Hypothermia literally means “below temperature.” It refers to a medical condition where your internal body temperature becomes too low. While some people don’t take hypothermia, or its early signs, seriously, it is important to note that when your internal temperature drops, your vital organs won’t work as well, potentially leading to much more serious injuries or illnesses.
Hiking with people, you know can help spot early signs of hypothermia that you might miss on your own, or that someone who didn’t know you might not recognize. For example, shivering, stumbling on an easy trail, stuttering, forgetting past events, or becoming unusually lethargic are all early signs of hypothermia.
Some symptoms you may notice that your companions won’t also be good indicators. Sudden dizziness, light headedness, or disorientation is often a symptom of hypothermia. Hunger pangs or nausea are another possible symptom, as well as increased heart rate or a pounding heartbeat. Although all of these are symptoms of hypothermia, they can also have other causes (especially when hiking!) so before you freak out, keep in mind that if you didn’t eat, ate something new or unusual for your diet, or just completed a particularly difficult part of a hike, these symptoms could be unrelated to hypothermia and no cause for concern.
There are a lot of hikers who don’t think they’re at risk for hypothermia. Just because it is not extreme winter conditions, doesn’t mean hypothermia can’t happen. Remember, hypothermia is related to sudden drops in your internal body temperature, not to external weather conditions. So even in mild weather, exposure to the wind can cause hypothermia. Similarly, passing through chilly water and not properly drying off and warming up can be dangerous. Perhaps most unexpected as that if you sweat a lot after a particularly arduous stretch, and then temperatures lower or you enter a windy part of the hike, the sweat can contribute to hypothermia as well. Finally, well fed and well-hydrated bodies tend to fare better against the weather, so make sure to hydrate and fuel up before your hike.
While it is true that children and the elderly are most susceptible to hypothermia and other temperature-related conditions, everyone is at risk. There are, of course, certain groups of people who have raised risks for hypothermia. In addition to the young and the old, anyone who has recently been sick’s immune system may still be recovering, causing their body not to heat itself as quickly. Smokers, even though you may think smoking warm you up, it also slows down your body’s reaction to external changes in temperature, which can make hypothermia more likely. Drinking alcohol similarly inhibits your body’s ability to regulate its temperature. So while it is fun to sit around the campfire and enjoy a good time with your hiking buddies, be sure you’re not drinking while you’re actually hiking, or immediately before!
So what do you do if you’re hiking and you think you or one of your companions might be getting hypothermia?
The most important thing is to stop and address it before it gets worse. If occasional shivers become consistent shivers, or a companion starts to get a little loopy when they speak, do what you can to warm them up (and dry them off if water was involved) before the problem gets worse. For example, if small shivers get worse, it will become harder to change into warmer, dryer clothes, or put up shelter or start a fire. If someone starts to become disoriented, the chance of them tripping, stumbling, or running into something, even on a normally easy hike, are increased. Any of these could obviously lead to a much more serious situation.
Once you’ve decided to take action, there are lots of small things that can add up to make a big difference. The goal is always to keep the person as warm and dry as possible. If any of their clothes, particularly hats, gloves, socks, shoes, etc. are wet, get them out of them, and dry them off as well a possible. If dry replacements are available, even better. Otherwise, keep them out of the wet until they are warmed up.
Pitch a tent (if you’re overnight hiking), or build some type of barrier against the wind, and against rain if it is present. If your day hiking, or don’t have a tent or the space to erect one, get creative. Logs, sticks, etc. from the environment, your backpacks, blankets, raincoats, and more can all be used to provide shelter.
Build a fire if it safe, practical, and allowed where you’re hiking.
Cuddle up. Seriously, don’t be modest. Gently hug or cuddle the cold person. If you can raise your internal body temperature (do some exercises really quickly!), it will help even more.
Once you’ve created conditions to help protect from further cooling, start trying to actively warm up their internal body systems. If you’ve built a fire, warm up some food and/or drinks. Even if you can’t warm up, carbohydrates are a great choice. As the body digests them and releases their energy, the body will warm up. If the person is now dry, and starting to warm up, encourage them to move around, to get the blood flowing and the heart rate up.
These are all tools to use when a person is mildly shivering, or slightly disoriented. If a person cannot speak or move, or is incoherent, or unconscious, get emergency medical assistance as soon as possible.