I consider myself an experienced outdoorsman. I grew up in the woods, went through Boy Scouts, and after college, I spent the better part of a year backpacking through New Zealand and Australia.
As an avid surfer, scuba diver, paddler and open-water swimmer, I have battled hypothermia on more than a dozen occasions. Usually, I feel it coming on, like when I swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco, then had to soak in a hot bath for an hour so I could regain the use of my extremities.
In the winter months, I exercise an abundance of caution on the water, preparing for the worst while hoping for the best.
But it is weather like we have now, in the fall and spring, when the days are warm and the nights cool, that always seems to cause me trouble.
In March, four friends and I tried to take an outrigger canoe from St. Petersburg to Key Largo. The boat was built to sail, but the wind did not cooperate, so we ended up paddling 1,500 pounds of men and gear more than 150 miles along the coast over three days.
In the weeks before the trip, I worked a string of 16-hour days to produce enough copy to cover the time we would be gone.
Then, when it came time to leave, one of our crew members took ill, leaving us short-handed and forced to paddle for 20 hours that first day.
After four hours of sleep on a dock alongside a Boca Grande boat ramp, we set out again. Exhausted from my accumulated lack of rest, I turned to an over-the-counter energy drink to keep me going. Later that night, with the sun setting and the temperature dropping, I bundled up for another long night of paddling.
Around midnight, we decided to take 15-minute cat naps in turns. I went first, fell sound asleep and awoke a short while later shivering uncontrollably.
The numbers game
Hypothermia, the reduction of the body's temperature below the point of normal functioning, isn't just a matter of being cold.
If you do any form of physical exercise, be it surfing, paddling or scuba diving, you are going to burn calories. If you burn more calories than your body takes in under adverse conditions, you can become hypothermic.
Aaron Freedman, a veteran adventure racer, once got hypothermia on a 95-degree day in the middle of the summer. It was during the infamous coast-to-coast race across Florida.
"It was at the end of the race," Freedman said. "We were all exhausted and pretty well burned out. We got off the bikes, and it started to rain. That was all it took."
If you continue to burn more calories than you take in, sooner or later, your body will be at an energy deficit. Stop moving for a few minutes and your internal furnace may go out. Once it goes out, it's hard to get it lit again.
Other factors, such as lack of sleep and excessive consumption of alcoholic or heavily caffeinated beverages, affect the equation.
So even though my foul-weather gear protected me from the elements, my body could not produce enough heat to keep me going.
The signs,the remedy
Fortunately, my friends and I had all experienced hypothermia before, so we recognized the signs and knew what to do. Symptoms include gradual loss of mental and physical abilities, leading to slurred speech, pale skin, fatigue, lethargy or apathy. Severe hypothermia can lead to death.
To reverse the process, you must stop additional heat loss. Get the victim out of the cold and remove any wet clothing.
Next, raise the victim's temperature. The quickest way to do this is to share body heat. To warm the victim's body, remove your clothing and lie next to the person, making skin-to-skin contact. Then cover both bodies with a blanket.
I'm glad my case was not serious enough to warrant the previously mentioned treatment.
An hour or so of curling up in a tent fly was enough to bring me back to my senses, and after a bottle of water, some warm food and a few hours of sleep, I was ready to keep paddling.
Monday morning quarterbacking
Looking back, it is easy to see how I got in trouble: not enough sleep, not enough food and too much caffeine.
Uncontrollable shivering is usually the most obvious indicator of hypothermia, but personal experience has led me to conclude that one can begin slipping into the danger zone long before the body shows obvious symptoms.
In addition to getting adequate rest, plenty of food and water, you need to dress for the cold, even on a balmy November day if there is even a remote chance you will still be on the water once the sun goes down.
The key to dressing for the cold is layering properly. Start with a thin, synthetic material next to the skin that helps transmit water away from the body. Don't be afraid to pile on the layers of this high-tech long underwear. Light and easy to store, it keeps you warm even when wet.
Most of your warmth will come from your second (or third) layer of bulky fleece. Then finish with a layer of wind- and water-resistant material.
But if you still find yourself in an emergency situation, find shelter quickly and start a fire. Every emergency kit should include kindling, waterproof matches and some "napalm in a tube" that will burn even wet wood.
When fire is not an option, use emergency heat packs. Place one under each armpit and on the inside of each thigh. Wrap yourself in a space blanket and you'll warm up quickly.
Once you are dry and warm, break out your camp stove and boil water. Make yourself a hot cup of coffee and soon you will be ready to go.