Friends don't let friends get hypothermia!

Hi Alice!

My friends and I are taking a ski trip this weekend, but the weather is forecasted to be in the negatives! A lot of my friends are students and don’t have the necessary warm clothing and gear for skiing and I’m really worried of someone becoming hypothermic... Did I mention that we are staying in a remote cabin in the woods? Anyways, I was hoping you might be able to tell me the best thing to do for someone who might be hypothermic?


Fearful of Freezing

Dear Fearful of Freezing,

You’re on to something with your concern about the possibility of your friends becoming hypothermic (or frostbitten, for that matter). Cold temperatures can pose serious health risks, especially if you and your friends aren’t sporting the proper clothing or equipment. It’s also great that you’re thinking ahead, because if someone in your group were to experience symptoms of hypothermia, you may be far from medical help. As such, knowing how to help as you wait for emergency assistance to arrive is also wise. And, it’s equally critical to prepare for and practice prevention in the face of this potentially chilling condition as you pack for your weekend getaway.

Ultimately, seeking immediate medical attention is advised if you do suspect that someone is hypothermic. Until medical help arrives though, you can help by following these hypothermia first aid guidelines:

  • Move out of the cold. Bring the person to a warm, dry location if possible, or shield this person from the cold and wind.
  • Get rid of any wet clothes. Cut away clothing (if necessary) to avoid jarring movements.
  • Layer. Cover the person with dry blankets or coats including their head, leaving just the face exposed.
  • Check breathing. If the person’s breathing appears too low or shallow, have a certified individual in the group administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if possible.
  • Cuddle up. Remove your clothing and lie next to the person, then cover both of your bodies with blankets to share body heat.
  • Give a warm drink. If the person can swallow, give a warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverage, which could help warm the body.
  • Use or make a warm compress. To get the core body temperature to increase, apply a first-aid warm compress to the neck, chest wall, or groin. If that’s not readily available, make one yourself with warm water in a container covered with a towel.
  • Avoid direct heat. Using hot water, a heating pad, or a heating lamp on a hypothermic person can damage the skin or cause irregular heartbeats.
  • Don’t massage or rub. Handle the person gently as excessive movements may trigger cardiac arrest.

List adapted from Mayo Clinic.

But friends don’t let friends get hypothermia — so it’s wise to prevent it in the first place! As you mentioned, wearing cold-weather clothing and gear is an effective way to prevent hypothermia. However, it doesn’t have to break the bank for people on a student budget. A hat, mittens (as opposed to gloves; they allow for fingers to remain in close contact), and many, lightweight and loose-fitting layers can be found at a range of prices. Long or thermal underwear is a great base layer of insulating clothing, while a turtleneck or sweater makes a good mid-layer. Though they can be expensive, a ski jacket and a pair of ski pants are surefire layers for keeping warm and dry. Choose ski gear that is totally weatherproof; that means it’s insulated, seam-sealed, waterproof, and windproof. Perhaps your friends could visit a second-hand store to find less expensive options or borrow from a friend or family to keep these cold-weather tools an accessible option.

In addition to these protective layers, you may want to discuss a couple other measures amongst your pals prior to blazing trails to your chilly adventure to keep everyone dry and warm. Since you mention you’ll be headed to a remote cabin in the woods, it’s a good idea to make a plan for how you’ll be able to contact emergency help if needed. Also, keep an eye out for when snow enters mittens or boots since the combination of wet clothing and cold weather may speed up heat loss. In addition, try avoiding alcohol and drug use as this may interfere with judgment. What’s more: although alcohol can make you feel warm inside, it actually causes blood vessels to expand. This can result in more rapid heat loss from the skin and put a person at risk. Lastly, using a buddy system for the trip would ensure that everyone is accounted for and can help each other in the event of an emergency.

Here’s hoping that you and your friends will soon be safely scouting the slopes and staying warm on your upcoming trip!

Last updated Nov 18, 2016
Originally published Feb 22, 2013

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