Wet-cold exposure and hypothermia: thermal and metabolic responses to prolonged exercise in rain

R. L. Thompson, J. S. Hayward


Simulated conditions of hiking in rain, wind, and cold, without protective rainwear, were used to investigate wet-cold hypothermia in 18 male subjects. Thermal, metabolic, and motor responses were monitored during an attempted 5-h walk (5.1 km/h) at 5 degrees C, with continuous exposure to rain (7.4 cm/h) and wind (8.0 km/h) over the final 4 h. The majority of subjects (11) could not complete the protocol because of intolerance of wet-cold conditions during the last 2 h. Therefore, data from 5 subjects who completed the protocol in rain and control conditions were used to describe the general pattern of response. During the 1st h of walking, core temperature rose 1 degree C to 38.1 degrees C. The subsequent 2 h of rain caused substantial cold stress, indicated by a 40% increase in heat production due to shivering and significant loss of strength and manual dexterity. However, core temperature only decreased to 37.1 degrees C, merely eliminating the initial exercise hyperthermia. Over the last 2 h of rain, core temperature remained relatively stable at 36.8 degrees C, decreasing slightly to 36.4 degrees C by 5 h. Two other subjects developed significant hypothermia (35 degrees C). One demonstrated fatigue of shivering after 2.5 h of rain, confirming the exhaustion hypothesis of wet-cold hypothermia. The older cooled rapidly when he failed to maintain the walking pace. We conclude that if a person can tolerate the intense discomfort of prolonged wet-cold exposure, he or she has the potential to resist significant core hypothermia for at least 4 h of walking under the conditions of this experiment. Exceptions to this generalization occur, making exposure of < 4 h a hypothermia risk for some individuals. Exposures > 4 h would involve increasing probability of rapid decline into hypothermia, associated with exhaustion of shivering and exercise heat production.