Adrenaline and Hypothermia: Fact versus Hollywood Fiction


This is the magical solution for many a questionably-survivable scenario in a movie or video game.

As a biology nerd and exploration history buff I feel like shouting to the world, “That’s not how adrenaline works!”

More recently I’ve watched a YouTube playthrough of Until Dawn, which is a survival horror game set in the northern Rockies in February. It follows a typical horror film course of events with eight teenagers behaving stupidly in face of a supernatural danger.  Spectacular stupidity, in fact, though I say this as someone who has only heard of horror film plots second hand and never seen one myself.

Until Dawn cover art.jpg
“Until Dawn” cover art

From a realistic standpoint, it was crazy how resilient these teens were to the windy snow storm.  They dressed without hats—save for one girl—and gloves.  They wore light jackets.

Never do they shake, trip, show signs of stiff hands, no sniffling, no mental impairment, and they are excellent at fast reactions, climbing, and pretending walking in chest-high water didn’t faze them beyond the initial, “Ah! That’s cold!”

The wonderful thing about YouTube is that after each section of game I can read the comments. There was usually someone publicly reminiscing about how impervious the characters’ are to the cold.  The replies? There was always someone assuming that adrenaline resolves all. I also hear this in regards to TV shows and movies. Funny how adrenaline gets be magical and not Hollywood.

Adrenaline is the body’s quick fix. Within minutes following a stressful event allows the body to have more blood—and thus oxygen—everywhere. Suddenly you have more strength, swifter reflexes, and think more clearly and faster. As soon as the source of severe stress is gone, your body relatively quickly returns to normal.

This means that adrenaline will help the teenager run from a monster for a few minutes but not during the hour in between attacks.

How do you stay warm then?

Hypothermia sets in quick. There are charts and diagrams all over the internet and in books. This isn’t a controversial topic. People suffer and even die from hypothermia despite an adrenaline boost.

Fake Winter Cabin
Let’s pretend this is a winter lodge. Apparently post fire-explosion.

So let’s speculate.

A snow storm on a mountain means a maximum of freezing temperatures. However, it is nighttime, so let’s go easy and say -4°C/25°F. The wind isn’t dramatic, but it is noisy and persistent. Again, let’s go easy and say 33kph/20mph. This makes the wind chill (based on the “new” index) roughly -12°C/11°F. Those kids better be happy the northern Rockies aren’t in a humid climate.

Yay! No frostbite yet!

The lodge they were staying at had no power and hadn’t been heated in perhaps one year, so the house could have easily been as cold as outside but without the wind chill. Well, there was some wind chill in the main area because of open windows. No one ever closed those…. Anyway, 4°C/25°F isn’t particularly restorative.

It is worth noting that many people in cold climes will tell you that they run into 32°F/0°C weather in t-shirts and shorts. On the other hand, I remember that such days had no wind, full sun, and we went inside as soon as we spent our energy.

One girl took a bath and the bad guy stole her clothes—she wandered the cabin wet and in a towel. Following this she spent hours unconscious. I didn’t find a chart for this one, but Princeton University confirms that moisture saps your body heat than air by a factor of 25. It is also well documented that most cases of hypothermia occurred between 30–50°F/-1–10°C. Also, body temperature drops when you are unconscious.

That’s one teen likely dead.

This is a cold water survival chart and not cold air, but it illustrates how sensitive the human body is.

All the characters face scenarios where they need to think and physical act quick either when running or climbing. Often they have to stand absolutely still and quiet. Now if you have been in -12°C/11°F exterior temperatures and 4°C/40°F in mines (based on the “warmest” caves in Canada) between one to nine hours with substandard clothing, would you have enough control of your faculties to survive those scenarios? I theorize they would have hyperventilated, gotten lethargic, pronounceable shivered, fumbled with their hands and feet, and couldn’t think clear enough to come up with the clever escapes they had in the game.

Never mind the girl that lay in the bottom of the mine almost naked for hours or the two crazy ones who waded in the water and subsequently wandered in the snow storm.

Sorry kids, your first hour or two of the night lead to an indirect hypothermic death.

The ones that did not encounter explicit danger in those first few hours would have the opportunity to let the hypothermia kill them. Just Google news having to do with hypothermia and caves: people die in even mild temperatures.

Adrenaline won’t save you here.

Wow, what a game that realistic alternative would have been!

Of interest:



2 thoughts on “Adrenaline and Hypothermia: Fact versus Hollywood Fiction

  1. Your calculations are off for windchill for Celsius. For 4 degrees C and a 32 km/hr wind that’s an index of -1 not 11. It’s not going to get warmer with the wind blowing like that.

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