Updated: Apr 2, 2022
Hypothermia is something that can occur on the hiking trail when the weather gets cold and you aren't prepared so knowing what hypothermia is, how to spot it, and how to treat it is important to maintain the safety of yourself and the people hiking with you. This guide will walk you through a brief summary of what hypothermia is and how to deal with it; making plans for possible events like you getting hypothermia is important and hopefully you will be better informed about the risks after you have finished this story.
What is Hypothermia?
Put simply, hypothermia occurs when the body is exposed to very cold temperatures for an extended period of time which intern causes a drop in body temperature that can lead to loss of consciousness and even death.
Common symptoms of hypothermia are:
Slurred speech and mumbling
Slow, shallowed breathing
Clumsiness or lack of coordination
Drowsiness or low energy
Confusion or memory loss
Loss of consciousness
What are the risks?
Hypothermia poses many risks to people’s health and safety not only though the risk of death from prolonged exposure but from the side effects of having the condition too. Memory loss, low energy, shallowed breathing, drowsiness, confusion and other symptoms are a huge danger to your safety while at home but become even more of a problem while hiking. Low energy and Memory loss can be very dangerous while in unfamiliar terrain and when you need to navigate on a trail, these two symptoms can lead to you making mistakes that lead to you getting lost and needing not only treatment for hypothermia but rescuing from the bush too.
How do I prevent it?
So we have discussed what hypothermia is and what the risks are but how do you prevent it from happening? Staying warm is an important part of preventing you getting hypothermia and some of the best ways to do this are:
Wearing warm clothing that is multi layered which protects from wind and cold weather. This clothing should also protect feet, hands and head (Wool Socks, Gloves, Beanie).
Wear dry clothes and remove any wet clothing as soon as possible to avoid the onset of the cold.
Stay out of the wind and find shelter such as dense bush, covered campsites and your tent. Make sure to keep warm while sleeping by taking an appropriately rated sleeping bag for the weather you are hiking in.
Eat a suitable amount of food to make sure your body has the energy to keep itself warm and avoid the symptoms of hypothermia.
Avoid coffee and alcohol in cold weather because this will widen your blood vessels and lower your overall body temperature, this won’t prevent hypothermia alone but can contribute to its severity.
The above list are great ways to avoid getting hypothermia and remain warm; it's also important to note that hypothermia is most likely to occur during winter and the colder months because, well, they are colder… who would have guessed. Being prepared in these colder months is even more important than at other times and should be taken into account when making your plans for your hike.
How do I spot it?
Spotting the signs of hypothermia early can mean that people have a lot lower of a risk of developing serious side effects but there is a large group of people who simply don't know what to look for. To find some of the common symptoms and signs of hypothermia you can look above at our area where we explained what hypothermia is, it is important to note that when body temperature dips below 35°C (95°F) you are most likely suffering from hypothermia and you should take immediate action to try treat these symptoms.
How do I treat it?
Treating hypothermia after symptoms occur is important and failing to act quick enough can put people in danger of experiencing severe side effects like the ones listed above in ‘what is hypothermia?’. When treating someone for hypothermia it's important to be gentle and careful about how quickly you warm their body, follow the brief guide below as you wait for emergency services to arrive if you can access them.
Slow things down, people who are experiencing hypothermia can be prone to cardiac arrest so making slow and limited movements is important to avoid this. Moving too quickly or doing any more vigorous movements such as rubbing them to warm them up or rubbing hands to try warm up is possibly more damaging than beneficial.
Keep out of the cold, trying to warm them up is important but is best to be done by passive environment changes rather than quick movement as we spoke about above. Moving them to dry, warm and sheltered area away from the force of the wind is the best way to make this happen, in addition to this it is also best to keep them in a horizontal position.
No Wet Clothing, a major cause of hypothermia can come from submerging the body in very cold water, having wet layers of clothing on can stop the body from regenerating heat and make the effects of hypothermia worse and worse the longer they are remaining in these wet clothes.
Insulate them, warming someone up with a blanket or a space/foil blanket can be a good way to help them regain body temperature. In addition to insulating them from the cold air through blankets, it is also important to insulate them from the cold ground, when out in the bush, lay them down on the ground with a layer such as a blanket or mat to protect them from the cold ground.
Watch their breathing, someone with hypothermia can have severely shallow breathing and pulse, if breathing and/or pulse becomes nearly undetectable or not present at all, if you are qualified to do so, begin CPR immediately.
Drink warm liquids, if possible, gently give the patient warm liquid such as warm water or something that is also sweet in addition to warm such as a hot chocolate. Try to avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages which as we discussed earlier may cause more damage than good even if they were served warm.
Avoid applying heat directly, when someone is experiencing hypothermia they can often have very fragile skin which if exposed to hot water can be damaged badly and take longer to recover than the hypothermia itself. This can also lead to a shock of the patient which can intern lead to irregular heart rhythms and cardiac arrest.
The above suggestions are made for onsite first-aid and are meant to be used while waiting for emergency services, in mild cases of hypothermia it can be appropriate to treat yourself but in severe cases it is best to seek emergency medical assistance. If treating by yourselves it is important to regularly monitor the person and consider taking a zero-day (a day break) if possible to help the person in their recovery. Doing an intense activity such as hiking while recovering can be very dangerous and lead to severe effects occurring even if the person was experiencing mild symptoms due to the large amount of energy be expunged while walking.
What further steps can be taken?
The best thing you can do to be better prepared for an emergency such as hypothermia is to do a provide first-aid course and an audit of your first-aid kit.
For the course you will most likely need to spend a weekend learning all the required knowledge to be able to provide first-aid and this will also include CPR training. Towards the end you will most likely need to complete a test which will make sure that you have absorbed the information from the course and know how to apply it.
When auditing your first-aid kit you will want to make sure you have everything you need to treat someone with first-aid such as a space blanket or a thermometer to tell how low someone’s body temperature has dropped, this will also help determine how severe their case is.
So hopefully you gained some helpful information about hypothermia that you will never need to use, this is only a guide and should be treated as such which means the best way to learn how to treat hypothermia is to take a course and know exactly what to do.
Written by Josh Welch