GearToons

Hiking gear reviews for hikers with short attention spans.

Hypothermia: The Chills That Kills (featuring The Backpacking Banana)

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Hypothermia is serious business. It’s when your body temp falls too low and your breathing and heart stops. Do you know the signs? You do? Crap. Well, pretend you don’t and read this anyway. Then,  impress your friends with your knowledge on the subject.

  • The best way to prevent hypothermia is to keep warm and dry. This includes not only keeping yourself from falling into water, but also from wearing clothes that will cause you to be drenched in sweat and freeze. Synthetic, wicking base layers can help with that. Try to avoid cotton, since it doesn’t dry out quickly. As they saying goes, ‘Cotton kills’.  (Merino wool is the greatest thing ever, anywhere, at any time. It not only keeps you warm, but it also pulls moisture away from your skin to help keep you warm. )

Mild hypothermia may involve just shivering intensely, but severe (read: possibly fatal) hypothermia is what we want to concentrate on:

Here are some signs:

  • Intense shivering, which may become convulsions and eventually stop as hypothermia progresses, which is seriously bad news. Shivering is your body’s way to generating some fast heat, so when you stop doing that, your core temp may be dangerously low.
  • Loss of coordination, fumbling hands, stumbling steps. If you start getting clumsy, you are feeling the onset of severe hypothermia. I mean, more clumsy than you normal are, if you’re a klutz. This is especially bad if your fingers are too numb to work your iPod and ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ by Justin Bieber is stuck on ‘repeat’.
  • Slurred speech. If you start sounding like you are intoxicated, this is a very bad sign. Slurred speech is a sign that you can’t think straight and then confusion may follow.
  • Confusion, memory loss and bad decision making (irrational behavior). A person who is becoming hypothermic may do crazy things like strip off their dry clothes or leave safe, warm shelter to wander off into the woods and abandoning common sense. This has killed many, many people. Often, hypothermia fatality victims are found away from their warm clothes and gear, having cast them off for unknown reasons.
  • Drowsiness or exhaustion. As your core temps drop and your pulse and breathing slow, you begin to lack energy. Victims of hypothermia often just sit down to ‘rest’ and never wake up.
  • Finally, apathy, such as not caring about your situation or needs, overtakes hypothermic people and they just give up.

It’s a good idea to prepare for the worst. When I hike in cold weather, I try to dress warmly in LAYERS and wear something that is waterproof or at the very least, water repellant. Wearing layers lets me pull of garments that may be causing me to overheat and sweat, without sacrificing all of my warmth, (such as would happen if I just wore one big heavy coat and an undershirt. ) I bring along something to start a fire even in damp conditions, such as an Esbit or Wetfire tablet and storm proof matches. Also, I try to pack an extra, dry base layer or two in a waterproof dry sack. Also, an emergency blanket, like this one, is a staple. It’s lightweight and reflects a great deal of your body heat back to you.

If you do get wet while hiking, the first thing you need to do is get out of your wet clothes.  Water has 25 times the thermal conductivity of air, so you’ll become hypothermic much faster by staying in wet clothes.

Seeking shelter from wind and/or rain is a smart move, next. Try to generate body heat by moving around a lot. Either by doing jumping jacks, running in place or dancing like a fool.

If you’ve brought them, get into dry clothes and wrap up in an emergency blanket. Drinking warm, but NOT hot, beverages will greatly assist in warming you up, as well, but don’t give anything to drink or eat to someone who is unconscious, as this may cause choking.

There is more useful information on the subject of prevention and treatment of hypothermia found here.

-Keith

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