Posted by Jamie Canterbury on October 19, 2022
Being out in the cold can be uncomfortable and even dangerous. In average temperatures, natural body heat keeps you warm. But you could start losing heat quickly during very cold weather. If the body cannot stay warm and remains out in the extreme cold for too long, you could experience hypothermia.
Surviving hypothermia depends on how quickly you react and what supplies you have on hand. Hypothermia is most common during snowy outdoor adventures, such as camping or hiking during winter. Cold weather makes it challenging to retain body heat, leading to a quick drop in body temperature and, with prolonged exposure to these plummeting temperatures, your condition could worsen into hypothermia.
This can be extremely dangerous, and if you don't know how to prevent and treat hypothermia, it could be fatal. So read on to understand what hypothermia is and the best tips for cold weather survival.
What Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when your body cannot maintain a consistent temperature around your organs. It usually starts when you are outside in extremely cold weather or deep snow, and your body quickly loses heat.
To prevent hypothermia, you have to generate heat at a faster rate than your rate of heat loss.
For example, if you are standing by a fire, you are less likely to lose body heat and experience hypothermia because the fire counteracts the cold weather and raises (or, at the very least, maintains) your body temperature. On the other hand, you’re more likely to be dangerously cold and run into trouble if you don't have a heat source.
Another risk factor is if you are both wet and cold. People assume that hypothermia happens only in freezing cold weather. But it could also happen at 40℉ if it's pouring rain and windy, and even at higher temperatures if you are wet for long periods.
If you are out in temperatures below 30℉, you could start experiencing hypothermia within 10 minutes without the proper cold weather survival tools. Additionally, some people are more prone to hypothermia than others. Children, seniors, and those who are ill are more likely to have trouble surviving in extreme cold.
How Will You Know that You Have Hypothermia?
The signs of hypothermia progress quickly, and if you don't take preventive measures right away, your condition can spiral into a medical emergency.
You might overlook the first signs of hypothermia because they’re so common. When exposed to cold weather for long enough, your teeth will start to chatter, and you will shiver. Don’t take these first indications lightly because this is when you need to act. These signs mean that the onset of hypothermia is close at hand and your core body temperature is dropping to 95℉ or below.
Next, you might notice that you start to feel disoriented and uncoordinated. When your body temperature drops below 92℉, you could lose consciousness and fall into a comatose state.
If you want to know how to survive extreme cold, avoid getting to this last stage. It could be fatal.
Because the blood flow to your brain slows down when your temperature drops, you might not realize you have hypothermia. It's more likely that someone else will notice.
This is why it’s critical to make sure you're always in the company of other people when doing cold-weather activities, especially if a snow storm and frigid temperatures are predicted.
How to Treat Hypothermia
To properly treat hypothermia, act quickly with the right cold-weather survival tools. Before you set out on your great outdoor winter-weather adventure, you should also become familiar with hypothermia symptoms and signs.
There are two types of hypothermia you need to be aware of. We’ll explain how to treat each one.
Mild hypothermia can occur when your body temperature drops below 95℉. You might start experiencing extreme shivers and slowly lose orientation. You can also have slurred speech, memory loss, and poor judgment.
To treat mild hypothermia, take the following steps:
- Remove the person from the cold weather or frozen ground outside and move them into a sheltered environment. You could build a snow shelter if there is nowhere else that you can go. Cover any exposed skin to minimize mild frostbite.
- Remove wet clothes and replace them with winter clothing, ideally something insulated that is made to withstand cold weather. Try to dress them with multiple layers of dry clothing to retain heat and prevent severe frostbite.
- If possible, give the person warm water, hot water, or other warm beverages and food. Ensure that any food you give them has high sugar content. This will help to increase their body temperature. You will slowly see that the skin returns to its normal color as the blood vessels expand to circulate more blood and warmth.
- Wrap the person with cold-weather survival tools, like a thermal emergency blanket, tarp, or even a sleeping bag. You could huddle with the hypothermic person to help warm them up more quickly using your own body heat.
- Don’t apply bottles with hot water or even heat packs to their skin. Instead of making the person feel warmer, they add little heat to the body core, worsening hypothermia. So try to give the person warm water to sip or boil some water over a fire pit and have the person inhale the steam.
- If you have a fire starting kit, you should also build a fire and warm the person up. The fire will melt snow in the cold weather and create a better survival environment. Make sure to keep the hypothermic person three feet away from the fire to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Profound hypothermia occurs in extremely cold weather and cannot happen in hot weather, even with water and wind. You or your hiking or camping friends could experience profound hypothermia when your body temperature drops below 90℉.
In such cold weather, you become lethargic and start feeling disoriented or confused. If your body temperature dips even further, you might stop shivering, and your heart pumps less blood, becoming unstable. This is the point when you could experience cardiac arrest or slip into a coma.
If you suspect that someone is hypothermic, you could have them walk in a straight line. If they cannot walk without veering, you should immediately take action with your winter survival kit.
- Avoid quickly moving the person as this could cause their heart to fail.
- Get a sleeping bag, blankets, and clothing to wrap around the person so you can prevent them from further losing heat, and then call for emergency medical care.
- Do not give the person any food or water because they could choke or vomit. Instead, you could have them eat snow or lick ice crystals to provide some hydration.
- Try to keep the person as warm as possible in a snow shelter until emergency services arrive. You cannot warm a person in profound hypothermia, so the best you can do is follow these steps and wait for professional medical help to arrive.
If the severely hypothermic person has slipped into a coma or passed out in their sleeping bag, do not immediately assume they are dead. Hypothermic victims could have a very slow pulse that you can barely detect.
Check their pulse by placing your fingers close to their carotid artery, which is by the side of the neck, and holding it for one minute. You can also position glass or plastic close to the person's mouth. If they’re breathing, you’ll see it fog up.
How to Prevent Hypothermia?
Treating hypothermia in sub-freezing weather can be extremely difficult and risky. The best thing you can do is learn how to prevent hypothermia and be prepared for the worst whenever you might face extreme cold.
The key to preventing a hypothermic experience is to have a good winter survival kit. Here are the essential items you need when you are out in freezing weather.
If you're wearing light or wet clothing, you are at a higher risk for hypothermia. You should always be prepared for winter survival by wearing and packing insulated outdoor apparel.
The right clothing will make all the difference in preventing your core body temperature from dropping and ensuring extreme cold survival. Always wear multiple layers of clothing to retain more heat.
It’s also a good idea to wear multiple wool socks and have a snow poncho on hand, especially if fresh snow is falling. All this insulated clothing will help you minimize heat loss and stay dry in freezing, damp conditions.
Fire Starting Kits
When you've decided to settle down for the night in the great outdoors, it's wise to start a fire.
The problem is, creating a fire in cold weather and around melting snow is challenging. The wet ground and the difficulty you’ll experience in finding dry wood can make it almost impossible to get a flame going. But you need a heat source to maintain your core temperature.
To make sure you are 100% prepared for winter conditions, include a fire starting kit in your overall survival kit. A fire starting kit will have flint, steel, charred material, and waterproof matches to help you light a fire even in extreme weather conditions.
All you have to do is remove or melt snow that’s on the ground and create a pit. Then, you can start your fire and keep warm.
Proper Shelter & Sleeping Equipment
Even with insulated clothing and a fire, it's challenging to keep warm without proper shelter and sleeping equipment. You should have winter tents, tarps or hammocks, wool blankets or survival blankets, and insulated sleeping bags in your survival kit.
Add a first aid kit just in case of hypothermia or other injuries. All this equipment will help you create warmth, prevent uncontrollable shivering, and avoid hypothermia, even if you find yourself in extreme conditions for an extended period.
Hypothermia is a severe condition that occurs in cold weather when your body temperature drops below a certain threshold. It can cause disorientation, brain fog, and it can even lead to a coma or death.
Preventing hypothermia and surviving in the cold wilderness requires careful planning. You need to pack the necessary emergency supplies that will help you survive cold conditions and understand when to use them.You can find survival kits, tools, and outdoor gear and clothing at Self Reliance Outfitters. Visit our online store and choose the right supplies and equipment for your next adventure.