Know Before You Go: Dehydration and Hypothermia

Read Super Volunteer Regina Robinson's first-hand account of experiencing symptoms of hypothermia and dehydration on a snowshoe trip near Steven’s Pass, and learn how this medical emergency has informed how she now prepares for activities.
Regina Robinson Regina Robinson
Olympia Branch Communications Volunteer
January 28, 2022
Know Before You Go: Dehydration and Hypothermia

No one sets out on their outdoor adventure thinking that they will experience a medical emergency or an unplanned night out. Everyone thinks that it won’t happen to them. I’m here to share my story that it can happen, and it is our duty to be as prepared as we can be.

The Outing

I was on a winter snowshoeing adventure at Steven’s Pass, where we planned to snowshoe to Susan Jane Lake, and then on to Josephine Lake located on the PCT. The day was gray, cloudy, and beginning to rain icy sleet. I was dressed appropriately, had my spare gear, and was prepared for the adventure. What I was not prepared for was how I was feeling: thirsty, tired, and already cold.

I had eaten a nutritious breakfast (I am like a hobbit with my 2nd and 3rd, and sometimes 4th breakfasts to keep my energy levels up), but I had not been drinking enough water. Dressed in layers, I reminded myself that “starting off cold” is how we are to begin our adventure, to reduce sweating and perspiration. As we set out from the car on groomed trails, I adjusted my clothing and began to take deep gulps of water from my hydration pack.

We were three miles into our snowshoe, and I physically and mentally could not keep up. The sleeting rain drenched my raincoat on the outside. And on the inside my rain jacket was dripping wet, because I was working too hard to maintain a pace that was unrealistic for me. The others in my group were charging ahead, and I wanted to keep up. I was sweating so much that my clothing and jacket were drenched.

When we finally stopped for a break, I couldn't pull off my wet layers fast enough. I even replaced my shirt and puffy with my ‘dry extra gear,’ along with my rain jacket, hoping to warm up. The group was chastising me for “holding the group up,” “needing to stop,” their perspective being “if we haven’t reached our destination then the day wasn’t a success.”

We continued on towards the lake. Not recognizing the first signs of hypothermia, I made the mistake of thinking that I needed to continue this adventure instead of turning around and heading back to the car. I was too late on warming myself back up. I found that even after changing into my dry clothing and increasing my activity, I was still cold, starting to fumble, and becoming uncoordinated. I was wet, tired, and beginning to shiver as my core body temperature dropped rapidly. My lips had a slight blue tinge.

I stopped the group and made it clear I was returning to the car because I was feeling unsafe, and was too cold and wet to continue. I had no other gear with me, as I had already changed into my emergency gear. My only other dry clothing was in the car. When I mentioned returning to the car, several in the group complained, saying we were “almost there,” that “we can keep going,” and “what you're feeling is all in your head.” These are dangerous ideas, and I knew I was not alright. I knew what I was experiencing was not normal. I had never experienced anything like this before. I really wanted to head back to the car.

At this point one of the members suggested we take a different way back to the car instead of following the tracks we had just made.  I explained that I wanted the quickest way back to the car, and traveling in another direction would only lead to more trail breaking and wasted time. Again, several group members chided me for "being no fun,” and harassed me to continue as “we chose to snowshoe so that we can go off-trail.”

Turning around

I swiftly turned around, informing the group that I was headed back to the car with or without their approval. I headed to the car with another group member who recognized that I was in trouble. It is important to speak up, because getting back safely after an activity is the goal for all of us. A fellow Mountaineer, Katja Hurt, calls this “breaking the halo.” Born out of a tragedy, "breaking the halo" is a tool to empower us step up and give voice to what “doesn’t feel right.”

I knew I did not feel right. Although I never like to split up a group, I needed to get out of the elements, and to get into the dry clothing and shoes I had stashed in the car. When an individual, even yourself, is stumbling, fumbling, mumbling, and grumbling, it is time speak up. Get out of the elements. Remove all wet clothing items. Get into warm and dry clothing. Replenish fluids. Be sure to avoid caffeine or alcohol as both of these speed up heat loss. Place hand/foot warmers on the neck, chest, arm pits, and in the groin region to slowly re-warm. Check for signs of shock.

As some of the group members headed off across a barren snowscape, my friend and I hustled towards the car. We made it back as quickly as we could – even quicker than I anticipated. The friend who accompanied me rapidly turned on the car to get the heater going full blast, and then they helped me to get changed into warmer clothing because I couldn’t get my fingers and hands to work properly. Once in dry clothing, they covered me with warm blankets.

Twenty minutes went by – sitting in the car, sipping on hot chai, applying hand warmers to my pulse points – and I still could not get warm enough. Needless to say, I was more than a little worried. At the half hour mark, the other party members had still not arrived back at the car.  We discussed going back out to look for them. At the 40-minute mark, my intrepid friend stated that they would go out to look for the others. I refused to go back into the sleeting snowy rain. I was still not warm enough, and I had no additional clothing to “get dry in,” so I remained ensconced in the vehicle.

The aftermath

Thankfully, we all made it back home safely. However, it took me over two weeks to recover from the effects of dehydration and hypothermia. I made an appointment with my doctor. She and I had a long conversation about underlying health conditions, regarding my thyroid and medications, and how they impact hydration. For me, finding the right balance of replacing fluids, minimizing alcohol and caffeine, and hydrating days before a hike works best. I’ve also increased my daily water intake from 9 cups to 12 cups, and eat more vegetables that have a high water content.

In order to continue drinking water on a more regular schedule, I downloaded an app on my phone to remind me when to hydrate during my busy work day. Before you undertake a "drink more water" plan, I recommend speaking to your doctor about your medical conditions and overall health and well-being, so that you can work together to find an appropriate regimen.

Key takeaways

In winter, dehydration is a fast track to hypothermia. When your body lacks the proper fluids, it decreases circulation. Initially, lower blood flow to the skin will just make you colder, which is a real bummer during any cold-weather outdoor activity. But if not treated, it can lower your overall body temperature to the point of hypothermia.   

Usually the person experiencing hypothermia is not always aware of their situation. When you become exhausted, tired, or cold, you do not always respond appropriately. For instance, forgoing snacks and water because we "aren’t hungry or thirsty.”  These behaviors increase the risk for hypothermia. It is also important that everyone in an outdoor party recognizes the signs for hypothermia.

While I am not a doctor, nurse, or nutritionist, I am a Mountaineers member who experienced the effects of hypothermia connected to dehydration. I found that trying to hydrate the day of an activity did not work for me. My humble advice is to hydrate days before your planned outing, especially if you have a health condition that can impact hydration. And when participating in an activity, if you or someone else is experiencing the signs of the “grumbles,” please speak up and say something.

Here’s to your health, well-being, and being properly hydrated. Happy adventuring to you and yours.

Lead image courtesy of Regina Robinson. 

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Wendy W
Wendy W says:
Jan 30, 2022 10:00 AM

Thanks for posting. Good for you for recognizing your symptoms when others in your group chose to deny them, and for posting here. And good for the participant who returned with you. Sure hope everyone in your group reads this.

Brianna Burrows
Brianna Burrows says:
Mar 31, 2022 04:49 PM

Thank you Regina for your vulnerability in sharing your experience. I want to acknowledge you for bringing a serious point to the forefront of our attention which is emotional manipulation and ego in the outdoor community. Your group's response to your experience is the definition of gaslighting. I'm glad you listened to your intuition and got yourself out of a dangerous situation.