Extreme Winter Blast

This will be a winter to remember.  The city is actually in danger of running out of salt!  We are breaking all sorts of records this year with our continual freezing temperatures and icy accumulation.  We normally have around 42 inches of snow for the whole winter and we are well past that mark now.  It has put an extreme demand on our PennDOT road crews who have used around 22,000 tons of road salt in Allegheny County this winter. They used 5,000 tons around the same time last year.  This winter is to say the least abnormal.

So how do your prepare for an anomaly?  My personal mantra is to always be prepared for disaster but it doesn’t not make me fatalistic in nature.  I just like to adopt the old Boy Scout mantra “Be Prepared” in general.  But I firmly believe in deferring to others who are more accustomed to such chilly climes.  In Alaska anything above -10 is considered great weather.  They must know a thing or two about dealing with the cold.  Warming their cars up for 20 minutes or so and keeping their gas tank full to avoid condensation is commonplace.  They also make sure the power steering pump warms up before making tight turns out of their driveway. Otherwise you could be replacing your power steering hose which suffers from ice cold fluid entering at very high pressure through the hose.

Being prepared really can lessen the impact of extreme weather.  But there are some days when you just don’t want to step outside all – even in Alaska.  Simple advice.  If it is -20 below with wind chill, stay home.  Make hot chocolate.  Clean the house.  Read a novel.  Work from home.  Do anything but subject your delicate skin and internal infrastructure to abnormally low temperature.  The human body is far worse at acclimatizing to frigid conditions than it is to heat or altitude.  The two main cold-weather illnesses are frostbite and hypothermia.  Frostbite means that yo­ur skin has fallen below the freezing point and ice crystals are forming within your skin cells and killing them.  Frostbite can happen within 30 minutes if wind chill makes the temperature feel like -28 or colder. If it is -40, it only takes 10 minutes for a person to get frostbite. At -55, frostbite can set in within 2 minutes.

Severe frostbite penetrates all the way to the muscle and bone and is characterized by tingling of extremities and changes in your skin’s color and texture. The stages of frostbite are:

  • Red skin – initial stage
  • White skin – middle stage
  • Hard skin – getting severe
  • Blisters – severe
  • Blackened skin – advanced stage

Hypothermia is when your body loses more heat than it produces and your core body temperature drops. Some of the symptoms of hypothermia are:

  • Slurred speech
  • Stiff joints
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slow pulse
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Puffy face
  • Mental confusion

So stay inside if at all possible and use caution if you have to go out.  All body parts and skin should be completely covered.  It is all about core heating and dressing in layers.

Base Layer

Consists of thermal underwear or other comfy tight-fitting apparel worn against the body.  Should be made of fabrics like silk, polyester and poly blends that are excellent at  wicking moisture off your skin. This is critical because after you’ve generated perspiration you don’t want to suffer dramatic drops in body temp when you stop moving.

Mid Layer

Everyday items like a T-shirt, casual pair of pants, etc. make up your mid layer. The object is to provide a little insulation and look good when you head inside and remove outer layers. Wool, cotton, and nylon often make good mid layers.

Insulating Layer

Can make an insulated jacket even warmer or can act as the primary source of warmth inside a shell. Should be lightweight and low-bulk for active sports and is commonly a pullover jacket, sweater or vest. Some great insulating materials include Polartec® polyester fleece, boiled wool, goose down and synthetic fill.


Polar Vortex Survival

When I first moved to Pittsburgh I was so nervous about frost bite warnings and wind chill predictions that I was afraid to leave the house.  But I soon learned to embrace the elements and was impervious to the cold.  I lived in Shadyside and walked everywhere so driving was not a problem.  I became so hearty that I once walked to work at Carnegie Mellon on one of the extremely rare days that the university closed due to weather.  I was shocked to find it closed and was oblivious to the heeded warnings on the news.

But the arctic blast ushered into town by the polar vortex is more reminiscent of the Alaskan based books I’ve been reading than a Western Pennsylvanian winter.  All I can say is be prepared.  If you don’t have access to a garage it’s important to check your car battery.  If it is less than three years old you should be in the clear but older ones often can’t even be jump-started if they sit too long in temperatures below zero.  Your tire pressure can also get out of whack.  Make sure to check this too along with all the fluids under your hood.  You don’t want to be stuck waiting on roadside assistance with these dangerous dips.

'Polar vortex' pushes subzero temps into Midwest photo                                  'Polar vortex' pushes subzero temps into Midwest photo

If you plan to start your car to warm it up, don’t let it run more than 10 minutes.  Check the tread on your tires which can cleverly be done by turning a penny sideways and placing it between the tread.  If you are able to see Lincoln’s head then it is time to get new tires.  And once you hit the road there are ten items you should definitely keep in your car.  A warm blanket just in case you do get stuck waiting for roadside assistance.  I recommend 100% wool since fleece just doesn’t cut it in the great outdoors.  A short-handled shovel to stow in the trunk in case you need to remove snow from around the wheels of your vehicle.  I would invest in a good one since you may need to chip at hard ice or compacted snow.  I recommend the Komperdell Expedition Avalanche Shovel that you can get for half price at Sierra Trading Post.  It has a five star rating and is made in Austria.   A good-sized, water-proof flashlight along with extra batteries in case your breakdown is at night.  I pack emergency candles too as a back-up.


Keep a vast quantity of hand and foot warmers that can be found in any hardware or camping store. HotHands-2 gives you up to two hours of heat and are USA made.  They can be placed in your shoes for up to six hours and are safe to use on your dogs feet too.  They use natural heat with no odor and are activated by air.  You still need matches though so invest in the best.  A box of the wooden stick variety are fine although it pays to have a few windproof/waterproof ones as well.  You can find these online and the best price I found was $2.95 a box at beprepared.com.  I usually keep a case of bottled water and protein bars  in my car year round.  It pays to have extra just in case you get unexpected company.  A syphon pump may not be something most of you are thinking about but you may have to play Good Samaritan for those less prepared than you are.  Light sticks can be picked up in any dollar store and have endless uses.  Children love to play with them, they make you visible at night if you stick them in a pocket and are great to stick in the snow near your tire for shoveling, etc.  Make sure you have a quality whistle as well.  You can use it to signal distress or get the attention of someone who can’t hear you outside.  They simply don’t come any better than the Acme Metropolitan variety used by the London bobbies.  The J. Peterman Company can have one shipped to your door straight from England for only $19.00.


So there you have it folks.  Everything you need to survive the arctic blast of 2014.  This is a winter you will remember for a lifetime and can navigate with confidence by being prepared.