Winter First Aid

I’ve written a number of pieces about how you can prevent the need for winter first aid such as layering, eating, and getting a good night’s sleep.

I’ve also shared some structures you can build if you find yourself stuck out in the elements unexpectedly.

This post will look at three common ailments and injuries that occur in the winter and the basic first aid to treat them.

Please note: I’ve kept details here to a minimum because this is not intended as a comprehensive first aid handbook. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, I highly recommend a wilderness first aid course at a minimum. There are any number of reputable providers who offer these kinds of courses. Please e-mail me if you need recommendations.


What is it: Excessive loss of water from the body.

Symptoms: Irritability, low energy, bad judgement

How to treat it: Reintroduce liquids slowly and steadily. If severely dehydrated, evacuate and seek medical attention.


What is it: Lowering of the core temperature to below normal temperature by 1ºC or more. This can occur at any external temperature.

Symptoms: Weak or tired, negative attitude, bad judgement, confusion, extremities turn blue

How to treat it: Get out of damp, wet clothes and into dry clothes. Insulate from the ground. Give warm, sweet food and / or drink to help provide energy. If hypothermia is severe (patient is unconscious or unable to respond), work towards evacuation. Wrap the patient in a sleeping bag on a sleeping pad, if available. Make sure s/he has a hat on. Wrap the patient and sleeping pad in a tarp or groundsheet. Evacuate.


What is it: Freezing of the skin and the tissues beneath it. Read more about predisposing conditions and degrees of frostbite here.

Early Symptoms: Extreme cold and pain in the affected areas (usually extremities), swelling, white waxy look

How to treat it: If the freezing is superficial (frost nip), skin-to-skin warming is sufficient. Keep the rewarmed, affected area warm and dry to avoid refreezing. If the freezing is deeper, the person needs to be evacuated as ideal conditions are required for rewarming. If there is any chance of refreezing, the affected area must not be rewarmed to avoid permanent damage.

For more on winter first aid, check out Ben Shillington’s Winter Backpacking book or see Backpacker Magazine.

Intrigued? Join us on a trip!