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Staying warm begins with the right attire

It's been close to 20 years since that raw, drizzly day in east-central Kentucky, but its memory still gives me shivers.

I was working on a profile of muskie fisherman Steve Feaster, and had accompanied him on a half-day fishing trip to Cave Run Lake. We launched the boat in a light, misting rain.

After fishing the lake fruitlessly for a couple of hours, Steve suggested we try a tributary of the Licking River downstream from the lake. We hauled the boat out, put it on the trailer and towed it to a boat ramp next to the dam.

We arrived at the tributary after a high-speed downstream run. We picked up our rods. I watched as Steve fired out cast after cast.

After a couple of minutes, he asked, "Why aren't you fishing."

"I dunno," I replied. "I think I just want to sit here for a few minutes."

Steve stood up from his seat in the bow and strode purposefully to my position in the stern. He peered intently at my face.

"Get up," he ordered, as he opened a hatch in the deck and pulled out a set of insulated coveralls. "You're hypothermic. Put these coveralls on. No arguments."

I did as I was told.

What happened to me could happen to anyone. Hypothermia is a condition in which your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Left untreated, it can kill you.

Hypothermia occurs most often when it's cold or windy or wet. Contrary to popular belief, the air temperature doesn't have to be below freezing. According to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources' publication on hypothermia, many cases develop when air temperatures are 30 to 50 degrees. Moisture compounds the problem because water robs the body of heat 25 times faster than air.

Two things combined to get me in trouble on that chilly March day.

First, I wasn't dressed properly.

I had on blue jeans, cotton socks, cotton underwear, a cotton T-shirt, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, a medium-weight jacket and a mesh baseball cap. The misty drizzle dampened my clothing, and the long boat ride down the river exposed me to 30 mph winds that quickly stripped heat from my body.

Second, I underestimated the conditions.

The air temperature that day was in the high 40s, but the rain and wind effectively made it colder. Had I not been fishing with an observant physician, the outcome might have been much worse.

The best way to avoid hypothermia is to stay warm and dry.

To accomplish that, experts say to dress in several relatively thin layers and to avoid wearing cotton. With those guidelines in mind, here's how I should have dressed for my Cave Run trip:

For a proper base layer, I should have worn two pairs of thin wool socks, long polyester underwear and a long-sleeved polyester undershirt.

My outer layers should have included a pair of nylon wind pants, a thin wool sweater, a water-shedding medium-weight jacket and a wool stocking cap. And for the boat ride downstream, I should have donned a rain suit.

It only took one brush with hypothermia to make me very, very careful about dressing properly for winter outdoor activities. I've waded trout streams when snow was on the ground. I've taken 20-mile bike rides on 45-degree days. I've attended football games where the snow was blowing sideways.

I haven't yet been cold. Dress as I do, and you won't be either.


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