The Degrees of Hypothermia

degrees of hypothermia

0600 | Wednesday, June 8th, 2022


They call hypothermia the sneakiest danger you’ll face in nature – in every season.

Thought it’s not the most common thing that comes to mind however, every year many boaters suddenly fall victim to hypothermia when they least expect – and you don’t need to jump into artic waters to have that happen – all it takes is 3°.

I was talking with a guy the other day who took his family out boating in their new 21’ bowrider (no top nor enclosure), had only planned on being out for a couple of hours so didn’t pack anything warm, broke down, and was now drifting in the middle of the long island sound at night, when  – cold, disoriented, scared, and severely unprepared. Oh yeah, and he also didn’t have a VHF radio, plus forgot his cell phone charger in his truck and thus had no phone.

Although statistically, unprepared day-hikers are the most commonly claimed victims of hypothermia, you don’t necessarily need to fall into icy waters to find yourself with the onsets of hypothermia while boating – you don’t need to fall in the water in other words, maybe the water falls on you.

In the above instance, the entire family fell victim to the beginning stages of hypothermia with the right cocktail of ingredients: outside ambient temperature that suddenly dropped once the sun went down, winds that kicked up, water spraying from the winds, started raining heavily, wearing improper clothing, and a family of 4 (parents and two kids) who weren’t properly hydrated – they stayed adrift for over 12 hours until a passerby saw a life jack the dad was swinging over his head in a last-ditch effort to signal for help – because the flare gun he had didn’t work.

So, what does it take to have your body go into hypothermia?

The stages of hypothermia by body temperature:

95 degrees: Called “mild hypothermia”, where most folks start to become affected and show signs through what’s commonly referred to as the “umbles”: mumbling, fumbling, and stumbling. Shivering is the obvious hallmark of the onset of hypothermia, which is your body’s natural response to try and warm up through the rapid contraction of muscles

94 – 90 degrees: Amnesia begins to set in and show itself, coupled with apathy and disregard for how cold you really are

90 degrees: Stupor

88 degrees: Blood begins to coagulate therefore losing the ability to warm the body and thus, decreasing oxygen consumption

87 degrees: The ability to recognize familiarity is lost

86 degrees: Arrhythmia often occurs, along with hallucinations due to the heart pumping less then 2/3rds the normal blood supply which is needed to survive

85 degrees: Considered to be the most severe stage that will occur just before death, during this stage the body stops focusing it’s energy to try and keep itself warm, and instead is sent to the end of the skin’s capillaries, in a final effort to completely close off the body from the external cold. Hot flashes are experienced and most always, the victim sheds every last bit of clothing in a last-ditch effort to cool themselves – without immediate intervention, death is eminent.

Abraham Lincoln very appropriately said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” What he was very basically trying to convey was the importance of proper preparation vs. the desired outcome of success.

Very simply put, it pays to be overprepared when going boating… or doing anything for that matter.

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