The deluge of winter weather that has sunk its fangs into large chunks of the nation this month has again brought with it a silent killer.

This predator, which already has felled numerous victims, is the No. 1 killer of outdoorsmen and women.

This chilling threat isn’t selective, attempting to prey on our core and send a big chill down our spines.

It’s hypothermia.

Cold Injuries: Some people confuse hypothermia with frostbite. While the two usually occur to someone who has had prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, they are not the same. Hypothermia describes the condition that occurs when there is a decrease in core body temperature. Frostbite is a localized condition to body part(s) such as feet or hands.

Frostbite may or may not occur with hypothermia.

Among the beginning symptoms of hypothermia, which is accepted as occurring at 95 degrees body temperature, are intense shivering and an increase in heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

As the condition gets worse, the affected person may lose coordination and slur their speech. If the person’s body temperature falls below 90 degrees, their heart rate will become irregular and brain activity will become severely affected, making the person appear to be in a stupor and unable to properly assess how they feel.

Among the factors that intensify hypothermia’s effects are wind and water. Water can chill the body up to 25 times faster than cold air alone. The higher the wind, the faster it too can sap your warmth.

In Danger: According to medical reports, those most at risk for developing hypothermia are the elderly and babies. There have been numerous horror stories of elderly people walking outside or losing power to their house, only to succumb to the elements in a matter of hours. The same goes for babies, who can’t tell you what’s wrong with them.

The main group affected by the current widespread cold snap has been the homeless. With nowhere to bring their core temperature up and limited clothing choices or resources, many homeless people have died recently in many states.

Plan for the Worst: The biggest myth about hypothermia is the weather has to be freezing for it to take hold.

It doesn’t.

There have been many people who have gone hiking or camping on a bright, warm day in T-shirts and shorts, only to be faced with quick weather changes. Some made it back. Some were never heard from again.

One of my most mind-numbing experiences was on a fishing trip during a summer on Lake Yellowstone. It had been warmer in town, but when we hit the lake, it felt Antarctic.

We slammed the cutthroats for hours with leechlike jigs, but in the process, I came down with a half-day case of the shivers and probably lowered my IQ a notch. Though it probably wasn’t that high to begin with, I learned some things that day.

The main thing I learned is to be prepared. It sounds almost too simple, but know where you’re going and what the forecast is. We had enough clothes for a little while in the cold that day on Yellowstone, just not as long as we needed to.

It also helps to dress in layers, preferably ones without cotton. Cotton expands when it gets wet and takes longer to dry out than other clothing fibers. Dressing in layers allows the ability to peel off a layer rather than sweating and then getting colder because of the moisture on your skin.

You don’t have to partake in outdoor activities to be in danger, either. What happens if you break down on the side of the road? Even in our civilized world, it might take help more than 15 minutes to get there.

The items to keep in your car this time of year can include: a cell phone, a sleeping bag, a portable heater, water, non-perishable food, extra clothes and some type of ice melt or shovel.

Despite the unfavorable conditions, you don’t have to turn into a hermit. Then again, who ever heard of a young hermit?

Will Leschper is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the Texas Outdoor Writers Association. Write to him at william.leschper@amarillo.com.

Hidden Threat

Hypothermia is a dangerous condition that arises when core body temperature falls dramatically.

Here are some basic safety tips:

•  Stay dry and out of the wind: Wet clothes lose most of their insulation. Wind also can sap your body heat. If your clothes get wet, remove the clothing and get out of the wind. Sweat also can lower your body temperature if you stop an activity in the cold.

•  Keep your head covered: A lot of heat escapes from your head. Covering your face and neck also helps keep heat in.

Here are warning signs:

•  Uncontrolled shivering.

•  Pale, cold skin.

•  Slurred speech.

•  Memory lapses.

•  Stumbling or fumbling.

•  Drowsiness.

•  Apparent exhaustion.

Here are ways to raise a person’s body temperature:

•  Wrap the person in a blanket or put them on a warm surface, not the ground.

•  Share body heat with the person by skin-to-skin contact if necessary.

•  Give the person a warm, non-alcoholic beverage if they are responsive.

•  What not to do: Apply direct heat. Also, don’t rub the affected person. They are at an increased risk of cardiac arrest.

Will Leschper is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the Texas Outdoor Writers Association. Write to him at william.leschper@amarillo.com.