Hypothermia is a creeping, secretive killer. Its early symptoms can appear as mere irritations. Because a person suffering from hypothermia progressively becomes less and less coherent, those who are suffering hypothermia rarely recognize the danger. That’s one reason why the buddy system is so crucial for survival in the backcountry. Two sets of eyes and two rational minds are a real advantage in the face of hypothermia. Your buddy can speak up if you’re not behaving normally, or if he or she notices conditions are ripe for hypothermia. Recognizing hypothermia symptoms is like recognizing stoke symptoms: The earlier you spot it, the better chance you have of saving the victim. And yes, “saving” is an appropriate verb here, since hypothermia can kill.
Protect yourself and your trail mates: Know the signs of hypothermia we list below, so that you can call 911 or stop to warm up your companion before it’s too late.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
Here are a few external signs that a body is having a hypothermic reaction. Survivalists should memorize these symptoms.
–Dexterity of hands. This is a great quick way to check for hypothermia danger. The body preserves heat in the core, so the hands are one of the first places to show signs of hypothermia. Check that you can touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of each finger in turn. As hypothermia sets in it becomes difficult or impossible to touch the thumb to the ring and pinkie fingertips.
–Tingling and numbness in the skin indicate that hypothermia is occurring.
–Pale or blue-tinted skin, typically in the toes, fingers, lips, and ears.
–Disorientation, confusion, and slurred speech. Yes, hypothermia looks a lot like being drunk. Clumsiness is a classic sign of hypothermia. Indeed, many hikers look for the “Umbles”—Stumbles, Mumbles, Grumbles, and Fumbles. This handy mneumonic device could help save your buddy’s life. A big change in personality is another sign of hypothermia—for instance, if the life of the party suddenly becomes very quiet.
–Taking off clothes even in very cold conditions. Stripping is a sign of late-stage hypothermia. In the last moments of life, the hypothermic individual may want to dig into snow or sand, apparently burrowing to death. Extreme fatigue, difficulty moving, and amnesia are additional symptoms of advanced hypothermia.
Hypothermia danger is not limited to frigid temperatures. Let’s say you’re out for a summer hike in the alpine forest. It’s five in the afternoon, and you’re crossing a sun-dappled stream when you foot slips, you twist your ankle, and fall into the water. Now you’re wet and the sun is starting to dip on the horizon. As the sun sets, the wind picks up, and the air turns chilly. You begin to shiver. Soon your teeth are chattering with cold. Wet skin and falling temperatures can send the body into hypothermia, even if the thermometer is above freezing. And the higher your elevation, the lower that nighttime temperatures will drop.
To treat hypothermia, warm the sufferer’s core first. Don’t put them in a warm bath, as this can send the body into shock and even cause a heart attack. Instead, find a spot out of the elements where you can remove wet clothing, wrap the person in warm, dry blankets. Wrap hot water bottles in cloth before pressing them against the person’s core. Apply CPR if the person is not breathing regularly. If the individual is able to drink, feed him or her warm, caffeine- and alcohol-free liquids. Get to a hospital ASAP, especially if your friend is in the more advanced stages of hypothermia. There, the healthcare providers will be able to provide a warm IV and warm, humid oxygen to slowly, safely warm the body back up.