Staying comfy in the cold, whether you're hiking urban canyons or hip deep in backcountry snow, requires paying attention to the science of heat transfer. Loren Greenway, CEO of the Wilderness Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, said that staying warm requires understanding two key principles: conduction and convection.
Conduction is the transfer of heat between two solid surfaces that are in direct contact with each other, such as when you stand on icy pavement. Convection is the transfer of heat between a mass (such as your body) and a moving fluid or gas (such as an icy wind that whips around every square inch of you).
Understanding both of these chilling mechanisms, as well as the workings of your body's built-in thermoregulatory system, will help keep you warm and safe when the next polar vortex comes to town.
1. Layer up
You lose heat through conduction whenever your body comes into direct contact with something cold, like when you sit on chilly ground...Your base layer — think long underwear and thick, wool socks — keeps you from losing heat through conduction. And wearing an external, wind- and water-proof but breathable layer will protect you from heat loss though convection.
2. Stop the shivering
Think of shivering as a warning sign that you need to get yourself someplace warmer, fast. When your skin temperature drops, shivering kicks in to keep your core temperature from falling, too.
3. Stoke the furnace
Being well-fed — meaning consuming more calories than you're burning — will help your body handle the cold better, according to Greenway. "It always helps to be well-fed in the backcountry when it's cold," he said. "This is all-important, to keep your blood sugar up enough to provide the energy you need to keep warm in a cold situation."
4. Just get used to it
You can acclimatize yourself to cold weather. "People who are outside a lot and spend time in the cold can actually reduce their 'set point,' it's called, before they respond to cold,"
5. Be prepared, all the time
Heed weather warnings, and stock your car with water, calorie-dense foods, warm blankets and extra sets of dry clothes just in case. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 25 percent of winter-related fatalities occur when people are caught unprepared out in a storm.
6. Know your risks
Drugs to treat high blood pressure, including alpha-blockers, beta-blockers and direct vasodilators, can make you more sensitive to the cold, as can some medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism.
7. Skip the booze
Sure, a brandy-laced hot toddy or a shot of schnapps sounds like just the thing to keep you warm on a bitter day. While a warm beverage will indeed raise your core temperature and help you withstand a chill, don't spike it. "Alcohol is absolutely the worst thing that somebody could consume" if they are already cold, Greenway said. "It drops core body temperature."
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