Camping season is still so far away, but that doesn’t mean camping enthusiasts can wait. While camping in the Canadian cold isn’t common – you’ll have a hard time finding open campgrounds – it isn’t completely unheard of.
If you are spending time either camping or enjoying the outdoors for long periods this winter, it is important to stay safe. When temperatures drop, there are specific dangers that you need to be aware of.
How to recognize hypothermia
A cold-related emergency happens when a person experiences a significant decrease in body temperature that puts them at risk. Hypothermia is such an emergency and when it isn’t resolved, it can be life-threatening. There are three “levels” of hypothermia – here’s how to recognize each, and what to do.
Someone suffering from mild hypothermia will be shivering. They may experience numbness in their extremities, like their fingers and toes. Their temperature at this point is most likely only slightly below normal. If they are in wet clothes, they need to remove those and put on dry clothes as soon as possible. Keeping their trunk, head and extremities warm will be very important. It will help to use body heat to warm up hands – putting them inside their coat can be a big help. If it’s possible to have a fire, this is a good time to do that. Hot drinks will also increase body temperature.
At this point, they will continue to shiver and complain of numbness and feeling cold, but they might also experience confusion, impaired judgement, lack of coordination, and problems with speech like slurring. Their pulse will begin to slow. This is a very dangerous time. A person experiencing these symptoms should not be left alone, as their impaired judgement can cause them to behave in ways that makes their situation worse. They may feel very tired. This is where you hear stories of people falling asleep in snow banks – it genuinely feels like a good idea to them in their impaired state.
This person will require your help, but you have to be gentle with them. They must be brought somewhere warm as soon as possible and covered with blankets. They need warm beverages and warm, dry compresses, especially applied to the back of the neck, under armpits, and in the groin area (be careful that these compresses are not too hot). Any wet clothes should be removed as soon as possible. You will need to monitor their breathing and pulse until you can get them to medical care, where they may need intravenous rewarming. If you can’t get medical attention, body heat is a great way to slowly warm them. It is important to keep them insulated from the cold as much as you can.
At this point, the person has stopped shivering and complaining of the cold. Their confused behaviour is more pronounced and they may have a glassy, empty stare. Breathing will slow and they may be rendered unconscious. This is obviously an immediate emergency. Their body temperature is below 30°C and they need immediate medical attention. Keep them as warm and dry as you can while awaiting emergency care.
How to recognize frostbite
When the body tissue begins to freeze – usually on extremities that protrude from the body, like the fingers, toes, ears and nose – frostbite can set in. At first, it might just be red, but when it becomes more severe, skin can look blue and splotchy, or it may look paler than surrounding skin, or even white and waxy. Do not rub areas affected by frostbite. Get out of the cold as soon as possible and use dry, warm compresses until you can seek medical attention. Be careful with the damaged skin – it can often recover from frostbite, but in severe cases, it can lead to tissue loss. Take frostbite seriously.
Canada is beautiful in the winter, but it can also be dangerous. Take steps to ensure you are never stranded in the cold, and are always properly outfitted in winter clothing, with access to shelter. Bring emergency warming supplies with you if you are going to be isolated in any way.