The signs and symptoms of hypothermia are many and it's good to know what to look for in case of a developing emergency while out on your hiking adventures in the Winter time.
With the depths of the winter months just around the corner, everyone should be aware of some of the unique hazards and dangers the season can bring while out hiking on the trail.
In the context of this post, when hiking there are two common related conditions which are are good to educate yourself on, and protect yourself from. The first, which is not the subject of this post, is hyperthermia. In short this is where the body overheats.
Today we’ll be looking at hyperthermia’s well known cousin, hypothermia.
What is Hypothermia?
In short summary, a persons body core temperature is normally maintained at a practically constant level at 98 – 100 ˚F (36.5 – 37.5 ˚C). Hypothermia kicks in when a person’s core temperature drops below 95.0 ˚F (35.0 ˚C). This happens where a person is exposed to extreme cold for an extended period of time.
What to Look For?
Broadly speaking there are three stages of severity of hypothermia. An initial stage where moderate symptoms start to appear, a middle stage where symptoms become more pronounced and finally a severe stage which can be life threatening.
Early Stages of Hypothermia
If someone is entering the early stages of hypothermia they will start to shiver and shake. By shivering and shaking the body is reacting to the cold in an effort to keep itself warm.
Other nasty things, like raised hypertension, also start to happen which can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and so on. At this stage though, any shaking should be mild and can even go unnoticed.
Middle or Moderate Stages of Hypothermia
If not relieved in some manner, the body moves into a more serious stage of hypothermia. At this point the person will start shaking in a more violent and obvious manner. Mild confusion will start to become apparent in the person. Sign’s to watch out for, and a good and easy catchphrase to remember, are the mumbles, fumbles, stumbles and grumbles.
They might start mumbling while trying to communicate.
Their coordination will start to suffer. Simple tasks that require basic co-ordination will be hard to complete.
They may start to stumble a bit and lumber as they walk.
They may start grumbling and complaining.
The key thing about the mumbles, fumbles, stumbles and grumbles is that the person themselves may well be oblivious to them and they may still even seem outwardly alert to an observer. Physically, the body rushes to protect the vital organs and signs of this are clear in a paling of the face and outer exposed points becoming blue e.g. lips, ears, etc.
Note: the mumbles, fumbles, stumbles and grumbles are not only relevant to Hypothermia, they are signs to watch out for, for many conditions and are a general indication that something is up!
Severe Stages of Hypothermia
When it moves to the next and final stage, where symptoms become severe, all the person’s physiological processes like respiration, heart rate, etc. start to falter. Shivering may cease and outer parts of the body, like hands, become useless. Skin will be clearly blue and puffed up. Stumbling, confusion and even irrationality will be clearly apparent. Eventually, major organs will fail.
As with any of these things, prevention is better than ever getting into the situation in the first place. To prevent it from occurring, ensure you always wear the right hiking gear to
stay warm. Avoid cotton clothes and wear synthetic and woolen fabrics as they are way better at insulation when dry or wet.
You need to employ layers in winter and having appropriate hiking boots is critical. Check out the Complete Day Hiking Checklist in Pictures for a run through of all the gear you need to have for a successful and safe day hike.
Also, and I can't stress this enough, use your common sense and try and stay away from danger areas. For example crossing over stepping stones over a deep ice cold river or even walking over frozen rivers. If it's not necessary, then best avoided!
Also, if you head out on your hike and as you ascend into higher ground, you start to encounter very deep snow and it's starting to get difficult to hike through it, it can be wiser to just call it a day and leave your hike for another time when the weather is more favorable. There's never any need to take unnecessary risks.
What to do?
If you're unfortunate enough to find yourself in a position where someone in your party is becoming hypothermic, the main thing is to try and move them to a warm environment as soon as possible, and to also try and rewarm them. This is of course not always possible e.g. if someone falls into a freezing river.
In extreme situations or if you're ever unsure what to do, call the emergency services to ask for advice and guidance.
To close the freezing river example above off; if someone does fall into a freezing river in freezing conditions, in most cases the first thing to do is to remove their clothes to wring as much water out of them as possible. Then put them back on immediately. If you don't do this, the water in the clothes can freeze to the skin which will cause a whole host of other problems.
Every emergency situation must be judged on it's own special circumstances. Always call the emergency services for help if you're unsure of what to do!
Thankfully, I have never been in a situation where someone was hypothermic and I hope I never will be. I have read and heard some strange stories about what people do when hypothermia starts kicking in. Stories of people removing their dry clothes are not uncommon. This is due to some kind of mix of signals in the brain as they get colder and colder. Ironically, as hypothermia gets more severe, it's possible that the person thinks they're over heating so they start to strip off their clothes which of course only exacerbates the problem! Not good!
I want to stress, that the purpose of this article is not to provide an exhaustive explanation of hypothermia or the varying issues it causes, far from it. Rather, the aim here is to give a good introduction to create awareness. Educate yourself as much as possible on this subject as you never know when you may need it!
I recommend doing a certified wilderness first aid course if you can. The subject of hypothermia, along with many others will be covered in detail in it. Depending on where you live and hike, hypothermia can be more likely to be encountered so it is wise to educate yourself if that is the case.
Keep you and your hiking friends safe while hiking this winter!
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