Frostbite: protect your feet this winter (2023 update)

Ontario’s ski resorts are about to open for the 2023/24 winter season so it’s time to strap on your snowshoes, step into your skis, and wax up your snowboard. You’ll be in good company too, as over 8% of Canadians now take part in snow sports on a regular basis, and 18.6 million Canadians visited a ski resort in the 2021-22 season.

You can check out the latest snow conditions for all Ontario ski resorts at the Ontario Snow Resorts Association. The popular Blue Mountain resort opens on December 6th, and at time of writing their webcam is showing a good covering of snow at the top of Silver Bullet. (Check the latest views here.)

Winter sports and frostbite

From early in the season onwards it can get very cold in our Ontario mountains, even if the weather is relatively mild at lower levels. Sudden drops in temperature and increasing windchill increase the risk of cold-related injuries, including frostnip and frostbite. It is important to ensure you stay warm (and dry) when enjoying winter sports, especially if over a sustained time such as cross-country or marathon skiing, or sled racing.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite occurs when your skin freezes and ice crystals form underneath it, and usually affects your toes, ears, hands and face. Indeed,

Approximately 90% of frostbite injuries occur on the hands, feet, or face, highlighting the potential for significant functional implications, particularly in the setting of amputation.”

Once temperatures drop below freezing (32 degrees F / 0 degrees C) there is a risk of frostbite. This increases significantly below 0 degrees F / -17 degrees C. Add in a windchill factor of -19 degrees F, and your flesh will freeze in less than 30 minutes.

The three stages of frostbite

Frostnip is an early stage of frostbite and is reversible if treated in time. Frostbite is more serious and can result in serious damage to vulnerable areas of your body, including permanent nerve damage, blisters, infection, and loss of fingers, toes and even limbs.

  • Frostnip

Symptoms include tingling in affecting areas, with the skin becoming cold, numb and white in colour. Frostnip usually affects extremities – toes, fingers, ears and nose.

  • Intermediate stage frostbite

Intermediate stage frostbite is caused by prolonged exposure to cold, which causes tissue damage. The area affected will feel frozen and hard. When the skin warms again, it will usually turn red and blister. You should seek medical attention to avoid lasting damage.

  • Advanced frostbite

Advanced frostbite is when the skin turns white, blue or blotchy and is cold and hard to the touch. Severe frostbite (or deep frostbite) can penetrate into the muscles, nerves tendons and bones beneath the skin. When the skin thaws out, blood-filled blisters form which turn black over time, and some tissue may die. Dead tissue may have to be removed due the risk of infection. Severe frostbite can have long-term effects such as increased sensitivity to cold, numbness, loss of sense of such and persistent pain.

Five top tips for avoiding frostbitten feet

We can’t stress this enough – it’s all about wearing the right gear, from top to toe. Keep warm and covered as much as possible to keep your feet, hands and skin safe and to maintain your core body heat.

  1. Buy the right footwear

Invest in good quality ski boots or snow boots and ensure they are a good fit. Keep them clean and well maintained so they are waterproof, flexible (if required) and free from dirt, mud, salt and other potentially corrosive elements.

  1. Spend money on your socks

Socks may not be the most glamorous winter sports clothing item, but they are crucial to maintaining foot health. Wear clean, dry thermal socks that wick moisture away from the skin. If your feet get wet, change your socks for a clean, dry pair as soon as possible. Wet cold toes are far more at risk from frostbite than warm, dry ones.

  1. Take off any toe rings

Any metal jewellery will freeze faster than your skin and will therefore cool down surrounding skin faster. The same applies to earrings, nose studs, body piercings, etc.

  1. Cover up exposed skin

Exposed skin is most at risk, so wear insulated gloves, cover your face and wear goggles to protect your eyes. If you notice any patches of whiteness on exposed skin, seek shelter immediately and get medical help. Don’t venture out if you’ve had frostbite already, as this can damage affected parts further. (And please, don’t remove your boots to change socks when outside!)

  1. Plan your day

Check the snow conditions and the temperatures in specific parts of the resort, and keep an eye on wind speeds. Getting wet feet in the slush at the foot of a mountain then taking the lift to the freezing top is not a good plan!

First aid for frostbite

If you suspect you are developing the early stages of frostbite, move to a warm location as soon as possible. Walking distances on frostbitten feet and toes can cause further damage.

  • Remove wet clothing and replace with warm and dry items.
  • Wrap yourself in a blanket.
  • Protect the frostbite areas but do not rub or expose to direct heat (such as an open fire). This can cause further damage.
  • Seek urgent medical assistance for severe frostbite.

Rewarming after frostnip and frostbite

Frostnip rewarming can be done by soaking the affected area in warm water. Rewarming areas affected by frostbite should be done with the help of a medic to avoid further damage. Rewarming should take place gradually over a 30-minute period and may include submersing the affected toes in warm water, at no more than 39 Degrees c / 102.2F). Once warm, your feet should be kept clean and dry, and usually wrapped in a bandage to separate the affected toes.

Be trench foot aware

It’s not just freezing temperatures than can damage your skin tissue. If your feet are wet in temperatures between freezing and 10degree C, you run the risk of trench foot. So called because it affected troops standing in dug-out trenches filled with water, trench foot is a serious condition that can lead to complications.

“Injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25-times faster than dry feet. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. Skin tissue begins to die because of lack of oxygen and nutrients and due to the build-up of toxic products.”

So when skiing or participating in any winter sport, it is important to keep your feet dry. If your feet do get wet, or even just sweaty-wet, you should change both your socks and footwear as soon as possible. And yes, that does mean straight after skiing and before the apres-ski bar happy hour!

Help from our footcare experts

If you’ve damage or injury to any part of your feet, call us. We offer expert advice, treatments and recovery/rehabilitation plans to help you get back on your feet at our local foot clinics in Ontario.

Published On: December 1, 2023