This past week I was hiking in Connecticut, and it rained for three days straight. It wasn’t even heavy rain; it was the sort of light rain that keeps everything damp and doesn’t let the sun come out. On top of that, the temperatures were dropping into the 40s at night. Although my hammock kept me dry at night, my down bag seemed to soak up the humidity in the air. By the third night, I was tossing and turning and having trouble sleeping because I was a little too cold for comfort.
There’s an assumption out there that people only get hypothermia on snowy, freezing days. That’s not true! Wet conditions with temperatures in the 40s is the time when you can unexpectedly get hypothermia.
How to Prevent Hypothermia:
- Always have a dry layer to sleep in. I have said this before, but it’s very important. Your core can’t stay warm if you are wearing a wet layer to rest in. This means there will be some mornings that you will have to put your cold, wet hiking clothes back on to start your day. Don’t worry though, they will warm up after a bit of hiking.
- Make it a priority to dry your gear out. This past week I had a constant rain and the sun did not come out, therefore I couldn’t dry my hammock and bag. You just have to do the best you can during times like that. However, there will also be rainy days where the sky clears up for a bit and the sun pokes out for a short while. When that suns emerges, its time to stop hiking and dry out your gear. It should be your number one priority, even above making miles.
- Pack appropriately for the weather. Do your research ahead of time. If there’s a chance of snow, this is not the time to use your summer sleeping bag. You don’t need a lot of clothes, you just need the right clothes.
- Eat calorie rich foods. Your body needs energy to burn off to keep you warm. You might not feel as hungry on cold days, but you will need to snack regularly. Hot drinks won’t be as beneficial as having calories in your system. For example, drinking a hot cocoa that’s full of sugar will be better than a calorie-free coffee.
There’s misinformation out there about consuming alcohol to stay warm. Alcohol makes your skin feel warm, giving you the illusion that you are warm. It does nothing to heat up your core, which is what really matters.
It’s important to know the early signs of hypothermia:
- Change in mental status. The person may become withdrawn, lethargic, or irritable.
- Shivering. The body wants to heat itself up.
- Loss of fine motor coordination.
If you or your hiking partner experience these symptoms, it’s time to take action. They need to be in a sheltered area, like a tent or shelter. Have them remove any wet clothing and put on dry layers. Give them fluid and snacks. Insulate them with sleeping bags and extra clothes. Also know that if things don’t get better, it’s time to call for help.
Being aware when the weather turns to potentially hypothermic conditions will drastically help prevention, along with bringing appropriate gear.
*I earned my Wilderness First Responder this past spring, so I’m prepared to assist people with wilderness medicine.
*Source: The Field Guide of Wilderness & Rescue Medicine by Jim Morissey, EMT-P, WEMT, with David Johnson, MD.