Home / Winter Hiking / Frozen Fingertips: A Case of 1st Degree Frostbite

Frozen Fingertips: A Case of 1st Degree Frostbite

Frostbite Cartoon

My fingertips froze on a winter hike last February when I took off my gloves to adjust a pair of ski goggles and my hands came in contact with fresh snow. It was freezing out and the wind was blowing, the snow melted on my fingers and I guess my fingertips froze. It happened in a split second, but I felt the effects for 6 months afterwards.

First degree frostbite, also called frostnip, occurs when the surface of your fingers freeze. The underlying tissue of my fingers was unaffected, but I developed numb, waxy looking white areas on my finger tips. It took about 6 months for me to get full sensation back, and even now, it feels like my fingers are still missing some of their former sensitivity.

Nothing much happened for a week after the incident, but then all of the skin on my fingertips flaked off. My fingertips didn’t blister, which would have been an indication of more severe case of frostbite, but it was still a little disconcerting. The skin grew back just fine and my fingertips stopped looking white and waxy eventually and turned pink again. My fingernails kept splitting and cracking for about 9 months afterwards, but have returned to normal again.

I’ve gotten my hands wet on snow before on winter hikes, so the suddenness and severity of getting frostnip really caught me by surprise. It hasn’t cooled my enthusiasm for winter hiking, but you can rest assured I’m going to be a lot more careful about keeping my hands covered with insulation this winter, even if it means a loss of dexterity.

I never thought it would happen to me.

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22 comments

  1. Nasty. One thing to be aware of: I was told by instructors in the Arctic that such injuries leave you more susceptible to the same thing occurring in future.

  2. Must have been some really good thermal density and conductivity in those goggles. I wouldn’t imagine it would happen so fast. Glad things are on the mend.

  3. “I never thought it would happen to me.”

    No matter the severity, we’ve all had that same sentiment at one time or another.

  4. I’m thinking of trying neoprene fishing gloves under mitts. These have some Insulation properties, are not paper thin. Need to be able to set up/operate large format view camera. Tried and still use fingerless gloves under mitts but this would not prevent the problem you describe when fingers exposed.

    Also thinking of using thin, woven elastic gloves like liners under outer gloves or mitts. This is comfortable but they get wet and stay wet.

    Maybe answer is a hybrid one: carry wet proof fisherman neoprenes as liners that can be exposed and used alone for setting up and change to thin woven gloves for operating? And carry several pairs of these wettable woven ones to swap into as they get wet? They are small and light enough to carry in zip lock in jacket pocket.

    • I screwed around with neoprene gloves for a while but gave up because of the lack of dexterity. Then vapor barrier liners including surgical gloves, but you have to take them off eventually and your hands are soaked. Right now, I’m using Possum Wool Gloves. Excellent insulation even when damp. Excellent dexterity.

      The bottom line is keep you hands dry.

  5. This November on Baxter Peak I took off my expedition mitts to use my camera and my hands got so cold that I couldn’t get them back into the mitts. They were like two blocks of wood by the time I got them into my pants pockets.

    I have seen worm diggers and clammers who hands were freezing during the winter on the mud flats use warm liquid placed into neoprene gloves to warm their hands up quickly.

  6. I hope you make a full recovery, I know how frightening that sort of thing can be. However, this is a great reminder to all that regardless of how experienced, prepared, or careful you are, wilderness recreation has its risks. It is our experience, training, and preparedness that allows us to minimize those risks to an acceptable level so that the results of our wilderness experiences are joy, accomplishment, and pleasure rather than fear, injury, and tragedy.

  7. My fingers got frost nipped a few years ago on a Mt. Washington summit attempt. I delayed too long in getting chemical hand warmers into my mitts. I didn’t realize it until I got home. The tips of my fingers felt funny when typing – like I had pads on them. Then the skin on my finger tips all peeled away after a few days. Now my fingers are much more sensitive to cold than every before. I have use chemical heat packs more often right from the beginning of a NH winter hike.

  8. I had frostnip. It’s a displeasing experience, first impulse being to run like hell out of the woods. It was due to lack of patience, concentration, and rushing about. Slow down, think every step thru, was the lesson learned.

  9. Here is a link for a review of the subject for those who like these things: http://www.wildmedcenter.com/uploads/5/9/8/2/5982510/wms_frostbite.pdf

  10. Reminds me of an incident that happened to me in little Sherrill N.Y. in Upstate N.Y. I was in middle school and ran out to catch the bus without a hat, boy was I dumb back then–it was 20 below and the bus was late. Someone said “John what’s wrong with your ears?” I reached up and my earlobes were frozen solid. The bus finally came and as my ears thawed out they really hurt! A few days later they got all blue and nasty, but at least the lobes didn’t drop off. That would be a strange look, ears with no ear lobes. Now I live in Northern California and am going snowshoeing near Lake Tahoe today, but at least I’m taking a hat. Wait a minute, I better double check.

  11. Anybody have any experience with the smartglove heat 3 gloves? I’m in the military in Canada and a lot of guys I work with have them and love them but a lot of them are also idiots. Wondering if anyone has a backpacking perspective/experience with them or can look at them with a backpackers eye and give some insight into how useful they would be for the price of them (around $200)

  12. The greatest problem with getting frost bitten is non realization it is taking place. I was in a situation at minus 20 C on a ski trip and got what I thought were cold feet and took little notice. Later my big toes turned black. A trip to hospital resulted in my toes being saved but are now shorter so rock climbing is out and finding footwear to fit is an ongoing nightmare.
    First aid if frost bite is suspected is to immerse the offended appendage in luke warm water NOT HOT until normal sensation returns; seek professional medical assistance as soon as possible.

  13. I do large format camera photography in Oregon and I have a pair of the heat 3 gloves to use. With heat packs and the gloves your fingers never get fully exposed, so it is much easier working on the camera in the cold. If just hiking without the camera I use liner gloves inside my regular gloves, so if by chance I have to take my hand out of the regular glove my hand is still protected for the short time it is out of the regular glove, but would use the heat gloves for any overnight camping in the winter.

  14. Always wear a thin liner glove under everything else over your hand. The gloves stays on at all times! A trick from being a kid – If your fingers or hands are cold, swing your hand/arm in a big circle a couple of times; doesn’t need to be fast. The centrifugal force forces blood into the smaller blood vessels. This will warm your fingers or hands.

    If you’re cool, blood flow to your extremities is reduced. If blood flow to your finger tips is reduced, and you pull your insulating layers off, and throw some snow and wind into the deal, the already reduced blood flow is going to shut off entirely. Before removing insulating layers from your hands, swing them in circles. You’ll feel any tingling/cold diminish as the vessels are forced open.

    Heat packs are the best things since sliced bread. Use them! We put 12 hour heat packs in our boots. Our clothing layers include coveralls on the outside over everything. The heat from your boots will travel up your body and remain contained by the coveralls. Very effective. You can find coveralls in second hand stores and at dry cleaners that have contracts with local garages etc. I go through a pair a year between winter camping and commercial diving and work around the house and shop. I think the most I’ve ever paid is maybe $25. Coveralls are very effective at closing the ‘chimney effect’ that occurs when warm air exits the top of your jacket/parka. Pull them off your arms and shoulders and tie the arms around your waist to prevent overheating.

    And of course everyone knows to pack a bunch of heat packs in your sleeping bag, right? Tear them open as the night requires.

    • Agree – I user Smartwool liners under an OR fleece mitt with fold back finger and thumb covers and regular or insulating shells. You can quickly expose the gloved fingers to take a picture or eat some food without ever exposing your skin. (Unless you are trying to take a picture for someone with a cell phone.) Find it works really well.

  15. While not frost-nip or frost bite I suffer from perniosis (chillblains) every winter and have to be really careful with my hands. It starts with my fingers (generally) and occasionally getting too cold which causes my capilliaries to react negatively and over-compensate as they warm back up. The result is red, painful bumps that become itchier as they heal before they come to the surface, crack and get tender again.

    As such I have to be extremely careful in the cold with my hands and my feet. I currently have 7 of these on my fingers, with 3 on one finger alone. For some reason I never seem to get them on my thumbs.

  16. I wear a pair of Terramar Thermasilk glove liners under my gloves (or mittens). They are very thin so I still have normal finger dexterity but provide a barrier between my fingers and what ever I’m touching when my real gloves are off. I really big help!

  17. Living in WI, I can relate to the feeling. We have had temperatures down to -5 F this week, and even doing simple things outside like taking the dogs out for a walk, shoveling snow, or doing things outside around the house you need to be very careful with this.

    I had this happen a while back when my hands got wet when working in my shed. Not as severe as you describe, but I definitely had diminished feeling in my fingertips for a few weeks. It sucks.

    Now at a bare minimum I’ll wear a thin pair of cheap liner gloves if I need to have a bit of dexterity, but I’ll keep my thicker gloves in my jacket pocket and put them back on right away if I’ll be outside for a longer period of time. Even a thing pair of liner gloves made of cotton or silk is better than nothing, it at least creates a thin barrier.

  18. I have a pair of Manzella heavyish liner gloves with the fingertips cut off that I bought at Mass Army Navy about 20 years ago. These are my only gloves when it is cool. In the cold I wear them in my wool mitts in my overmitts. When I pull off the mitts I have all the dexterity I need, yet keeping the hand warm seems to carry over to keeping the fingertips warm.

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