Battling Hypothermia: A Survival guide.

Hypothermia can be a serious threat, and it is all the more dangerous when you don’t really know what you’re dealing with. You don’t have to be in the Alaskan tundra to fall victim to this silent killer. Hypothermia can sneak in during a light rain on a 60 degree afternoon. Knowing the symptoms, and how to prevent hypothermia before it arises is the best method for fighting it. Let’s talk about it a bit.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is the condition of a lower than normal body temperature , resulting from loosing heat faster than you can produce it. An internal body temperature of just 95 degrees is considered hypothermia, compared to the typical 98 degrees that a human normally sustains. Hypothermia throws your body out of sync, and causes major organs like the lungs and heart to stop working.

What are the symptoms?

Mild hypothermia:

  • lack of energy
  • shivering
  • dizziness
  • increased heart rate
  • faster breathing
  • lack of coordination
  • nausea
  • hunger
  • trouble speaking.

Severe hypothermia:

  • Shivering worsens, or stops
  • further clumsiness
  • lack of coordination
  • drowsiness
  • slurred speech
  • lack of concern for the situation or self
  • confusion
  • shallow breathing
  • low energy.
  • victim may start to feel warm, or very sleepy

What situations create risk?

Anytime you’re under-dressed in cooler temperatures, generally lower than even 70 degrees, can cause a risk of hypothermia. This number can be even higher if the person is sick, tired, malnourished, or otherwise unhealthy. Hypothermia can sink in even in temperatures as high as 80 degrees. If you’re wet long enough, evaporation can drain a lot of heat from your body.

Typical scenarios include:

  • Being caught in the rain, even on mild days.
  • Poor nutrition and dehydration often lead to the inability to regulate your body’s temperature.
  • Having poor clothing for cool,cold or wet conditions.Consult my guide on how to dress for cold weather.
  • Getting your clothing wet by falling into water, or absorbing water into the clothing by sweating on cold days.
  • Alcohol, physical/mental issues, and medications can increase the risk.
  • Going solo only worsens your chances of making poor decisions, and not recognizing the problem as it develops.
  • Being too stubborn to be pro-active about getting out of dangerous conditions.

What do you do about it?

The very best practice in battling hypothermia is to avoid it altogether. If that fails, you should start treatment as soon as the early warning signs start to show up (especially shivering, lack of energy, and breathing). Let’s start with avoidance.

Avoidance

Choose your location and conditions wisely. It’s easy to be tempted by the chance that you can squeeze through the poor weather window, but going out when things are getting bad can lead to terrible consequences, regardless of skill, preparation, and knowledge.

Don’t trust the weatherman. If conditions look good, accept the fact that they can and probably will change in ways that are unpredictable. I’ve had 70 degree days turn into 18 degree shiver fests.

Being prepared with the proper clothing is a huge part of avoidance. If you don’t have rain gear, there is no way you’ll stay dry and warm when the weather turns, even in mild weather. Always pack rain gear, plenty of insulation, extra socks, and an emergency blanket just in case. Never leave home without your rain gear.  If you’re questioning your gear, stay home.

Once symptoms actually set in

  • Stay calm, and think about the situation. Keep moving to produced body heat, but think about the situation and how you can help yourself out. Are you very close to a car? Bailing out may be an option. If not, start thinking about how to warm up. If you’re the one who is hypothermic, you may not see the danger. If someone is trying to help you and you don’t think you need it, trust them. You may not be thinking clearly.
  • Call for help. This is obvious, but you will be surprised how many people will fight it. Even if it’s just a “I wanted to call just in case I’m not back” call, someone needs to know there could be a situation. It could save your life.
  • You need to get dry. If that requires removing wet clothing, do it.  You simply will not be able to stay warm with water evaporating off your body. Any heat your body generates will be lost to the atmosphere. If you’re dunked in water, strip down immediately. Rolling around in leaves or even snow can pull the water off your body and stop the evaporation.
  • Find shelter. In a tent or a wooden shelter is ideal, but huddling under rocks, in a cave, or in a thick patch of trees under leaves can work too. Anywhere you can get out of the wind and rain is an option.
  • Take in lots of water, and high calorie foods. You will start warming your body from the inside. Digestion produces heat, and provides your body with the calories it needs to stay warm. Hot chocolate and other hot liquids, even if you have to heat up Gatorade or water, will have a huge impact.
  • Find sources of warmth. Other people, fire, sleeping bags, water bottles filled with hot water, or just pilling up into a piles of dry leaves can help. If you can, keep moving. Do pushups, curls, cycle your legs, or anything else that will start producing body heat.
  • Stay awake. You don’t want to go to sleep. Sleeping naturally lowers your body temperature. Even if you feel like you’re warming up, stay awake just to be sure, as you may start to feel warm if your hypothermia is worsening.
  • Don’t give up. Whatever you do, never think the situation is hopeless. You’ve not lost until you quit. Keep moving, calm, and keep thinking. You can get out of this.

Other tips

Body sweat is enough to start draining your body temperature. When hiking in cold conditions, hiker slower so that you do not start to sweat.

Avoid tricky situations and river crossings whenever possible. Shortcuts are rarely a good option.

Always know the area, have a map, and someone waiting for you with a detailed route of your travel plans. If you don’t show up, they should start looking for you.

 

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