How to Avoid Hypothermia on Yellowstone Hiking Trips, Part One

Most of our Big Wild Adventures guided Yellowstone backpack trips are during the “summer season”, from June through September. So hypothermia should not be a problem. Right? Wrong! In fact, in Yellowstone and in all of the areas in the Rocky Mountain region where we guide, cold wet weather can occur any day of the year. True, most of these trips experience wonderful weather with cool mornings and warm sunny days with low humidity broken by occasional, usually short-lived afternoon thunderstorms.  Yet every so often, the weather goddess throws us a curve ball of cold wet conditions for which we must be prepared.

But before I note a couple of examples, what exactly is hypothermia, anyway? Simply put, it is a condition in which your core body temperature drops from the normal range, which is about 98-99 degrees Fahrenheit. Mild hypothermia is manifested by simple discomfort and shivering. But severe hypothermia, when shivering stops, is serious and life-threatening! Hypothermia most commonly occurs when temperatures are above freezing, usually in the 30’s and 40’s, when back-country campers and hikers allow themselves to become damp or wet or are just inadequately clothed in some combination of cold/wet/windy weather. The best way to deal with hypothermia? Prevention, prevention and prevention! More on this in parts two and three of this series.

I mentioned that in the high country anything can happen any day of the year. For example, many years ago high in the Montana Absarokas, just north of Yellowstone, I guided a father and two teen-aged sons from southern California to a wilderness camp near treeline. It was July 4th weekend, and when the snowstorm began to break up it had dumped about sixteen inches of wet snow on our camp! Although the two boys loved it and wanted to stay out and finish the trip, Dad (the guy who paid for the trip) couldn’t get off the mountain and back to the Bozeman Comfort Inn fast enough! And realize: June is not summer and neither is most of September in the high country. Last September on the Northern Yellowstone Autumn trip, we got over a foot of wet snow — which made for some spectacular photo opportunities of fresh snow draped over conifers and green and gold quaking aspen. Fortunately, the group was well-prepared and we had a great time! Again, usually the mountain weather is great. But we believe in preparation. The next two installments will discuss specific ways in which folks can avoid hypothermia, regardless of the weather.

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