Originally published Feb. 3, 2014.
What do U.S. Postal Service Letter Carriers have to wear when temperatures are subzero?
"A lot," says Rick Curry, who has been tending to his walking route in the city of Huntington for the last eight years.
"The important thing is to stay warm," he explains.
Staying warm seems simple enough.
"Most people just put a big coat on, but that's not going to do it," Curry says, "You've got to dress in layers, that's the first thing you have to do. Long underwear, thermals. I wear ... really thick thermals; those are really good. That is what I had on (the last few) weeks."
But dressing in layers is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to warding off the cold.
Curry says carriers also have to avoid overheating.
"That's the thing," he explains. "You think it's cold, but when you are walking two or three miles at a time you tend to overheat."
This is where the layers of clothing come into play.
"When you dress in layers you can start peeling stuff off," he says.
Not only do you avoid overheating that way, but you also avoid hypothermia.
"What you don't want is to get wet (from sweat) and then cool down. When you are wet and the cold hits you, that makes it even worse because hypothermia and all that stuff can set in.
"So, dress in layers. Avoid overheating. And keep dry."
Sounds like a lot to remember, but there is more.
"Boots are important," Curry notes. "If you get wet feet then you have trench foot and emergent foot and some other things. So, extra socks and waterproof boots are a must."
The waterproof boots are sometimes accompanied by pull-over ice cleats. The cleats are spikes that fit onto the carrier's boot, that help them find traction in the snow and ice.
"Though it is snow, there is ice underneath there," says Curry.
"Our main purpose when we are out there is to stay vertical. Everything else is secondary - just stay up."
Gloves are another necessity for the carriers, as frostbite tends to set in to exposed skin in just 15 minutes when temperatures are below zero.
"We have to sort mail," Curry points out, "so you have to have your fingers free. When it is about 30 degrees I wear fingerless gloves, but the last three weeks I wore full gloves."
Curry says the postal service requires carriers to buy gloves with dots on the palm for traction, and carriers wear something called a seal skin that keeps the gloves close to their hands.
"It makes them close-fitting to your hand and they have dots so you can manipulate the mail," he says. "Once you start moving, your body heats up so your hands stay pretty warm - for me anyway.
"My right hand is constantly moving.
"To move the mail and to sort the mail you need your fingers."
The carriers also wear balaclavas, also known as ski masks, to protect their faces, says Curry. This cloth headgear covers nearly all of a person's face. It has an open face, or three-holes for the eyes and the nose.
Each day, Curry dons this gear for at least eight hours, while he makes his way to 766 houses to deliver mail. He says he keeps his truck stocked with water, or Gatorade or Powerade, to keep hydrated. But in subzero temperatures, he says, those bottles freeze quickly.
"Hot liquids help," he says. "I usually take a cup (of coffee) with me in the morning. The thing with anything hot is you have to sit and drink it.
"That week that it was so cold my wife and daughter-in-law - bless their hearts - would call and say ‘Hey, I am out, do you need me to bring something?' and I would say ‘Yeah, bring me a cup of coffee.' So, I would drink a few sips, put it in the truck, and by the time I would get back it was pretty well cold."
While he is out, he says many obstacles slow him down, not just the freezing temperatures.
"All of our routes are set up on an eight-hour basis, so anything that hampers that eight hours pushes it further. That's why when we have snow days it is important for people to get their walks clean, and a path to their mailbox," he notes.
"Walking through snow slows you down.
"I have some people say, ‘It is only 15 feet to my mailbox, you can't walk 15 feet (through the snow)?'
Well, take 15 feet times the 766 houses I have to go to.
"It makes a long day."
Curry adds, "It doesn't take much to get it cleaned off. You know, when I get off my route I go home and I clean off mine after walking all day."
Walks bulked up with snow and ice not only create a delay for the carriers, but also a hazard.
"It is a safety hazard for us, and as management has said to us: If it seems hazardous or unsafe to you, don't do it.
"If we get hurt, we are down. That means the mail is going to be delayed for everybody else. We have to watch our health and our injuries. It is a safety issue."
Letter carriers are dodging those frigid temps and hazards on a time crunch from the beginning of their route till the end, Curry explains.
"We have to get our route done. And we have to get the mail processed. That is our main objective - to get the mail out and get it delivered, and get it back to be processed. And that's the focus of what we do every day."
Complete caption: Rick Curry, letter carrier for Huntington’s U.S. Postal Service, drops mail at one of the 766 homes he delivers to daily. Curry worked on his day off, Thursday, Jan. 30, to help catch up after brutally cold temperatures and above average snowfall plagued the area in previous weeks.