Winter walking – beware of hypothermia

As we move into the winter months it is timely to think about, and take precautions against the risk of hypothermia.  It is not just a risk in snow country.  Hypothermia can occur anywhere in cold conditions.

What is hypothermia?

The human body works at 37 degrees centigrade.  The outer parts can get much colder but the vital organs in the ‘core’ must stay at this constant temperature.

Hypothermia occurs when the body cannot make up for the amount of heat lost.  The ‘core’ temperature drops to a level where normal brain and muscle function is impaired – usually at or below 35 degrees.  When the body cannot cope it goes into survival mode, shutting down non-essential functions.  Unless checked, this quickly leads to:
Loss of co-ordination
Mental deterioration
Failure of breathing and circulation

What causes hypothermia?

This loss of body heat is caused by:
Wet clothing
Wind, especially combined with wet clothing

Other factors that may contribute are:
Lack of food – not enough, not often enough or the wrong type
Fatigue – lack of fitness or too hard a trip
Injury and/or anxiety
Recent illness – especially ‘flu’

What are the indications of hypothermia?

Numbness in arms and legs
Shivering, clumsiness, irrationality, confusion, may appear drunk, slurred speech.
Muscle stiffness

What to do?

Immediate action is needed to prevent further heat loss and assist re-warming:
Find shelter
Get the patient into a sleeping bag if available
Provide warm sweet drinks
Place patient in recovery position
Handle an unconscious patient with extreme care
Monitor the patient’s level of consciousness and temperature
Start resuscitation if breathing stops.


Give alcohol
Rub the victim
Use rapid reheating

How to prevent hypothermia

* Good clothing – Be prepared with waterproof and windproof clothing.  Cover up with a parka and overtrousers.  Wear a warm hat and mittens.  Wear layers of clothing.  Two light layers are warmer and more versatile than one thick one.
* Food – Have a nourishing meal to provide energy for the day.  Take high-energy snacks such as chocolate, barley sugars and snack bars.
* Plan your trip - Check the weather forecast before you go.  Don’t attempt too much.  Allow time for breaks.  Put on extra clothing during rest breaks.
* Drink liquids – This will help to prevent exhaustion.  Consider a thermos of hot liquid or a brew on a portable stove.
* Moderate loads – Don’t try to carry too heavy a load.


Any combination of wet, wind and cold can be lethal.  Plan your winter trips, be prepared for bad conditions and don’t let hypothermia, however mild, spoil your enjoyment of walking in winter.