Soaked to the skin from sweating or an accidental plunge into the water, you grin sheepishly as you begin to shiver.
Your teeth start to chatter. It’ just part of the communion with the great outdoors. It’s no big deal, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.
You are experiencing the onset of hypothermia – the cooling of your body’s core. Left unattended, hypothermia will cool your body to the point where your brain becomes foggy and your behavior erratic, and, eventually, it can kill you. In fact, 80 percent of wilderness-related fatalities in North America is due to exposure.
Hypothermia can be caused suddenly by falling through ice or being soaked to the skin in cold water. Or, it can creep up on the unsuspecting hunter as the effects of hours of wind and cold accumulate. Hypothermia doesn’t just happen when the temperature dips below freezing. A few hours of unprotected exposure in ten-degree temperatures can be enough to induce hypothermia.
The stages of hypothermia begin with uncontrollable shivering. This is your body trying to warm itself, and it’s a warning to take shelter and get warm immediately. As the body’s core temperature begins to drop, decreased blood flow leads to disorientation, fatigue, and the inability to think rationally. This is why it is crucial to get out of the cold as soon as the shivering begins – if you leave it too long, your judgment may be too impaired for you to save yourself.
Eventually, you lapse into unconsciousness. The chances of recovering from hypothermia this advanced are slim and soon after, the heart and lungs shut down.
Hypothermia can be treated. Insulate the victim and move him to shelter. Remove wet clothes and give him warm drinks. Put him near a fire or in a bath at about 40 degrees Celsius. In extreme cases, allow the extremities to stay cool until the trunk is warmed; blood in the extremities can be very cold and acidic and can throw the victim into shock.
Better than treating hypothermia is preventing it in the first place. Dress properly, in layers, which can be removed and added as needed. Keep your head and extremities well covered. Get in shape – healthy, well-conditioned bodies aren’t as susceptible to hypothermia. A steady intake of “fuel for the furnace” – high-energy snacks like nuts, chocolate, and dried fruits – is also helpful.
And carry a survival pack – a space blanket, tube tent, first-aid kit, and food at the absolute minimum. Avoid alcohol as it cools the body’s core.