The biggest killer in the wild isn’t lions and tigers and bears, oh my! It isn’t even dysentery or some other insidious hidden disease, waiting to pounce on you and work its evil way on your body.
No, the biggest killer in the wild is cold . That’s right, just getting cold will kill you and do so quite effectively. Of course, we call this killer “hypothermia.”
People get hypothermia and hyperthermia confused all the time; but it’s actually rather easy to tell them apart. We call an overactive child “hyper,” because that prefix means “over” or “too much of.” So, “hyperthermia” is too much temperature. Hypo is the opposite. It means “below” or “not enough of.” So, hypothermia  is not enough temperature. Medically, it refers to the body’s core temperature dropping.
As the body’s core temperature drops, it reduces our ability to think and function normally. If it drops enough, we can’t think or function at all – and we die.
When we talk about the body’s “core temperature,” we’re referring to the temperature inside the body cavity and the head. This is where the critical functions of the body occur. In an effort to maintain the core body temperature, the body has a number of mechanisms that it uses. One of these is restricting blood flow to the extremities (limbs) so that the body’s heat can be kept in the core. This can cause frostbite, as the cells of the extremities begin to die off.
The thing is, it really doesn’t have to get cold for hypothermia to set in. We have to remember that the human body’s standard temperature is 98.6oF. If the ambient temperature is anywhere below that point, like it is most of the time, we lose body heat. That’s not usually a problem, as our bodies generate more heat than we need. We don’t really start feeling the effects of radiating heat until the ambient temperature gets down below 75oF.
However, if something happens to make us lose body heat faster than our metabolism generates it, we can be in danger of falling prey to hypothermia. Wind will make us lose heat faster than we are generating it, but getting wet will do so even more.
If you fall in the water, you will lose body heat faster than you are generating it. The colder the water is, the faster you will lose it. Even getting out of the water doesn’t help much if your clothing is wet. In fact, wet clothing can make you lose body heat as much as 300 times faster than standing there naked.
Hypothermia can be broken down into four different stages, identified by the core body temperature. Each of these stages has its own symptoms, which are often nothing more than increases along the same line of a particular symptom.
Early signs of hypothermia
- Core body temperature has dropped to 95-96oF
- Decreased awareness
- Unable to think or solve problems
- Skin pale and cool to the touch
- Numbness (stinging pain)
- Loss of dexterity
Advancing signs of hypothermia
- Core body temperature has dropped to 93-94oF
- Obvious shivering
- Little or no effort to protect oneself
- Deterioration of fine and complex motor skills
- Unaware of present situation
Advanced signs of hypothermia
- Core body temperature has dropped to 91-92oF
- Intense shivering
- Difficulty walking
- Thick or slurred speech
- No efforts to protect oneself
- Skin appears ashen gray and cold
- Possible hallucinations
Signs that the patient is near death from hypothermia
- Core body temperature has dropped to 87-90oF
- Shivering comes in waves and may stop all together
- Unable to walk
- Speech very difficult to understand
- Skin turning blue
The good thing is that hypothermia can be reversed at any point along this progression. Of course, the more the patient’s core temperature drops, the harder it will be to reverse the process; but it will still be possible.
Reversing the Effects of Hypothermia
The key to reversing hypothermia is to warm the patient back up, by whatever means necessary. If they have any wet clothes on, you want to remove those clothes immediately and dry the patient. When in a survival situation, put them in a sleeping bag to help retain whatever body heat they still have. One of the best ways to warm them up is to put another person in the sleeping bag with them, so that they can share body heat directly.
Remove anything you can from the situation which could be stealing their body heat. If there is any wind, erect a wind barrier of some sort, or pitch a tent and put them and their sleeping bag in the tent. Start a fire, so that you can warm up the ambient temperature around them, slowing the loss of body heat. At the same time, getting warm liquids, like soup, coffee or tea, can help their body to recover the lost heat.
It is possible to avoid hypothermia, even in extremely cold circumstances. The colder the ambient temperature, the greater the need to watch out for signs of hypothermia in yourself and other members of your party. Watchfulness is your greatest protection.
As previously mentioned, if you get wet in the cold, regardless of whether it is from falling in the water, getting sprayed with water or your own sweat, you need to get out of those wet clothes and into some dry ones immediately. Wet clothing accelerates the pace of losing body heat. If possible, go to a warm place to dry off and change clothing. If that isn’t possible, still change the clothing and if you are shivering, light a fire.
It is also necessary to make sure that you are eating enough food, especially carbohydrates, so that your body has the necessary fuel to metabolize and generate heat.
Bundle up and dress in layers, and always cover your hands and head. It’s always better to wear far more clothes than you think necessary. If you get too hot, you can remove them. Being on the move also helps keep your warm.
With the proper precautions, you can avoid hypothermia – and help those around you do so as well.
What are your winter survival tips for avoiding hypothermia? Share them in the section below: