Beware Of The "Umbles"

Those in the search and rescue business call it the “umbles.”

As moderate hypothermia overtakes someone, they start to mumble their speech. Then they start to grumble and whine a bit. They fumble and bumble, and have trouble with things such as backpack straps or zippers as they shiver and behave irrationally. Walking could lead to a stumble, like being intoxicated, and even a tumble.

The end result of these symptoms can be death.

“Spring and fall are probably the trickiest for people,” said Charlie McCrave, an instructor at the SOLO Wilderness Medicine School in Conway, N.H. “They’re not always thinking about the weather, especially in the mountains. In February, they think cold and snow, but not in April, May, October and November.”

From hikers to hunters, outdoor enthusiasts can succumb to temperatures. Last April a hiker was found by the Appalachian Trail in Norwich, Vermont. Hypothermia was the cause. Tragedy befell a 10-year-old boy in October who got lost in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and was found dead after a five-day search. He died of hypothermia.

mountain trail
Being prepared for a jaunt in the mountains is the first step to preventing hypothermia. (Photo by Marty Basch)

Body Core Cools

Hypothermia is the cooling of the body core temperature caused by heat loss and the body’s inability to keep the internal temperature constant. It can happen year-round, particularly on those days of rain and wind when the temperature is between 40 and 60 degrees.

“Hypothermia is one of the all-time greatest killers of unprepared adventurers,” said Julia Grand-Doucet, education coordinator for the Vermont-based Green Mountain Club. “It can sneak up on you.”

Temperature change impacts the brain. If people get cold, they lose their ability to function.

There is much an outdoor enthusiast can do to prevent hypothermia. To prevent heat loss, keep your hands and head covered. Also, don’t wear cotton clothing, and dress in layers starting with wicking underwear. Drink plenty of water and eat lots of food to get those heat-generating calories. Take rest stops to avoid perspiration. Carry emergency gear such as a foam pad for sitting, a good insulated jacket or sleeping bag for warmth, and bring extra food and water.

“You can have all the greatest clothing and gear, but with no food and water, you are not going to stay warm,” McCrave noted.

The Symptoms

Symptoms of hypothermia include bad judgment, confusion, forgetfulness, loss of motor control and coordination, uncontrollable shivering, cold feet and hands, and fatigue.

Act quickly should these symptoms appear.

“There are three big things to remember,” said Mark Leyden, also a SOLO instructor who along with McCrave, coordinate the school’s search and rescue efforts. “Fix that person’s layering system and get them warm and dry. Get them food and water because you need fuel in the form of sugar. Get them moving. Moving muscles generate heat. Moving people does wonders.”

If getting someone moving isn’t initially possible, warm them up in a sleeping bag, suggests the GMC. If you have a stove, heat water and put hot water bottles around the person’s neck, armpits and groin. Start a fire.

Those hiking in groups should look out for each other.

“Trip leaders should be able to recognize it early,” said McCrave. “Step in and do something to reverse it before it gets worse.”

Not everyone hikes in groups or in pairs. There are those who venture out alone.

“You have to keep checking on yourself,” said Leyden. “If you have gotten too wet, get dry. Take the time and make the effort to monitor yourself. Hiking alone is a skill to acquire with practice.”

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One Response to “Beware Of The "Umbles"”

  1. Dave Goodlin

    Great new site. But where is the hiking page?