Game Commission Offers Advice to Prevent Hypothermia

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Game Commission Hunter-Trapper Education Division Chief Keith A. Snyder is reminding hunters, trappers and other outdoors enthusiasts to plan well to avoid hypothermia.

“Anyone heading afield for late fall and winter hunting and trapping seasons should be aware of the threat of hypothermia and how to combat it,” Snyder said.  “Hypothermia occurs when exposure to the wind, cold and wetness drain heat from the body faster than it can be produced.

“Extreme cold is not required for hypothermia to develop, and most cases occur when the air temperature is between 30 and 50 degrees.  The best way to combat hypothermia is to dress properly and avoid getting wet.”

Non-absorbent, wicking long underwear of polypropylene or a similar synthetic base layer, covered by a layer of wool or other insulating material, such as fleece, followed by a breathable waterproof outer shell would be good in most wet-weather situations.  The rain gear can be carried in a small pack, but should be put on before the other clothes become wet because once a person gets wet, he or she risks hypothermia.  A warm hat and gloves also help to prevent heat loss.

“Wet clothing should be exchanged for dry clothing as soon as possible, especially if it is windy,” Snyder said.  “Getting out of the wind and rain promptly can mean the difference between a safe outing and a life-threatening ordeal.”

One of the most important defenses against hypothermia is recognition and treatment of the early symptoms.  Uncontrolled shivering is the first signal of the onset of hypothermia.  It also is one of the few symptoms the victim may recognize.

As hypothermia sets in, slurred speech, frequent stumbling, loss of manual dexterity, memory lapses, exhaustion and drowsiness occur.

Often a victim will not notice these signs, so hunting partners should watch each other when wind, water or cold create the potential for hypothermia.

“It is wise to get out of the wind and cold, remove wet clothing, and warm the body before hypothermia sets in,” Snyder said.  “Once the telltale symptoms are recognized, these steps are absolutely critical: Stop, take shelter, remove wet clothes and warm the body.”

If only mild impairment is evident, warm drinks and dry clothes will probably solve the problem.  High-energy foods can help provide fuel for metabolic heat production.  Powdered sweetened gelatin mixed with warm water makes a high-energy emergency drink.  A warming fire or other heat source can help speed the recovery.  Wrapping in a blanket or crawling into a sleeping bag, if available, also will speed recovery.

In advanced cases of hypothermia, drowsiness may lead to unconsciousness and, ultimately, death, unless action is taken to provide warmth.  In these cases, emergency medical assistance is needed as soon as possible.

The early warning signs of hypothermia occur as the body shuts down circulation to the limbs and nonessential organs in an attempt to maintain its core temperature. As more energy is drained, survival becomes dependent upon stopping the outflow of heat and supplying warmth from external sources.

“Awareness of the signs followed by prompt attention to the problem can save lives,” Snyder said.  “Keep hypothermia in mind whenever you are outdoors and the weather turns wet or cold.”

Snyder added that hunters using certain boats, canoes or kayaks, such as waterfowl hunters, will be required by Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission regulations to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD or life jacket) starting in 2012.  Under the regulatory change that takes effect next year, from Nov. 1 through April 30, anyone underway or at anchor on boats less than 16 feet in length or any canoe or kayak must wear the PFD or life jacket, as cold water shock is a major factor in boating fatalities when water temperatures are less than 70 degrees F.

“Cold water shock causes an involuntary gasp, often resulting in aspiration of water, hyperventilation, breathlessness and a reduced ability to control breathing and to swim,” Snyder said. “A life jacket greatly increases your chance for survival in cold water.  It also increases the amount of time for you to be rescued.”

Hunters have many different styles of approved life jackets available that offer comfort and maneuverability, including several Type III and V life jackets specifically designed for waterfowl hunters.

“Waterfowl hunters in small boats are at a greater risk,” Snyder said. “While hunting, you often reach overboard while setting or retrieving decoys, retrieving downed game, and may have dogs entering and exiting your boat.  Worse yet, you may stand or move quickly in the heat of the hunt.  Any of these activities may result in an unexpected fall overboard.

“However, there are several late season hunters and trappers who may use one of these types of boats, canoes or kayaks, so we wanted to make sure everyone is aware of the recent change in Fish and Boat Commission regulation.”

Should you accidentally fall into the water, Snyder said that you should not panic; try to get control of your breathing and hold onto something or stay as still as possible until your breathing settles down.

“When your breathing is under control, perform the most important functions first before you lose dexterity, which can occur within 10 or 15 minutes after falling into cold water,” Snyder said. “Get out of the water quickly and try to get back into your boat, even if it is full of water or capsized, before you lose full use of your hands, arms and legs. Get as much of your body out of the water as possible as the rate of heat loss will be slower when partially submerged in water.

“If you cannot get out of the water quickly, act to protect against rapid heat loss. Stay as motionless as possible, use the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) position to protect the high heat loss areas of your body, and keep your head and neck out of the water. Safety typically looks closer than it actually is on big water, so staying with the boat is usually a better choice than swimming for shore.

“Using HELP involves crossing your legs and pulling them close to your body and crossing your arms across your chest and grasp your biceps,” Snyder said.  “If there are others in the water with you, huddle together. Either way, be prepared at all times to signal rescuers.”

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