The Outside Blog

Adventure : Oct 2012

The Science of Survival: Hypothermia

Hypothermia has a twisted history. For one, the literature comes with baggage: unthinkably inhumane tests on prisoners during the Holocaust ground a fair bit of what doctors and scientists know. Additionally, the fear of freezing to death is so linked to mountaineering and Arctic exploration that people often don’t take the risks seriously.

So how big a risk is hypothermia for an outdoor athlete? Not a major one, provided that you don't run certain risk factors. According to Dr. Thomas Cappaert, an expert in cold weather safety at Central Michigan University, only one to three incidents of hypothermia result from every 1,000 exposures to cold weather. If you're exercising on land with a fair bit of clothing on, you're probably OK: you'll feel cold and turn back before you get into serious trouble.

Unless you don't. Outdoor athletes have a tendency to ignore their perception of cold, says Cappaert. “If you want to go hiking, you accept that it’s cold and ignore the psychic impulse,” he says. “When you do that repeatedly, the impulse becomes weaker. And you ignore the symptoms until you cannot react.”

WHAT HAPPENS: Your body is cooling faster than it can produce heat. Soon you’re dropping below the temperature from which the body can recover. Shivering and your other defenses cannot handle the change. As the body continues to cool, organs shut down.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS: Watch out for the umbles: “You start to stumble, mumble, bumble, and grumble,” says Cappaert.

PREVENTION: Be prepared for the weather to change, carry extra layers and food, and listen to your body.

TREATMENT: "Keep moving and seek out some sort of shelter,” Cappaert says. If you’re with a buddy, try to share body heat by huddling together. And if you have food, eat it: metabolizing fuel generates heat and “fills your carbohydrate stores so you have the energy to keep shivering.” Once inside, use passive rewarming and focus on the trunk if you have a hot bottle. If you have frostbite, wait to get out of the cold before slowly warming the tissue under hot water: refreezing thawed-out fingers and toes can cause extra damage.

THE MYTH: Booze can help warm up a hypothermic person.

THE REALITY: Alcohol causes blood vessels to dilate, increasing heat loss.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Hypothermia isn't a joke. Dress warm and listen to your body.

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The Science of Survival

Unlikely bear and beaver attacks may get most of the attention, but it's the utterly predictable threats that pose the greatest risk. Spend enough time playing outside, and there's a solid chance that you or your buddy might suffer from heat stroke or hypothermia. We break down four of the outdoors' most likely and dangerous threats, how to prevent them, and what to do when they strike.

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Weekend Reading: The Geeks Take It Outside

Obstacle courses. They’re all the rage these days. They’re even the subject of our November cover story, and to be honest, I didn’t quite see the appeal at first. As a kid, I fantasized about dominating the sets of American Gladiators, Guts, and Legends of the Hidden Temple (I mean, really, it didn't look that hard to put a three-piece monkey puzzle together), but, like a reasonably well-developed adult, I grew up and forgot about it. Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash seemed to me, at first, to be the manifestation of that latent childhood desire to get covered in mud and play on rope swings.

“Are we so dead inside,” I thought to myself, “that we need to shell out hundreds of dollars to be electrocuted and dunked in vats of neon ice to escape the crushing, angular grey confines of our cubicles?” For all the chest thumping organizers and participants do in the promo videos, you’re not walking onto a minefield or into a bear cave. It’s a controlled environment you can leave whenever you choose. It’s a physical challenge, yes, but any semblance of danger is an illusion. If you are hurt, someone will help you. If it's too much you can just walk away.

But if real risk and consequence were a prerequisite of all worthwhile activities, we’d have to give up football, baseball, and arguing about movies, music, and TV on the Internet. Pretty much everything someone might broadly describe as “fun things people do to escape from real life.” I’d probably have to delete my level 68 druid in Diablo II (over my dead body). In reality, obstacle racing is basically live-action-role-playing for outdoor enthusiasts, giddily rejoicing and geeking out over the shared illusion of peril and adversity, pretending to be warriors, dressing up in outlandish costumes and running around screaming at nothing in particular. Course designers are like dungeon masters, crafting a maze of fire and treacherous spike pits. Better yet it's like a video game with each developer trying to sell you the best one in town. Then you finish the race not because there's any real point, but because you've willed yourself into believing that it's something that matters. Sounds pretty geeky to me. All that's missing is the mail-order chainmail

Anyway, here's your Weekend Reading! Enjoy.

Bedouin tribes in Egypt are kidnaping tourists, but their former captives are saying they loved every minute of it. Sarah A. Topol, The Atlantic.

As Zaki later recalled, Esperanza demanded that one of her kidnappers stop smoking: 'I told her, 'Are you joking? You are kidnapped!'' But the Bedouin kidnapper cooperated, throwing his cigarette out the car window. At one point, Esperanza recounted, the kidnappers stopped to prepare coffee for the women, but upon learning that Esperanza does not drink coffee, they made her tea.”

Fantasy Football is changing the way we think about, and relate to, athletes who put themselves at risk for our entertainment. Chuck Klosterman, Grantland.

“I am increasingly uncomfortable with the way fantasy football changes our perception of people who are actually alive. This wasn't a problem when I started in '90, because—at the time—only obsessives even knew what is was. The people who cared about this activity were weirdos to begin with. But now 30 million people play every week, and there's a whole media industry constructed around it, and there are FX sitcoms that use it as a narrative device, and it seems to be the primary way casual fans interact with the sport on a week-to-week basis. There is a massive, ever-expanding class of Americans who cannot remember a connection to pro football that did not involve the drafting and owning of skill players who work on their personal behalf. And the result, I fear, has been the mild dehumanization of humans we were already prone to perceive as machines.”

New England archaeologists are attempting to uncover the mysteries behind the region’s once fervent belief in vampires. Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian.

The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. In many cases, only family and neighbors participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.) Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830.”

Leaves, yes leaves, just might be the most underappreciated of all the evolutionary achievements on the planet Earth. Rob Dunn, National Geographic.

“Chloroplasts, fed by sun, water, carbon dioxide, and nutrients, do the leaf’s work. They evolved about 1.6 billion years ago when one cell, incapable of using the sun’s energy, engulfed another cell—a cyanobacterium—that could. That cyanobacterium became the ancestor of every living chloroplast. Without their chloroplasts plants would be left like the rest of us, to eat what they find. Instead they hold out their green palms and catch light. If there is magic in the world, surely this is it: the descendants of tiny creatures in leaves, capable of ingesting the sun.”

The Michelin Guide began as a harmless guide for tourists, but ended up changing the way we travel, eat, and explore new places. A.A. Gill, Vanity Fair.

“The Michelin guide also created a new type of customer, the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit. Michelin-starred restaurants began to look and taste the same: the service would be cloying and oleaginous, the menus vast and clotted with verbiage. The room would be hushed, the atmosphere religious. The food would be complicated beyond appetite. And it would all be ridiculously expensive. So, Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.”

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K2 National Snowboard Binding: Single-Ratchet Ease, Dual-Ratchet Security

K2 Snowboarding National binding

Unlike traditional snowboard bindings that use two ratchet straps to secure your boot to your binding, K2's National uses Auto, a new device that tightens both front and rear straps with a single ratchet.


Auto saves weight and ups the speed and ease of strapping in. It's simple in theory, but the mechanics are unique and fairly complex. An overbuilt ratchet on the upper strap is cabled to the front, underneath the binding. Tighten the top strap, and the Auto simultaneously tightens the toe. It’s slick and hassle-free, which means speedy strap-in on-the-fly with fewer moving parts, whether you're putting your board on or taking it off.

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Patrick Dempsey on Cycling and Cancer

Dempsey ChallengeRememberances at the Dempsey Challenge. Courtesy of Rousseau Photography.

With all the controversy swirling around Lance Armstrong, it's tempting to turn your back on it all, including LiveStrong. I'm as disgusted with the drama as anyone—the lying, the cover-ups, the coverage. But a recent conversation with actor Patrick Dempsey, of Grey's Anatomy fame, reminded me that cycling has real power beyond all the scandals. Dempsey, who founded a cancer center in Maine after his mother contracted the disease, is prepping for the foundation's annual charity ride, scheduled for the second weekend in October. He says that in four years of participating in the Dempsey Challenge he's witnessed cycling's ability to empower patients, to galvanize communities for good, and to raise money that can affect change.

Dempsey spoke with us about his center's upcoming fundraiser and the importance of not giving up on charity events. Don't miss a big list of rides and walks after the interview.

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