column By: Jack Ballard | January, 18
It is a statement I’ve heard in various forms and numerous settings my entire adult life: “You’re from Montana? You must love the cold.” It is also a severely misguided assumption. For although I do live in the Treasure State and spend many days outdoors in recreational pursuits each fall and winter, I do not like the cold. In fact, on a cold
hardiness scale from “cold wimp” to “cold warrior,” I’m decidedly on the wimpy side. But before some reader interprets this condition as a personal deficiency, let me hasten to explain there are several reasons for it over which I have no control.
My fingers and toes quickly fall victim to the cold. Medical research has shown that those who have previously experienced frostbite are more susceptible in the future. As a kid I endured more bouts of frostbite than I care to remember.
Born to a Norwegian mother and a father who went about his winter tasks on a foothills ranch insulating his appendages with no more than a pair of leather gloves and cowboy boots clad in rubber overshoes, I ought to be as cold-hardy as a fuzzy fox. Instead, a mischievous stork dropped a baby boy into the maternity ward of a Butte hospital on the Winter Solstice with the metabolism of a Caribbean islander. Some of the most salient memories of my childhood trace to winter. Here’s a recollection:
It was 8:00 p.m. and -18 degrees Fahrenheit in February. I was holding a flashlight in fingers that had no feeling, trying to balance on equally numb toes. The rest of my body was so cold it was painful. My father puttered about, forking straw into a stall for a soon to be calving cow.
“Dad, could I run into the house to warm up?” I asked.
The pitchfork paused midswing. “Warm up? It ain’t cold out here. Besides, we’ll be done in a minute.”
An hour later I was finally inside. Mom pulled off my mittens and unlaced my pack boots. The frost fleeing my ashen digits brought tears to my eyes.
Despite a history with frostbite certainly elevating my risk of the malady, current episodes are few. Two of the most significant technological advances for outdoorsmen with easily frozen fingers were the invention of disposable hand warmers and mittens (or gloves) with compartments in which to put them. My household uses Grabber hand and toe warmers by the case (my wife is also less than cold-hardy), most of which find their way into the zippered compartments on gloves and mittens.
In addition to keeping fingers warm, handwear with warmers serve another purpose. Once chilled, appendages tend to stay cold in the absence of a heat source. Fingers exposed to frigid air can be warmed by placing them under one’s arms inside a jacket, but heat required to revive them is robbed from the rest of the body. Hand warmers, by contrast, bring chilly digits back to normal temperature without sacrificing body warmth from elsewhere.
It is tough to keep fingers warm when exposed to arctic-like air temperatures, but avoiding known heat-sucking situations helps. On a November deer hunting trip, an older brother and I encountered a two-track vehicle route with intermittent mudholes. A quick burst of acceleration was all that was needed to nudge the Jeep through the sludge. But deep into a forgotten conversation, I failed to heed an approaching gauntlet of goo and water. The accelerator hit the floor, but it was too late. Wheels spun to a stop in about 4 inches of freezing slush covering a layer of mud twice that thick.
We found an abandoned fence post and used it to support a jack. As each rear tire cleared the muck, we wrapped it in a tightly fitting tire chain. The chains were so tight, in fact, that it took a fair amount of pulling and prodding to close the connectors. By the time the first tire was chained, my hands were numb and reddened. Within minutes of being pulled from the vehicle, the wet metal chains seemed to drain all the heat from my fingers in seconds. It took nearly an hour of thawing hands on the defroster, and no small portion of sailor talk, to finish the task.
Metal and water, as it turns out, are leading public enemies of hunters hoping to retain body heat. Water pulls heat away from the body through conduction 25 times faster than air. Cold steel transfers heat from the body quicker than water.
The applications of these factors for cold wimps are numerous. If metal objects (think gun barrels, bolts, game cart frames, etc.) must be touched in frigid temperatures, it is imperative to do so with covered skin. Metal that requires sustained contact can be wrapped with fabric, or even paper, to thwart its nefarious cold conduction.
For most hunters, myself included, body heat lost through moisture happens more routinely than contact with metal. I sweat readily under exertion. The moisture in sweat causes the body to rapidly lose heat, most typically by dampening clothing.
During a late-October hunt in Montana, I headed out two hours before daylight toward a yonder slope on which two bull elk were spotted the evening before. As the sky lightened in the east, I heard a distant bugle. Having already hiked four miles, I quickened my pace, determined to reap some reward for my effort. As shooting light approached it became clear two different bulls were whistling their manhood to the world. I found one of them with a herd of some 20 cows a few minutes before sunrise and dispatched the 5-point with a single shot from a .50-caliber muzzleloader.
It wasn’t terribly cold, perhaps 25 degrees, but standing over the weighty carcass in preparation of gutting chores I found myself shivering. A dry base layer resided in my daypack. I pulled my sweaty undershirt off and hung it on a nearby branch, replacing it with the dry one. Field-dressing job complete, I went to stuff the used base layer in my pack to find it as stiff as the proverbial board. Enough sweat had soaked into the garment to render it thoroughly frozen.
“Moisture management” is a common topic to those pitiable souls who engage in activities such as winter camping and glacier trekking. It is equally pertinent to hunters. Limiting the intensity of one’s exertion to reduce sweating helps keep the body dry and warm. Providing for dry clothing after exertion, particularly base layers, gives the hunter a means of substituting cold-inducing wet garments with something dry. The same is true for socks, which frequently become saturated with sweat during heavy exercise.
Numerous factors affect a hunter’s base ability to handle the cold, including metabolic factors, body fat accumulation and overall mass. Whether you’re a natural cold wimp or not, knowing how to manage
the physical effects of frigid temperatures yields a safer and more satisfying hunt.