Beat the Cold

Proper winter clothing, exercising caution keys to avoiding hypothermia and frostbite

Posted: Sunday, December 11, 2005

If enjoying the winter as well as surviving until spring is one of your wildly important goals for the next few months, success could depend on how you dress.

"There's no bad weather - just bad clothes," said Karl Bausler. He believes the advice comes from an old Norwegian saying, he added, and he plans to follow it when he enjoys the upcoming winter.

Snow brightens up Juneau, he said. "When we had the snow (last weekend), did you see how everybody's spirits brightened? It transforms the spirit."

But he said he once got frostbite to the tip of his nose on Denali. "Frostnip, really."

Dressing warmly might seem like obvious advice, but last weekend's snow, the clear and colder weather that preceded or the warmer rains that followed it all could be hazardous to your health.

Temperatures don't need to get much below freezing for people to be hit with frostbite, Bausler said. And hypothermia can be life-threatening with temperatures in the 40s.

Bausler, a nurse practitioner and physician's assistant with the U.S. Public Health Service assigned to the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium clinic in Juneau and a member of Juneau Mountain Rescue, said surviving winter weather is a matter of preparation.

People have frozen to death in the city, said Juneau Police Sgt. David Campbell, who has been in the capital for about 10 years. "I can think of a couple," he said. "It's been a while."

The problem is greater in colder places he has worked farther north, in Fairbanks and Anchorage. The Glory Hole, Juneau's downtown homeless shelter, helps keep people off the streets, he said.

Cold-weather tips

• Be wary of hypothermia when wet while temperatures dip near 40 degrees Farenheit.

• Avoid cotton layers next to the skin; favor polypropylene or other moisture-wicking fabrics.

• Wear fleece over the inner layer.

• Keep an extra layer, such as a fleece, dry in a plastic bag.

• Eat high-carbohydrate snacks to quicken the heart rate when cold.

Preventing frostbite is a matter of being covered, Bausler said. Body tissues could start to freeze at 25 degrees. Extremities farthest from the heart - hands, feet, nose and cheeks - are most at risk.

Frostnip is a local cold injury with blood vessels constricting but generally no tissue damage. Superficial frostbite can cause swelling and sometimes blisters. Deeper frostbite can cause nerve damage. The extent of the injury will depend on whether blood circulation can be restored, Bausler said.

Juneau's milder winters, though, hold hazards of their own. It doesn't take freezing temperatures for cold to stop a beating heart.

Most of the people overcome by winter weather here are out having a good time, Bausler said. Skiers and snowboarders dress knowing they'll be playing in the snow, as do snowmobilers. Hunters know what they're in for, although some hikers might be fooled into thinking conditions don't require them to weigh down with such preparation.

The big problem occurs when something goes wrong.

Bruce Bowler of SEADOGS - Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Searches - has been involved in looking for a lot of people when things have gone wrong.

He recalled that about 10 years ago, he was the incident commander in a search for a hunter on Douglas Island who was found face down in a creek - naked.

Whatever the technical cause of death, it was the hypothermia that killed the man, Bowler said, adding that he wasn't reported missing soon enough. In the end he took off his clothes because he was disoriented from "classic" hypothermia symptoms. "The shivering and cold and pain goes away.

"He made some bad choices," Bowler added.

A fatal choice was cotton, however warm the layers might have seemed before he set out, Bowler explained. The man was wearing cotton long underwear, a cotton T-shirt and cotton camouflage pants.

Exertion led to perspiration that the cotton clothing held next to the man's skin, Bowler explained. Then there was rain and the rain turned to snow.

"It doesn't have to get below freezing," Bausler said. Being cold in wet cotton clothes "is not like getting out of the shower."

Water next to the body pulls heat from the body faster than air can.

With mild hypothermia, body temperature can drop to about 91 to 95 degrees, he said. "You may have trouble tying your shoes. You may have trouble saying words." Uncontrollable shivering, he added, is the body's attempt to quicken the heart rate.

The shivering stops with mild hypothermia, when temperature drops to the 80s. Breathing and pulse rate drop. "You may have trouble walking."

As it gets worse, it can cause disorientation and hallucinations, he explained. At its worst, a body temperature dropping to 78 degrees can cause a heart to go into arrest, he added.

Even in dry conditions cotton can be bad for a layer of clothing next to the skin because it will hold onto perspiration.

When rescuers find hypothermic people, they get them out of their wet clothes and try to warm them to get their body temperature back up. Eating snacks high on carbohydrates and sugar can get the heart moving quicker.

But the best way to deal with hypothermia is to avoid it, he said.

While both Bowler and Bausler advise people to dress in layers, Bausler said people going out in the cold for activities should hold a layer back at the start. Being a little cool at first won't be a problem and the physical activity will lead to more warmth.

He suggests starting with the fleece dry in a plastic bag.

Cotton is fine in a controlled environment in a home or office, but out in the elements it's important to wear something that won't hold moisture next to the skin.

"Clothing is really important and it's improving a lot," he said. Polypropylene is one of the newer synthetic fibers that will draw moisture away from the body.

Over a moisture-resistant base, Bausler recommends a fleece. While conditions will dictate how warmly people will need to dress, Bausler said a water-protective layer should be worn on the outside.

The big thing is preparation, and keeping a clear head. Bausler said. If you're lost, it's better to stay put and wait for rescuers to find you, he said.

He was part of the Juneau Mountain Rescue team that rescued tourists who were stranded on Herbert Glacier in a helicopter crash in 1999. Although it wasn't yet winter, they faced harsher winter conditions than are typical in Juneau.

The helicopter had an emergency kit that included a plastic tub that the people from the helicopter used to make blocks of snow to shield them from the wind before the rescue.

The opportunity to get out into the wilderness is one of the great things about Juneau, Bowler said. He wouldn't tell people not to enjoy it.

"We've got a beautiful country," he said. "You've got to be prepared for what it will throw back at you."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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