Staying safe in winter

Denise Mann

Whether you’re hitting the slopes, taking a winter stroll or building a snowman in the front yard, here are a few considerations and suggestions for staying safe and warm in the great outdoors.

Winter weather hazards

Hypothermia and frostbite are two of the most common winter health hazards. Both can have serious consequences.

Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops, and you lose heat faster than you produce it, typically after exposure to cold temperatures or immersion in cold water. Many cases occur at temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees because exposure to sweat or rain can accelerate the condition. Symptoms start with shivering, and can progress to confusion, drowsiness and loss of consciousness.

“The best thing to do is to get out of the cold, but if that is not possible, change out of your wet clothing or wring out as much water as possible,” says Dr. David Beiser, an emergency room physician at the University of Chicago Medical Center in Illinois.

Frostbite can occur when your skin and tissues are exposed to freezing temperatures for a long period of time. Hands, feet, nose and ears are the most vulnerable. Symptoms include numbness, burning and hard, pale, waxy skin.

Bundle in layers

When dressing for winter activities, layer like an onion, says Martin Kammler, an outdoor sports instructor and personal trainer in New York City. “This means piling on thin layers of clothing so if you start to get too hot, you can peel a layer off,” he says. “You can also put a layer back on if you get cold again.”

Start with a snug-fitting base layer made from a fabric that wicks away moisture, such as polyester, Lycra, nylon or spandex. Other options are merino wool and silk that has been treated to enhance wicking. Avoid cotton, which absorbs moisture.

“Your base layer is critical,” says outdoor enthusiast Ken Liatsos, 45, of Northfield, Vt. Higher-quality fabrics wick moisture away from the skin more efficiently, so don’t skimp when purchasing this layer, he says. “It’s that dryness right against your skin that keeps you warm and helps you fend off hypothermia and the chills.”

Top the base layer with looser wool or synthetic fleece clothing to help insulate you. A final, waterproof outer layer will repel moisture and wind.

Pay special attention to your hands, feet and head -- areas that are especially vulnerable to the cold. Mittens provide greater warmth than gloves, and a hat will help hold in your body heat.

“Socks are incredibly important,” says Liatsos, who suggests socks made from a densely knit material to wick up moisture, hold in heat and prevent blisters and frostbite.

Don’t forget sunglasses, to protect your eyes from bright winter sun and reflection off snow, as well as sunscreen and lip balm.

Stay hydrated

“The feet of skiers or snowboarders can sweat out about an ounce of moisture into each boot before lunch and that fluid has to be replaced,” says Henry Hornberger, general manager of Brian Head Resort in Utah. Even slower-paced activities can result in dehydration.

“Keep a water bottle next to you, not in your backpack where it is hard to reach, and take a sip of water every 10 to 15 minutes,” Kammler says.

Early signs of dehydration include a dry, sticky mouth, thirst, decreased urine out-put, headache, fatigue and dizziness.