If I were to ask you what the biggest killer in the wild was, you’d probably start thinking of some sort of wild animal. From there, you might go on to think about the various types of accidents someone might have. But chances are, you’d miss the big killer… hypothermia.
Before we go on, let me see if I can eliminate some common confusion. There are two different conditions: hypothermia and hyperthermia. Both can be dangerous; but people confuse which is which all the time. Hypothermia refers to too little core body heat, while hyperthermia refers to too much. Both contain the core word “thermia” which tells us that it refers to heat, while the prefix tells us which heat issue it is. The easy way to remember, is that a hyperactive child is one with too much activity, just like hyperthermia is too much body heat.
But we’re interested in hypothermia, not hyperthermia. While both conditions can kill you, hyperthermia, which is sometimes referred to as “exposure” or “freezing to death,” is a much more common problem to encounter in the wild. It debilitates the individual, affecting their cognitive functions. Someone suffering from even a mild case of hypothermia can walk right past their car, which can warm them back up and save their life, without even realizing it.
Hypothermia can happen anytime, not just when it is cold out. We have to realize that with a nominal core body temperature of 98.6°F, most of the time the ambient air temperature is lower than our body temperature. Therefore, we’re pretty much always radiating heat. When we radiate it faster than our body can produce it, the result is hypothermia.
There are a number of different things which can cause our bodies to lose heat faster than they produce it:
- Cold temperatures – The greater the difference between our body temperature and the ambient temperature, the greater the faster we lose body heat.
- Wind – When it’s windy, the wind is constantly blowing away that slightly warmer layer of air right around our bodies. If we are sweating, it will make that sweat evaporate more quickly, absorbing heat from our bodies.
- Water – The biggest risk is from getting wet. If we fall in the water or get caught in the rain, that water will draw heat out of our bodies faster than the ambient air can. Because our clothing is wet, it can’t provide any insulation, protecting us.
- Malnutrition – While malnutrition isn’t a cause of hypothermia, it can make it harder for our bodies to fight against it, because we don’t have the necessary energy to produce heat.
- Inactivity – The main way that our bodies generate heat is through chemical reactions, specifically the chemical reactions necessary to keep everything working properly. When we are inactive, our muscles are not burning sugar, generating heat.
Many people die of hypothermia not because they are out in the wintertime; but because they fall in the water just before sundown, in a place where the temperature drops quickly at sundown. The combination of dropping temperatures and wet clothing will cause the person to lose their body heat quickly.
There are a number of things that can be done, if they are starting to head into hypothermia. These should be done immediately; as one of the first things affected is the ability to think clearly is one of the first things to go in any case of hypothermia:
- Take off wet clothing. If other clothing or a blanket is available, wrap up in that. Don’t just use a rescue blanket alone, as it is a heat reflector and doesn’t have any insulating value.
- Start a fire for heat
- Get in a car, start the engine and turn on the heater
- Drink warm liquids
- Share body heat