True North Blog

The Most Dangerous (but Ignored) Wilderness Threat

If I were to ask you what kills more people in the backcountry than anything else, what would you guess?

Based on talks that I have had with students in our various survival and medicine courses over the years, your answer might likely be some wild creature.  Topping the list of the usual suspects are bears, cougars, and snakes.  I certainly cannot blame them because deaths due to such attacks are featured most prominently in the news media, not to mention that they make a good plot thread in a screenplay.  After all, few movie trailers could be more dramatic and exciting than Leonardo DiCaprio fighting off a grizzly (even if it was computer-generated).

But the simple (even if boring) fact of the matter is that what kills more people in the outdoors, either directly or as a significant contributing factor, isn’t wildlife (which is exceedingly rare), but rather an easily understood and preventable medical condition.  Hypothermia.

I could give you the standard definition of hypothermia that healthcare professionals, like Emergency Department and EMS personnel, routinely use to define it, involving lots of core body temperature readings, often listed in degrees Celsius (which makes it impossible for me to remember), but it would have no practical value to you.  In fact, outside of a hospital or ambulance, I strongly suspect that it even has little practical value to healthcare providers as well.

Instead, I prefer the more practical “wilderness” definition of hypothermia.  That is, hypothermia occurs when your body’s ability to generate and conserve heat is overcome to the point where your muscle function and mental status become impaired.  In short, the colder you become, the more difficult it is for you to move and think.

How does this happen?  Ironically, hypothermia begins to set in because your brain is actually trying to protect you from the cold.  As soon as it senses your core temperature beginning to fall, it takes initial defensive measures to guard what it believes to be the most important body parts (that is, your organs, like heart, lungs, and liver) by constricting your blood vessels in what it believes to be the least important body parts (that is, your extremities, like legs, arms, nose, and ear lobes) so as to keep as much of your nice, warm blood in your central, organ-filled core.  For example, this why your fingers begin to “burn” and hurt even when you are just superficially cold.  As its next line of defense, the brain makes your muscles shiver — sort of like when you run in place, only much more efficient and effective.

There are three stages of hypothermia.  In its most mild form, you begin to shiver (but you can stop it when you want, even if just for a few seconds) and you are likely not too talkative, perhaps even grumpy and miserable with the other members of your group, because you are physically miserable being cold and wet and cannot stop thinking how wonderful it would be to be warm and dry.  At the moderate stage, you shiver uncontrollably (no matter how hard you try to stop it) and you are likely making, what would appear to others to be irrational, even stupid, decisions.  At the advanced stage, you are likely unconscious, even appear dead.

The biggest threat to you, however, isn’t so much the cold as  it is your impaired judgment when you become cold.  Basically, as your core body temperature drops, so too do your survival instincts.  It may sound far fetched, but there are numerous examples of hypothermia-related injuries and deaths that could have easily been prevented if the person simply stopped what he was doing to set up and crawl into the tent and sleeping-bag that he was carrying in his pack.

In short, the cold doesn’t hurt or kill you, rather you let yourself get hurt or killed because you’re cold.  In fact, it’s my guess that, no matter the specific type of injury or cause of death, our impaired judgement due to the cold is the major contributing factor, even if just silent and invisible.  This is what makes hypothermia so insidious … In fact, arguably the most insidious threat to you in the outdoors, no matter your skill level.

For example, one hiker’s official cause of death was due to traumatic injuries sustained in a fall from a rock face.  But why did she fall in the first place?  It appears that she was attempting a “short cut” in her hurry towards the end of a long day of hiking to get warmed up in her car parked just a relatively short distance away at the trailhead.  What must have looked like a good decision to her at the time, would have likely seemed just as stupid to her, as it did later to emergency responders, if the weather that day during her hike had been 85 degrees and sunny, instead of 40 degrees and rainy.

You think that I’m exaggerating about people’s bad decisions?  Then click on the link to the right that features a news account of a search-and-rescue just last weekend of a man’s odd attempt to get warm.  Still, don’t think that his story is unique as I could have also posted two additional news accounts of similar events during the same timeframe.  Events like these occur regularly, and at all times of the year, it’s just that we don’t often hear about them.

Ultimately, we can prevent and treat hypothermia, or, for that matter, any other environmentally related illness, by simply doing what we as a species have learned and passed down to succeeding generations for more than 75,000 years — we plan ahead, we anticipate conditions, and we manipulate our environment.  It’s just that, sadly, we have largely severed this chain in the last 75 years by isolating ourselves and our children from our natural world and forgetting even the most basic skills to protect us and them, and others.


Would you like to learn how to treat hypothermia?  Then consider taking our Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course.

Better yet, would you like to learn how to prevent hypothermia?  Then consider registering for one of our upcoming Basic Wilderness Survival courses.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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