Hypothermia Survival

December 25, 2012 by | 6 Comments

I’ve experienced severe hypothermia quite often, and as odd as it may sound, this has been both a blessing and a curse. It was miserable in ways few people could ever imagine, but it has provided me with the ability to quickly recognize the symptoms and the confidence to remain calm while dealing with them.

While its extremely easy to get hypothermia, and the outcome can become deadly very quickly, the symptoms are easy to identify and reverse. Once you notice yourself shaking uncontrollably, have difficulty articulating your fingers, toes, or limbs, or find yourself extremely drowsy or clumsy, you’re already suffering from hypothermia and need to take immediate steps to raise your core body temperature.

The first and most important thing you can do is to avoid becoming hypothermic to begin with. One of the most common mistakes that leads to hypothermia is dehydration because people mistakenly believe that they don’t need as much water in a cold environment. I’ve seen more than a few “tough guys” succumb to the cold because of this. Adequate hydration allows your body to properly convert food into energy, which creates body heat. It also allows your blood to flow more freely and transfer heat throughout you body.

Staying dry is key, but that doesn’t just mean avoiding water polo. It’s tempting to bundle up like the kid from A Christmas Story, and I’m speaking from personal experience, but too much insulation can be just as bad as not enough because excess perspiration rapidly cools your body. Physical activity, like hiking, chopping wood, or running from a grizzly bear will turn that super-cozy $700 ski jacket into a beautiful, but sopping wet mess that draws the precious heat you need to stay alive right out of your body. Instead, dress in layers so that as your body temperature increases, you can remove some clothing to prevent excess perspiration and maintain an optimal 98.6°.

Ideally, your outer-most layer should always be a breathable, weather-resistant material like GORE-TEX® while your inner layers should consist of an athletic wicking material, like Under Armor®. Wool, while old-fashioned, also works well as inner layers, and even retains its insulating properties when wet. Avoid cotton though; it retains moisture which reduces your body temperature, and it provides no insulation when wet. I prefer to wear my thinnest layer closest to my skin, followed by several equal or progressively thicker layers, topped by a breathable, weather-resistant outer layer. Don’t forget quality boots and socks. At least one complete extra set of clothing packed in a waterproof bag will help you survive even a dunk into the iciest water.

While the high-end brands I mentioned, such as GORE-TEX or Under Armor are great, you don’t have to spend a fortune unless you’re what my wife affectionately refers to as a “brand whore.” In fact, a lot of my outdoor clothing is an inexpensive brand called C9 from Target, which is just as durable and well-constructed, but usually about half the price of the high-end brands.

Let’s assume you’ve stayed properly hydrated, dressed appropriately, and even packed a backup set of clothes, but something still went wrong. Perhaps you overestimated the thickness of the ice covering the river you just tried to walk across, or maybe you got caught in an unexpected storm. Or you could just faced to the elements for too long to maintain the proper body temperature despite taking all the proper measures. The good news is that unless you’re dead, you can always reverse the effects of hypothermia.

Your first step is to start a fire; especially if you’re wet. You should always carry a kit consisting of several methods to start a fire, along with plenty of tinder; especially in a cold environment. Finding fuel is usually relatively easy in all but the most desolate locations because as the temperature drops below freezing, even large branches will snap off with relative ease. If freezing to death is a possibility, burn anything flammable you can find, and remember, a big fire is good, but three or four smaller fires surrounding you is even better. You’ll need to avoid getting too close though, because hypothermia (and/or frostbite) may reduce the sensitivity of your skin, causing you to burn yourself without realizing it. The key is to slowly rewarm your body, and if applicable, dry your clothing and boots. If you happen to have a Mylar blanket, which you should have anytime you’re in a cold weather environment, you can use it both to shield you from the wind and to reflect more of the fire’s heat towards your now violently shivering body.

If starting a fire isn’t possible, you still have another very effective option; an option you probably won’t like, but an effective option nonetheless. It involves a sleeping bag, two people, and a certain degree of nakedness. If you’re hiking the Colorado mountains with your lovely spouse, you might be tempted to fake hypothermia to get her out of her clothes and into your sleeping bag, however, it’s more likely that you’ll be traipsing through a local forest with your overweight and slightly hairy neighbor, Gus, which takes all the fun out of the idea.

The way it works is simple; enclosed in a sleeping bag and unencumbered by clothing, heat radiated by the non-hypothermic person warms the hypothermic person. Yes, believe it or not, the less clothing you wear in a sleeping bag, the warmer it will get and the more quickly it will do so; a lesson I fortunately learned alone in my sleeping bag while in Norway. It’s important to note that this doesn’t have any adverse affect on the non-hypothermic person. Their body temperature isn’t going to drop, and they are at no risk of getting hypothermia as a result of this process. The only negative aspect you’ll face is being forever stuck with the memory of you and Gus lying together in your skivvies.

Though not anywhere near as effective, you can perform this technique alone if necessary, but it may not work quickly enough to save your life, or if you’re core temperature has already dropped too low, it may not work at all.

Another option is extreme physical activity. You can run in circles waving your arms, do jumping jacks, hell, dance the funky chicken; anything that gets your muscles moving to produce heat and gets your blood flowing. Just try to avoid excess perspiration, as this will cool you down; the exact opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish. You’ll be able to raise your body temperature by a few degrees, but the tradeoff is that you’ll burn valuable calories. If it comes down to this option, just do it and then find a way to get additional calories once you regain the proper body temperature.

One more option; although, it’s not really a stand alone technique, is to drink a warm liquid to raise your core temperature. Just avoid alcohol, coffee or tea because they will constrict your blood vessels and dehydrate you, lowering your temperature even further.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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6 Comments

  • Cathy Tao says:

    I’ve learned several excellent tips here. I’m surprised by how much effort you’ve put in to make such an informative site!

  • Anne V. says:

    This should save my rear this winter! 🙂

  • Thanks for this. Luckily, though not through any skill, I’ve never suffered hypothermia. And with your tips hopefully I never will. Thanks Jeremy

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      You might be surprised to know that shivering is the first symptom of hypothermia, so technically, most of us have suffered it to some degree. 🙂

      • jess says:

        ive found that something as simple as a boullion cube in a cup of hot water makes a nice warm drink on a freezing cold night outdoors as i discovered in maine last winter when it was 35 below right after an ice storm

  • Steve says:

    Very informative. Thanks for the well thought out and wrote information. It will come in handy if I ever get stuck out ice fishing and can’t get home for a day or two.

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