It is tempting to consider winter almost over when February arrives (and the winter sales are finished). But the frigid air stirred up in the Midwest and East last week reminds us that cold weather and all the physical abuses that come with it call for a review by the experts of cold-weather survival. While many of the tips are familiar -- wear mittens rather than gloves; layer your body with long underwear, outerwear and wind protectors, keep moving and don't worry about how you look -- some of the advice is just plain good sense. For example:
If you need must stand outside for a long time while waiting for a bus or watching your kids skate on the Mall, get yourself off the ground by standing on a piece of cardboard or an artificial grass mat, says Dr. Murray Hamlet, who directs the experimental pathology and cold division of the army's Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass. (He's who the army calls for advice on how the military should dress to survive the coldest days.) But remember, cardboard is slippery when cold. Also, two layers of cardboard are better than one.
Pass up the wing tips and go for four-buckle galoshes, a couple of insoles, three pairs of wool socks "and your feet are set for standing around outside on the coldest day," says Hamlet. Since the toes are the hardest to insulate, they shouldn't be cramped; dead air around them can act as insulation.
"Borrow clothes only from best friends who are bigger than you," says Hamlet. Make sure the inner most layer of clothing is the smallest, the outermost the largest. This is called concentric dressing.
Carry extra socks, mittens, sweaters to add when you are less active (after the hike to a Washington's birthday sale, for example) or to change into if you get wet. "The hardest thing we have to teach is to wear clothing in relation to physical activity," says Hamlet, who recommends stripping off layers as you get hot.
Skip the belts, hold up your pants with suspenders, suggests Daniel Couch, founder of Appalachian Outfitters. A tight belt, or tight elastic at the ankles or wrist, can cut off circulation.
Leave the baubles at home. Metal, particularly pierced earrings, will conduct the cold up to the ears, says Hamlet. But he admits he has never seen a cold injury related to earrings. Tight rings can cut blood flow to the fingers. "And if you have a cold injured finger, it will swell and the ring will have to be cut off. "And that's a $20 injury for starters," he says.
Wool stocking caps or balaclavas are the best head coverings. Insulating the head keeps the whole body warmer.
Make sure your ears are flat against your head. People who wear glasses are more likely to get frostbite of the ears than those with contact lenses or perfect vision. "If ears go flapping in the breeze, you are going to get nailed," says Hamlet. He warns that the bow of your glasses is enough to make the top of your ears freeze. Earmuffs, stocking cap, muffler or hood is the answer.
A nose can get nipped just by the extra gust of a vehicle passing. Try a warm hand over your nose and a generous lather of lanolin-based cream like Neutrogena or Keri lotion. An old family recipe suggests rubbing knees and elbows with lanolin.
Beware of hand-warmers -- they need plenty of air and should not be used in an enclosed area such as a vehicle.
Wool is good because it traps air. Fur is ideal because it also acts as wind protection. Dacron batting or down quilting is excellent but may lose insulation when wet.
No booze before you go out or while you are out. "The common fallacy is that a drink will keep you warm. But it only increases surface circulation and increases the loss of heat from the body," says Dr. William Hurwitz. Liquor also may shut off the "shivering mechanism," adds Hamlet. Shivering is a form of involuntary exercise that produces heat. He recommends a hearty meal of pancakes -- they stay with you, give you lots of energy and oil for calories.
Drink hot fruit drinks such as apple cider, not tea or coffee.
Don't worry about your pet getting cold. "Dogs produce so much heat you wouldn't believe it," says Hamlet, who is also a veternarian.
Wind the film in your camera slower than usual so you don't break film sprockets that may be more brittle from the cold, warns Bill Garrett, editor of National Geographic. Sightseers visiting Washington this time of year should keep their cameras inside their coats between snaps, he adds.
Keep checking your mirror for white spots on your face and look for the same on others, particularly when skiing in very cold weather. The time to worry is when the cold stops hurting. "First there is a chill ache and then the pain stops," warns Hamlet. "Frostbite is painless when you get it but hurts like fury when you warm it." He recommends warming your body heat, like putting cold fingertips in your arm pits, hands on your face, or feet on someone's abdomen. Or plunging hands into lukewarm water.