Hiking hypothermia is a silent killer. We dispel the myths and show you how to treat and prevent it occurring.
Hiking hypothermia causes over 60% of all deaths that occur as a result of exposure to weather. Twice the number attributed to heat exposure in the form of sun and heat stroke. Confusion about the symptoms can lead to danger, as well as stubborn hikers trying to be brave.
There are a lot of myths surrounding hypothermia and its symptoms. Let’s dispel those first.
“It’s only young and old people that can suffer from hypothermia.”
Incorrect. Regulating body temperature is harder for certain groups. However, it’s more about your build and body type. Smaller people, which includes children and [some] women are more prone to hypothermia than an average 30 something [healthy] male, but all age ranges can be affected.
Older hikers are more likely to be affected by hypothermia. Older hikers are the group more likely taking medications which affect blood circulation. However, being older doesn’t necessarily make you more prone to the cold.
“I’m shivering, so I must be suffering from hypothermia.”
Incorrect. At first, shivering just means you are cold. Shivering is your body’s initial reaction to the cold. Your body attempts to warm you up by making your large muscle groups work. It creates temporary heat and is a good thing. It is, however, a sign that your core body temperature is dropping. We’ll look at that later in the article.
“I can’t get hypothermia because it’s not snowing.”
Incorrect. Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when your core body temperature drops. It doesn’t have to be snow and ice. Cold water and wind chill also have the same effect as being exposed to snow and ice. Working up a sweat on the trail and then stopping can be enough to bring on hypothermia. Not stopping to wrap up when conditions become poor is also a route to hypothermia.
Spotting the signs of hypothermia early is the best way to prevent or reverse the symptoms. Keep a keen eye out for people trying to be brave. There is a difference between putting up with the cold, and suffering in silence
The symptoms of hiking hypothermia
When out in the wilderness, prevention is ALWAYS better than cure. Spotting the signs of hypothermia can mean the difference between the possibility of reversal and death.
In the first instance, you should be aware of the following symptoms:
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Slurred speech
- Loss of coordination
- Loss of movement in the fingers
- Reduced mental response times
There is a difference between shivering because you are cold and that which occurs with the onset of hypothermia. You should be able to consciously, override your shivering. If you cannot stop yourself from shivering, it is a sign that hypothermia is setting in.
If the hypothermia has progressed to a greater degree:
- Weak, possibly irregular pulse.
- Shallow or laboured breathing.
- Muscle stiffness
- Loss of consciousness
- Dilated pupils
As a hiker, you are in greater danger of hypothermia than if you are in a group. It is easier to spot symptoms in others than yourself. As soon as you or those in your group show any of the above symptoms, it’s time to take action.
What to do if you or others are suffering from hiking hypothermia.
Below is a quick plan of action to counteract the effects of hypothermia. These steps are only a guide, and you should always try to seek medical advice where possible. Some of them may seem obvious. However, it pays to run through them all.
- Remove the danger
- Shelter the affected hiker
- Rule out other possibilities for the symptoms
- Assess the severity of the symptoms
- Treat the affected hiker / seek help
If the hypothermia is a result of a fall into the water, make sure they are away from the water. Removing the danger should be obvious; however, it is important not to endanger the group further by exposing people to more risk. Similarly, if you are on an exposed ledge or path, move to a safer place, if possible, before assessment or treatment begins.
Shelter The Affected Hiker
It is important there is no further exposure. Wet clothes are a primary cause of hypothermia, so these should be removed and replaced with clean, dry clothes as quickly as possible. A makeshift shelter, tent or survival bag should be used to offer protection.
Rule Out Other Symptoms
Ruling out other possibilities for the symptoms the hiker is presenting is a must. There is no point starting a hypothermia reversal exercise if the shivering and drowsiness are simple overexertion or dehydration. Lack of food (energy) can cause the body to become cold and mental reaction times to slow. Assessment is always needed to rule out other causes. The assessment applies to all medical situations before treatment, not just hiking hypothermia.
Assess The Severity Of The Symptoms
The symptoms of hiking hypothermia can vary from very mild, to severe. Extra care is needed when dealing with a case of severe hypothermia as treatments can make matters worse. Your revival attempts can push cold blood from the outer parts of the body into the core and around the vital organs.
In cases of extreme hypothermia, or if you are in any doubt as to the severity of the condition, your first prioroty is to seek medial assistance.
Treating Mild To Moderate Hiking Hypothermia
The key to successful treatment of mild to moderate hypothermia is to warm the affected person from the inside out. Trying to warm the affected hiker from the outside in, by placing them by fire, for example, can make matters worse. Simple things that will warm the affected from the core will be far more successful.
Shelter the affected person in any way you can. The shelter can be as simple as a pile of equipment shielding the affected person from the effects of wind chill, or a makeshift pile of branches and leaves.
Cover the head with something warm and dry. It is not true that 90% of the body’s heat gets lost through the head. However, it is true if the head is the only part left uncovered.
If the affected person can drink, give them hot, sweet fluids. A hot drink will get the heat right inside the body and warm from the inside. If you have a stove, something as simple as hot water will be enough to ensure some heat gets into the body. In addition to this, encourage the affected person to walk around, swinging their arms if they are able. This physical movement will help with the warming process.
Try to think outside the box.
If you have a localised heat source and the affected person can’t swallow. Use drinking bottles filled with warm water to apply localised heat (making sure not to burn/scald). Add the heat to the armpit and groin areas where blood will carry the heat internally, rather than to the outer parts of the body. You could also build a fire to warm (not too hot) some flat stones. Place them around the affected person’s torso.
Get into bed with the affected person. Sharing a sleeping bag with somebody suffering from mild hypothermia can gently help to heat them through. Shared body heat has been a trick of humans from caveman times through to the present day and can be a great tool in very mild cases.
Finally, offer some carbohydrate-rich foods. Food will create internal heat as the body digests it, and provide a fuel source to the body to start generating some heat of its own.
It is important to never take a chance on another person’s life. Hypothermia can be a killer, so if you are at all unsure of the condition, seek medical help/advice immediately.