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Hypothermia... The Quiet Killer
By Troy Basso*

As anglers and hunters we all tend to be outdoors in some nasty weather. Of all the bad things that could happen to us, hypothermia is the number one killer of outdoor enthusiasts nation wide. This silent killer knows no boundaries, so whether you're elk hunting in the Rockies or steelhead fishing in the northeast you could be it's next victim.

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is the condition that happens when your body's core or inner temperature drops below 96 degrees Fahrenheit. It can happen in ambient air temps as high as 70 degrees but generally happens in the 30 to 50 degree range. Exposure to cold, wet, or windy conditions can accelerate it's onset. It is broken down into two primary levels.

Chronic hypothermia

This happens over a long period of time.

  • Results from exposure to wind and wetness combined with exhaustion.

Acute Hypothermia

This happens when you fall into very cold water. When dealing with cold water, life expectancy is reduced, but YOU CAN SURVIVE.

  • Keep your clothing on, as it will help to trap your body heat.
  • Stay still in water and DO NOT splash around. Moving water takes away body heat more rapidly than staying still.
  • When waterfowl hunting or angling, always wear a sportsman's float coat or a floatation device. They help to insulate the body.
  • Draw legs into chest and wrap arms around in a self-huddle.


  • Skin becomes BLUE/GRAY in color.
  • Violent shivering develops, giving way to muscle spasms and even loss of the use of your arms and legs. Shivering, which is initially violent in the body's effort to correct the problem, diminishes (at 33 degrees core temperature and below). As this process too is overwhelmed, shivering action falters and could cease.
  • Confusion and drunken like behavior also indicates a person may be hypothermic.
  • Once shivering has stopped, so too does the body's effort to ameliorate the situation. Consciousness is impaired, and will be lost altogether (30 degrees core temperature) as cold takes over.
  • The victim's body begins to shut down to conserve warmth around the heart, so much so that pulse and respiration rates can drop to almost imperceptible levels. No further active process remains for self-generation of heat and gradually a passive shutdown of vital systems takes place.


Attempt to stay warm and dry. Dress in layers so you can add or remove clothing as the situation warrants. Put on your cold weather gear before you're miserable and always get into your rain gear before you're soaked. Drink lots of warm liquids. Do not drink alcohol as it gives your brain a false sense of warmth. Most importantly, stop and get warm if you even think you or your partner has hypothermia.


Treating hypothermia means getting heat back into your body, thus raising the core temperature. Get dry and warm as fast as you can. If a fire can be built do so immediately. Stay by the fire until help arrives or you know you can reach shelter unassisted. In the event of a fall into the water fast action is required, as this is the most deadly form of this condition. Immediately get the victim to a fire and start getting them warm. Change them into dry clothing. Have them lie still as physical exertion is not a good idea. If a sleeping bag is available have them get into it, then you get in with them. Time is crucial and you must get their core temperature back up as soon as possible. SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION ASAP!

Enjoying the outdoors should be a fun, memorable experience. In order to keep it fun we all need to be aware of potential hazards and know how to not only prevent but also treat a situation such as hypothermia. The old saying, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" must have been written with outdoor enthusiasts in mind.

*Troy Basso is a freelance writer and instructor for the National Bowhunter Education Program.

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