Avoiding Hypothermia When Camping, Hunting, Fishing, and Hiking

The sad news of the Decareaux family splashed across various news outlets. An Air Force veteran and his two young sons set out on a seemingly relaxing hike, never to return. Stories like this one occur all too often. They left on their hike in weather touching the 60’s, and soon the skies darkened as the temperature dropped into the 40’s. The rain fell and the wind blew. Disoriented and dressed for the warm weather, all the ingredients were in place for a needless tragedy. Only their yellow Labrador retriever witnessed their passing. Three other children and a wife are left to mourn their deaths.

This is a harsh story to begin with, but not atypical of how these sagas play out. Hypothermia is a killer that takes far too many lives, and perhaps one aspect of the cause is that very often, the weather causing the deaths is not that extreme. When the temperature drops into the single digits, outdoorsmen generally leave prepared for the elements. In extreme heat, the news is filled with extreme heat warnings. When it is rainy, windy and 40 degrees, it can just be thought of as a typical day about any place in the lower 48 states between October and April.

The generally held definition of hypothermia is a body temperature that falls below 95 degrees. However, hypothermia develops in stages. It just might save your life or that of a loved one or friend if you can recognize the symptoms.

Stage One Hypothermia develops in the initial drop of body temperature. In the field, it’s essentially irrelevant what body temperature is present. The symptoms are what matter. The most prevalent symptom will typically be mild to severe shivering, In fact, shivering can be viewed always as a sign that hypothermia is a threat. Take it seriously! The body also begins the process of redirecting blood flow to essential internal organs. As a result, fine motor skills begin to suffer. One common tests for Stage One Hypothermia is to touch the thumb to the little finger. While not a fool-proof test, lack of ability to perform this test is a telltale signal that a person is moving into Stage Two Hypothermia, a truly dangerous condition.

In the transition to Stage Two Hypothermia, it is not uncommon for victims to feel sick to their stomach, immensely tired, but often also a warming sense that they are recovering. This phenomenon represents one of the most dangerous aspects of hypothermia – the body’s ability to fool itself. As Stage Two Hypothermia progresses, shivering becomes more violent. The body also desperately tries to save its most vital functions by redirecting more and more blood flow to keeping essential organs warm and functioning. Victims in this stage become disoriented, highly dysfunctional with regard to fine and gross motor skills, and start to often make decisions with deadly consequences.

In the story opening this article, the father at one stage was near a road and encountered a passing motorist. He and his two sons were offered a ride back to the lodge where his wife and three other children were staying. He declined. While I have no hard evidence that he was in Stage Two Hypothermia at this point of the story, it would be one hundred percent in line with what might be expected. At this stage, victims often report that they are doing fine. Their mental faculties are not sufficient for them to know otherwise. This reinforces the importance of keeping close tabs on your partners in potentially hypothermic conditions.

Stage Three Hypothermia sets in at about 90 degrees body temperature. Shivering typically ceases at this stage. All body functions are in the process of shutting down. Amnesia, lack of body control, and blue and puffy lips and skin are often present. Death is close at hand if intervention does not occur soon. It is unlikely that a person in Stage Three Hypothermia will be able to rescue themself.

How could this have been prevented in the first place?

The good news is that with relatively simple precautionary measures hypothermia is one hundred percent preventable. It all boils down to preparation.

During seasons where hypothermia is even a possibility, always head into the field with proper clothing and emergency supplies. I will focus on the clothing aspect, as that alone would prevent the vast majority of hypothermia fatalities.

Even on warm days when there is no forecast of inclement weather, carry a day pack with what you will need if the weather does turn nasty. Layered clothing is the best option for dealing with weather fluctuations. Also, due to absolutely awful insulation, cotton clothing should not be used. Once cotton becomes wet, it is useless as an insulator from the cold. It can get wet from sweating or from precipitation. There are manmade materials that work well, but the age-old standard for staying warm in damp to wet conditions is wool. Wear a base layer of polypropylene underwear, with layers over the top. Also, always have a rain parka or poncho for when the skies really do open up. One of the major contributing factors to hypothermia is wind. The rain gear you carry can also serve as a wind break. Finally, make certain you carry a wool cap. An enormous amount of body heat escapes through the head when uncovered.

In the coming days, I will provide basic first aid information for hypothermia, as well as advice for what to carry in a survival kit.