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Hypothermia Ain't So Hot

So avoid it - here's how

Can we get this girl another layer? Oh. No? Okay, then.

I once went snorkeling on an 80-degree day; the water, however, was in the 70s, and when I came out, I just couldn’t warm up. Wrapping myself in a towel and staying in the sun didn’t seem to help. It was hours later that I finally felt warm. It took practically that long for me to realize that I was suffering from hypothermia – lowered core body temperature.

“Hypothermia can sneak up on people because it doesn’t have to be freezing temperatures,” says Mike Schiller, a course leader for Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS. “It can just be cool enough, anywhere really in the 50s or 60s, or anywhere below 80 water temperature wise.”

Hypothermia is best avoided rather than treated. Here are some tips about preparing and, if necessary, dealing with it.

What exactly causes hypothermia? It’s not simply cold temperatures, like you might think. The factors that add up to cause hypothermia are generally temperature (cool to cold), water (from rain, sweat, ice or snow) and wind. “Water can take the heat away from our body 25 times faster than the air,” Mike warns. Add into that being poorly prepared for the elements – usually lack of proper clothing – and the conditions are ripe for hypothermia.

An ounce of prevention. It sounds obvious, but we don’t always do it: check the forecast before heading out. As you know, the weather in our region can change in five minutes.

Bring several thin layers of clothing – wool, synthetic or rain gear is better than “killer cotton.” Unlayering will help you avoid getting soaked in your own sweat before weather conditions change for the worse. At a minimum, always carry one of those $2 emergency ponchos. Throw in a shower cap and you should be able to prevent hypothermia even if it gets cold and wet outside. These items take up practically no space in your day pack and are well worth it.

Make sure you have food and water, too. “One of the primary ways our body generates heat is through metabolism,” Mike says. “You can only have an effective metabolism if you have food and if you’re well hydrated.”

Identify hypothermia. The medical community says when your core body temperature dips to 95 degrees F (about 98.5 is normal), you’ve hit hypothermia. Unless you carry around a thermometer, you’ll need to know how to recognize the symptoms of hypothermia, in others as well as yourself.

Mild hypothermia (95-90 degrees) is generally accompanied by cold skin, shivering and sluggishness.

Moderate hypothermia (90-85 degrees) is generally accompanied by confusion, poor motor skills, grumpiness, apathy or sleepiness.

Severe hypothermia (80 degrees and below) has struck when someone becomes unconscious or near to it.

Treat hypothermia as soon as possible. Once you realize hypothermia has set in, wrap yourself or your companion in anything dry at hand – a blanket, a jacket, your tent rainfly, whatever. Build a survival shelter if you can’t get to another shelter. Try to find a heat source, like a fire. Warm and sweet liquids or food will also help raise body temperature (see the power cocoa recipe).

If the hypothermia is so severe that it can’t be treated with these measures, seek medical help immediately.

The hypo-wrap, a.k.a. the human burrito
If you’re somewhat prepared – say, winter backcountry camping – and a member of your group becomes hypothermic, try the hypo-wrap. Start with as many sleeping pads as you have. Have a normally warm person heat up a sleeping bag. Get any wet clothes off of the victim and put them in the warmed sleeping bag. Cover it with another sleeping bag and then wrap the whole thing up in plastic – a poncho or the rainfly will do. “That is as good as anything you can do to rewarm somebody in the back country,” Mike says.