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Exposure–Weather Related Injuries

Every year as the seasons change and the weather goes from cold to hot, and hot to cold, my mind wanders to thoughts of exposure, and the needless deaths and injuries that come from it.  Many people every year are treated for exposure related sickness and injury, most of which could have been avoided with preventative measures.  One of the most important considerations when venturing into the outdoors is minimizing your risk of exposure.  Understanding how the body thermoregulates itself is key in preventing these injuries before they happen.

The following article deals with the dangers of exposure to the elements and the types of injuries that can occur, and the practical hands-on experience of the author.  It is intended as general reading only and should not be taken as, or substituted for, medical advice from your doctor or other medical professionals.  Please do your own research on these topics and consult health care professionals for specific information related to treatments.

Lets look at the five ways the body gains and loses heat.

  1. Conduction – Transfer of heat through direct contact with an object.
  2. Convection – Transfer of heat through currents of air and liquids.
  3. Radiation – Losing or gaining heat through radiation, as in radiated body heat.
  4. Evaporation- Losing heat through evaporation of liquids, like sweating.
  5. Respiration- Losing heat and water vapor through the act of breathing.


The human body regulates its temperature these 4 ways.

  1. Vasodilation – opening of blood vessels to maximize bloodflow.
  2. Vasocontsriction – constricting of blood vessels to minimize bloodflow.
  3. Shivering- involuntary muscle spasms to generate heat.
  4. Sweating – sheding of water to cool off body.


As I mentioned earlier, when you are out in the bush, the best way to combat hot and cold weather injury is to prevent them from developing from the start.  I can not stress this point enough. How do you do this?  Well here are my suggestions for preventing exposure…

Hot Weather:

Wear proper clothing for your enviroment.  Lightweight breathable materials, light in color, remembering to keep exposed skin covered to minimize risk of sunburn.  Wide brimmed hats are a great thing when that sun is beating down.  Wetting clothing helps alot to cool off the body, particularly around the head and neck.  Like a wetted bandanna around the neck, or one of those new cold neckwraps you soak in water, that stay cool for long periods.  Avoid constricting clothing.

  • Seek shade, and avoid movement and pushing your physical limits too hard during mid day when it is the hottest.
  • Stay hydrated, stay hydrated, stay hydrated. Drink plenty of cool liquids, urine should appear nearly clear.
  • Try and stay above hot ground when you can, and if you cant, dig down below surface where soil is cooler. Be carefull not to overexert yourself.


Cold weather items to have on hand.
Cold Weather:

  • Wear proper clothing for your enviroment. A hat, gloves, scarf, and proper layering will keep you warmest.
  • Generate heat through activity, being careful not to sweat, as it puts yourself at further risk.
  • Get yourself out of the elements.  Seek shelter from wind and rain or snow.
  • Build a fire, utilizing your space blanket or natural surroundings to reflect heat.
  • Stay hydrated with warm fluids preferably.  If you have some sugar, or a carb dense food, eat up!


Now, if you follow these tips, you should not have to worry about any of the complications associated with exposure.  However, if you did not feel the need, or like to live on the edge, this is what your lack of prevention will bring you.


When your body tempature falls below normal, and the body cannot generate heat as fast as its slipping away.  This is known as hypothermia.  Signs and symptoms include; mental status changes, slowing response, uncontrollable shivering, headaches, vision disturbances, abdominal pain, and unconciousness. Yikes!  To treat this condition, you first need to prevent any more exposure.  Get out of the weather, get out of wet clothing and replace with dry if you can.  If not, you will still need to get out of clothing so it can dry.  You then get to make yourself look like a thing of Jiffy Pop popcorn with your neat little space blanket!  Build a fire to aid in rewarming, or snuggle up with someone to gain radiant body heat.   Drink warm liquids. add a pinch of sugar, or eat a carb dense snack.

In the worst cases you will need to rewarm from the core.  Accomplish this by using  heat packs, warm rocks, or hand warmers to the abdomen, armpits, small of back, back of neck, and groin area.  Wrap in space blanket then.  A general rule of thumb is to rewarm slowly if heat was lost slow, and rewarm quickly if heat was lost quick.


Frobite occurs when the skin freezes. Ouch!  Very bad ju-ju as my pops used to say.  Frostbite can occur in all exposed areas, and areas furthest away from the heart.  Hands and feet, nose, ears, face, fingers and toes, seem to be the most popular.  It can freeze deeper, and cause more harm the longer it goes untreated.  It starts off red in appearance, with a pins and needles feeling.  It then takes on a waxy appearance, with increased pain, and hardness.  Then they will swell blister, blacken, die and eventually drop off.  Not a good situation at all. 

Minor cases of frostnip, affecting only the outer layer of skin, need to be rewarmed through radiant body heat, warm water, or heat from the fire.  I warn you its gonna hurt as it thaws.  Moderate cases of frostbite need to be protected from further injury, and gradually rewarmed with warm water.  Not fire heat or hot water.  Severe cases need to be rewarmed very slowly, using only radiant body heat, taking care not to break open blisters.

Snow blindness/Frozen cornea:

Blindness or pain from bright sun reflecting off the snow, or whiteout conditions.  You need to seek shade, and rest with a damp washcloth on forehead.  You can cup your hands over eyes and the radiant heat will help to thaw frozen cornea, and reverse condition.  This is avoidable by using a piece of charcoal from your fire to blackout under eyes like atheletes do.

Hot weather items to have on hand.
Heat cramps:

The precurser to heat exhaustion.  The earliest sign of bad things to come if you dont pay it attention.  This is the cramping of muscles due to lack of salt from sweating and dehydration.  Treat by moving to shade and slowly rehydrating with cool liquids.  Add some salt to the water to replenish your sodium. A pinch will do. The sufferer may experiance naseua and vomiting.

Heat exhaustion:

The next level in hot weather injury.  It is brought on through overexertion in high temps, and high humidity levels.  Cool sweaty skin, pale color, weak pulse, dizzyness, weakness, and altered mental status are the signs and symptoms.  Treat this by moving to shade and again gradual rehydration with cold liquids and pinch of salt.  Loosen clothing, and fan patient.

Heat Stroke:

This is the big, bad mother of overexposure in hot climates.  Skin is hot to the touch, and sweating has stopped.  Rapid strong (bounding) pulse is present.  Severe headache, vomiting and potential unconciousness and death.  You need to move, or be moved to shade.  Lie on your back, keeping head and shoulders elevated on your pack or in someones lap.  Remove outer layers, and wet down under garmets with tepid water(not cool or cold).  Fan the patient, and avoid immersion in water.  You just want to just drip water on the patient. The idea idea is to cool slowly.  After you have brought the temperature down a little, if the patient is conscious, rehydrate with cool drink using small sips.


We’ve all been there. Truth is, a sunburn can be very serious and even fatal if large enough. Wear sunscreen on exposed areas.  Dress with bandages, and do not break blisters.  Take painkillers if available such as Ibuprofen or Tylenol.  Consult your doctor for any prescription medications.

Your best bet when enjoying the outdoors in all seasons is to prevent exposure before it happens.  Stay hydrated, and always aware of what your body is telling you.  If you do this, I guarantee you will make your outdoor excursions safer and more enjoyable!!!

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