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When the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, the body’s inner core temperature drops below norm. This is called hypothermia, and it can be deadly. In Montana, hypothermia is a danger year round and can occur both on land and in the water. A person who dies after falling into cold water is usually the victim of cold water immersion, a process that includes hypothermia.

Know the causes

The 4 factors that contribute to hypothermia:


As temperatures decrease, the danger of hypothermia increases. Hypothermia most often occurs when temperatures are between 20° and 50°(F). Do not underestimate the danger of these temperatures, especially when combined with other factors.


Staying dry is critical if you are involved in outdoor recreation. Wetness against your skin, whether it is from working up a sweat, getting caught in foul weather, snow melting on you, or a plunge into cold water, increases the likelihood of your body losing a dangerous amount of heat. Clothing can lose up to 90% of it insulating value when it gets wet.


Wind, combined with cool temperatures, has a chilling effect on exposed skin. Even a light wind will carry heat away from the body.


When you’re tired, you may not have enough energy to stay warm. Lack of food and drink also lowers the body’s ability to produce heat. Our bodies use food to produce heat, and we often overlook the importance of drinking water in cold weather. Dehydration is a frequent contributor to the development of hypothermia.

Recognize the Symptoms

Someone suffering from hypothermia may deny being in trouble. Believe the symptoms, not the victim.

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech
  • Dazed behavior
  • Numb hands and feet
  • Weakness or fatique
  • Short attention span

Take action right away

If you suspect hypothermia, prevent further cooling by following these steps:

  • Always seek medical help as soon as possible.
  • Get to a warm shelter out of the wind and rain.
  • Replace wet clothing with dry clothing.
  • Prevent further heat loss.
  • Wrap the victim in multiple sleeping bags or blankets.
  • Warm the victim using a hot water bottle, canteens filled with hot water, warm rocks wrapped in towels, or even the body heat of another person.
  • Offer warm, not hot, liquids to conscious victims only. Never use alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
  • Keep the victim in a horizontal (flat) position.
  • Try to keep the victim awake and talking.

Cold water immersion vs hypothermia

Cold water immersion is a phrase that characterizes the actual circumstances and physiological responses encountered in a sudden exposure to cold water (with temperatures as great as 68° Fahrenheit, and colder.) Hypothermia, on the other hand, is a condition in which an organism’s temperature drops below that required for normal metabolism and bodily functions. Casualties of boating accidents often are victims of the effects of cold water immersion (coupled with a failure to wear life jackets), but rarely succumb to the effects of hypothermia. Knowing the difference, and taking steps to prepare for sudden cold water immersion, might actually save your life and the lives of others.