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Barefoot in the Snow: How to Train Your Feet and Avoid Frostbite

When cold trainers see cold weather in the forecast, we usually have a different reaction from the rest of the general public. While others sigh and groan at the thought of a cold front bringing snow, ice, and freezing weather, cold trainers see opportunities to train outdoors. In the midwestern states of the USA we get a little of every kind of weather. In the summer, it gets very hot, and in the winter,  it gets very cold. I love all four seasons. I really do. However, since I began training in the cold, I have begun looking forward to the cold that comes in the months of January, February, and March.

If you have seen my Instagram feed or my Youtube channel, you’ve seen me exposing myself to the cold in various ways during the winter months, and I always encourage people who I train to endeavor to try doing some cold training outdoors during the winter. It breaks the monotony of cold showers and ice baths, and it puts us in a space where we can reconnect to nature in a very real and visceral way.

This is me now, after years of adaptation. I literally sat here for about 20 minutes while my friend took pictures of me. This is not a realistic goal until you have trained in the cold for some time.

“The Cold is Merciless… “

This week I read a post on social media from a person who is a new practitioner of the Wim Hof Method. He posted that he was confused. He had taken a barefoot walk in the snow for a kilometer earlier that day, and 12 hours later, his feet were like pins and needles and sensitive to the touch. Someone had to respond to his post to tell him the bad news; he most likely had suffered frostbite and should see a doctor immediately.

So, what happened?

Well, I think it is obvious that this person pushed too hard too soon. Actually, I’m in awe of his pain endurance! He had never done extremity training, and he just decided to take a barefoot walk in the snow for a whole kilometer! He said that he was expecting his feet to get warm after a few meters, but they never did.

As one who has done a lot of time in the cold, I know just how bad the feet and the hands can hurt. We all know how bad they hurt, but for some reason, Novice Hoffers expect a kind of cold immunity magic spell to be cast over them. Somehow, no matter how little training we have put in, because we performed the breathing technique or because we have done a few months of cold showers, now mother nature in all of her cold fury is not to be respected? Really?

I had the same misconception!

I’ll never forget the first snow of my Hoffing life. I asked my wife to come outside to take pictures of me in the snow, and minutes into the affair, my hands and feet were screaming for mercy. Even though I had done the ice bucket training as described in the original 10 week course, the sudden increase in intensity from cold water to snow was excruciating!

This was the one good picture that came out of it:

This pose was called: “It’s like I can’t even feel the cold snow on my feet! Wow! It must be magic!”

I was able to last long enough to get one picture that I felt was pretty good, and then I had to acknowledge the fact that I was in real pain. This was confusing to me because, like so many novice Hoffers, I felt that I was somehow protected from the intensity of the cold because I had done some basic cold training and I had preceeded the exposure with a deep breathing routine.

Then I tried to do a snow angel and got this far…

“Hi, everyone! This smile is because I’m being a good sport about how much I can’t handle the cold right now!”

A few seconds later, this was the picture that I didn’t share on social media…

The pain in my face is real. My hands and feet were screaming at me!

The fact of the matter is that the cold is a force of nature that is ultimately stronger than any human will ever be. That includes Wim Hof. That includes you. That includes me. Yes, we are capable of far more than we know, but we are still human. Even Wim Hof himself has suffered from after-drop, hypothermia, and yes,  even frostbite.

Wim is the man! But he is still mortal.

Wim Hof suffered frostbite when he completed his marathon barefoot above the arctic circle. Of course he did! He ran 26.2 miles with direct skin contact on snow. The fact that he was able to complete this feat was as much of a testament to his ability to endure pain as it was his ability to endure the cold. While he suffered far less than the average person would, even the Iceman got frostbite.

So, what does this mean for me?

Quite simply, wear shoes. Wear gloves. Protect your extremities. This is not cheating or making the cold experience any less epic. Yes, you will likely get to the point where you can walk a kilometer barefoot in the snow, but on your first snow walk, wear shoes. Not only will your snow walk be safer, you’ll enjoy it much more. You’ll still get the benefits of cold training, and you’ll be able to go again the next day without any problems.

Does this look like cheating? I have on a hat, boots, and one glove… for some reason, the other one fell off somewhere…. But I’m pretty sure I’m getting a good cold exposure out of this…

Do I train barefoot in the snow? Yes, but I always go barefoot outside in the cold. I have also been training in the cold for many years, and I have never gotten frostbite because I always play it safe. For a cold trainer, what good is accomplishing a barefoot cold walk if you run the risk of having to stop cold training altogether because of a cold-induced injury? Wim risked serious frostbite, yes, but he was doing something that no one had ever done before! In his case, he probably felt that it was worth the risk.

Cold sand. The snow feels just like cold sand.

So, how do I train for barefoot snow walking?

  1. The most important thing to remember is that you are asking your body to adapt, so it will happen slowly and at your own body’s pace. Get your ego out of the picture, and decide to think of this as a long-term project.
  2. The second thing to do is establish a regular outdoor cold walking schedule. For me, I take my dog out each morning and each evening. I go outside with only shorts on all year around to do this, and I make sure to stay out for about 5 to 10 minutes per session. If you are new, start with a minute or two.
  3. Allow yourself to feel the pain that comes with extremity training. When it hurts, go inside and warm your feet. You may use your hands or room-temperature water if you want. It’s not cheating.
  4. Do this daily, and try to focus on your feet when they get cold. Focus on the pain, and don’t ignore it. We are learning to listen to our body. If your feet go numb while doing this, you have waited too long to go inside. Go in quickly and heat your feet up.
  5. To speed your progress, do sets of three or four cold exposures. For example, walk outside until you begin to feel the pain. Then walk inside to let your feet warm up. Then repeat this for up to four times. Don’t try to go longer each time. Just go out until your feel the pain, and then go back inside. You are training the blood vessels in your feet to open and close more effectively.
  6. After you have noticed progress in your cold endurance, pick an object or a tree or a place that you can see in your neighborhood and make that your goal. Walk all the way to the goal and back. Gauge how easy or hard that was and adjust the goal for next time. It is okay to reduce the distance if it was too painful. Over time, as your feet become more adapted, choose targets that are further away.
  7. Have a safety bag. As I discussed in a previous post, cold trainers should always carry a safety bag along when doing outdoor cold exposures. Remember that when you do a snow walk, every step that you take away from safety is a step that you will have to take again when you decide to return. Sometimes we misjudge how far we can actually go. Rather than lose a toe, bring a bag with a towel (to wipe off the snow and dry your feet), and some easy to slip into shoes. Socks are nice, but if you are really in dire need of footwear, they may be hard to manage. I usually have slip-on shoes in my bag.
  8. Be patient with yourself, and don’t worry about what other people are sharing on social media. A photograph takes a moment to take; it doesn’t reflect the entire experience. So, walk your own walk. You’ll get further on your own pace than if you tried to compete with someone else.

In conclusion, I am all for pushing our perceived limits and overcoming fear. However, please remember that there is no shame in be safe about it. Cold training and Wim Hof Method are doorways to a longer and healthier life. It’s not magic. It’s mastery of our physiology and psychology. And mastery takes time, focus, and a lot of patience. You’ll get there my friend. We all will. One healthy step at a time.

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