how to recognize hypothermia

Don’t let Hypothermia Impact Your Outdoor Fun

Heading out for an afternoon of sledding or snowshoeing? It’s natural to be prepared with the important things like gloves, hats, snowsuits and of course, your gear. But are you prepared for an unseen danger that is present for virtually every outdoor winter activity?

Hypothermia may seem unlikely on many winter days, but it is a real concern when you’re outside for an extended period of time, so it’s wise to be prepared.

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is the lowering of a person’s core body temperature. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. When body temperature drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia sets in. If a person’s temperature drops lower than 82 degrees their hypothermia is considered severe.

Causes of Hypothermia

Exposure to the elements is the general cause of hypothermia. Cold air, wind, rain, or submersion in cold water are all common causes. Depending on a person’s age, temperatures do not have to be particularly extreme to cause damage. Young children and the elderly are the most susceptible to hypothermia, meaning they might exhibit symptoms more quickly.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

One of the primary symptoms of hypothermia is shivering. The body’s natural defenses trigger this in a person in an attempt to re-build body heat. In addition to shivering, you may notice slower breathing, slow pulse rate, lack of normal coordination, slurred speech, confusion and drowsiness.

Symptoms are similar in small children, but in addition, their skin may be cold to the touch, and for some, their skin may turn bright red.

One thing to note, if a person stops shivering, it may be a sign of hypothermia worsening rather than getting better. If hypothermia has progressed far enough, the body will start to shut down – this includes the defense system that would normally trigger the shivering.

Treating Hypothermia

For the most part, treatment is very logical. Get the person exhibiting symptoms into shelter, and seek medical help immediately. Help them to change out of any wet clothing, and into warm, dry clothing instead. Wrap them in blankets if available. Warm liquids are helpful, but avoid HOT liquid, caffeine and alcohol as these will actually make things worse.

If you do not have blankets or dry clothing available, huddle together with the affected person to share your body heat, while you wait for a medical professional.

Things to Remember

For a normal day of sledding, you’ll likely not have to worry about hypothermia, but it’s really important to be prepared. Be sure you’re dressed in layers:

  • A first layer that wicks away moisture is a must. Both synthetics and wool offer warmth when moist. Socks must be wool or synthetic when snowshoeing.
  • An insulating layer, like synthetic fleece, should come next.
  • Finally, you need an outer layer to keep moisture out and add more warmth. It should be waterproof and wind resistant. You will want both a jacket and pants if you are planning long hikes.
  • And don’t forget your hat, neckwarmer and gloves. (TIP: We’re big fans of Polar BUFF® Headwear that covers hat & neckwarmer needs all in one!)

Be sure to bring an extra set of dry clothing as well, and check your kids frequently to make sure their clothing is not getting too wet. A thermos of warm cider or cocoa is a great option. Scheduled breaks out of the cold, complete with some nutritious snacks will help make your day everything you hoped for.

For active outdoor families, it’s really important to be aware. Hypothermia can even occur outside of winter, particularly when water is involved. So whether you’re heading out for a day of kayaking in the spring, or spending the afternoon snowshoeing through the backcountry for a winter picnic, hypothermia awareness is always important.

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