How to Live Through Hypothermia


Have You Ever Experienced It?

(Brad Herndon photo)

Cold temperatures can mean many things to various people. When the snow starts to fall, those who ski or snowboard begin to get excited. When the leaves start to change and frost turns the ground white in the early morning, the thought of hunting seasons approaching starts me off in a good mood.

When hunting big game or pursuing this or any other winter activity safely, having fun in the cold depends greatly on the knowledge of the participant. If you hunt in the Northeast or Northwest, then you should be prepared for temperatures that range from below zero degrees Fahrenheit to those in the 50s, or even higher. Likewise, deer hunters that trek to the Great White North to chase monster bucks can experience the utmost in extreme weather. In the Southeast or Southwest, it can get chilly in the early mornings but the likelihood of you being caught in a blizzard that afternoon is slim. While both hunting extremes can be uncomfortable to a hunter, it’s the colder temps that can become deadly propositions when the outdoorsman is unprepared. Hypothermia can kill you.

In layman’s terms, hypothermia occurs when a body’s temperature creeps lower than it should. But first, I will say a little about what is the most common cold injury and the disorder most individuals, at least in the North, have experienced.

Before Hypothermia: Frostbite 101

To begin, the body parts that are usually first affected by cold are the ears, cheeks, fingers, toes and nose. This simply is because they stand out and are least likely to be covered.

When out in the cold, some of the signs and symptoms of frostbite include a white/glossy skin which is due to the vessels constricting (which slows the blood flow) to save heat. At first, there will be pain, which later goes away due to what is called the anesthetic affect of cold on the skin. One may also experience stiffness in the frost-bitten area and even form blisters. What can become dangerous over time is the result of the cold constricting blood vessels in a specific area, and since tissues need blood flow and oxygen to live, tissue necrosis (dead tissue) can lead to the dangerous condition of gangrene.

If it happens and the individual recognizes he or she is frostbitten, these are some first-aid measures that one can take to reverse the process. The first and most obvious is, if possible, get out of the cold. Next, soak the affected area in warm water (between 98 and 110 degrees) Be careful, if too hot, (remember, the affected area can be numb) you can get burned. Also, if possible, a drink of warm water is helpful.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do when experiencing frostbite. First, if the hands are frozen, never rub them together to create heat. The friction created could damage the cells. Years ago an old wive’s tale claimed it was best to rub the affected area with snow. In reality, such a practice has no purpose. And how many times have you seen someone on television trying to beat the cold by having a stiff drink of alcohol? This is a mistake physiologically, because alcohol is a vasodilator, which can cause the body to loose heat instead of conserve it. Taking a drink when you are cold will also give you a false sense of feeling warm as well as contribute to muscle in-cooridination, leading to a lack of balance. Last but not least, alcohol has no place when hunting and using firearms. Impaired judgement can cause even more serious injuries than frostbite and hypothermia.

What about the use of tobacco? This too, is a vasoconstrictor which has the effect of hampering the circulation and therefore, can raise the blood pressure. (This is why smoking is definitely not recommended to those with blood pressure or heart problems).

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Hypothermia: Dangers and Cures

Hypothermia is a disorder that comes on gradually and can be deadly at common deer hunting temperatures -- those between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. To get hypothermia, you don’t need to be in temps below freezing. This is scary, because a person can start to become a victim before he/she knows what’s happening. This is one reason why hypothermia can be so dangerous.

You’ll know a person has hypothermia when body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. If the body’s temperature is not increased, the likely first result is death to the cells and tissues from ice crystals forming in the soft tissue and fluids of the skin.

Some factors that give hypothermia its teeth to kill could be one of the following or a little of each. These are the actual outdoor temperatures, wind speed, being wet which is quite common when hunting, physically ill, not properly dressed and therefore, not prepared for the elements.

Before discussing how to avoid hypothermia, it is best to say a little about what is considered to be a normal body temperature since it is not always what one would expect. That part of the brain concerned with the regulation of temperature is the hypothalamus. When we are hot, we sweat, when cold, we shiver. This is one way our body temperatures are kept pretty constant with a mean oral reading at around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This includes a normal range between 96.0 to even 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Hypothermia: How to Beat It

First, wear a hat in cold weather. This should sound familiar since most mothers have told their children to wear a hat in the winter to stay warm. Depending on what text you read, it is stated that through the uncovered head, the body can loose anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of its heat. Therefore, keep your head, ears and if possible, face covered when out in the cold.

When in a tent in a base camp during an elk or mule deer hunt out West, I get into my sleeping bag and put on a knitted cap. This helps me to conserve heat.

Next, stay dry from within and without. This sounds simple but when overdressed during high body activity, you will begin to perspire. Within a short period, the clothes nearest your skin will become damp from the perspiration. This is a common occurrence repeated by the inexperienced deer hunter who races through the dark woods to get to his favorite stand before daylight. Once there, he will sit down to wait for that buck to appear, but due to the cold weather and now soaked with perspiration, he begins to shiver. Say our hunter got lost along the way. Now, due to fear and anxiety, he will perspire even more. This is what I mean by getting wet from within. Sound familiar? We have all done it.

The way to avoid perspiring from movement is to leave early from camp so you will not have to rush and can take your time when moving to your destination. Nice-and-easy-does-it is also the best tactic when tracking or still-hunting game.

The other danger is in getting wet from without, as is the case when caught in a rainstorm and again, not prepared. Wearing proper cold and wet-weather hunting gear is the only way to be certain you’ll be doing your part in fighting the elements.

This might be real common sense, but it deserves mention. Damp feet is a very common problem. To avoid this, dry your boots every evening, because due to perspiration during the day when walking, your boots will become damp, and if not dried, you will start the next day with wet, cold feet.

Another precaution to take is getting a sufficient amount of sleep the night before a hunt. When tired, judgment can be impaired and physically, you are more susceptible to the effects of cold weather. Your body will be lacking the energy to fight the wind and cold.

Also, poor conditioning can catch up to you. When out of shape, just walking in heavy clothing and carrying equipment can be difficult. Think about it, who sweats more during a day at the gym, a fully conditioned person or one who is completely out of shape?

This next precaution concerns nutrition. The body produces heat from the energy it gets from the foods we eat. This is where foods that the body can utilize quickly as carbohydrates are important. What I find beneficial in cold weather is to snack all day to keep a steady flow of fuel coming into my body, which will help to build up some heat. To get the kids in hunter education to understand this, I tell them to think of a wood-burning stove. For it to give off heat, it needs fuel in the form of wood. Our bodies need the same thing but in the form of food.

Be aware of the hunting situation. When alert for a potential problem, one is usually less likely to venture into the cold unprepared. This also includes knowing that, as we age, the sensitivity to cold is sometimes not as great as it would be to someone much younger. This, along with the possibility of not being able to recover from a decreasing body temperature as easily as a younger person, would increase the danger.

Clothing and dressing in layers is a key factor to staying warm. With this approach, when walking, open your jacket and/or remove a layer. When you get to your treestand, put the garment back on and zipper up.

Overall, when aware of the potential deadly effects the cold can have, you’re more likely to take precautions and avoid deadly situations. Since the first sign of hypothermia is shivering, if you ever get to that point, it is time to stop and think of what you can immediately do to get your body back on track. This is the one warning that you can not take lightly. Safe hunting, friends.

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Editor's Note: This was originally published on December 14, 2000.

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