When the body of a person who was lost in the woods is found, it’s often said the person died of exposure. What does this mean? Exposure to what? Some may wonder how anyone could die of exposure during fall or spring, when temperatures seem so comfortable.
Fairly easily, it turns out, if the person is not prepared. Hypothermia can occur in temperatures as warm as 60 F, and heat stroke can occur in temperatures as cool as 80 F. All it takes to put one’s life in danger is to get lost in the woods during a cool, breezy night, or to hike too long without water on a warm, humid day.
Exposure also refers to non-fatal cold and heat illnesses as well as weather-related injuries like frostbite and sunburn. To avoid situations such as these, campers and anyone engaged in serious outdoor activity should pack appropriately for the weather and know how to use every resource to maintain the body’s normal temperature.
Before The Campout
Get the weather forecast—The first step is to get the weather forecast for the location and dates you’ll be camping. Be aware of any lows below 60 F, as well as any forecasted wind or rain—both of these increase the rate of heat loss. Be aware of any highs above 80 F, as well as any forecasted sunny days, which feel hotter than cloudy days. For days with especially high heat and humidity, heat advisories will be issued.
Pack appropriately—Avoiding exposure is much easier if the camper has packed everything necessary to deal with dangerous temperatures:
Clothing. Adequate clothing is the most important factor in staying warm during cold weather. A light jacket in the dead of winter wont cut it, but merely packing a heavy winter coat and a cotton shirt won’t allow for versatility. Temperatures and wind vary from day to day and hour to hour. Additionally, hiking or other exertion produces much more body heat than resting—heat that clothing traps. To allow for these temperature variations, it is best to pack multiple layers of clothing. This way, layers can be peeled off or added one at a time to maintain a comfortable body temperature. This principle should be applied not just to the torso, but also the legs, feet, hands and head. Carry a pack to stow away the extra layers.
Clothing comes in numerous natural, synthetic and blended fabrics, and each of these has its own advantages and disadvantages. Cotton is ideal for hot weather but inferior for cold weather—it is cool and comfortable, but won’t insulate when it’s wet. Wool is excellent for cold weather—it insulates wonderfully, even when wet. But it can irritate the skin, so is best worn as an outside layer.
Synthetics have many differing properties. Some are intended to be sturdy, others to be waterproof or good insulators. Some of the most useful synthetics, such as polyester spun fleece, keep water out while still allowing body moisture to escape. Blends of different synthetics and naturals combine the best aspects of each.
For cold weather layering, regular underwear should form the first layer, followed by long underwear, one or more flannel shirts, and pants. Next is a sweater or fleece sweatshirt, followed by an in an outer jacket or coat and additional pant layers if needed.
It is especially important to cover the head and extremities. A disproportionate amount of body heat is lost through the head, and the hands, feet and ears are particularly vulnerable to frostbite. A hood and warm hat will provide plenty of protection for the head and ears. A scarf will warm the neck and keep heat from escaping from the collar, and can be wrapped around the mouth and nose.
Mittens are warmer than gloves, and long cuffs will keep the wrists protected. Hands are less sensitive than other body parts, so wool gloves are an excellent choice. Nylon overmitts will add additional warmth and dryness.
Pack several pairs of socks for each day. Wool socks are best for cold weather, cotton for warm weather. Boots should be warm, comfortable and preferably water-resistant, while letting moisture escape. Overboots will add an extra degree of warmth. It’s important to not lace boots too tightly; toes that can move about will stay warmer longer.
Waterproof rain gear is a must, as wet clothes aren’t of much insulating value.
The warmer the forecasted weather, the less necessary it becomes to pack multiple layers and warm fabrics. But even warm weather has its chilly nights and sudden cold fronts. Campers should always pack one more layer than they think they’ll need.
Shelter. Shelter performs basically the same function as clothing: it keeps the elements out and your body heat in. Unless you’re planning on roughing it with a tarp or other improvised shelter, you’ll need a tent for cold-weather camping, and you’ll probably want one for warm weather, too. Tents keep out wind, rain, snow and sun, while retaining some heat. Most have waterproof floors and rainflies, mosquito netting and breathable fabric. Not all tents are suitable for cold climates, so look for a “four-season” tent for winter camping.
Alternatively, a bivouac bag can be used for a shelter. These slip over sleeping bags and keep out wind and rain while allowing moisture to escape.
Some tents don’t have waterproof floors, so a plastic ground cloth will be necessary to keep out water. The edges should be folded under the tent so that water flows under, not over, the plastic.
Sleeping Bags. It is important to pack the right sleeping bag for a specific campout. For warm weather, a lightly insulated (filled) sleeping bag will prevent someone from getting too hot at night. For cold weather, a heavier sleeping bag is essential. Sleeping bags are usually insulated with either goose down or synthetic fibers. Goose down is very light and warm, but if it gets wet it loses its insulating qualities. Synthetic fibers are heavier, but retain some insulating qualities when wet. They are also more economical and easier to launder. Use the sleeping bags’ temperature ratings (40 degrees F, for example) to determine which bag fits your needs. Also, “mummy” bags that taper toward the feet and include hoods retain heat more efficiently than standard, rectangular bags.
Fire Making. Fire should not be necessary for warmth if you have adequate clothing and shelter. Nevertheless, fire is a good supplement, especially with regards to warming up liquids, boosting morale and for emergencies. Campers should pack a stove, fire-making equipment, or both.
Stoves have the advantage of convenience and reliability. They are usually easy to light, easy to use, and provide a steady flame as long as the fuel doesn’t run out. There are several types of camping and backpacking stoves, and most are acceptable for cold weather use.
Open fires have the advantage of radiating more heat and allowing for more kinds of cooking, but take longer to build in an emergency. First, you’ll need something to create that initial spark. Waterproof matches and lighters work fine, but blow out in wind. Metal matches work better in wind, but require plenty of dry tinder. An excellent tinder is 0000 steel wool. Also pack something that is easy to light and burns long, like a candle stub or rolled newspaper dipped in paraffin wax. This will make it easier to get the fire going.
Saw. A saw is useful for cutting wood for a campfire, or cutting branches or snow blocks for emergency shelter.
Food and Water. Staying hydrated and nourished is essential in both cold and hot weather. Pack more water than you’ll need, in case of an emergency, and pack extra food, too. In cold weather, the body needs more energy to keep itself warm. You should have plenty of food that is high in protein, fat and complex carbohydrates to provide the body a long-lasting source of energy. Sugars and starches provide a fast-burning source of energy, but this energy is quickly consumed. Also make sure you have plenty of containers in which to store and heat water.
Medical. Chemical heat packs can be useful for treating hypothermia or frostbite. Chemical cold packs can be useful for easing the pain of sunburn or treating heat sickness. To avoid sunburn, pack a waterproof sunscreen of at least SPF 15.
Backpack. A good backpack is necessary for storing all the equipment you’ll need for the campout. Additionally, whenever campers hike a good distance from the campsite, they should have a backpack with water, food, extra clothing and emergency gear in case they get lost or injured and are required to survive a cold night or snowstorm. A plastic garbage bag makes a perfect cover to keep the pack and its contents dry. If hiking in the rain, cut two slits in the bag to pass through the pack straps.
Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition where one’s body heat drops below the normal level as a result of exposure to cold temperatures, wind and/or water. These conditions can make the body lose heat faster than it can produce it.
Temperatures that normally would be pleasantly cool become uncomfortably—and dangerously—frigid when combined with strong winds. This is known as wind chill. Wind increases the body’s loss of heat by convection, which basically means the wind sweeps the heat away. The faster the wind, and the colder the temperature, the more pronounced the wind chill.
Rain, through conduction, also increases the rate of heat loss. Make sure to wear good raingear if you must hike or be outside in the rain.
If the camper is prepared, hypothermia can easily be avoided. Wearing plenty of layers is the most important aspect, but remember the acronym COLD to maximize the effectiveness of these layers:
‘C’ is for clean—keep your clothing clean, as dirt decreases insulating value.
‘O’ is for overheating—adjust your layers so you do not sweat excessively. Sweat wicks away heat, ruins the insulating properties of clothing and can even freeze, creating a dangerous situation. This is a concern mainly at night, when a too-warm sleeping bag can cause a sleeper to sweat profusely. Make sure your sleeping bag is appropriate for the weather.
‘L’ is for loose layers—clothing should not be so tight as to restrict blood flow to your extremities. Also, the air between layers has insulating value.
‘D’ is for dry—keep your clothes dry with rain gear, and brush off any snow. Avoid cotton clothing next to the skin, and don’t wear waterproof jackets that trap moisture.
You should also maintain your body’s energy level by eating plenty of food. In the morning, eat a big, hearty breakfast to fuel the first half of the day, and stop to refuel regularly. Drink plenty of fluids, which your body will need to digest food, create energy and pump blood to all the tissues. Also, much water is lost through perspiration, respiration and elimination. Even if you think you’re not thirsty, drink up—in cold weather, adults need 4 quarts of water a day. Drink some hot chocolate to hydrate and warm yourself at the same time. Before going to bed, be sure to urinate so that the body doesn’t have to warm that much more fluid.
A positive attitude is necessary when the harsh cold is draining your energy. One way to keep your spirits high is to sit around a bright, crackling, warm campfire with fellow campers. This should never be a substitute for proper clothing, but offers an emotional boost and some additional heat.
Keep an eye on your camping companions for signs of possible hypothermia. Look for violent shivering, slurred speech, mild confusion, signs of depression, impairment of motor skills, and a sluggish, stumbling walk. If you see these symptoms, the person should be given any extra clothing layers and moved to a warm area. Sugary fluids and foods should be given. If the case is severe, hot water bottles or chemical heat packs can be applied to the neck, armpits and groin. Failure to rewarm the victim can result in death.
Avoiding Frostbite And Other Cold-Weather Injuries
Frostbite is the freezing of body tissue, resulting in tissue damage that may appear as redness, pain, blistering, or in advanced cases, gangrene. It is caused by sustained exposure to freezing temperatures, which are intensified by wind chill.
Whenever air temperatures or wind chills dip below freezing, it is critically important to keep the hands, feet, ears and face extra warm, as these are the areas where frostbite usually occurs. Wear warm mittens with extended cuffs, and slip on water-resistant overmitts if necessary. A warm hat and hood will keep the ears warm, and a scarf wrapped around the face will keep the nose and cheeks warm.
Feet are the most vulnerable to frostbite, so it is of utmost importance to have adequate footwear in freezing temperatures. Start with a pair of nylon or thin wool socks. Next, slip on a couple pairs of heavier wool socks, and then a pair of insulated booties. Place a wool or foam insole in the bottom of a leather boot or mukluk, slip your foot in, and the assemblage is complete. You should be able to wiggle your toes, but your feet should also be snug enough to avoid blisters. Mukluks are generally more comfortable than leather boots. Use plenty of foot powder to fight moisture.
Skin that is red and painfully cold is in danger of entering the beginning stages of frostbite. The affected areas should be blown on, covered with a warm body part or soaked in warm water. When the area has warmed, it should be covered up if re-entering the cold environment. If the area is numb, white and feels rubbery, “frosting” is setting in. This is a mild form of frostbite that freezes only the top layer of skin. Treatment should be the same as above—warm the affected areas as quickly as possible. However, do not rub the area, as this will cause further damage. Failure to warm the area may result in deep frostbite and extensive tissue damage.
Trench foot is another cold-weather injury, caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold. It can result in nerve and muscle damage, and is characterized by feet that are slightly swollen and mottled, numb, and tender to the touch. If these symptoms are present, the feet should be removed from the wet environment, washed, dried and elevated, then warmed with the hands, but not rubbed. Administer ibuprofen to ease pain and reduce swelling. Trench foot can be avoided by keeping the feet dry and using foot powder.
Chilblains is a condition related to trench foot. Skin that is kept cool and moist for an extended period can, upon rewarming, swell and erupt with red, itchy lesions that may fill with pus in severe cases. First aid includes keeping the skin warm and applying a protective ointment.
Frozen lung is severe bronchial irritation that results from rapidly inhaling air faster than the airway can warm it. To prevent this, wear a scarf over the mouth and nose.
Snow blindness is sunburn of the eyes. It is not actually caused by the cold, but by reflection of sunlight off snow or ice into the eyes. Symptoms include itchy, burning, red eyes, sensitivity to light, headache, excessive tearing, halos around light sources, and temporary loss of vision, all of which can be prevented by simply wearing sunglasses.
Avoiding Heat Stroke And Other Heat Ailments
Heat stroke is the overheating of the body to dangerous levels. This could be caused by inadequate hydration and fluid loss through perspiration, or it could be due to an inability of the body to cool itself as fast as it heats up.
The chances of heat stroke increase with increasing heat and humidity. The higher the relative humidity, the hotter any given temperature feels. This is expressed as the heat index, which can be thought of as the hot-weather equivalent of wind chill. Sunlight also increases the feeling of hotness. Generally, a heat wave alert will be called when the heat index is expected to be 105 F or higher. In these conditions, heat stroke can easily occur. The best way to prevent heat stroke is to rest and stay in the shade when conditions are this hot. Be sure to drink large quantities of water, and wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
Symptoms of heat stroke include hot, pale skin, increased heart and respiratory rate, increased temperature, decreased mental and motor capability, and dilated pupils. A person with these symptoms should be cooled down as fast as possible and given fluids to drink.
Heat stroke is often preceded by heat exhaustion, which is characterized by weakness, fatigue, headache, nausea, paleness of skin, rapid heart rate and vomiting. It should be treated the same way as heat stroke—by cooling the victim quickly.
Heat cramps are brought on by exertion and heavy perspiration, which depletes the body’s salt content. It can be treated by stretching the affected muscle and drinking water with salt mixed in. Alternately, extra salt can be used on food.
Almost everyone has experienced the sun’s red, painful retribution for failure to wear sunscreen. However, sunburns aren’t exclusive to hot, sunny days; they can easily occur in the coldest of weather, particularly at high elevations. It’s of main concern during the hottest days mainly because that is when the least clothing is worn.
Sunburn can be prevented either by staying out of the sun, especially when it’s highest in the sky, or by wearing sunblock. If the latter is chosen, a waterproof sunblock of at least SPF 15 should be used. This will provide protection 15 times greater than your skin’s own protection. For example, if you are normally able to stay in the sun for 20 minutes without burning, SPF 15 sunscreen will let you stay in the sun 15 times longer, for a total of five hours. However, even waterproof sunscreen will wear off in two hours, so you must re-apply it regularly.
If sunburning should occur, get out of the sun. Apply cold packs to the sunburn and then later apply an aloe-based lotion.