The Chill That Kills

Hy­pother­mia’s cold hard facts

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Michael D’angona

Hy­pother­mia’s cold hard facts

For most peo­ple, be­ing cold is un­com­fort­able, yet tol­er­a­ble. Goose bumps may rise on their skin, their limbs and teeth may trem­ble or their bod­ies can ex­pe­ri­ence “the chills,” but it usu­ally ends there. Wear­ing warmer cloth­ing, in­creas­ing the heat within their home or sip­ping warm bev­er­ages can help raise their body’s in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture back to nor­mal. How­ever, not ev­ery­one is so lucky.

Un­ex­pected events like be­ing stranded in the wild, wear­ing cloth­ing sat­u­rated by an unforeseen rain­storm, or ac­ci­den­tally falling into a river or pond can bring on a time-sen­si­tive killer called hy­pother­mia. Once this dealer of death has you in its grip, it’s dif­fi­cult to es­cape, but not im­pos­si­ble.

The key to sur­viv­ing this seem­ingly un­solv­able prob­lem lies not only in un­der­stand­ing the phys­i­cal stages of death by cold, but by also learn­ing pre­ven­tive mea­sures.

Un­for­tu­nately, many peo­ple think hy­pother­mia can only hap­pen in arc­tic-style con­di­tions where snow, sleet and in­tense cold weather are pre­sent. This is to­tally un­true. In fact, be­liev­ing this fal­lacy can lead peo­ple to un­der­es­ti­mate weather con­di­tions, al­low­ing this stealthy killer to creep up on them when and where they least ex­pect it.

Nor­mal body tem­per­a­ture is 98.6°F. Hy­pother­mia, by def­i­ni­tion, oc­curs when the hu­man body loses heat faster than it can pro­duce it, caus­ing dan­ger­ously low body tem­per­a­tures. It only takes a drop of a few de­grees to in­sti­gate this deadly con­di­tion. As such, and some­times dif­fi­cult to be­lieve, hy­pother­mia can strike peo­ple in cli­mates such as trop­i­cal is­lands, jun­gles and even in the heart of a desert. It’s the con­di­tions that are all around you that mat­ter and must be con­sid­ered, not just the tem­per­a­ture of your sur­round­ings. Other cat­a­lysts that bring on hy­pother­mia can in­clude ab­stract char­ac­ter­is­tics such as a per­son’s age and over­all med­i­cal con­di­tion, damp or wet at­tire, lo­cal wind speed and di­rec­tion, or just plain lack of prepa­ra­tion.

“… el­e­vate your­self off the ground when sleep­ing. The cold earth will sap your body heat at an alarm­ing rate …”

Warn­ing Signs

Un­for­tu­nately, many peo­ple who fall vic­tim to hy­pother­mia don’t re­al­ize it’s hap­pen­ing un­til it’s too late. Of course, ev­ery­one shiv­ers

when they’re cold, whether out­side in a makeshift camp or in­side an un­der-heated home. How­ever, few re­al­ize that shiver­ing is the ini­tial stage of hy­pother­mia be­cause, in most in­stances, they’ll stop the shiver­ing by ei­ther adding more cloth­ing lay­ers or build­ing a fire to get warm.

For those with­out these op­tions, their bod­ies pro­ceed to stage two, which is the state of con­fused think­ing and poor de­ci­sion mak­ing. As the body gets colder and a per­son’s core tem­per­a­ture drops, their men­tal fac­ul­ties be­gin to de­te­ri­o­rate. This can lead a per­son to take risks, which can cause fur­ther prob­lems aside from hy­pother­mia’s on­set.

Some peo­ple have been known to strip off their clothes dur­ing this con­fused state, fur­ther in­creas­ing the rate at which their core tem­per­a­ture drops. They be­come clum­sier than nor­mal, and risk in­jury from falls or other mishaps. Their co­or­di­na­tion de­creases, which can cause them to in­cur in­juries from us­ing knives or other sharp tools, and their over­all body move­ments be­come slug­gish and lethar­gic.

From there, their breath­ing will slow, their pulse will weaken, and they will pro­gres­sively lose con­scious­ness. At this point, the worst will hap­pen: They will per­ish. It’s cru­cial that ev­ery­one un­der­stand these stages, be­cause once a per­son’s think­ing is af­fected by the se­vere body-tem­per­a­ture drop, it’s very dif­fi­cult

for them to em­ploy a log­i­cal so­lu­tion be­fore it’s too late.

Warm­ing Up

At the on­set of hy­pother­mia, your method of fight­ing this silent killer is, of course, to warm your­self up. Your first line of de­fense is lay­er­ing your cloth­ing. Proper lay­er­ing, as op­posed to wear­ing one thick piece of cloth­ing, will keep your body tem­per­a­ture warm when you’re ex­posed to the cold. The pre­ferred method of lay­er­ing con­sists of a wick­ing layer: a type of polyester that keeps your skin dry. This is fol­lowed by wool or other in­su­lat­ing fab­ric that breathes, yet pro­vides ex­cel­lent warmth. The last part of lay­er­ing is a wa­ter­proof and wind­proof outer layer, which will keep you dry in wet con­di­tions. You can al­ways add more lay­ers, if needed, and be sure to carry spare cloth­ing in case you un­ex­pect­edly get wet. Avoid cot­ton cloth­ing. Cot­ton breathes too much, doesn’t in­su­late well, and takes too long to dry when wet.

Of course, kin­dling a fire dur­ing your time out­doors can take away the chill and keep you cozy through­out the night. Be sure to carry more than one method to start a fire; ex­perts sug­gest stock­ing at least five dif­fer­ent items. Wet matches, a bro­ken lighter or stub­born tin­der can cause un­due stress while try­ing to get warm. Re­mem­ber, have a back-up for your

“… hy­pother­mia can be avoided if you es­cape the el­e­ments and wait out storms, or even fierce winds, un­der a durable shel­ter.”

back-up, and your chances of sur­vival from hy­pother­mia will in­crease.

Fi­nally, wind is your foe. If you’re even slightly wet, fierce or even slow, steady winds can fur­ther re­duce your core tem­per­a­ture. Cre­ate a wind block with what­ever ma­te­ri­als you have, and don’t move from there un­til it sub­sides.

Fur­ther­more, when camped, el­e­vate your­self off the ground when sleep­ing. The cold earth will sap your body heat at an alarm­ing rate. Build an el­e­vated bed, if pos­si­ble, or cre­ate a thick mat­tress of leaves, brush or other nat­u­ral in­su­la­tion ma­te­ri­als. Many new vis­i­tors to the out­doors don’t re­al­ize that an el­e­vated plat­form, when sleep­ing un­der the stars, is just as im­por­tant as—if not more than— cre­at­ing a cover over your head. Of­ten, peo­ple sleep­ing on the cold ground don’t re­al­ize that heat is be­ing ex­tracted from their bod­ies while they sleep, mak­ing them sus­cep­ti­ble to mod­er­ate or ad­vanced hy­pother­mia.

Med­i­cal In­ter­ven­tion

Hy­pother­mia is a med­i­cal con­di­tion that re­quires pro­fes­sional med­i­cal as­sis­tance to treat. If you en­counter some­one suf­fer­ing from any stage of hy­pother­mia, alert med­i­cal au­thor­i­ties im­me­di­ately. How­ever, while you wait for them, there are some things you can do to as­sist in their re­cov­ery. If the per­son

has no pulse and you are skilled in CPR (true CPR train­ing, not just an idea of how to do it), ad­min­is­ter the tech­nique un­til you feel a pulse. How­ever, if the per­son is breath­ing, re­move any cold or wet cloth­ing, wrap the vic­tim in dry, warm blan­kets and be sure to lift them off the cold floor or bare earth, and im­me­di­ately get them to a warmer area.

“Once this dealer of death has you in its grip, it’s dif­fi­cult to es­cape …”

Be Smart and Con­sider the Risks

Al­though hy­pother­mia is a very real con­di­tion that, at times, can’t be avoided, you can and should plan as thor­oughly as pos­si­ble to avoid this slow har­bin­ger of death. Your first line of de­fense is to view the weather fore­cast for the area you’ll be fre­quent­ing. Know if rain or wind storms are ex­pected, as well as the cur­rent and ex­treme tem­per­a­ture vari­a­tions that you might en­counter. These fore­casts will as­sist you in choos­ing the proper at­tire, in­clud­ing any hats, gloves or wa­ter-re­sis­tant cloth­ing.

Sec­ond, con­sider pos­si­ble emer­gency sce­nar­ios that you might face dur­ing your out­ing, and plan ac­cord­ingly how you would be res­cued if such sit­u­a­tions ac­tu­ally hap­pen. Alert oth­ers of your out­door plans, and agree upon set times that you’ll check in with them. If you fail to check in, then they’ll know you need help and will seek the proper search-an­dres­cue per­son­nel.

Shel­ter choice is also a top pri­or­ity, be­cause hy­pother­mia can be avoided if you es­cape the el­e­ments and wait out storms, or even fierce winds, un­der a durable shel­ter. Think­ing that you can cre­ate one on a mo­ment’s no­tice out in the woods is not only fool­ish, but a sure way to die as your core tem­per­a­ture drops to ex­tremely dan­ger­ous lev­els.

Nat­u­ral shel­ters, in­clud­ing over­hang­ing rock for­ma­tions and large caves or man­made dwellings, such as aban­doned houses or barns, are per­fect to es­cape na­ture’s pound­ing. In a pinch, a tube tent, wa­ter­proof tarp or even a strung-up plas­tic pon­cho can help keep mois­ture, and even­tu­ally hy­pother­mia, away from you un­til the sun shines again.

Now that you un­der­stand how hy­pother­mia can kill with­out warn­ing, be pre­pared for any­thing and make wise de­ci­sions. It could save you from the chill that kills.

Al­though hy­pother­mia is mostly known to strike in win­ter-like en­vi­ron­ments, it can af­fect a per­son in the jun­gle, trop­ics or even the desert.

A roar­ing fire can help re­duce the chances of hy­pother­mia tak­ing over your body. Drink­ing warm bev­er­ages and lay­er­ing your cloth­ing also goes a long way to keep you warm.

An un­for­tu­nate road ac­ci­dent can put you in a life or death fight with hy­pother­mia.

Few peo­ple imag­ine that a desert can be a lo­ca­tion where hy­pother­mia is a real pos­si­bil­ity. Its dra­matic tem­per­a­ture ex­tremes can catch un­pre­pared vis­i­tors by sur­prise and cause the worst-case sce­nario to oc­cur.

A bivvy can re­duce the chances of hy­pother­mia. Used in con­junc­tion with a sleep­ing bag, it can re­flect nearly 90% of your own body heat.


In­ex­pen­sive, dis­pos­able lighters can be a lifesaver when a fire is needed to lit­er­ally keep you alive. Think sim­ple, and al­ways carry a lighter! PHOTO COUR­TESY OF THINKSTOCK Hand and foot warm­ers can help take the chill out of your ex­trem­i­ties. Frost­bite mixed with hy­pother­mia is a dan­ger­ous and deadly com­bi­na­tion. PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF COGHLAN’S


This stylish neck­lace also dou­bles as a handy fire starter. Se­cured around your neck, you’ll al­ways have it nearby and ready to use.

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