It is common knowledge that exposure to extremely cold weather can be life threatening, but there are many more hypothermia scenarios than a trip to the Arctic. Immersion in water, wind chill, fatigue, dehydration and lowered food intake increase the risks of losing core temperature. As a result, hypothermia can occur even in seemingly mild conditions. Prevention, recognizing and treating hypothermia should be compulsory knowledge for any adventurer.
In 2007, the Kim family decided to go on a Thanksgiving road trip in Oregon. One fatal turn and five days of being marooned in the wilderness later, James Kim left his wife and two small children to search for help. While a rescue mission reached the stranded vehicle, Mr. Kim perished wandering the desolate mountains. Cause of death: hypothermia.
The Kim family’s story saddened the nation as the dramatic search unfolded on TV screens. Unfortunately, with more and more people venturing into the outdoors in search of adventures, awareness of hypothermia risks and treatment is still low.
In cold weather conditions, planning is key. Wear appropriate clothing, do not overestimate your energy levels and skill, do not lower your calorie consumption, and avoid dehydration. These are the basics but the real deal is planning for a survival situation which, as illustrated by the tragic story above, can happen to anybody. Always have with you some emergency chocolate, or better yet, an emergency energy bar. A Mylar blanket (space blanket) should be a part of any outdoor first aid kit. In addition, leaving information about your route and estimated time of arrival with friends or family can make the difference between life and death.
Exposure to extremely low temperatures is the obvious one, but there are many others hypothermia causes. It is possible to become hypothermic after prolonged immersion in 77 degree water. Wet but exposed to cold air and windchill, a person is subject to evaporative cooling which can kill in a matter of hours.
Alcohol is a common thread in many hypothermia cases, but it is associated more with poverty and homelessness than outdoor adventure. However, keep in mind that consumption in cold weather conditions can lead to death.
One rarely recognized cause of hypothermia is blood loss. Accident victims can become hypothermic even in warm weather conditions, and that is when a space blanket weighing just three ounces can save a life.
When core body temperature drops below 95°F, mild hypothermia creeps in. This stage is easily overlooked. When body temperature drops below 93°F, the victim starts to display symptoms of disorientation such as slurring words, reckless behavior and memory loss.
Signs of life-threatening, profound hypothermia include lack of coordination, lethargy, erratic and combative behavior, or even loss of consciousness. Uncontrolled shivering associated with milder hypothermia may cease. In the final stages, the victim might take off their clothing in a phenomenon known as paradoxical undressing.
A severely hypothermic person may appear dead at first sight, with very weak pulse and shallow, unnoticeable breathing.
Mild hypothermia can easily be treated with warm and calorific food and drink, warm clothing, or moving the affected person into a warmer environment. The most important thing is being prepared for situations when mild hypothermia might occur and either prevent it or react quickly.
Direct and small heat sources such as hot water bottles or chemical heaters are less effective than sitting by the fire, or inhaling steam rising from hot water.
In case of profound hypothermia, try not to let the victim fall asleep. Keep them awake and do not give them food or drink if they are acting severely confused (risk of choking). It is unlikely that you will manage to reheat the victim without taking them to the hospital, but any sources of heat or warm clothing will help prevent further temperature loss. Warm the center of the body first and keep their head covered.
In severe cases, performing CPR will become a necessity. Perform it only in the absence of breathing and pulse. There are many known cases of severe hypothermia victims making a full recovery, even after their core temperature dropped below 63°F and there were no apparent signs of life for hours.
Those exploring the outdoors should keep in mind that hypothermia can be a risk even in good conditions. Learn the signs, educate yourself on how to treat the symptoms, and keep yourself and your fellow adventurers safe.