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We are fortunate to live in an area that offers so many winter activities: from ice skating, to skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing or, just simply a quiet walk in the woods. The beauty that surrounds us while we participate in these activities is breathtaking.

But, with that beauty, lies danger. Being prepared for cold winter activities is a must to keep us all safe and sound, and to prevent injuries, and yes, even death, from exposure to the cold. Here are some general tips to keep safe in the winter cold:

The biggest dangers to people who are outdoors in the cold are hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia is when your body temperature is abnormally low because the body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. It doesn't have to be extremely cold; other factors can cause hypothermia. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hypothermia can occur from cool temperatures above 40 degrees F if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes loss of feeling and color in the affected areas (most often the nose, cheeks, chin, fingers, toes and ears). Frostbite can cause permanent damage, and in some cases may result in amputation of the affected body part. Thus, dressing appropriately is essential.


Dressing in layers is important. Start with a thin layer of wool, silk or polypropylene. These wick moisture away from the skin. Avoid cotton, as cotton holds onto moisture, increasing the risk of hypothermia. Thermal long underwear helps hold in the heat that the body produces.

The choice between wool, silk, or polypropylene is a personal one. Synthetic polypropylene generally dries the fastest and thus it may be best for wet weather and high humidity; one downside is that polypropylene tends to retain odors and so it requires more frequent washing. Soft merino wool is a bit bulkier than the other two choices, but it works in both warm and cool conditions and is warmer than synthetic fabrics of the same weight. Silk is best for moderately-cool conditions as its wicking ability is less than polypropylene and wool. It adds no bulk, but it requires more careful and frequent washing.

On top of thermal underwear, add several layers of loose fitting clothing that can be easily removed when you become warm to prevent sweating. The top layer should be water resistant coat, snow pants and boots to help keep your body warm and dry.

Wear wool socks. It's best to double up on the socks to keep your feet toasty. Mittens keep hands and fingers warmer than gloves. We lose a substantial amount of heat from our head, so a good statement to remember: if your feet are cold, put on a hat. Avoid leaving skin exposed.

Any time you plan on going out in the cold, let family and friends know where you are going and what time to expect you back. If you do not return at the specified time, your loved ones will know where to begin looking for you.

Consider taking a winter survival kit with you. This is especially important if you are going to be in remote locations. Being prepared for an unexpected situation such as getting lost, running out of gas, or getting stuck in the snow can save your life. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety recommends that your survival kit should include the following: flashlight, warm blanket or sleeping bag (lightweight survival blankets are available), a change of warm clothing (include socks and gloves), food, first aid kit, flares, water resistant matches, a Swiss Army knife or Leatherman, rope, whistle, compass and water.

Winter weather is generally predictable, although it can change quickly. Watch the weather and listen to travel advisories, and adjust your travel accordingly. Avoid being outside or traveling when the roads are covered with ice. If you do have to travel in winter weather, make sure your vehicle is in good working order with proper tires; use chains if you have them. Have your cell phone with you. It may not work everywhere, but take it anyway.

If you do get stranded in your vehicle, the CDC recommends that staying in your vehicle is generally safer than getting out. Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna to signal that you are stranded. Move items you might need from your trunk to the passenger compartment. Use the extra clothing, blanket or sleeping bag to keep yourself warm. Hypothermia can make you feel sleepy so staying awake can save your life.

Before leaving on any trip make sure you have a full tank of gas. If you become stranded, assure that snow or other debris is not blocking the exhaust pipe and run the motor and heater for about 10 minutes an hour. Open the window slightly to let air in and to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Do not eat snow as this will lower your body temperature. If there are other people in your car, huddle together for warmth.

Being prepared for the unexpected during winter weather can save you from injury or death. If you are prepared, you can stop worrying. With proper precautions, you can just have fun and enjoy the beauty the West River Valley has to offer.

Jorda Daigneault received a diploma from the St. Elizabeth's Hospital School of Nursing, a BSN from the University of the State of New York, her Family Nurse Practitioner Master's degree from the University of Vermont, and an MS in Disaster Medicine and Management from Philadelphia University. She worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock for 27 years and joined the staff of Grace Cottage in 2015.