Hypothermia is a potential problem any time of year when you adventure in Alaska. In fact, it most often happens between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit and that's a pretty common temperature (check out the Weather Chart for details). It is as important to know how to avoid hypothermia and what to do if a member of your group gets it as it is to know how to avoid a bear encounter! It can be just as fatal and it is much more common than bear encounters.
What Is Hypothermia?
Acute hypothermia, the kind that might happen to anyone in Alaska, occurs when a person's core body temperature drops below the level where the body can reheat itself; that is about 4 degrees below normal. If immediate steps are not taken, damage to vital organs can take place and even death.
Windy conditions and wet clothes can work together to chill the unaware. It can happen on a summer day (perspiration from cycling or hiking or a sudden dunk in the river) or in the middle of winter. Once chilled, the body begins to "shut down." The brain loses function, and that leads to poor judgment, mental confusion and fatigue. People with hypothermia often can't help themselves so it's important for each group member know how to prevent and treat hypothermia.
This is one place where planning, layers, and well-filled day packs come in handy!
What Are The Signs?
A person with hypothermia will start to become fatigued and shiver intensely. They begin to stumble and their coordination will get really bad. They will slur their speech and act irrationally. It will almost seem as if they've had too much to drink except for the shivering. If you notice these kinds of symptoms, take a break to give them dry clothes, water, and food.
To Prevent Hypothermia, Dress in Layers
Dress in Layers
The outer layer should be wind and water resistant, and inner layers should be fabrics that are "warm when wet" ~ fabrics such as wool or synthetics, but never ever wear COTTON!.
A wool or fleece hat may be your most important layer in preventing heat loss.
You can take layers off if you begin to sweat and then put them back on when you cool down. Stay well fueled; that means snack on high carbohydrate foods and drink lots of water.
Water helps your body turn calories into heat both summer and winter. So you must carry water with you ~ and drink it.
It is almost as bad to wear too much as too little! It bears repeating, take off layers when you start to get overheated. You want to avoid perspiring when you are outside in cold weather. The thing is, you can take a sudden chill if you've been sweating which can cause all sorts of problems. If you get too warm, loosen or take off a layer or two, but keep your head covered.
What is the Best First Aid For Hypothermia?
Be prepared in case someone in your group gets hypothermia. You can save his life.
First, remove his wet clothing, dry him off, and get his body warm.... the head, chest, shoulders, and stomach areas first. get him dressed, covered in warm dry clothes or sleeping bag. Use heating pads, hot water bottles (be sure the heat source is warm, not hot), blankets, or other people next to him to pass on their body heat.
Try to put his feet up and lower their head to increase circulation to the chest area and other organs. Keep a close eye on the respiratory system. If he is conscious, you can give him warm liquids, but not alcohol. Do not massage any area. Call for medical assistance as soon as possible.