How to Get Frostbite in 5 Minutes or Less

February 15, 2016

Oooh baby it was cold outside this past weekend, with temperatures dropping deep into the sub-zero range across New England. Add in some stiff northwest winds and you had the ingredients for severe wind chill and rapid frostbite on any exposed skin.

How fast can you get frostbite? This handy wind chill chart from NOAA and the National Weather Service provides the answers:

As you can see, the deep purple zone is a serious danger zone—exposed skin will frostbite within five minutes. The risk factor is only slightly less in the dark blue zone, where you have only 10 minutes before frostbite occurs.

And here’s the thing. These purple and dark blue danger zones occur all the time atop the high peaks of New England during the winter. Indeed, during the middle of the day this past Saturday, the temperature atop Mount Washington was minus 17 degrees, with a steady 35 to 40 mph wind—perfect for achieving frostbite in a scant five minutes.

All of which serves to drive home the point that ascending above treeline in winter is serious business with very little margin for error. It’s essential that you have the right gear to fully protect every square inch of skin, especially on your face, and that you’ve fully tested it out before you venture into the blue and purple danger zones. You absolutely do not want to be futzing around with your face mask, goggles, or gloves when only minutes separate your skin from potentially catastrophic frostbite.

For more on how to protect yourself in above-treeline conditions, check out the following resources:

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.