Can A Sleeping Bag Save You?

By Kelsey A. Liebenson-Morse

Hypothermia happens when your core body temperature falls below normal, which can easily happen when you are exposed to cold winds or wetness. Your body automatically begins to shiver to rewarm itself. As your energy is used up to keep warm, you may reach a point where your body will be unable to rewarm itself. If left untreated, your body will gradually shut down and you can die. – Appalachian Mountain Club

In her recent memoir, Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure, Patricia Ellis Herr writes about her quest to climb all 48 peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire…with her five year old daughter, Alex, in tow.  While her recollection of hiking with Alex is extremely inspiring, I was also intrigued by the story of her husband, Hugh Herr. Hugh is an elite rock climber who, despite losing both of his legs to frostbite on Mount Washington when he was a young man, has carried on to climb great heights with his prosthetic pair. Dubbed, “The Mechanical Boy,” Herr’s story is featured in Alison Osius’ 1992 biography Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr.

Hikers, no matter his or her size, should always be prepared. Sometimes, though, nature is so unpredictable (especially on Mount Washington, which  experiences some of the worst weather in the world),  even the correct measures end in tragedy. Hugh Herr and his partner Jeff Batzen survived because they were prepared, but also because they had experience in on the mountain. They laid on branches instead of the snow, and forced each another to stay awake through the night to narrowly avoid hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your core body temperature  falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s accompanied by shivering and disorientation.

But what gear can you use to prevent frostbite and hypothermia if you’re out in the elements?

If you’re planning a cold-weather hike, you should dress warmly, in layers, stay properly hydrated, and need to eat good, fatty foods to sustain your strength. You should also check the weather forecast if possible, and bring extra dry clothes in case you get wet. If your clothes are wet, you are more likely to develop frostbite. Hugh Herr, for example, was forced to take off his boots after accidentally plunging into a hidden river.

Because while it seems counter intuitive to remove clothing when you’re cold and wet, it’s the best way to prevent frostbite and hypothermia. However, victims who have already succumbed to hypothermia may try to take off their (warm, dry) clothes believing they are hot. There is a fine line between caution and disorientation.

Other signs of hypothermia include: uncontrolled shivering, semi-consciousness, slurred speech, lack of coordination, and extreme exhaustion.

If you’re with someone who has any of these symptoms, warm beverages and warm dry compresses are recommended. Be sure to only apply to compress to the neck chest or groin, because heat on the legs or arms could force cold blood back to the heart or lungs and result in death. Proceed with caution when dealing with hypothermia, applying direct heat is almost always a mistake and can cause irregular heartbeats.

If you are unable to prevent hypothermia a warm sleeping bag can become a lifesaving piece of gear.  Placing the victim in a sleeping bag with a tarp below and above, to create insulation speeds up the re-warming process of the body.  Skin-to-skin contact is another way to increase body temperature–in both parties. So climb into the sleeping bag too!

Top rated sleeping bags include Marmot’s Col MemBrain that boasts waterproof/breathable bag that will stay comfortable at -20 below. Another favorite is the North Face’s Cat’s Meow, insulted with Climashield Prism, a warm and light fill. This sleeping bag is the same price as it was in 1993: coming in at a reasonable $159. Now it is evident that a sleeping bag cannot in fact save your life nor your limbs once extreme hypothermia has set in. But as always, being prepared and well informed for your next hike could make all the difference.


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