Winning the Cold War
How NOT to Die of Hypothermia
By Tamia Nelson
January 11, 2005
It attacks the unwitting, the unwary, and the
unprepared. It stalks its prey in all seasons of the year. It can strike
during a summer picnic on Golden Pond, or in the middle of a rough
open-water crossing in November, or while traversing the Grand Portage in a
swirling spring drizzle. And it waits patiently in any water cool enough not
to feel warm. Some of its victims never make it home alive.
What is this stealthy killer's name? Hypothermia, that's what, and it's
every bit as deadly as drowning. Know your enemy. That's always good
advice. So let's take a closer look at
The Big Chill
The human body is a heat engine, and it functions most efficiently within
a narrow temperature range. When the vital organs in your body's core are
cooled below this range, you're already in hypothermia's claws. Since it's
easier to get chilled to the bone outside in the cold than inside by the
fire, hypothermia was once known as "exposure." The new name is more
accurate, if less evocative. Every year, in cities around the world, men and
women die of hypothermia in their homes. This killer recognizes no
Of course, risk increases with exposure to the elements, and anyone who
lives, works, or plays outside is vulnerable. Paddlers are no exception.
Indeed, they're in more danger than most. Long after the air turns balmy in
spring, winter's chill lingers in the rivers and lakes. And then there's the
problem of wet clothing. Air dry, still air, that is insulates
and protects, but any water that's colder than your body just wicks heat
away. It doesn't matter whether you're in the water, or the water's in your
clothes. It's a one-two punch in either case, and it hits hard. For a few
hapless paddlers every year, the first
unplanned swim of the season is the last. Ever. Yet cold water isn't the
only silent killer. Air that's neither warm nor dry nor still can also
chill. So can rain. (After all, rain is water, isn't it? Good rain gear is
essential.) The moral of the story is simple. Cold. Rain. Wind. Cold water. If
this Gang of Four ever comes after you, you're in for the fight of your life.
Even one at a time, they're bad news.
A case in point. The scene: The hamlet of North River, where the upper
Hudson breaks free of the Gorge. The first Saturday in May. White Water
Derby weekend. It's sunny and warm, with just a hint of a breeze. Spring is
definitely in the air. But spring in the mountains isn't quite the same as
spring in the city. Snow still lingers in the shadowed folds between the
peaks, and the Hudson is running high and cold, well above the Mouse's Tail.
It's a great day for the slalom, and spectators 10,000 of them by one
estimate, but who's counting? are in a party mood. Most are wearing
jeans and tees.
The competitors are feeling pretty good, too. One of them let's
call him John, shall we? is paddling OC-1 for the first time. His
partner cancelled at the last minute. But John's no timid beginner. He's
been canoeing and kayaking for a couple of decades now, and while he isn't
what the hacks call a "serious competitor," he takes the race seriously. Not
seriously enough, however. He, too, is in a party mood. In fact, he's
breakfasted on beer. And like most of the spectators, he's bewitched by the
soft spring weather. He's wearing jeans, with only a t-shirt under his life
Out of the gate, John's in his element. Things are lookin' mighty good.
But though the slalom's a short race in relatively easy water, there are
plenty of places in the course where you only get one chance to do it right.
And at Perry Eller rapids, John loses the beat, drifting too far to the
left, into the middle of the really big stuff. A breaking wave dumps its
load over the gunwale. Then another wave dumps a second load. Suddenly it's
swim time. The first shock of the freezing water puts an immediate end to
all thoughts of spring. It was May on the bank, but it's December in the
river. Luckily, John's fished out in a minute or two. Once on shore, though,
he discovers that he can't close his hands or get his fingers to work. To
make matters worse, he's shaking so badly that he has trouble walking.
Strangers offer to carry John's boat back to his van. Afterward, they hang
around to help him open his thermos and change into dry clothes. They don't
leave till they see him tying his shoes.
Four hours later, John's on the Northway, heading home. He notices that
his hands are still trembling, just a little, and he turns up the heater.
After a while, the trembling stops.
Happy ending? Yes and no. John made it out of the river and back home,
but after only a couple of minutes in cold water his survival depended
entirely on the kindness of
strangers. What if he'd been alone? There'd have been no happy ending
then. The irony isn't lost on John. Neither are the lessons of that day in
North River. He made a lot of mistakes. To begin with, he thought he was
immune. Exempt. In control. He could have quoted whole paragraphs from books
about the dangers of hypothermia, but he didn't think they applied to
him, and certainly not on a beautiful, warm spring morning. So he
dressed like a spectator instead of a competitor. And his beer breakfast
didn't help much, either. It blunted the sharp edge of his intellect, slowed
his reaction time, and sent warm blood rushing to his skin, far away from
his vital organs.
Sound pretty stupid? It was. And stupid is something no paddler can
afford to be. The good news?
It's Easy to be Smart
Your body's a heat engine, right? But it's a cold world. And if your
engine gets too cold it stops. Dead. Not so good. To keep everything turning
over smoothly, though, you only need to do two things:
- Feed your fire regularly
- Insulate the firebox
Simple, eh? Snack often whenever you're on the move. Calorie-rich energy
bars are good, as is dried
frequently, too. Dehydration isn't just a warm-weather problem. A
thermos of something hot and sweet is always welcome on a cold day. No
booze, however. And no beer or wine, either. Save these for camp, when
you're warm, dry, and lazy and confident you'll stay that way for a
It's not enough to feed the fire, of course. You still can't afford to
heat the whole watery world. Dress to keep the cold out and the heat in.
Remember what happened to John. It may be May (or August) on the shore, but
it can still be December in the water. Get an armored stream thermometer
and use it. Leave the jeans, shorts, and t-shirts for the beach and
the tropics. In canoe country, wear fleece and
wool under your paddling jacket when the water's warm (above 50 degrees
Fahrenheit, say), a wetsuit when it's not. (You always wear a life jacket,
don't you?) But that's only part of the story. Exposure is a product of both time
and temperature. Whatever the reading on the thermometer, the longer you spend in
the water, the more heat you lose. So anytime you might find yourself swimming
for more than a few minutes and this means any open-water
crossing, along with most sea-kayaking jaunts wear a wetsuit. And
not all wetsuits are equal. A shorty is better than nothing, yet nothing
beats a full-length Farmer John with a jacket when the going gets
rough. Protect your head and neck, too. A watch cap or headover is enough
when the water's comparatively warm, but a wetsuit hood isn't too much in
arctic conditions. The downside? It's about as comfortable as a neck-brace.
Can't stand the clinging, clammy feel of a wetsuit? A drysuit-plus-fleece
will do the same job, and some paddlers find that the drysuit has the edge
in comfort. On the other hand, a single tear will put a drysuit out of
action, while a wet wetsuit is normal. The choice is yours.
Wetsuit or dry, be sure to cover your head and neck, and don't neglect
your other extremities, either. The temperature of your body core is what
determines your survival time in the water, but you can't do much without
hands and feet, and these need to stay warm to function. Wetsuit
booties are standard footwear for both whitewater boaters and sea
kayakers. So far, so good. There's no consensus about what to wear on your
hands, though. Pogies, neoprene gloves, convertible mittens, even trapper's
waterproof gauntlets over wool gloves each has its champions.
Experiment and see which you like best. Just wear something.
All of this gear will feel pretty restrictive, obviously, and when you're
fully kitted out, you'll find paddling very sweaty work. There are also the
attendant problems of stink, chafe, and rot. (There's nothing like a wetsuit
for growing fungi and foul odors, and for rubbing your tender bits raw.)
This sometimes leads expert paddlers to throw caution to the winds. Many
will echo Derek Hutchinson's complaint that no advanced kayaker should have
to "paddle stinking, sweating, steaming and prickling in rubber equipment
like an out-of-work frogman," on the remote chance that he may have to "meet
[a] freezing rescue" someday. Less confident boaters have little choice,
however. For us, the only rule that makes sense is the familiar "Be
prepared." Wetsuits make us uncomfortable. But cold water kills.
Still tempted to cut corners? At least take the personal equation into
account. Some folks simply survive longer in cold water than others.
Generally speaking, skinny people, tired people, children, and older
paddlers have the hardest time staying warm and the shortest life
expectancy once they're in the water. They need extra protection.
OK. Preventing hypothermia is a good thing. We all agree about that. But
what do you do when prevention fails? And how will you recognize what's
wrong before it's too late? How do you see
The Smile of the Tiger?
It's surprisingly hard, particularly if you're by yourself. Hypothermia
is a stealthy killer. One crisp autumn day, Farwell thought he'd go for a
jog up a nearby hill. He was wearing shorts and a tee. Halfway up, he
noticed he was tripping over his own feet a lot. Ten minutes later he was
shivering uncontrollably. He didn't have any extra clothing. By the time he
stumbled down the hill, he couldn't speak. He knew he was lucky, though. He
could still walk.
It's happened to me, too. Not long ago, I had to stop to fix a flat on my
bike. It wasn't particularly cold or windy 25 degrees Fahrenheit,
more or less, with a gentle westerly breeze and anyway I was
hot. I'd been climbing steadily for nearly an hour. But by the time I
got the wheel off the bike, my hands were shaking so much that I couldn't
hold the tire levers. Unlike Farwell, however, I was prepared. I had hot Newt
Nectar in my thermos, and a thick fleece pullover in my pannier. I put
on the pullover and drank deep of the hot, sweet Nectar. When the shaking
stopped, I fixed the flat and went on my way.
The upshot? Easy. Look out for hypothermia whenever the day is chilly,
the weather is foul, or the water is cold, and anytime the breeze raises
goose bumps. Check yourself and your companions often. Notch
your index of suspicion up if you're cursing your clumsiness, trying to
remember where you put your hat, or simply feeling cold. If you're already
shivering, your suspicions are confirmed. You're in the beast's claws. It's
time to fight back. Get out of the wind. Towel off if you're wet. Put on
your warmest clothing. Have something hot to drink. Build a
fire. And do it right now. Don't delay. Don't tell yourself that the
beast will go away. It won't. Minutes count.
Want to know more? Get a good book. (Medicine for
Mountaineering is one of the best.) Take a wilderness medical
course. Talk to a knowledgeable physician or other health worker. But don't
count on science to save you from the consequences of folly. Once the beast
gets his hooks into your vitals, it's too late for anything but the ICU, and
you won't find many of them in the backcountry. Chilling out is great on the
street, but you want to stay warm on the trail. 'Nuff said?
It happens every year. As soon as winter's grip loosens and the ice
retreats, even for a few days, folks head out on the water in t-shirts and
jeans. And every year there are more hypothermia fatalities. Don't add your
name to this melancholy roster. Don't become a silent statistic. Dress for
the water temperature. Keep warm. Keep your head. And never, never
doubt the deadly danger lurking in the cold. It's knowledge we all can live
Copyright © 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights