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Knowing the Risks of Winter

Participating in outdoor activities during winter can be tons of fun, but stay safe in the cold.


When hunting in the winter, be sure to dress in layers to prevent hypothermia.

Photo by Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland Magazine

By Julie Geiser


Frostbite happens when the skin and outer tissues of your body become frozen. This condition tends to happen on extremities such as the fingers, toes, ears and nose. They may become pale, gray and blistered, and the skin will have a burning sensation or become numb.

If frostbite occurs, head indoors and place the frostbitten parts of your body in warm, not hot, water. Warm washcloths may be applied to frostbitten nose, ears or lips. Do not rub the frozen areas.

After a few minutes, dry off and cover up with clothing or blankets, and drink warm liquids. If the numbness persists for more than a few minutes, seek medical attention.


Hypothermia develops when body temperatures fall below normal due to exposure to cold. It often happens to people outdoors who are not wearing proper clothing in extremely cold weather. Knowing the signs of hypothermia can save a life.

As hypothermia sets in, a person may shiver, become lethargic and clumsy, slur speech and experience decline in body temperature.

If you suspect someone is hypothermic, call 911. Until help arrives, take the person indoors, remove wet clothing and wrap them in blankets or warm clothes.

Safe Clothing

Layering clothes in the winter will help you avoid hypothermia and frostbite. Wear loose, lightweight, warm clothing in several layers, especially clothing designed to wick away moisture from the skin. Avoid cotton and denim, which traps moisture against your skin. Outer garments should be tightly woven, water and wind repellent, and hooded. Wear a stocking hat, as most body heat is lost through the head.

Keep ears covered to protect them from frostbite, and if activity allows, wear mittens instead of gloves. Mittens, snug at the wrist, are warmer than gloves because fingers maintain more warmth when touching rather than separated.

Avoid dressing active children in clothing with drawstrings to prevent strangulation, and have them wear a neck warmer or face mask while playing instead of a scarf.

Beware of thin ice when recreating in the winter. Getty Images.

Weak Ice

Frostbite and hypothermia can result from falling through ice, a real concern for ice anglers and some hunters. It’s impossible to judge the strength of ice by its appearance, thickness, the daily temperature or snow cover alone.

At a minimum, 3 to 4 inches of blue lake ice thickness is required to support a single angler and about 6 inches of ice will support a group of anglers. Slush ice is only half as strong as clear lake ice, so anglers should double the minimum thickness requirements when encountering such conditions.

The best way to ensure ice is safe is to whack it with a spud bar before stepping onto it.

A few things to look for when traversing ice:

• Ice heaves can form when water under the ice fluctuates and pushes the ice into itself, creating heaves on top of the ice or sometimes underneath it. These are weak areas and should be avoided.

• Honeycombed or black ice should be considered unsafe. Also, stay away from areas where objects are sticking up through the ice, such as muskrat lodges, cattails, trees and logs, which store heat from the sun and can weaken the surrounding ice.

• Avoid lakes or areas of lakes that are known to have underground springs, or warm water spots, until ice is thicker. Stay well away from open-water areas or ice adjacent to running streams.

• Recreate on or near ice with a friend or family member. Take 50 feet of rope with you in case of emergencies. In the event you break through the ice, carry ice safety spikes on your person to help you climb out, and keep extra clothing in the vehicle in case you do fall through. Wearing wet clothing in cold weather will quickly result in hypothermia.

Before hitting the road, make sure your vehicle is up-to-date on routine maintenance. Getty Images.

Car Troubles

Before hitting the road, make sure your vehicle is up-to-date on routine maintenance. Keep the gas tank full, and check weather conditions before traveling.

As soon as there’s trouble, immediately change the voicemail on your cell phone telling people what has happened and where you are, so if your phone goes dead or you’re out of cell service, people can still hear your voice message.

If you become trapped in your car during a winter storm, stay in your car and wait for help to find you. Run your engine for short periods of time to stay warm. Keep your down-wind window cracked open and make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of snow.

Hang a brightly-colored piece of cloth or clothing outside your car. Turn on the dome light at night when you are running the engine to help potential rescuers see you. Use a flashlight when the car is turned off.

Exercise from time to time by vigorously moving your arms, legs, fingers and toes to keep blood circulating and to keep warm.

Pet Safety

Hunting dogs can get caught up in the excitement and push hard before we notice signs of danger. Take breaks to make sure your dog is getting enough water and rest between hunting. In the cold, put boots on the dog’s feet to avoid frostbite on their pads.

Waterfowl dogs should wear a neoprene coat to keep their bodies warm and provide some buoyancy in the water. Do not send a dog into dangerous water, such as thin or slushy ice on lakes or rivers. Even the strongest swimmer can be taken under the water or ice to their demise.

Waterfowl dogs should wear a neoprene coat to keep warm. Photo by Eric Fowler, Nebraskaland Magazine.

Upland hunting dogs can wear light coats or stomach protectors, but neoprene on these hard-working dogs may make them overheat or get too sweaty, which may cause them to get too wet and cold.

Don’t take a working dog directly from the field to an outdoor kennel as soon as you return to the vehicle or home, as the dog will keep generating heat, which will put moist air inside the kennel that will quickly turn cold. Let your dog cool down and dry off first.

Recreating in the winter comes with an extra set of risks, so it’s better to be overprepared. Be able to start a fire, build a shelter and have a way to signal for help. If traveling and recreating in a remote location, leave an itinerary with a family member or friend, and stick to your location and time frame so others will know where to look for you in an emergency.

About julie geiser

Julie Geiser is a Public Information Officer and NEBRASKAland Regional Editor based out of North Platte, where she was born and still happily resides. Geiser worked for the commission previously for over 10 years as an outdoor education instructor – teaching people of all ages about Nebraska’s outdoor offerings. She also coordinates the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC). Geiser went on to work in marketing and writing an outdoor column for the North Platte Telegraph before returning to NGPC in her current position. She loves spending time outdoors with her family and getting others involved in her passions of hunting, fishing, camping, boating, hiking and enjoying Nebraska’s great outdoors.