Hypothermia – It Is Shocking!

Hypothermia – It Is Shocking!

I do not have a ton of fears, but falling into a body of freezing water is definitely one I do have.  Hypothermia scares me!  I lived on a 240 acre horse boarding stable when I was a little girl.  There were several ponds on the property, and if the winter was cold enough, all the kids loved to play on the frozen ice.

Bonnie sliding head first into icy water! YES! That was very scary!  

I tried a few times and the second I heard the creepy cracking sound, I was done!  Off to build snow forts I went.

Because I hold a certification in wilderness medicine, 

periodically I receive case scenarios to work through, in order to continue my learning.  I received one of these this past week on hypothermia.  I also watched one of my favorite You Tube channels this past weekend, (Keep Your Day Dream is their website), where there was playing on frozen bodies of water in Colorado.  I also watched a movie this weekend called “The Mountain Between Us”.  While it was an okay movie, some of the things depicted were not accurate.

In one of the scenes, someone falls through the water and immediately goes unconscious.  Unless you are somehow knocked unconscious on the way into the water, you will be very much awake when you fall into freezing water.  In this teaching, we are going to assume that you are NOT rendered unconscious.

In wilderness medicine, the very first thing to consider, for those who want to help a person who is in danger, or injured, is your own safety.  Many many times, in this situation, people lunge forward to help, and also find themselves in the water.  You MUST retreat, and consider the situation.


Once a person falls into freezing water, the next few minutes are critical to survival. If a person is completely submerged and trapped, then obviously that situation will need to be rectified asap for there to be a positive outcome.  If person is NOT completely submerged, or resurfaces, the steps to a positive outcome will basically always be the same.

Here is an excerpt from my case study scenario from NOLS:

Many people believe that if you fall into cold water you become immediately hypothermic. That is not the case, says Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, who combines scientific research with extensive Arctic expedition experience to educate the public about hypothermia and cold weather survival. Dr. Giesbrecht’s message is simple: “1 minute, 10 minutes, 1 hour.”

If you are going to spend time in the outdoors, and specifically in the winter, around water, in grain this knowledge into your brain:  One key to surviving a fall into freezing water, and getting hypothermia, is knowing that you WILL experience a significant shock when you first hit the water.  FIGHT the urge to fight the water!

BONE:  WHEN YOU FIRST FALL INTO THE WATER, DO NOT THRASH AND FIGHT THE WATER!  It will only take approximately one minute for the shock and pain to subside, as your body goes numb.  If you use a huge amount of energy thrashing around in understandable fear, you will be using up precious energy that you need to get yourself out of the water.  During my training for my certification it was mentioned to actually practice this by standing in the shower, and letting someone turn on the cold water.  Practice controlling your breathing and normal reaction to fight the cold.

You will have approximately 10 minutes of time before your muscles will stop working for you.  While doing my research to confirm my thoughts on this subject, I ran across this video.  I believe it does a fantastic job of showing us what to do if we have fallen through the ice.

I completely agree that taking time to take off clothes would be a mistake, however, if you have on a heavy backpack, and you can easily get it off, do so, and just let it go.  You have much more to worry about than the items in your pack.

  • Turn and go out the way you came in
  • Stay horizontal when you get yourself out
  • Roll off of the ice

At this point, if you are close to a building, obviously, go inside and get warm.

If you are in a wilderness setting, steps must be taken to avoid severe hypothermia.  If there are several people in the party, jobs can be delegated.  If you are by yourself, do these things in the order listed:

  • If you have dry clothing, take off the wet ones and put dry ones on
  • Take a minute or two to let someone know what happened and where you are
  • Create a fire
  • Make something hot to drink, and put something sweet in it, like sugar or honey.  (Shivering uses a lot of calories, so feed your body)
  • If you have one, wrap up in an emergency blanket, even if you are still in wet clothes.  (The blanket will trap heat, and your own metabolism will begin warming you, and your wet clothes)
  • If you haven’t eaten recently, try to fix a hot meal

Here is a video on how to create a hypothermia wrap:

If you, or the person exposed to the freezing water, were not in the water very long, and they warm right back up with all the efforts made, it is probably okay to continue the adventure.  Getting some rest first, however, will restore strength.

If person was in water an extended period of time, and/or hypothermia is severe, steps will need to be taken to evacuate this person.

Do you have any thoughts or experiences you can share with us?  Please do so in the comments!  We all learn from each other.

*I am an RN.  I have practiced in an ICU/Emergency Room setting for the majority of my career.  I have also completed my Wilderness Medicine For Medical Professionals, with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).  In an attempt to make wilderness medical situations/emergencies just a little less scary and/or confusing for those who don’t have medical training, I periodically put out “Monday’s Medical Moment” posts. These posts are for basic information only, and are not intended to replace the care and treatment of medical professionals, when available.



Please feel free to Share:

2 thoughts on “Hypothermia – It Is Shocking!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.