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Hypothermia Information for Paddlers

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

DISCLAIMER: The following information is not intended, nor should it be assumed to be, a substitute for formal training in First Aid treatment and procedures. This information is presented to raise awareness of some medical conditions which can arise on canoeing, camping or hiking trips so that participants may better prepare themselves for all eventualities. The information presented is not intended to replace advice or instructions given by trained professional medical personnel. Information herein is gleened from various professional medical resources including the US Navy On-line Hospital web site, the American Red Cross web site and other reliable resources. It must be realized that improper or inadequate treatment of injuries can result in damages that sometimes are greater than doing nothing at all. Whenever possible and practical the assistance of trained, professional medical personnel should be summoned to administer treatment for serious injuries. The nature of outdoor recreation is such that injuries sometimes occur in remote areas far from available professional assistance. The information in this section is intended to be a helpful guide for treatment of injuries in such cases when getting professional help is not immediate and the nature of the injuries requires prompt attention. Marc McCord is not a trained medical practitioner, and makes no claim of expertise in treatment of injuries. Marc McCord and Southwest Paddler are not responsible for improper treatment of injuries and resulting damages that may occur.

Paddling is a sport that includes certain risks and dangers by virtue of its very nature. At or very near the top of the list is hypothermia caused by exposure to cold water, cold air or both. There are a few basic things paddlers can do to reduce or prevent the risks they face from exposure. Some of these would include dressing in non-cotton fabrics that wick water away from the body (wool, polypropylene, etc.), eating foods rich in carbohydrates, proteins and fats and drinking warm, non-alcoholic beverages, taking occasional paddling breaks to walk around and get the blood flowing to the extremities (arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet and toes) and changing into dry clothes if the ones being worn become moist or wet from being in the river or from perspiration. It should be noted that food and beverages should ONLY be give to a victim who is conscious, and who can voluntarily chew, swallow and cough to prevent choaking. Do NOT attempt to put any food or drink into an unconscious or barely conscious person at any time for any reason!

It is important to keep the skin dry to prevent radiant heat loss. It is especially important to keep the head covered with a hat, cap, skull cap or other headwear to reduce heat loss - more heat escapes through the head than anywhere else. It is very important for paddlers to be able to recognize and treat the early onset of hypothermia in others, because a common side-effect of the problem is the lack of rational judgement by the victim. Treating a hypothermic victim improperly can be just as bad as no treatment at all, and either can lead to death.

Hypothermia can occur on a very warm day. It is NOT just a cold weather phenomenon! It can occur anytime the sum of the outside air temperature (OAT) and the water temperature is less than 100° F. In other words, if the OAT is 80° F and the water temperature is 19° F, then there is a chance of hypothermia, the onset of which will vary from person to person depending upon body mass, caloric intake, dress, heart rate, time of exposure and other factors. Wind chill, for instance, will not freeze water, but it can freeze a human or animal by lowering the body's core temperature just a few degrees.

The charts below will help you understand the apparent temperature (the temperature you will feel) based upon wind speed and real temperature. In the top chart the numbers across the top indicate real temperature. The numbers down the left side indicate wind speed in miles per hour. The numbers in the grids indicate wind chill factors (how cold it will FEEL) based upon the other two values. The next chart shows the amount time exposure at specified temperatures will take to cause the designated effects (onset of exhaustion/unconsciousness and death) and the symptoms that will be notes as the body core temperature drops.

Wind Chill Factor Chart

Wind chill factor chart

Water Temperature Exposure Chart

The chart below shows the time to exhaustion/loss of consciousness and survival time for specified water temperatures.

Water Temp ( ° F )

< 32.5
32.5 - 40.0
40.0 - 50.0
50.0 - 60.0
60.0 - 70.0
70.0 - 80.0
> 80.0
Exhaustion /

< 15 min.
15 - 30 min.
30 - 60 min.
1 - 2 hrs.
2 - 7 hrs.
3 - 12 hrs.
Survival Time

15 - 45 min.
30 - 90 min.
1 - 3 hrs.
1 - 6 hrs.
2 - 40 hrs.
3 hrs. - Indefinite

Effects of Body Temperature Drop Chart

The chart below shows the effects that happen as the body's core temperature drops.

Body Temp Drop

3° F
7° F
12° F
16° F
20° F

Loss of dexterity, intense shivering
Uncontrolled, violent shivering, slurred speech, mental lapses, possible amnesia
Rigid muscles, erratic/spasmotic, low comprehension, exposed skin blue and puffy
Breathing/pulse erratic and slow, irrational behavior, stupor

Sunburn Insect Bites & Stings Poisonous Plants
Heat-Related Illnesses Hypothermia Cuts and Abrasions
Bone Breaks Bleeding Snakebites
Treating Shock Heart Attack Animal Bites
American Red Cross American Heart Association American Lung Association
US Navy On-line Hospital Wilderness Medical Associates Wilderness Survival School

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© November 9, 2002. All rights reserved.
Last updated September 29, 2014

Copyright © 1998-2014, Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. All rights reserved. Southwest Paddler, CobraGraphics and Canoeman River Guide Services are trademarks of Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. The textual, graphic, audio, and audio/visual material in this site is protected by United States copyright law and international treaties. You may not copy, distribute, or use these materials except for your personal, non-commercial use. Any trademarks are the property of their respective owners. All original photographs on this web site are the exclusive property of Marc W. McCord or other designated photographers and may not be copied, duplicated, reproduced, distributed or used in any manner without prior written permission under penalty of US and International laws and treaties.