Hypothermia In July?

Hypothermia Definition, Symptoms and Treatment

I thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow” –Henry David Thoreau

I've been training hard this spring and summer, preparing for my yearly mountain climbs and hikes in Colorado. It's been my ritual for many years now, and I can honestly say, I learn something new and valuable each season. Sometimes it's not just brand new information but welcomed reminders. 

The recent death of writer and skilled outdoor's woman Karen Sykes, who succumbed to hypothermia this June, has made this piece's theme: hypothermia is a sneaky son of a bitch and even the experienced, most cautious adventurer, can be caught by surprise. It nearly happened to me.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when an individual's core body temperature falls below 96° F and is unable to produce enough heat to stabilize itself. Outside forces like rain, wind, and water can contribute to this imbalance and are factors that exist in every season. That being said, many of us, yes even veteran adventurers like myself can be seduced by the fallacy that winter settings are the only conduits that fuel hypothermia. I have to constantly remind myself not to be fooled, especially during the summer months. I was trekking in Nepal a few years back, and the weather was beautiful.

I was wearing shorts and shirtsleeves on the uphill climb to Namche Bazaar when out of nowhere (or so it seemed) the sky grew dark and a slow, steady rain soaked me to the core. I was feeling the effects of altitude as I climbed towards the hillside village and knew I only had about another 800 feet of elevation gain to go. However, as my clothes became saturated and my skin remained wet the temperature dropped precipitously in s short period.


I began shivering. I threw on my weatherproof shell, pulled my pants on, and told myself I was almost there soldier on! And that's how hypothermia deaths occur. Bad decision-making. Fortunately, I did make it to Namche and with the help of my dear Sherpa friend, shed my wet clothes and found warmth by a dung fire for the evening. The effects on my body, coupled with the reduced O2 levels from elevation, knocked me out for the next day as well. However, it could have been much worse.

It seems simplistic to state that one of the most valuable survival tips a person can remember when contemplating a hike, is to prepare for any type of weather variable but it's true. I can begin my trek up a mountain, amid a beautiful summer's day and easily be lulled into believing that the sun's warmth will blanket me throughout my entire journey. However, the mountain is a contradiction of climate extremes. On a mountain, a person can encounter a multitude of weather and temperature shifts in an instant and if unprepared, an outing can turn catastrophic, as it did in the case of Karen Sykes and numerous others throughout the years.

There is no foolproof system of preparation that will 100% guarantee that you will never have issues on a trail but understanding hypothermic signals and being able to discern what to do once symptoms have set in, will make for a safer excursion and possibly, save your life.

Hypothermia Fundamentals: Complacency = Death. Hypothermia is a subtle killer and has duped some of the most adept outdoor aficionados so, be vigilant!

Stages of Hypothermia:

Stage 1: Mild Hypothermia (Body temp: 95° F to 89.9° F)

  • Low Energy
  • Clammy and pale skin
  • Rapid breathing
  • Nonstop shivering
  • Feeling Nauseous
  • Difficulty with speech
  • Issues with coordination
  • Disorientation
  • Elevated heart rate

Stage 2: Moderate Hypothermia (Body temp: 89.9° F to 82.4° F) (I was on my way into stage 2 on my climb into Namche Bazaar)

  • Shivering- (will actually become less of a symptom as the ravages of hyperthermia take hold)
  • Slurred speech
  • Dehydration
  • Coordination worsens
  • Heart rate decreases
  • Sluggish and shallow breathing
  • Confusion and apathy- (many victims at this stage become very disconnected. There are various accounts of individuals taking off their clothing, thinking that they are safe and warm)

Stage 3: Severe Hypothermia (Body temp: Below 82.4° F)

  • Breathing becomes severely labored
  • Pulse is practically undetectable
  • Pupils are dilated
  • Unconsciousness

Treating Hypothermia: Low Body Temperature

emergency blanket

There is a great deal of misinformation that has given way to urban legends regarding how to deal with hypothermia. One of the most prevailing bits of fiction out there is that rubbing the hands and feet of a victim is an appropriate first aid measure for hypothermia. Wrong. This can actually exacerbate the situation. The key is to try to stabilize the body core temperature and what the moving and rubbing motion does to the victim's body is just the opposite. The rubbing action pushes the blood away from the core, and the body temperature drops even further.

Another urban legend, possibly the greatest of all and one of my personal favorites, for obvious reasons, is the all-nude, body-to-body treatment. We've read about it; we've seen it in movies and yes. It's sexy but unfortunately, it's pure fiction. The layers of clothing actually act as an insulator and are a more effective way of preserving a person's core temp. Sorry folks.

Hypothermia Protocol:

  1. Remove clothing: Ok, don't get excited here. I'm not backtracking. I am referring to removing damp clothing (if applicable) and then replacing the wet with the dry
  2. Cover the victim with a blanket (Share body heat by cuddling with the victim clothes on)
  3. Try to keep the victim in a horizontal position (helps with shock prevention and blood flow to the brain)
  4. Keep tabs on the victim's vital signs (Watch for drastic changes and be prepared for advanced first aid techniques, if things become dire)
  5. Try and keep the victim as still as possible (too much moving may stress the heart and cause cardiac arrest)
  6. Apply heat packs to a victim's head, neck, torso, and groin (remember to have a barrier between the heat pack and the victim's skin)

Base items to bring on your hike (In addition to your standard supplies):

  • Heat packs and pads
  • Extra socks
  • Extra clothing
  • Emergency blanket
  • Watertight plastic bags (to store blankets, clothing, and other supplies)
  • Tarp
  • A friend (A great asset when facing unforeseen circumstances.

Hypothermia is the grand master trickster. It will sneak up on the unsuspecting, and the results can be devastating. There are many tools that one can use to support a successful outing on a trail, but the key is YOU. Remember that knowledge, preparation, vigilance, and respecting nature's temperamental design are your lifeline. Have a fun and safe journey!

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 14, 2014, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.

14 Responses to :
Hypothermia In July?

  1. kristi says:

    Great article ! We all went on a Super Moon hike last night in the state park. It was a guided hike and very safe and easy. About 35 people, most were young college kids and children. Its monsoon season and humidity was building, even tho we didnt expect rain….it became appearant there wont be a moon to see. We were far enough into the hike that it had to be completed, no problems. Then the lightning showed up, the the huge drops of water…i welcomed the releif from the hot humidity. What surprised me was that the rain was cold…that was unexpected. And im glad we were back before long. Because a fun trip may have changed into a bad one. People dont realise how fickle weather is around mountains. I read this artivle and got some more good information. Thank you.

    1. Lauren J says:

      Thanks for your story! We all take the good weather for granted at times. It is too easy to forget how quickly it can turn bad!

    2. David says:

      Thanks, Kristi. Yes, weather can change in an instant – especially mountain weather! I’m glad everything turned out well and if nothing else, the young ones have a great story to share!

  2. buz davis says:

    You make no mention of fire.

    If you can build a fire and heat some liquid (water, coffee/tea, soup, etc.) would this
    be helpful, or is it another myth ?

    1. James says:

      The short answer is YES. The long answer contains several Ifs.
      If you have a fire kit and
      If there is tinder and fuel available and
      If you can find a sheltered place for it and
      If you are proficient with fire starting/making

      If you are proficient making fires; practice some more; if you are not proficient; learn and practice.

      If you are above 12,000 ft the likelihood of fuel is greatly diminished.

      The first order of business is to get dry and stay dry. Next is to start the warming process. The greatest amount of heat loss is from the head and neck; the hands and wrists; and the feet and ankles. You can clomp around on cold numb feet, but you must keep you brain warm so you can think and you must keep you hands warm so you can work.

      The one additional item I would recommend for the list, is a poncho. Although a Goretex would be the best selection, some of us might suffer sticker shock, so a poncho, any poncho. A poncho is in affect a wearable tent. Get one large enough to cover you pack; you are wearing a pack, right?

  3. Diane says:

    Your article is really good and all hikers should take note. I believe
    one should carry some survival herbs for hypothermia such as Cayenne Tincture, Nettle tincture. It’s amazing how these warm the insides of the body and get the blood circulating. Hot teas with ginger and nettle are great,too.

  4. Left Coast Chuck says:

    Hypothermia can strike even in mild weather. An evening hike through the foothills along the California coast, not far from Malibu. Work up a sweat during the hike. Back to the car by 2100. Oops. The car keys are visible on the car seat. Not to worry, one of the other hikers has a cell phone and there is great cell phone coverage along the coast. Too many rich clients for the cell phone companies not to have towers every fifty feet for the really important Hollywood type to have perfect cell phone coverage all the way to the office. Auto club says it should be about 30 to 45 minutes to respond due to slightly remote location. Before the auto club guy gets there I am starting to shiver really severely and I can just feel my body chilling in the soft breeze blowing in off the ocean. Because it was such a nice warm evening with no adverse weather predicted (come on, it’s SoCal in August the worst weather then is a hot wind) no one has any extra clothing, no jackets, no sweaters — nada. By the time the auto club guy arrives I am shaking so badly I can barely climb into the vehicle. I certainly am in no shape to drive. I start the engine, turn the heater on and sit there with the heater running full blast for about 15 minutes before I feel I have stopped shaking enough to drive home safely with the heater running full blast. A 20 minute hot shower upon arrival home, a hot cup of tea and off to bed with lots of covers. Not even close to mild hypothermia, but close enough to make a firm resolve that on any adventure no matter how minor, to be prepared for the improbable. Who would have thought about a brush with hypothermia on a warm, clear August evening along the SoCal coast? It sure doesn’t take very long for things to go rapidly south.

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