Though we often see it used for drama in fiction or teased for views on reality television, the truth of hypothermia is actually a very serious, life-threatening one. Knowing how to treat hypothermia in the wilderness and how to prevent it all together can mean the difference between life or death.
Read on to learn the facts, free of the drama, that will help prepare you in case you ever need to know how to treat hypothermia in the wilderness—for your sake or someone else’s.
Hypothermia: What It Is and Why It’s Dangerous
Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when the human body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Generally speaking, you are considered hypothermic when your core body temperature is sustained below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Believe it or not, when you get the shivers, it’s generally because your body temperature has dipped below 95 degrees. You’re hypothermic! However, this is the most minor form of hypothermia and generally some intense shivering, layering up your clothes, or moving to a warm environment will help bring you core temperature back up to range.
The more dangerous versions of hypothermia are when they progress to moderate (core temperature below 89 degrees Fahrenheit) and severe (core temperature below 82 degrees Fahrenheit).
While the most widely known cause of hypothermia is via submersion in a body of cold water—such as falling through ice into a frozen lake or plunging into a frigid river—there are actually other ways to catch hypothermia.
For example, if you are exposed to temperatures indoors that are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time, this can also lead to hypothermia. Also, exposure to freezing temperatures outdoors can lead to hypothermia as well, whether a person is dry or damp.
Hypothermia can be very dangerous, even life-threatening, when left untreated. Moderate to severe hypothermia can lead to confusion, disorientation, organ failure, and ultimately, death.
How to Prevent Hypothermia in Survival Situations
As important as it is to know how to treat hypothermia in the wilderness, it’s even better to prevent it altogether! Besides avoiding frigid bodies of water and taking extra precautions in such areas during the colder months, there are a few other methods for how to prevent hypothermia, which aren’t always as widely known.
Nutrition and Hydration
One of the keys for how to prevent hypothermia is to keep your body in balance. This includes remaining hydrated, eating consistently, and ensuring you don’t succumb to exhaustion when out in the cold and the wilderness. Dehydration, hunger, and exhaustion can all make you much more susceptible to hypothermia.
The best method for how to prevent hypothermia altogether is to take care of your body outside as well as inside.
Make sure you dress warmly and encourage good circulation with your clothing choices. Maintaining healthy blood flow to and from your core is crucial for how to prevent hypothermia, as well as how to prevent other dangers such as frostbite.
You can also help prevent hypothermia by ensuring you have good warming gear on hand in the wilderness, like a sturdy sleeping bag or mylar blanket, for an added boost of heat to your core.
Identifying the Symptoms of Hypothermia
While hypothermia is often depicted with intense shivers and bluish tinge to the skin, perhaps some slurring and exhaustion, it’s important to be aware that different severity levels of hypothermia do present differently. Some of the symptoms may even surprise you.
Symptoms of mild hypothermia may include nonstop shivering, fatigue, slurred speech, inhibited motor skills, cold and possibly pale skin, and hyperventilation.
Moderate hypothermia will likely present with many of the same symptoms as mild hypothermia. However, a person suffering from moderate hypothermia will likely not shiver at all. They may present with confusion, drowsiness, and poor judgement, or may hallucinate or become agitated.
In cases of severe hypothermia, most shivering stops altogether. The victim may become unresponsive and organ failure can set in at any time. They may also go into shock or suffer from cardiac arrest.
Another—and one of the most baffling—of the symptoms of moderate-to-severe hypothermia is that the victim may attempt to shed their clothing despite being cold.
Though no exact cause for this phenomenon has been identified, it’s thought to relate to the hypothalamus—the body’s regulation center for core body temperature—misidentifying the extreme cold for extreme heat as the victim’s condition worsens.
This deterioration is known to present in an estimated 20 to 50 percent of hypothermia-related deaths and is a key sign to watch out for when learning how to identify and how to treat hypothermia in the wilderness.
If you notice any of the symptoms of any stages of hypothermia in yourself or others, it is crucial to take action immediately. Preventing hypothermia from progressing, treating the present stage, and seeking medical assistance can be a matter of life or death.
This is true even in cases of prolonged mild hypothermia, which can seem harmless in the moment.
How to Treat Hypothermia
Identify Core Temperature and Confirm Hypothermia
The first step for how to treat hypothermia is to confirm whether one is hypothermic and to what extent. An oral thermometer is the best tool in your arsenal here, as it will reflect the nearest to your actual core temperature.
If you do not have a thermometer handy in your survival kit or first aid kit, you can often identify hypothermia from its onset symptoms. These can include signs of confusion, behavioral changes, altered judgement, exhaustion, slurred speech, intense shivering, or even a lack of shivering despite the cold.
Keep the Victim Calm
Intense agitation, excessive movement, and panic can all progress the stages of hypothermia as the body exerts greater energy and thus, greater heat, in these frames of mind. Keeping the victim calm and helping them move as little as possible are all key steps for how to treat hypothermia.
Call for Aid if Possible
It is always wise to reach out for medical assistance if you suspect or have a confirmed case of hypothermia on your hands. Professional care is overall the best method for how to treat hypothermia and prevent it from progressing in severity.
Remove the Victim from the Cold
If possible, move the hypothermic person to a room-temperature location indoors. Otherwise, find somewhere with the greatest possible windbreak and shelter them to the best of your ability. If the victim’s clothes are wet, be sure to remove the wet clothing as soon as possible to prevent further chilling.
Once the victim’s skin is dry, then fresh, warm clothing or blankets should be applied. Contrary to popular belief, this will be more helpful than skin-to-skin contact, which instead puts both parties at risk of losing further heat at a rapid rate.
When dressing in dry clothes or wrapping in blankets, it is always best to cover the victim’s head and neck, as this is where a great deal of body heat is lost. In addition, padding around the body with cloth and insulation will help prevent the escape of excess heat.
Be aware that the hypothermic victim—whether that’s you or someone you’re assisting—should move as little as possible in order to conserve body heat and energy.
Warm the Victim Gradually
Heating a person suffering from hypothermia too quickly can compound the stress on the body. Instead, if possible, apply warm and dry compresses, such as a warm water bottle wrapped in a towel, to the victim’s core, neck, chest, and groin.
You should avoid intense rubbing to warm the body. Though the academy of fiction might suggest otherwise, this method can cause stress on the victim’s heart and lungs, and even send them into shock. Instead, gradual, gentle, steady warming will help the most.
Offer Warm, Nourishing Food and Drink
Avoiding alcoholic or overly processed items, if the victim is capable of swallowing, can help boost the victim’s metabolism and increase the warming process. Warm broth, sweet drinks, tea, warm water with lemon and ginger, and chocolate are all good options for helping the body along with warming itself.
If Necessary, Perform CPR
If a hypothermic victim is unresponsive or has no pulse, or a pulse that is sluggish and declining, it may be necessary to perform CPR.
CPR should be sustained for as long as possible on a hypothermic victim until help arrives. There have been cases reported of younger people with hypothermia surviving after more than an hour of CPR. If possible, switch off with another person to maintain CPR while you wait for professional assistance.
Be sure to check out our CPR guide to brush up on your skills and ensure you are prepared in case this is one of the steps you find yourself needing to take for how to treat hypothermia in the wilderness.
Wrapping Up How to Prevent Hypothermia in the Wilderness
Knowing how to prevent hypothermia how to treat hypothermia in the wilderness are both integral parts of survival preparedness. Now that you have the key steps down, be sure to check out our Cold Climate Survival page. This is a fantastic resource to help prepare you for many other kinds of cold scenarios you may face out there in the wilds of life!