I once did a random, unscientific survey. I asked day hikers, backpackers, and visitors along the Appalachian Trail what they considered the greatest hiking risk. Instantaneous responses were rapid and predictable: bears, snakes, and strangers topped the list of what most thought were the greatest hiking risk. This was true even among some experienced trekkers. Yet the greatest hiking risk for people recreating in the outdoors is hypothermia – an answer that surprises many. Some are not even aware of the condition, which can arise without warning and quickly turn an outing into an ordeal.
My experience with hypothermia came during a long distance hike on the Appalachian Trail in the mountains of Maine in the magnificent, rugged Barren-Chairback Range.
I had been hiking nearly a week and it had rained every day. The trail became a river and it was impossible to keep my gear rain free. My pack was soaked through. Some food had become soggy and much of my clothing was damp despite having an adequate laying system and wearing a Gore-tex parka and wool sweater.
Camping proved a unique challenge. Placing my tent down quickly, I tossed the rain fly on top, then wrestled to set it up without getting water inside. During the few days I was fortunate enough to use traditional lean-to shelters, I found that wind would force the rain in sideways and sometimes the shelter roof would leak. My synthetic fill sleeping bag was not drenched but it made for a damp and clammy night of rest.
During an afternoon hiking the ridgeline, after a grueling climb, I found myself exhausted and soaked to the skin beneath my rain parka. Even with my wool sweater beneath I experienced mild shivering. The wind picked up and temperatures began dropping. A hiker’s “perfect storm” was forming.
I first realized something was wrong when my thoughts became foggy and unclear. I began to undergo what I will call “disturbed time” – the sense of losing awareness of what time of day it was or how long I had been walking.
Next, my speech became slurred and I noticed I was having a great deal of difficulty putting my gloves on after wringing water from them. It was at that moment I realized the danger. I knew less about hypothermia then than I do now, but I knew enough to recognize I needed immediate shelter from the elements. Though I wanted to stop, sit down and rest right on the trail, I knew such a choice would be unwise.
I knew from studying my map that morning that there was a trail to a shelter nearby where I could find a safer haven. As I began walking I felt fear and clung to it, using the fear to help me battle against what I now know were classic hypothermia symptoms.
After a time the turnoff appeared and the trail descended into a more protected footway leading to the shelter. The lean-to was a poor structure and wind was getting in, but the nails on the walls allowed me to I affixed a tarp to block the elements.
Immediately, I lit my MSR Firefly cooking stove then tossed some Ramen noodles on to boil. I dug my space blanket from my pack, shed most of my clothing, and mummified myself inside it. After drinking hot soup, eating two energy bars, and spending an hour out of the wind, my thoughts began to clear. I was relieved. I had avoided a potentially fatal situation and I was sobered at how easily it nearly overtook me.
Hypothermia begins when exhausted hikers are exposed to wet and windy conditions outdoors, combined with temperatures 50 degrees or lower. Under such conditions body heat is lost and internal temperature drops. Hypothermia symptoms appear and unless these are treated the victim becomes comatose then collapses. Death soon follows.
As with most life-threatening circumstances, prevention is the best safeguard. It is important to remain as dry as possible when being active outdoors and to beware of windy and wet conditions and situations where the temperature drops to a range of 50 down to 30 degrees. Gear that is rainproof and windproof is essential to wear, preferably before weather conditions deteriorate. Once they do, it becomes vital to take shelter in a tent or other structure.
Next, it is vital to begin to restore body heat, which can be done by preparing hot beverages and eating high-energy foods. Take note of classic symptoms, which may indicate the presence of hypothermia such as uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, loss of memory, drowsiness, and exhaustion.
A victim of hypothermia must have all clothing removed and they should put in a warm sleeping bag. Another person should also strip and get into the bag with the victim to provide skin-to-skin contact to help restore lost body heat.
No one ventures outdoors without a measure of risk and there are many valid concerns, such as suffering a fall, lightning strikes, and other potential dangers. Yet hypothermia is by far the greatest hiking risk. With awareness and knowledge, you can be prepared and greatly reduce the chances you will become a victim.
Appalachian Mountain Club. White Mountain Guide, 27th Edition, Appalachian Mountain Club, Copyright 2003., pg. xiii-xiv.
Watson, Tom. How to Think Like a Survivor: A Guide for Wilderness, Creative Publishing International, 2005, pg. 16.