Whether you are training in winter or encountering weather in the backcountry, understanding what hypothermia looks like and how to treat it is very important.
I completely recommend getting some basic medical training if you are getting out. A little knowledge goes a long way, especially in easily treatable things like this. On top of years of reading about these things, I have taken a NOLs Wilderness First Aid course. I had gone over this stuff before, but it sure helps to review often. Lets face it, I don’t use this knowledge everyday, so refresher courses are good. I had great teachers and a lot of fun too.
Technically, hypothermia is what happens when your core temperature is below 95F. If you want to avoid hypothermia (and you do) learn the signs that lead to hypothermia and treat it when it is not serious.
It is easier to stay warm than to warm a cold person. This is especially true in the backcountry where you do not have quick medical help.
So, lets say your backpacking partner is
- doesn’t want to keep going,
- seems confused,
- losing motor control
Leap into action. If you act quickly, your partner will not get hypothermic.
For those of us who have tried this – you do get confused and stupid. You can recognize that you don’t seem as coordinated and you get a bit frustrated. If it is your partner you may need to convince them they need to stop and warm. Do it.
So what to do (briefly):
- Change their environment by getting them to a warmer place (i.e. off snow, out of water/rain, out of the wind).
- Insulate them.
- Get them in dry clothes (not always an issue)
- Wrap in sleeping bag and/or windproof tarp (rain fly of tent works like a champ)
- Important areas to cover: head, neck hands and feet.
- Feed them – food = calories. Calories = heat.
- Warm non-alcoholic, non-caffinated drinks are good. (note: once all I could get was coffee and it worked for me – 3 cups of it. It just isn’t ideal)
- For mild patients – exercise can work.
Do you want to jump into a sleeping bag with them? Maybe. But this may not be the moment for hormones to kick in. You do not want to lower your own body temperature and put yourself at risk. Fill water bottles with warm water and pack that in with the awesome warm wrap you put together. Jump in the bag some other time.
Get yourself some training. This is an overview, but a lot of this stuff is serious. Reading a lot of books works, but the hands on training from NOLS Wilderness Medical Institute can really help you when you have to use your knowledge.