Cause | Prevention | Identification | Treatment

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Hypothermia

Cause

Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature falls, and can occur in relatively mild conditions. Hypothermia is a major cause of incapacity and death in the Tasmanian bush, probably only exceeded by falling over and/or off things. It is contributed to by four main factors within a person's, or group's, control:

  1. physical condition;
  2. inadequate food and drink intake;
  3. not enough clothing; and,
  4. exposure to the weather.

Prevention

It is best prevented, as once a person is hypothermic, it is very difficult to deal with in the bush. Take these steps to avoid:

  1. Ensure that walkers, including yourself, are capable of the walk.
  2. Ensure all walkers are fit and well.
  3. Watch all walkers throughout the day.
  4. Eat enough high-energy food before and during walks (the bush is no place for "diets", eh Peter?)
  5. Drink enough water. Dehydration accentuates the effects of hypothermia.
  6. Make sure your clothing is of sufficient quality. Carry and wear enough clothing for the conditions. See our minimum equipment lists and gear pages.
  7. Put warmer clothing on before you actually feel cold. Jumper, coat, hat, gloves - after the head, the hands are the greatest source of heat loss!
  8. Stay dry.
  9. Make sensible decisions when walking to minimise exposure to the weather.
  10. Carry something to provide shelter.
  11. Seek shelter when the weather deteriorates.

Identification

You also need to identify potential or mild hypothermia before it becomes more serious. The standard list of potential symptoms is:

  • Fatigue
  • Shivering
  • Apathy
  • Impaired judgement
  • Abnormal behaviour
  • Slow progress
  • Infrequent and thick speech
  • Visual abnormalities
  • Loss of coordination
  • Muscle weakness and cramps

The leader must look out for these, and deal with them. Eventually, a casualty will collapse and become unconscious. From this point, death will occur without skilled intervention.

Treatment

If someone does become hypothermic, it is vital that the treatment be applied rapidly and correctly. You should read more about this elsewhere, and this website will not provide details of how to deal with a collapsed hypothermia patient. However, it is possible that the early symptoms may be displayed by someone with whom you are walking. The following actions should be taken:

  1. Stop the group, find or erect shelter. This being the first action, it becomes obvious how important it is to avoid the problem in the first place. Hypothermia cannot be dealt with by hurrying to the end of the walk.
  2. Prevent further heat loss. Unless windproof shelter can be found, this should be done by the addition of warm and windproof clothes. If shelter is available, wet clothing could be replaced, but this is a risky undertaking.
  3. If you can get in a tent, get everyone inside.
  4. Provide warm drinks. Absolutely no alcohol or caffeine drinks. These make it worse.
  5. Give the person some food - chocolate, jelly beans are good.
  6. Warm the person by body-to-body contact (underwear), inside one or more sleeping bags.

It is recommended that you become aware of proper treatment of unconscious hypothermia victims if you think there is any likelihood that you may one day be responsible for one. As is obvious, dealing with even a mild case of hypothermia can require a lot of equipment and knowledge. That's why some Tasmanian walkers actually carry a tent fly and sleeping bag on many day walks.

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