Theres nothing like a winter walk in the woods, but if youre not prepared for a blast of cold rain, snow, or wind, you may find yourself transported to the hospital.
Hypothermia, known as the killer of the unprepared, occurs when your body loses more heat than it produces and is the biggest cause of death in the wilderness.
When youre unprepared and get exposed to the elements, you may increase your pace of walking or running to get back to the car or find shelter, says Dr. Peter Hackett, a Ridgway, Colo., doctor of emergency medicine and one of the worlds foremost authorities on high-altitude illnesses. If you become exhausted and cant keep up that pace, you may slow down enough to become excessively cold. If you stop moving completely, your body heat shuts down, and you can develop hypothermia within minutes.
Symptoms are difficult to recognize within yourself but easy to spot in others, says Dr. Keith Conover of the Wilderness Emergency Medical Services Institute in Pittsburgh. Look for impaired judgment, clumsiness, apathy (dropping a mitten and refusing to pick it up), becoming withdrawn, and slurred speech.
Its similar to how people act when theyre drunk, Conover explains. And the second you realize they may be hypothermic, you need to stop whatever youre doing, find shelter, put them in warm, dry clothes if available, and feed them food and hot liquids.
Act quickly, paying special attention to warming the torso, because all the major organs begin to shut down, particularly the cardiovascular system, brain, and muscles. If the individual is shivering, its not yet considered an emergency because shivering generates body heat, Hackett says. But when the shivering stops, the internal temperature drops.
The safest way to ward off hypothermiaespecially if you dont have dry, warm clothes availableis to cover the entire body in two plastic garbage bags, both doctors agree. Help the person step into one bag and pull it up over the waist, and pull the other bag over the top of the head, puncturing holes for breathing.
Leaf bags weigh nothing and fold easily into a backpack, Conover advises. And they could save a life in the event of hypothermia.
Dressing appropriately also helps, but cotton is the worst possible material when wet because it absorbs water and can chill the wearer. Instead, Hackett suggests layering with a coated nylon material such as polypropylene because it repels moisture, then an insulating layer, followed by a wind- and waterproof shell.