Hypothermia is a major killer in the outdoors. Death from hypothermia can occur in as little as 15 minutes, which means that if you are as little a mile away from civilization, you will die a horrible death. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature plummets, leading to organ failure and cardiac arrest. The most dangerous type of hypothermia is known as immersion hypothermia, which occurs when the body is submersed in ice-cold water. This is an ever-present danger in the outdoors and a leading cause of fatalities among hikers and backpackers.
Fortunately, it is not difficult to learn how to prevent this deadly condition. When hiking in cold weather, it is advisable to avoid wearing cotton. Cotton absorbs moisture, making it a hypothermia risk. Cotton also takes longer to dry than other materials. It is a wiser choice to wear wool or clothing made of synthetic materials.
Knowing the terrain is another way of minimizing the danger of hypothermia. Avoid hiking along rivers and streams, since one misstep can lead to immersion hypothermia. Never try to cross a frozen lake or pond. Once you fall through the ice into cold water, the body will become numb in seconds, making it virtually impossible to swim or to pull yourself to safety.
If you happen to become soaked, either as a result of falling into water, rain, or even perspiration, the first thing you should do is to change out of the wet clothing. Water draws precious heat away from the body faster than air. Always include extra clothing in your backpack in case you need to change out of wet clothes. If you do not have extra clothing, the next best thing is to start a fire. It is actually more dangerous to wear cold, wet clothing than to strip down to nothing in order to dry out your clothing over a fire.
Treatment of hypothermia consists of gradually warming the body in order to gradually raise the core temperature. Never rub your hands or feet in an effort to warm them; this can cause cold blood to rush from the extremities to the heart, resulting in immediate cardiac arrest. Moderate hypothermia can be treated by gradually warming the body with a blanket, but severe hypothermia requires more drastic measures, which may include injecting warm fluids into the veins, or injecting warm fluids into the colon. Neither of these treatments sound very pleasant, so it is generally a good idea to become familiar with basic hypothermia prevention techniques.