What Is Cold Weather? | Extreme Cold Weather Safety

Throughout this guide we’ll cover cold weather topics such as cold basics, freezing temperature, extreme cold, cold weather safety, and more!

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Cold Weather Basics

Get out your blankets, hot chocolate, and winter layers. It’s about to get chilly in here! That’s because you’re about to learn the basics of cold weather. This section answers all the basic cold weather questions, like:

  • What temperature is considered cold weather?
  • How Cold is “Extreme Cold”?
  • What Causes Cold Weather?
  • Where and when does it get cold?
  • What are Cold Fronts?


Cold Definition

Thermometer with low temperature reading The definition of cold is: “Of or at a low or relatively low temperature, especially when compared with the human body.”

What temperature is considered cold weather? In common usage, “cold” is a pretty subjective adjective. What’s cold to you might not be cold weather to someone else. Cold weather, therefore, can be a little tricky to define.

Cold weather is usually anything that requires a jacket or coat.

What is freezing temperature? If you want to get technical, the temperature at which water freezes is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Freezing temperature is also 0 degrees Celsius and 273.15 Kelvin.

You most likely hear people say “It’s freezing outside!” when the temperature is above the actually freezing temp, but it all depends on what part of the world you live in and what your perception of cold is.

Below zero weather

Extreme Cold

Cartoon man shivering with snowflakes around him to show that he is extremely cold

How cold is extreme cold? There is no one-size-fits-all definition of extreme cold. Duluth, Minnesota might consider extreme cold temperature to be anything below zero, while fLorida might consider below-freezing to be “extreme cold.”  .

In the northern part of the U.S., we typically use the phrase “extreme cold” to describe well below zero temperatures.

It’s understood that in the southern U.S., near freezing temperatures are considered extreme cold.

What Causes Cold Weather? 

There are several factors that cause cold weather. Seasonally, winter has the coldest months because the Earth’s tilt is away from the sun. This lowers the angle and amount of solar radiation that reaches the earth’s surface. This tilt also produces a large temperature differences, as the rate of cooling is higher in the polar region compared to the equator. This difference powers the jet stream that produces massive winter storms and cold outbreaks.

Wind and moisture also impact how cold the weather feels. The speed of the wind and external body moisture can cause a chill that dramatically changes your body’s rate of cooling and how cold you feel.


Blue wind icon with snow and ice flakes to represent wind chillWhen you hear forecasters talk about bitter cold temperatures, you may also hear them mention the wind chill. What is the wind chill? Wind Chill is the cooling effect of wind blowing on a surface. Another way to look at wind chill is as the “feels-like” temperature for us humans. We base wind chill on how much heat our exposed skin loses to cold temperatures and cold winds.

Still wondering how wind chill works? The faster the wind is blowing, the more heat it draws from the body. If your body loses heat, your skin temperature will drop. Eventually, that will cause you to have a low body temperature as well, which will not only make you feel cold but could adversely affect your health!


Just like with Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), there are wind chill charts to help you understand what it really feels like. The National Weather Service (NWS) has a highly respected wind chill chart to help in this effort. You can check out the NWS Wind Chill Chart or simply reference our rendering of the chart below to help you understand what the wind chill is.

Wind Chill Chart

The above chart uses advances in science, technology, and computer modeling to provide an accurate, understandable, and usable formula for calculating the dangers from winter winds and freezing temperatures. The index does the following:

  • Calculates wind speed at an average height of 5 feet, the typical height of an adult human face, based on readings from the national standard height of 33 feet, which is the typical height of an anemometer
  • Is based on a human face model
  • Incorporates heat transfer theory based on heat loss from the body to its surroundings, during cold and breezy/windy days
  • Lowers the calm wind threshold to 3 mph
  • Uses a consistent standard for skin tissue resistance
  • Assumes no impact from the sun


Where Does It Get Cold?

Technically, it gets colder everywhere there is a change of seasons from warmer season to colder. So, that’s kind of a trick question.

Of course, there are places that see colder temperatures than others. Did you know that the coldest place in the world (on average) is the East Antarctic Plateau? This frozen ice ridge between the summits of Dome Fuji and Dome Argus has seen temperatures of -148 degrees Fahrenheit. Now that’s cold weather!

Cold States 

While it gets cold in every state, there are some states in the U.S. that are downright cold compared to the others!

The outline of the state of Alaska - the coldest state in the U.S.

What’s the coldest state in the U.S.? That one is pretty easy to guess. It’s our northmost state: Alaska!

Alaska is the coldest state in the U.S. with an average temperature of 26.6 degrees in Fahrenheit. How low does the temperature go? In the winter months, Alaska regularly sees temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here is a list of other states that are pretty cold and their average temperatures according to the World Population Review 2020 state rankings:

  • North Dakota – 40 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Maine – 41 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Minnesota – 41.2 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Wyoming – 42 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Montana – 42.7 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Vermont – 42.9 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Wisconsin – 43.1 degrees Fahrenheit
  • New Hampshire – 43.8 degrees Fahrenheit4


As you can see from this list, the cold states are the states that are furthest away from the equator.

Cold Fronts & Polar Vortexes

What Is A Cold Front?

A cold front is the boundary of an advancing mass of cold air, in particular the trailing edge of the warm sector of a low-pressure system.

Another way to think of a cold front is as the dividing line between an adcancing cold air mass – which is cold and dense – and the warmer air mass it replaces. Significant weather, including rain, snow, and thunderstorms, form on the front as the cold air lifts the warmer, moister air upwards.

What Is a Polar Vortex?

A polar vortex is a low pressure area that is present over the poles throughout the year. We call it a vortex because the low pressure area circulates.

Image of temperature gradients from Sferic Maps weather visualization tool during polar vortex in 2019

Typically, the southern extent of the vortex goes no further than 40-50 degrees latitude. Occasionally, the jet stream amplifies and a pocket of cold air moves north to south into lower latitudes. This is when very cold – often dangerous – temperatures occur.

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Dangerous Cold | Cold Weather Risks 

Girl shivering from the cold to represent cold weather dangers like frostbite and hypothermiaWhile plenty of people love winter and cooler weather, there are dangers of cold weather that can risk your health.

The human body has an average core temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. To maintain this temperature, the surrounding environment needs to be 82 degrees Fahrenheit. This can be an issue when it’s cold out!

When it’s cold outside, your body has to work harder to stay warm. The right clothes can help you keep warm, but low body temperature because of cold or extreme cold conditions can be life-threatening.

The biggest cold weather risks that can adversely affect your health are:

A dark blue "1" in a red circle Frostbite

A dark blue "2" in a red circle Hypothermia

The biggest cold weather risks are frostbite and hypothermia, which can leave you with permanent damage Share on X


What is frostbite? Frostbite happens when your skin literally freezes. It’s an injury of your skin and the underlying tissue.

Now that you know the definition of frostbite, it’s important to understand how most people get frostbite. Most of the time, people catch frostbite when they leave areas of their skin exposed in cold and windy winter weather.

Frostbite temperatures – or a temperatures at which most people can suffer from frostbite – happen from 31 degrees Fahrenheit and below. How long does it take to get frostbite? Well, that depends on how cold it is and how exposed you are.

What Does Frostbite Look Like?

Cartoon of frostbite toes on a frostbite foot with a heating pad on to help themFrostbite is very common in body parts like fingers, toes, ears, nose, and the face. It’s a common injury for skiers, snowboarders and others who spend a lot of time outdoors in the winter.

Frostbite can cause permanent damage to the affected areas, so it’s critical to prevent it and get medical help immediately if you suspect you have it. Frostbite on any of these places may look like:

  • Red, white, blush-white, or grey-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy looking skin


Frostbite Symptoms

Besides looks, there are the other warning signs of frostbite you should be aware of:

  • Cold skin with a prickly feeling
  • Numbness
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering after re-warming


Stages of Frostbite

You might not know this, but there are actually three stages of frostbite. Depending on the stage, frostbite can look different or present different symptoms. While some people use the terms minor frostbite and major frostbite, those are not actual frostbite stages according to the Mayo Clinic.

Dark blue "1" in a grey circle1. The first stage of frostbite is frostnip.

Frostnip is mild frostbite that irritates the skin. If you are suffering from mild frostbite, you may experience redness in the affected area and a cold feeling, followed by numbers. As its name suggests, mild frostbite doesn’t permanently damage the skin and can be treated with first-aid measures.

a dark blue "2" in a grey circle2. The second stage of frostbite is superficial frostbite.

When you contract superficial frostbite, you skin will feel warm. This is a sign of serious skin involvement. During superficial frostbite, a fluid-filled blister may appear 24 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.

a dark blue "3" in a grey circle3. The third and final stage of frostbite is called deep frostbite.

The most serious frostbite stage, deep frostbite can cause complete numbness. As the cold impacts your epidermis, dermis, and sub-cutaneous tissue, your joints or muscles may stop working. Large blisters can form 24 to 48 hours after rewarming.

Afterward, the area turns black and hard as the tissue dies. Gangrene can also develop, placing you at high risk for infection. Also known as third-degree frostbite, this is the most serious and can cause permanent tissue damage.

A lot of people ask: “Can frostbite kill you?” If you get deep frostbite and develop gangrene, it is possible.

How To Treat Frostbite

Treating frostbite starts with getting indoors as quickly as possible. Once indoors, assess where you frostbite is. If you have frostbite on your feet or toes, do not walk. This can cause more damage.

The first thing you should do is get into a warm bath. Wrap your face and ears in a moist, warm, towel. You might not be able to feel things that great, so warm up gradually and don’t burn yourself!

You should also remain as calm as possible. Depending on your stage of frostbite, you skin may look red and swollen. It may also feel like it’s on fire or you may develop blisters. Don’t break your blisters, as this could cause scarring or infection. If you skin is blue or there is any other indication that you are suffering from deep frostbite, go to a hospital as soon as possible.

If you’re stuck outside

If you can’t get indoors right away, treating frostbite is a little different. Make sure you don’t rub or massage your cold body parts. Instead, put your hands in your armpits or hold onto another person or animal. If available, drink warm liquids and put on extra layers of clothes. It’s also a good idea to remove things like rings, watches, and other items of tight jewelry until you can get inside and properly treat your frostbite.


Thermometer with such a cold temperature reading that it's frozen with ice and snowflakesFrostbite isn’t the only cold weather risk you have to watch out for. In fact, it’s not even the most serious danger of cold weather. That title belongs to hypothermia.

What is hypothermia? Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. This results in a dangerously low body temperature (below 95 degree Fahrenheit).

Q: At what temperature can you get hypothermia? A: 95 degrees Fahrenheit or below


Anyone can catch hypothermia and it can be deadly. According to the CDC, approximately 1,300 people die of hypothermia each year. Most of the victims are seniors.

Similar to heat illness, hypothermia makes it difficult for your body to function properly. When your body temperature drops this drastically your heart, nervous system, and other organs are compromised. If left untreated, hypothermia can eventually lead to complete organ failure and even death.

Hypothermia Causes

Most people get hypothermia from exposure to cold weather conditions or immersion in cold water. However, prolonged exposure to any environment colder than the body can lead to hypothermia. This is especially true if you aren’t dressed appropriately or you can’t control the conditions.

Some specific causes leading to hypothermia include:

  • Wearing clothes that aren’t warm enough
  • Staying out too long in the cold
  • Falling into water
  • Staying in wet clothes
  • Being unable to move to a warm, dry location
  • Living in a house that’s too cold, either from poor heat or too much air conditioning


How long does it take to get hypothermia? 

Timer icon

The simple answer is: minutes. It really depends on the cause, how your body is losing heat, and any risk factors you have. Hypothermia can develop in as little as five minutes in temperatures of -50 degrees Fahrenheit. At -30 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia can set happen in about 10 minutes. It all depends!


Hypothermia Symptoms

You should call 911 if you think you or anyone else is experiencing hypothermia. The first sign of hypothermia is confusion or an inability to concentrate. You can also feel dizzy as a result of reduced blood flow to the brain. Someone with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of the condition because the symptoms often come on gradually. This makes hypothermia very dangerous.

Here are the symptoms of hypothermia you should know:

  1. Shivering
  2. Slurred speech or mumbling
  3. Slow, shallow breathing
  4. Weak pulse
  5. Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  6. Drowsiness of very low energy
  7. Confusion or memory loss
  8. Loss of consciousness

Hypothermia Protocol

Since death by hypothermia is possible, quick hypothermia first aid action is required. Treating hypothermia relies on being overly cautious. If you or someone else has a temperature below 96 degrees Fahrenheit, feels cold or sluggish, or is having trouble thinking clearly, call an ambulance immediately. Getting to the hospital is very important.

If you are with someone who you suspect has hypothermia and are waiting for an ambulance, lie close to them and cover up with thick blankets. The hotter you get, the more warmth you can give the other person. Be sure not to rub the person or handle him or her roughly.

A lot of people ask, “Besides seeking medical attention, what is the best treatment for a hypothermia victim?” This is an extremely dangerous question. Always seek medical attention first when dealing with suspected hypothermia and use your body heat to keep the victim warm until help arrives.

Hypothermia Vs. Hyperthermia 

Make sure you don’t get confused between hypothermia and hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is very different from hypothermia. In fact, it’s the complete opposite.

Hyperthermia, otherwise known as overheating, is a condition where an individual’s body temperature is elevated beyond normal due to failed thermoregulation. Therefore, the body is absorbing or producing more heat than it dissipates. You can learn about more heat-related illnesses by reading our Heat 101 Guide.

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Cold Season

Cartoon woman out in the snow with a hat and jacket and coughing into her hand like she has a coldA lot of people associate cold weather with cold season. But does the weather make you sick, really?

While it’s true that cold outbreaks and flu outbreaks tend to happen during the winter months, this is correlation; not causation. The weather is not what makes you sick.

The viruses that cause the common cold and flu spread through the air when someone does not cover a cough or sneeze. They can also spread when a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their mouth, eyes, or nose.

The same precautions recommended to stop the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, washing hands frequently, wearing a face mask in public, and staying home when feeling sick help stop the spread of colds and the flu, too.


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Cold Weather Safety

Even though we briefly touched on the cold weather dangers of frostbite and hypothermia, there are so many other cold weather safety tips out there!

How Cold Is It Outside?

Knowing how cold it is outside if your first line of defense against extreme cold and the dangerous of cold weather.

Before you expose yourself to the elements and go outside each day, be sure to check the current, high, and low temperatures for the day. This is the very least you can do. You should really look for forecasts that include the wind chill and the wet bulb globe temperature. Wear or bring layers that will allow you to stay comfortable and safe throughout the day.

How to plan for winter weather with Sferic Maps, image of cottage snowed in with more snow fallingA lot of people check the weather by watching the news and that’s better than nothing, but it’s a little different when you are in charge of others’ health and safety. District superintendents, emergency responders, and outdoor labor managers should use advanced weather data to ensure the safety of their students, the public, and their employees.

That’s where real-time weather maps come into play. You can learn how to use our weather map, Sferic Maps, to optimize safety in winter weather on our blog.

Cold Weather Warnings 

Transparent exclamation point in a red text bubble

The next step in safeguarding yourself from severe cold is with cold weather warning. The National Weather Service (NWS) has a wide range of free warnings to help protect people during very cold weather. Sferic Maps and Mobile users can visualize these warnings quickly and easily set up alerts for their area.

But what type of cold weather warnings are there?

Wind Chill

The first type of warning that can help you avoid the dangers of cold weather is wind chill. These are the most important type of cold weather warnings. There are wind chill advisories and watches. Advisories are for warmer wind chill temperatures while warnings are more extreme.

What is a Wind Chill Advisory? The National Weather Service issues a Wind Chill Advisory when they expect wind chills of -5 degrees Fahrenheit to -19 degrees Fahrenheit east of the Blue Ridge. To the west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in Frederick and Carroll Counties in Maryland, Wind Chill Advisories go into effect when the wind chill temperatures are somewhere between -10 degrees Fahrenheit and -24 degrees Fahrenheit.

The National Weather Service issues Wind Chill Warnings when they expect wind chills of -20 degrees Fahrenheit or lower east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and -25 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to the west.

Freeze & Frost

The second type of warning that has to do with cold weather and extremely cold temperatures is a freeze warning. We’ll also cover frost advisories.

A Freeze Watch is issued when there is a potential for significant, widespread freezing temperature within the next 24-36 hours. This type of watch will help you stay warm, but it also extremely useful for farmers and others in the agriculture industry. The National Weather Service likes to issue this type of watch from the autumn until the end of the growing season and in the spring at the start of the growing season.

A Freeze Warning is issued when significant, widespread freezing temperatures are expected.

Similarly, a Frost Advisory denotes when the NWS forecasts minimum temperature to be 33 to 36 degrees on clear and calm nights during the growing season. 

How to Keep the Body Warm in Cold Weather

If you are in cold weather or have to be in cold weather, how can you keep yourself warm? The first step is to prepare yourself before you head out by choosing the right clothing.

Facing winter weather is easy with the right winter weather safety tips and winter weather tools

Ever wonder what to wear in cold weather? You should definitely layer! Here are some cold weather layering tips everyone can use:

  • Bundle up with layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing
  • Wear a hat
  • Wear gloves or mittens, although mittens that are snug at the risk are better than gloves


Learning how to dress in extreme cold will help you avoid dangers like frostbite and hypothermia. Your cold weather clothing system should have at least three layers: A base layer against your skin, a middle layer, and an outer layer. Each layer works together to keep you dry and warm.

A great cold weather base layer is something that lays against the skin in order to pick up moisture. This is the only layer that should be relatively snug and it should be of moisture wicking material (not cotton).

How Does The Body Lose Heat?

Our clothes matter so much because they help our body keep heat and stay at a safe temperature. How does the body lose heat in cold?

How To Survive in Extreme Cold

cartoon mittens with snowflakes on themThe colder it is and more exposed we are to it, the deadlier the results. Here’s how to survive. The first step is to build a winter survival kit. Having a survival kit like this in your home and your car will help you stay safe if you are exposed to extreme cold. Make sure your kit includes:

  • Clothing layers
  • Extra pair of thick socks
  • Gloves or mittens (mittens are preferred!)
  • Beanies or winter hats that don’t take much space
  • Thermal gaiters
  • Chapstick
  • Tissues
  • Hand Warmers
  • Compact all-weather blanket
  • Batteries
  • Sunglasses
  • Waterproof bag or rain cover
  • Batteries
  • Flashlights
    NOAA Weather Radio


Stuck Outside in Cold Weather

If you aren’t in your car or home, surviving the cold gets a bit harder. Let’s say you are stuck outside during very cold weather. Here’s what you should (and should not) do:

  • Avoid sweating
  • Protect your body heat
  • Keep covered and stay out of the wind
  • Dress in layers (you can tell this is important, right?)
  • Don’t eat snow because you will lose a lot of core heat by melting it with your body
  • Hydrate if you can because severe cold can be just as dangerous as severe heat
  • Use snow as a shelter because it is an excellent insulator
  • Stay where you are most likely to be found. Get there and conserve energy


How to Prepare Your Home For Cold Weather

Cold weather can be very dangerous to humans, but it also poses risks to buildings. Preparing your home or business for extreme cold is an important safety tip for those who experience cold winter seasons.

What can cold weather and extreme cold do to buildings? Cold weather damages typically fall into two categories:

  1. Freeze damage from cold intrusion
  2. Liquid damage from eventual thaw


Typical cold weather damage to buildings like your home includes frozen/burst heating pipes, leaky windows, and water damage.

Here are some tips that will help you prepare your home and office from both types:

  • Check your heating systems before freezing temperatures arise
  • Increase heating to your buildings when freezing temperatures are in the forecast
  • Inspect your air-handling units to verify that dampers work and fans are controlled by thermostat for automatic shutdown in the event of freezing temperatures
  • Check your fire protection system, specifically air sources, air pressure levels, low point drains, and antifreeze solution
  • Examine your plumbing’s insulating systems (that coverings are intact) and heat trace systems as well as the structure around them. Make sure there are no holes or cracks
  • Ensure windows and doors are weather-tight and in good repair
  • Keep outdoor walkways safe of ice



Cold Weather and Cars

Not only do you have to protect your body, your home, and your office, but you can’t forget your car! Vehicles of all shapes and sizes are also at the mercy of Old Man Winter.

A white pickup truck stuck in a snowy ditch

Severe cold and cars simply don’t mix, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have places and go and people to see. While winter weather causes plenty of accidents, we are going to focus solely on cold weather-related problems and their solutions.

Problem #1: Dead battery

Winter is pretty tough on our car batteries. If the temperature feels really cold and you car won’t start, chances are that the battery is dead.


Having a car that won’t start stinks. It stinks even more in the freezing cold! You can fix a dead battery on a car in cold weather the same way you can in any weather: with jumper cables. If you live somewhere that’s always cold, you can purchase a battery warmer to avoid this cold weather problem.

Problem #2: Deflated tires

Cold weather can also deflate your vehicle’s tires!. As the air in your tires gets colder, it contracts. This causes the tire to lose pressure. Low tire pressure can lead to deflated tires or to tires failing, which can be extremely dangerous.


When meteorologists forecast cold temperatures, make sure you check your tire pressure more than you normally would – at least once per week. It’s not excessive! It’s necessary to ensure you avoid deflated tires and tire failure.

Problem #3: Thick Oil

How cold does it have to be for your oil to thicken? It normally happens around -20 degrees Fahrenheit. At this very cold temperature, oil gets so thick that the engine’s water pump struggles to pick up it up and circulate it.


You can avoid this problem in the winter by switching to a low-viscosity oil.

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Cold Wrap Up

Even if you love winter weather before reading this guide, really cold weather can be uncomfortable and downright dangerous.

Now that you’ve read our cold weather guide, you should know:

  • What is considered cold and extreme cold weather
  • Why cold weather happens
  • Cold weather dangers
  • How to stay safe during the coldest months

Want to keep this cold weather 101 guide with you?

Download a PDF version of the guide you can reference later.


If you have any cold-related questions after reading this guide, let us know by reaching out on social media. We have a team of meteorologists on staff to help with weather-related decision-making.

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