting in hypothermia. Alcohol could also lead to injuries that you wouldn’t have gotten if you were trying to trudge home through the snow sober instead of tipsy.

Stay hydrated.

Staying hydrated is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer, especially if you participate in winter sports (skiing, snowboarding, or snowshoeing). Though you may not feel like you’re sweating, you still lose water when you physically exert yourself (sweat just skips the liquid stage and goes straight into water vapor), and you could end up dehydrated if you don’t replenish your fluids.

Staying hydrated can actually keep you warmer. If you are well hydrated, your blood is taking up more volume in your body. The more blood you have, the longer it will take to cool. Hydration, then, may help prevent frostbite.

Protect your head and extremities.

You lose a lot of heat through your head and mouth, so wear a hat and cover up your face with a scarf. That being said, noses, ears, fingers, and toes are also particularly prone to frostbite in cold weather. Wear wool socks and waterproof, wool- or synthetic-lined boots. Mittens are warmer than gloves, and a hat that covers your ears is going to keep you warmer than a pair of earmuffs.

Watch for hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to cold temperatures or when a person is exposed to or immersed in frigid water. While the body’s core temperature is normally held constant around 98.6°F, people with hypothermia have a core temperature of 95°F or less.

  • Symptoms: The symptoms differ between mild and severe cases of hypothermia. People with mild hypothermia may shiver, feel nauseated, hungry, or tired, experience fast breathing, or an increased heart rate. People who are experiencing severe hypothermia may stop shivering, become confused, try to take off warm clothing, become fatigued, lose consciousness, and exhibit a weak pulse and weak breathing.
  • Treatment: If an individual has gotten wet, all wet clothing must be removed. Then, regardless of the circumstances in which hypothermia began, individuals should be brought inside, put on a warm surface (not the ground, which will contribute to them losing more heat), and covered with blankets or dry clothes. Skin-to-skin contact may help warm up an individual suffering from hypothermia.

Watch for frostbite.

Frostbite can be a side effect of hypothermia, or it can occur on its own when patches of skin (typically on the face, hands, and feet) get extremely cold. Though frostbite often occurs when skin is directly exposed to cold weather, it can occur despite wearing mittens or scarves if the temperatures are cold enough, if it’s cold and wet, or there is enough wind. Frostbite can result in tissue loss.

  • Symptoms: Skin may feel numb, tingly, or like “pins-and-needles.” The frostbitten area may turn red, white, blue, grey, or yellow and become hard. Severe frostbite may result in blisters and the tissues in the affected area may die, leaving the skin black.
  • Treatment: Treatment for frostbite first involves getting away from freezing conditions. If you suspect that you have frostbite and are in a warm area, you can gently rewarm the affected body parts. Do not immerse them in hot water; you will burn yourself. If your frostbite is mild, you may experience pain as the tissue is rewarmed. If you develop blisters on the skin or if you remain in pain after the tissue has returned to body temperature, go to the emergency room.

Page last updated: 02/2017