Baby, It’s Cold Outside: How to Prevent, Diagnose, and Treat Hypothermia

How-To-Deal-With-Hypothermia-Winter-Backpacking

Bears hibernate in the winter, but your activity doesn’t have to. If you’re not a fan of hiking or backpacking in wintery conditions, there are plenty of other seasonal recreations to pursue, like skiing or snowboarding. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and backcountry skiing are great winter alternatives to hiking, offering a similar one-on-one time with nature while giving you a work-out.

No matter your cold season pursuits, there’s one constant… The threat of hypothermia.

WHAT IT IS

Hypothermia is when your body loses more heat than it can generate and drops to a dangerously low temperature, under 95° Fahrenheit (35° Celsius), resulting in, essentially, a state of shock. Where there is exposure to cold weather, there is a chance of hypothermia

SYMPTOMS

During the earliest stages of hypothermia – mild hypothermia – a person will not only feel cold (a no-brainer), but experience a loss of coordination. If you or your friend appears clumsy and can’t carry out seemingly simple tasks, like putting on gloves or walking, they may have hypothermia.

Other symptoms include difficulty in speaking and personality changes – hypothermia victims may seem emotional or go the complete opposite and act apathetic, particularly to their own situation. As the hypothermia worsens, into moderate or severe stages, these symptoms are amplified – entirely incapable of talking, irrationality (like trying to take off their clothes), confusion, and total incoordination.

It may sound a tad strange, but an easy way to keep track of hypothermia symptoms is to think of a typical drunk person and the progression of a their ability to talk, speak, and think as they drink more and more. A few beers deep, a person won’t be the most graceful and their disposition shifts. Add on a another round plus a tequila shot and that person starts to slur, can’t walk, insists they can drive home (ya know, crazy talk!). As they drink even more, they become completely unintelligible or unconscious, with the possibility of death… This is all parallel to the stages of hypothermia.

PREVENTION

Before we talk about treatment, let’s talk about you can avoid this situation entirely.

  • First and foremost, DRESS PROPERLY. Synthetics, especially polyester and wools, are the best materials to rock during your winter adventures because they hold in heat and are moisture-wicking – sweat is your body trying to cool you down so having it around makes you colder.
  • On that note, avoid overexerting yourself to the point where you’re sweating profusely. This can be a difficult task when you’re skinning up a steep slope, but the combo of your sweaty wet clothes and the cold is no bueno. See my tip below regarding layers.
  • Dressing properly also means covering up. The key is to have the least amount of areas exposed to the cold. Bust out the hats, mittens (mittens > gloves for heat), face masks, neck warmers, and/or scarves.
  • Learn to layer like a pro. Wear loose-fitting layers – contrary to belief, tight clothes hold in less heat – with synthetics or wool close to the body and a water-repellant, tightly-woven (aka wind-resistant) layer on the outside. In the middle, opt for an insulating layer made of wool or fleece. Tip: Layers that are easy to remove or put on can help prevent becoming a sweaty (and cold) mess.
  • Stay dry! In addition to sweat, damp clothing can happen when snow sneaks into your boots or you fall into the white stuff. To avoid, wear water-repellant clothing like snow pants and tuck items into other items – like wear your jacket sleeves over the sleeve of your mitten.
  • Take frequent food and water breaks to ensure high energy levels (energy = your body creating warmth) and hydration.
  • Always go with a buddy! You know I’m pro-solo hiking but it’s difficult to diagnose yourself with hypothermia when you’re all loopy from it. A friend cannot only detect the first symptoms, but help you re-warm effectively. Not to mention, a companion is essential when pursuing outdoor activities in a season where avalanches are prevalent.

TREATMENT

If you or your friend even think you are experiencing hypothermia, act fast. Mild hypothermia is treatable, but the more severe it becomes, the harder it is to “rewarm.” Regardless of the phase, remove yourself or your friend from the cold exposure and begin the rewarming process (see below). Mild hypothermia is often cured at home, but if you have any doubts about its severity, seek medical attention immediately.

If you’re in the backcountry, escaping the cold can be difficult and help can be dozens of miles away. Here are the steps you should take to treat someone with hypothermia, termed “rewarming” for its goal of restoring warmth to the hypothermic person –

  • If possible, first call 911 for help, especially if you think it’s moderate to severe hypothermia you’re dealing with. Time is of the essence at these stages.
  • If possible, seek or create shelter. It’s important to avoid any further subjection to the cold and to prevent more heat loss.
  • Remove all damp or wet clothes, including socks.
  • Put on warm and most importantly, dry clothes. This, again, includes socks. This is why you always carry an extra pair (or two) of socks. Socks are key.
  • If possible, get off cold ground. This can be done by moving to a shelter or laying down objects like a sleeping mat or your snowboard.
  • If possible – victim may be too confused or uncoordinated, depending on severity – get active to warm up. Run around. Do jumping jacks. Do knee highs. Skip. Hop.
  • If possible – victim may be experiencing nausea and can’t eat – create energy by eating and drinking. Warm and sweet foods are best, but anything will be beneficial. Hydrate with water.
  • Make a burrito. No, not that kind, although a warm burrito would be nice. I’m talking about blankets! Using sleeping pads, sleeping bags, and spare clothing, wrap the victim up like a Chipotle delicacy. For added warmth, boil water, place in a water bottle, and apply to major heat sources on the body (aka where blood vessels run closest to the surface) like hands, groin, and armpits. Note: make sure the bottle is not too hot or else you’ll be dealing with burns as well.
  • However, with severe hypothermia – characterized by loss of consciousness and completely unintelligible – it is impossible to rewarm on your own and medical attention is needed immediately. While waiting for medics, use the burrito method to prevent any more exposure, but be extra gentle with the victim; his or her heart is fragile and heart failure is a serious threat with hypothermic patients.

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Do you have any experiences with hypothermia, whether it was you or a friend? What are your tips to staying safe in the cold weather? Share in the comments below!

 

photo credit: 101_0174 via photopin (license)

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