Frostbite is an extremely dangerous and excruciatingly painful condition that occurs during Canadian winters, especially in western Canada, in particular Northwestern Ontario and the prairie provinces, and in the north US.

So what is frostbite?  Frostbite occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can generate heat. As your body loses heat to the environment, your heat pumps more blood through your circulatory system to maintain a proper temperature.  If your heat loss gets too high, your body will reduce the blood flow to non essential parts to ensure that it can supply enough blood to the essential systems.  If the situation gets too bad, then the blood flow to non essential areas will be cut off entirely. Basically, your body will sacrifice some body parts to help protect others.  The first to be sacrificed are the extremities:  Toes, fingers, ears and nose.  That’s why in cold weather, these parts get cold first.  If the temperature is -20°, with a wind chill making it feel like -30°, frostbite to exposed skin can occur in as little as 5 minutes.  To help prevent frostbite, proper winter outer wear is a must, especially foot wear.  You have fewer nerve endings in your feet and toes, and you may not even notice the onset of frostbite in your feet and toes.

If you work outside for long periods of time during the winter, like strapping, chaining and tarpping, take 5 minute warm up breaks in the truck every 20-30 minutes.  If you don’t, you will eventually find that your hands and fingers don’t seem to work like they should.  This is a sign that you need to get inside and allow them to warm up, as frostbite is a very serious possibility.  Be warned that as your fingers, toes, hands and feet warm up and the body resumes blood flow to these areas, it is going to be painful. In some cases, extremely painful, almost like your fingers are being crushed in a vice.

The 2 biggest signs that you have gotten frostbite are that you simply can’t move your fingers, and the skin on the affected area is a pale white, not the usually skin tone colour. If you notice these conditions, you need to get inside and allow the affected parts to warm up naturally, with NO external heat sources, not even warm water. The reason is, the nerve endings in the frost bitten area severely effected, and you could easily damage the frost bitten area by warming it too fast, as the nerve endings won’t be able to let you know that your skin is being scalded by hot water.  You could dip your frost bitten hand into a pot of boiling water and feel no pain at all, but you’re still damaging your hand.

When frostbite sets in, and no blood is flowing to your extremities, the next to happen is the water in these body cells in these extremities will freeze. When water freezes, it expands, and will cause serious damage to the cells, including basically killing the body cells entirely.  This condition is known as gangrene, and the skin will turn black.  At this point, the only option is to have the gangrenous area surgically removed.

So let’s avoid this whole issue by beating Mother Nature at her own game.  Dress appropriately for working outside during the winter.  Even if you don’t work outside, keep good winter clothing in the truck. A breakdown in -40° could easily become disastrous. In 2019, a 25 driver in Minnesota lost both of his feet to frostbite.  He claimed he never felt any ill effects, other than some numbness in his feet. By the time all was said and done, he had both feet amputated just below the knees, basically ending his career just as it was getting started.

Don Taylor has been a professional driver since March 1985.  In 1994 he made the jump to driving tractor trailers, and has accumulated over 3.5 million miles, including over 4 years of driving turnpike doubles in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.  He is currently hauling flat decks across North America.