by Diane Spicer
Hiking hypothermia is no joke.
But many hikers laugh off the signs and symptoms.
Or fail to recognize them.
Others blow them off as a minor inconvenience - until a progression to something much worse really grabs attention away from the hiking trail.
So let's define hiking hypothermia before we go any further.
"below temperature", referring to your internal body temperature.
In self defense, your body gives you "signs" and "symptoms" that something is going wrong.
Cries for more warmth, actually. Let's give some examples.
Signs are things that other people can notice about you:
These signs are as objective as a bright red stop sign, and should alert your trail buddies (if you have them - solo hikers are going to have to be extra cautious) that something has changed in your body.
Symptoms are things going on inside of you that should awaken little alarm bells in the ancient lizard "survival" part of your brain:
These subjective pieces of information are rooted in your body - you're the subject!
Speak up to your trail buddies if you note these symptoms.
If you're solo, pay attention and act.
Never chide yourself for being clumsy or slow - recognize it for what it is.
The bad news: Together, these signs and symptoms will escalate until they become extreme, if you or your hiking partners don't take action.
And frostbite might also enter the
picture - frozen body tissues. Eww!
So ignoring these little postcards from your body is absolutely the wrong thing to do for hiking hypothermia.
To begin, I'm going to do a little myth busting about hiking hypothermia for you.
Then you can decide which actions to take to prevent it, and treat it when it's right in front of you.
Only hikers in extremely cold snowy conditions like those pictured above are at risk of hiking hypothermia.
There are many conditions which can rob your body of its heat.
The critical question is - how much heat will you lose?
Examples of conditions which can lead to hiking hypothermia:
Only really young or really old hikers are at risk.
Smaller people (such as kids and small women) lose body heat faster than bigger people.
And keep an eye on the kids in cold weather hiking conditions. They are easily distracted by fun activities on the trail, and may get really cold but not speak up until blue lips occur.
Older hikers are more likely to be on medications or have poor circulation for other medical reasons.
So these folks need to be watched more carefully in nasty conditions, or after exposure to cold water.
However, it's not true that if you're a healthy 20, 30, or 40-something you're immune to hypothermia risks on the trail.
We all have a proper range of internal temperature "set points" (textbooks say 37C or 98.6F), and anyone can get too cold (also too hot. That's a different story).
If you're a smoker, your circulation is not as robust as others.
If you consume alcohol during a hiking trip, your circulation is impaired to some degree.
Pay attention to your fatigue level. Pushing past your limits makes you more vulnerable when you're cold and wet.
And in my experience, males are less likely to notice cold conditions.
Or maybe they're less likely to comment on them? I don't know.
But they could slip into the early stages of hypothermia without being aware of it.
So keep an eye on the guys, too, especially older males with chronic health conditions such as diabetes.
Shivering means you're in serious trouble.
Not at first!
Shivering is caused by your skeletal muscles (the ones that power you up the trail) reacting to decreased blood flow. You can't really control the shivering, and that's good - it's an inbuilt mechanism to create heat temporarily.
If the shivering escalates to the point where it interferes with your ability to open your water bottle, or hang onto your hiking poles, that's when things wander into the Land of Hiking Hypothermia.
Watch your trail companions for excessive shivering - it's one of the first signs that trouble is brewing.
If you catch yourself shivering really hard and can't over ride the shaking, it's time to take immediate action.
Every minute that ticks by without getting warmer is costing you body temperature that is going to be hard to increase unless drastic measures are taken.
And if you're on the trail, you don't have access to a medical team or emergency department, right? You're going to have to handle hiking hypothermia by yourself.
So don't blow it off when your hands start to shake or you feel shivers traveling up and down your body. It's a signal that your core body temperature is dropping.
By now you get the picture of how dangerous hiking hypothermia is.
But what are you going to do about it?
If you're a solo hiker, you're going to have to catch the signs and symptoms of hiking hypothermia in yourself at their earliest stage.
alert to changing weather conditions and put on appropriate gear, or
take/put up shelter quickly before you start to shake and shiver.
If you allow yourself to get wet on top of being cold, you're asking for major trouble. If you're shaking too hard to pitch your tent, how are you going to change into a dry set of clothes? Or warm up fluids and food to quickly consume?
If you're on a solo day hike, don't leave home without looking at weather forecasts. If you know the conditions are iffy, rethink your trip or be sure you have the right gear in your pack.
buy you a bit of breathing room, because hopefully everyone is checking in with each other if a cold wind whips up, or a downpour occurs.
It's your responsibility to monitor anyone who falls into cold water.
The person might become combative or deny that her behavior is deteriorating.
Avoid the potential for further trouble - falling into water or off slippery surfaces, tripping on tree roots and face planting, anything that would escalate the situation.
Once signs and symptoms of hypothermia are present, here's a plan of action.
NOTE: This is not medical advice, just practical ideas.
You'll have to modify these steps to fit the precise conditions and gear availability.
This may not be hiking hypothermia!
Someone might have to hike out, or attempt to contact, medical help.
If you're carrying a personal locator beacon, deploy it.
And be prepared to do rescue breathing if loss of consciousness occurs.
Don't lose hope, and don't give up, if your hiking buddy becomes combative and unresponsive. Keep trying.
You need help, as fast as possible.
Any of the warming attempts above are not going to work, and may make things worse by pulling cold blood into internal organs.
Your job is to:
Do you know how to take a pulse measurement? No pulse means it's time to start rescue breathing.
Don't lose hope while waiting for help. Low body temperature can be reversed. You just need to buy some time until help arrives.
Maybe right now you're thinking that a first aid course is not a bad idea.
These things should be in your head:
These things should be in your pack:
I hope I've grabbed your attention, and given you the facts you need to spot, and deal with, hiking hypothermia.
Thanks for taking the time to get educated about how to avoid hypothermia, too.
And promise me that you will take charge if you notice someone in trouble!
Literally, her/his life may depend on it.
One more thing: If you're stuck overnight in the outdoors while awaiting rescue or medical help, pull your survival kit out of your backpack to make the wait easier.
We all love happy outcomes, right?
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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.
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