The Chill That Kills
Hypothermia’s cold hard facts
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 …”
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.
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.
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.
PHOTO COURTESY OF S.O.L SURVIVE OUTDOORS LONGER
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.