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Cotton Kills

Backcountry Safety: Cotton Kills

This article was published in the Backcountry Safety Column of the "Hunt Alaska" Magazine, Winter 2017.

Story by Jon Hunt

Hunting the Nelchina Caribou herd was a frustrating experience for many hunters this year.  Not only was there sparse evidence of the overpopulated herd, but the weather was less than ideal over our five-day hunt this September.  A mixture of rain, hail, heavy fog, significant wind, rapidly approaching termination dust, and temperatures hovering between 20-55° was a great reminder to wear the proper clothing to minimize risk factors for heat loss from cold-induced circumstances.

Each hour unveils the mystery of what random weather might we be subject to.  I have such little confidence of having pleasant weather while hunting that I typically resort to wearing chest waders on most fall days.

I didn’t particularly enjoy seeing so many people hunting this year; I typically cherish the precious moments of peace in the woods with a select few friends.  However, what astounded me most was not only the amount of people hunting, but the high percentage of hunters wearing cotton clothing.

It appears that many people don’t realize the significant danger of hunting while wearing cotton clothing.  Among the scariest observations this year was a group of hunters launching canoes in rain, while wearing jeans and Carharts.  Unfortunately, jeans, Cartharts and cotton socks were more frequently observed on the trail than wool pants, rain pants, or waders.

At dusk on day one of the hunt we saw a large lone bull swim across a lake and eventually bed down on a small island.  The following afternoon, as we approached the same lake, we realized that the bull remained on the island.  After serious deliberation and brainstorming we acquired a canoe, strapped it down to the ATV, rode in several miles, and paddled to the lake before the caribou swam away.  After the first shot was fired the caribou jumped into the lake and made it halfway back to the furthest shore before surrendering its last breath.  We jumped back into the canoe, and reluctantly grasped the caribou’s antlers, hoping that it didn’t start thrashing and capsize the canoe.  We quickly learned how exhausting it was to drag a caribou behind a canoe (bad idea in case you are curious).  We didn’t want to field dress the caribou on the island in fear that the wind would pick back up.  Ironically, it must have taken an hour to canoe back to shore a mere 600 yards with a caribou in tow.

After reflecting on our only successful stalk, I realized we made several questionable decisions in the enthusiasm of the moment that could have ended in a chilling reality.  In the urgency of the moment, I am ashamed to admit, we both wear chest waders while canoeing in a deep lake, and reluctantly wore life jackets.  Both choices are potentially deadly ones if we were to capsize.

The choice of clothing is paramount to a safe hunt.  So often people violate this simple principle, which is among the worst possible choices.  In brief, cotton is so dangerous because once wet is very slow to dry.  It also retains very little heat once wet.  For these reasons the mantra “cotton kills” has been coined.

It is important to note that heat loss comes from several methods; here is a summary of many of the factors affecting cold-induced emergencies:

  • EVAPORATION: When you sweat, the skin is wet, or clothing is wet, heat loss is increased. Reduce heat loss from evaporation by drying off wet skin and replacing wet clothing.  Sweating is the body natural method to cool the body.
  • CONVECTION: is easily described as “wind chill”. Decreasing heat loss by convection is best countered by adding more layers of clothing.  Layers that block wind, or shelter that protects from the wind such as a tent, snow cave, rock, or crevasse can reduce convective heat loss.  This is a great reason to pack an emergency blanket or bivvy sack.
  • RADIATION: Heat generated in body escapes to the cold environment. Warm up the environment to reduce radiant heat loss.
  • CONDUCTION: Sitting or lying on the cold ground (any ground in Alaska) sucks the heat right out of you. A sleeping pad is not only for comfort, but to insulate you from the cold ground.  Wet clothing, especially cotton, on the skin pulls heat from the body.  Immersion in cold water conducts heat from the body 25 times faster than air.  In most cases, it is better to avoid being submerged in cold water.
  • EXERCISE: This is a tricky one.  Exercise clearly generates heat, but brings blood close to the skin surface which can lead to heat loss.  The body needs food/fuel in order to maintain the production of heat.  The danger here is that the body cannot sustain a state of continuous exercise.  If the heat loss is too significant, then exercise cannot compensate for the loss.  At some point the body will fatigue and continue cooling.
  • DEHYDRATION: When hydration is lacking the body doesn’t perform properly on a cellular level; even blood volume is affected. With poor perfusion of blood, the body core temperature will be negatively affected.
  • FUEL: Are you hungry? I hope not, your body needs fuel/calories to sustain heat production.
  • ALCOHOL: As tempting as it may be, alcohol dilates blood vessels in the skin. It will artificially make you feel warmer as it dumps heat from the body.  “Over one third of all frostbite injuries involve alcohol consumption.”[1]
  • NICOTINE: Need a smoke? Avoid nicotine, it is a strong vasoconstrictor.
  • CAFFEINE: Avoid caffeine, it is also a vasoconstrictor.

Hopefully this is just a simple reminder to be proactive in avoiding heat loss.  We are so easily impacted by the cold environment while hunting; remember that some of the most crucial decisions you make begin with the clothing on your back. Always dress for survival -- avoid all cotton clothing and layer your clothing.  Stay hydrated and nourished.  Avoid overexertion and blood altering substances (Alcohol, nicotine & caffeine).  Always hunt with a safe buddy, and keep an eye out for each other.  Hope you have a safe and successful 2017 hunting season!

Frontier Safety and Supply celebrated its 10-year Anniversary in January 2017 by opening a Training Center in Anchorage at the corner of Lake Otis & Tudor.  We often CPR/AED, First Aid, and Wilderness First Aid Certifications throughout Alaska.  For those interested, even in a basic course, we include many of the backcountry topics mentioned in this column.  We would be honored to help you have a meaningful training experience at your workplace or at our new Training Center.

[1] Paul Nicoloazzo “The Art and Technique of Wilderness Medicine.” second edition: (2010):  120.