A Lesson on Hypothermia

On a recent camping trip to Idaho, I couldn't resist the temptation to swim in the crystal clear waters of Red Fish Lake. I didn't have a thermometer to check the temperature, but I can tell you that it was cold. My guess is that it was around 60 degrees. I had ordered a new wetsuit and wetsuit cap for my Alcatraz swim this summer, but at the time of our camping trip I had only received the cap.

On the first day of our trip, I eased into the cold water and swam laps between two buoys near the shore. I swam about 750 meters before getting out to play on the beach with my family. I wore my neoprene cap and felt pretty good despite the cold water. I was cold when I got out and it took about a half an hour to warm back up.

The next day I decided I wanted to get in a longer swim. As my swim wore on, I kept feeling shivers of cold throughout my body and thought that maybe I should get out. Being the stubborn person that I am and wanting to prove how "tough" I was to family members on the trip who are training for an Ironman, I kept going. Finally, after about an hour in the water with no wetsuit I decided that it was time to get out.

After getting out of the water, I could not stop shivering. Eventually I had to go back to our tent and lay in a sleeping bag while my wife went to the lodge to get me a hot cocoa. It was the weirdest sensation to be wrapped up in a sleeping bag inside a tent that had felt like a sauna the day before, and to still not be able to get warm. It ended up taking me 2 hours to warm back up.

In hindsight, I should have been a little more cautious. I should have got out of the water a lot sooner or at least kept a warm drink on shore to warm me up every once in a while.

I hope that you will learn something from my experience and be very careful when swimming in cold water.

The following table comes from "Open Water Swimming" by Penny Lee Dean and lays out some of the signs of the three different degrees of hypothermia:



Body Temperature

Bodily Signs


95-98 degrees

Conscious, shivering, blue skin


90-95 degrees

Conscious, severe shivering, difficulty speaking, trouble answering questions, eyes dilated, gray skin


85-90 degrees

May be unconscious; grayish white skin; no understanding of questions; trouble recognizing friends; no shivering-rigid

For tips on how to stay warm in cold water, see the following post: Swimming in Cold Water.

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