There is an old saying that has to do with hypothermia – “Stay Dry…Stay Alive.” Hypothermia is the #1 killer of people in the outdoors and a serious concern for individuals preparing for both natural and man made disasters (TEOTWAWKI).
If you are caught out in the elements unexpectedly without proper clothes and shelter, hypothermia can set in within minutes to hours depending on the severity of your situation. The risk of hypothermia can be prevented (or at least minimized) with some general planning with your Bug Out Bag and know how.
To always be prepared for the unexpected when you travel outdoors is easier said than done, I know, but try to at least plan for the most common contingencies before you walk out the door. Ask yourself; do I have everything I need in case something unexpected happens? Keep an emergency bag in all of your vehicles. It should contain food, water, warm clothes, hat, winter gloves, warm socks, flashlight, boots, first aid kit, survival knife, fire starting kit and a winter type jacket & pants.
What to Wear
Have a plan, if hiking or camping always carry a personal first aid kit and wear the appropriate gear. Always wear clothes that are warm and made of material that continues to insulate even when wet or is quick drying, such as wool (SmartWool), or lightweight moisture wicking synthetic material, such as Polartec or polypropylene. Always avoid wearing cotton, just remember the saying “Cotton is Rotten” as it loses all its insulating properties when wet and when it is against your skin it can quickly lower your body temperature. There is another saying in the outdoor world, “Friends don’t let friends wear cotton”.
People make this common mistake with cotton especially with their t-shirt and underwear selection, look for a synthetic t-shirt and long underwear material. Clothing worn in loose layers provides better insulation than a heavy single-layer garment. This also allows you to layer up and layer down depending on the temperature. Unfortunately there is not just “One” coat that you can buy that is perfect for all weather conditions but a good outer shell jacket with a few layers of light jackets and/or shirts will keep you warm and dry in some of the worst scenarios. It is also important to keep an extra base layer in a water proof bag to change into in case you get wet. If your base layer is moisture wicking /quick drying and you are moving, then your body heat naturally dries out your clothing while you are moving but if you are forced to stop while wet, it’s nice to have a dry change of clothes.
Bug Out Bag & Emergency Car Kit
When planning your Bug Out Bag or Emergency Car Kit, it is good to have a solid pair of warm water-resistant boots or even better, boots that will dry quickly. Some folks keep an extra pair of water proof Gor-tex socks as back up in case their boots do get wet. That way even with cold wet boots, you can take off your wet socks and replace them with the Gor-tex socks (along with a dry pair of insulated socks) and your feet will stay dry for awhile. Gore-Tex is supposed to be breathable but the bottom line is that your feet will still sweat inside of them, they are not a perfect solution. Remember to water proof all of your clothing items in your Bug Out Bag by putting them in sealed bags, there is nothing worse than needing dry clothes and finding out that all of your stuff is soaked. The best clothing and footwear is going to be items that will wick water away, be breathable and dry quickly after they get wet. Remember, the cotton rule applies to your feet as well “Cotton is Rotten.” Check out socks made by Point 6, they make some good merino wool socks. I have been reading bug out bag lists lately and a lot of people are not including a shelter in their bag. Personally I think that is a mistake. For a few extra pounds in your bag, you could have a shelter that can be assembled in minutes and protect you and your loved ones from snow, rain, and wind. I have seen some people keep small shelters in their cars as well for emergencies.
Before medical experts knew much about hypothermia, being cold and wet was simply considered part of of being outside in the elements. If you became cold and wet, you did not complain or whine, you would just keep going. Hypothermia, however, is a physical condition where the body loses heat faster than it can be replaced. This cycle results in the body core temperature dropping below 98.6 degrees. Exposure to cold water, snow, rain, wind and even one’s own perspiration will accelerate the progression of the condition. Eventually the brain, heart, lungs and other vital organs are affected. Even a mild case of hypothermia can exhaust a person’s physical and mental abilities and increase the risks of serious accidents. If left untreated, severe hypothermia may result in unconsciousness and in some cases….death.
A person may be alert, but unaware that he or she has mild hypothermia (described as a body core temperature drop to 97˚ F or below). Shivering, cold hands and feet, loss of dexterity, and pain from cold are some of the symptoms. This can easily turn into a moderate case (body core temperature drops to 93˚ F or below) when the person’s shivering slows or stops. Severe hypothermia will occur when the body temperature falls between 82˚ F and 90˚ F. Confusion, slurred speech, loss of reasoning and muscular rigidity are some of the symptoms. A person may refuse help or deny that he or she is having a problem. A state of semi-consciousness or even unconsciousness may set in as conditions worsen. If a person’s body temperature drops below 82˚ F, hypothermia becomes a critical situation. The body starts to shut down and vital signs weaken. A person may appear to be dead as muscle rigidity increases, and the skin turns cold and appears bluish-gray in color. A victim will not live long in this condition unless immediate medical attention is received.
Recognizing the symptoms of hypothermia is paramount for treatment and preventing further heat loss. With a mild case of hypothermia, allowing the body to re-warm itself and retain body heat will correct the situation. This can be accomplished by replacing wet clothing with warm and dry ones, sipping on a warm non- alcoholic drink, applying a gentle heat source, or doing some light exercises to warm up. Do not exercise to the point of perspiration, as it can limit the body’s ability to warm back up in the cold. With severe and critical cases of hypothermia it is important to obtain medical help as soon as possible. Treat the person for shock and handle them with extreme care. Do not give the victim any food or drink. Apply a mild heat source to the head, neck, chest and groin to minimize further loss of body heat. In severe conditions, try to put two people in the same sleeping bag, removing any wet clothes to re-warm the person suffering from hypothermia.
Expedient Lean-To Shelter Using Snow or Tree Branches
If you are caught out in the elements unprepared, get out of the wind, rain or snow, find shelter, and build a fire if possible. Look for naturally occurring shelters such as large trees, dense bushes or a rock out cropping. Know how to build an expedient shelter using a poncho or lean-to using tree branches and other items found on the forest floor. Also know how and when to build a snow trench or quinzee.
Hypothermia can occur in almost any environment at air temperatures below or above freezing. However, most cases tend to take place between 30 and 50 degrees, when victims underestimate the danger of exposure to the elements. Anyone can get hypothermia; it can strike even the most highly trained and experienced individuals in the outdoors. So no matter the scenario, if you are caught out in the elements immediately seek shelter or put on protection against moisture because once you become wet and cold, hypothermia is sure to follow.
Remember “Stay Dry…Stay Alive.”
The movie “The Road”