Be Prepared: Hypothermia

Although winter temperatures in our region are fairly mild, hypothermia can be a real threat to anyone who spends time outdoors. Hypothermia does not require exposure to freezing temperatures. Prolonged exposure to wind and rain, even with air temperature in the 50s, can lead to serious trouble.

Rafting on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
Photo by Deborah Wall

Normal body temperature varies from person to person, but is usually about 98.6 Fahrenheit. If it drops even to 95 degrees, that constitutes hypothermia, and it’s dangerous not only because of its direct effects on the body but also because people make poor decisions when hypothermia clouds their thinking. The best way to avoid it is dressing appropriately in layers, being well nourished and hydrated, and being alert for any of its symptoms.

In cold weather a layering system works best, especially for covering the core body area — your torso. Your inside layer of clothing should be a synthetic wicking fabric (no cotton). Such synthetic fabrics keep you drier, lifting out perspiration. The second layer might be a fleece jacket or vest for insulation. In extremely frigid weather a down jacket works great for this layer, but if there is any chance it could get wet, choose a synthetic or even wool rather than down. Your final layer should be a waterproof shell which sheds rain and snow, and also serves as a windbreaker.

Always wear good winter socks, (no cotton) and footwear appropriate for your activity. When skiing, snowshoeing, hiking wet trails or on river trips, use the same layering system on your legs as you did for your torso. Gaiters are often overlooked but I use them often to keep out snow or mud.

Of course wear a warm hat or balaclava, and mittens or gloves. Routinely storing gloves in the jacket pockets makes them less likely to be forgotten at home.

Learn symptoms of hypothermia before even setting out in cold weather. Awareness can keep mild hypothermia from deteriorating to a life-threatening emergency. Usually the initial signs you (or your outdoor companions) might experience are shivering, numbness and some lack of coordination. This is when you need to act quickly, getting the victim to a heat source and feeding him or her warm, sugary drinks (non-alcoholic). Immediately, remove any wet clothing and replace it with warm, dry clothing or a blanket.

If the person is experiencing confusion, acting inebriated or is non-responsive this might already be a life-threatening situation, requiring professional medical help immediately. Severe drops in body temperature can result in heart and respiratory failure.

If the victim has been accidentally submerged in frigid water, the situation is even more serious. Here the body can lose heat 25 percent faster than in frigid air. Even a few minutes in really cold water can be fatal. Get the person onto dry land immediately, remove all wet clothes and get dry fast. Find a heat source; get to a vehicle if possible, and turn on the heat. Building a fire is a good idea if you have fuel and dry matches or lighter, but it’s difficult to do when trembling with the bone-deep cold of hypothermia.

3 thoughts to “Be Prepared: Hypothermia”

  1. For those who may not have experienced hypothermia, it is helpful to know usually if you are suffering from hypothermia, you may not know it. One time, many years ago I was caught in white-out conditions, skiing by myself, out of bounds, (not smart) and I lost my way after smacking into a tree. What I felt was that was too hot, and sorely tempted to remove my gloves, hat and powder coat. Luckily, I knew the symptoms and fought those urges until I was able to find my way back to the public side of the mountain and could ski back to the lodge.

    1. Hypothermia is an insidious condition that can fool even the most experienced outdoor enthusiast, but knowing the symptoms ahead of time can give you that extra edge that will keep you safe out there.


  2. And the story continues… when I reached the relative safety of the lodge, I was still under the effects of full-blown hypothermia and I felt slightly ill and tired and instead of getting food and water and rest… I went to my car in the parking lot and went to sleep in my car. The only reason I am still around to tell the tale is that the snow storm dropped another 10-14 inches of snow on my car and I was “insulated” inside. Luckily, I awoke about an hour later — and was sufficiently thirsty to go back to the lodge and get some water — where I started to recover.

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