I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, in both cold and hot weather.
I, by far, prefer cold weather. Heat and humidity get to me fast. Despite this, I quite enjoy exploring hot climates such as the Arizona desert.
How is this?
Visiting the wilderness is dangerous if you’re unprepared. Preparation, both with equipment and knowledge, can turn a normally dangerous environment into one in which you flourish.
Heatwaves can strike anywhere in the world. Anchorage, Alaska, just broke their temperature record and hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot for Alaska!
People die in those types of heatwaves, both in cities and in the wild.
Most information out there on the topic is for people trying to stay cool at home or in the city.
How can you stay healthy if you’re away from home and the thermometer seems to rise and rise?
First, you need to know what you’re dealing with.
Overheating can creep up on you, and not everybody responds in the same way. You need to be able to spot the following signs so you can take action before mild overheating turns into heat stroke.
Perspiration causes your body’s water stores to deplete very quickly when it’s hot, especially if you’re active.
When you’re dehydrated, your body can’t perform properly. Severe dehydration can be life threatening, but even mild dehydration can make you more susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
The classical sign of dehydration is thirst. If you’re active outside, drink before you’re thirsty.
Other signs include:
- Loss of appetite
Dehydration is far from optimal, but unless you’re dehydrated because of a disease, recovery is easy: hydrate!
Once your body is unable to maintain its proper core body temperature, hyperthermia occurs. The first stage to look for is heat exhaustion. Dehydration and exertion make heat exhaustion more likely.
The following symptoms are signs of heat exhaustion:
- Muscle cramps
- Excessive sweating
- High body temperature
- Fast heart rate
- Pale skin
Heat exhaustion, if caught in time, typically results in no long-term damage. However, if your core body temperature continues to rise, then you may get heat stroke.
Heat stroke is a form of hyperthermia that happens when your core body temperature exceeds 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
In addition to the heat exhaustion signs, be aware of the following symptoms:
- Lack of sweating
If not taken care of immediately, heat stroke can cause organ failure and death!
Avoiding the Heat
So, how do you avoid getting overheated in the first place?
The simple answer is to avoid getting too hot. The details are many, though. Thankfully, none of the following concepts are difficult.
Your number one defense against heat-related illness is to stay hydrated.
Your urine should be clear or slightly tinted yellow. Strong yellow means you should drink more, and brown means you’re dehydrated.
Yes, you’ll have to pee a lot. That’s the price of staying healthy.
Juices, coffee, and tea aren’t good for hydrating. Alcohol should be avoided; it’ll make your body get rid of too much water, dehydrating you, and putting you at risk of heat exhaustion.
Also, avoid heavy meals.
Digestion uses water, heavy meals more so. If you only have a limited amount of water, you may not want to eat at all until you can get some more.
Salts and Electrolytes
Water is only one part of hydration. As you sweat and urinate, your body gets rid of electrolytes. These need to be replenished to properly rehydrate you.
Electrolytes are salts, minerals used in your bloodstream. Potassium, magnesium, and even sodium are vital to hydration.
Sport drink mixes contain electrolytes to help you rehydrate. You can also get tablets.
I’ve even added table salt substitute to my water to get enough potassium in me!
Limit Sun Exposure
That big ol’ burning ball of nuclear fire in the sky is enemy number one when it comes to overheating, unless you decided to hike through a wildfire.
Don’t do that, by the way!
So, you will want to minimize how much that angry sun can glare at you.
Wear Proper Clothing
Good clothing is vital to staying cool.
You’ll want to wear light clothes that breathe. Natural materials are best. Go for cotton or linen. Thin wool such as Merino wool can work too, especially for socks, where cotton sucks.
Avoid dark colors. A brighter shirt will reflect more of the sun’s energy, keeping you cooler.
A wide-brimmed hat is also good. Don’t discount other coverings such as shemaghs.
Sometime’s it’s better to go with long sleeves and pant legs to keep the sun off, especially if you’re wearing very breathable clothing.
Avoid the Sun
It’s almost always cooler in the shade, so during a particularly hot day, you should spend as much time in the shade as possible. Especially if you start to feel a bit “off.”
But avoiding the sun doesn’t just mean hiding under a tree.
If you’re traveling far, plot out your route to minimize sun exposure. As an example, you can travel along the south side of clearings so more trees are between you and the sun.
Clouds may keep you cool, but they don’t block the ultraviolet radiation responsible for sunburns. Stick to shady areas even on cloudy days, if you’re outside all day long.
Also, keep in mind the time of day. The sun is hottest between noon and the midafternoon, so you should plan on staying in a cool, shady area during those hours. Travel in the morning and evening instead.
Finally, if there’s no shade around, make your own!
Tarps can be used to create a sun-blocking lean-to, good for temporary sun shelter. Even carrying a shirt or jacket above your head can be better than no shade.
It’s especially important to avoid the sun because sunburn lowers your body’s ability to cool off.
Hiking is tough work. It’s good at burning calories, but it also raises your heart rate, increases water loss through sweating, and increases your core body temperature.
This means you should not exert yourself if it’s too hot out.
And if you do need to work hard, listen to your body. Stay hydrated, take frequent breaks, and pay attention to the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke!
If you’re hiking, travel slower than you think you should.
Warm air rises. This is true outside as well, though wind likes to mix air around.
If you have a choice between a ravine and a hill, consider the ravine. Unless the hill is particularly windy, it may be cooler in the crevice below.
What Do You Do When Overheating?
If you start to feel the effects of heat exhaustion, you need to get as cool as possible, as fast as possible.
I’ve run into the urban myth that it’s dangerous to lower someone’s body temperature too fast.
I brought this up to a paramedic who’s dealt with hundreds of heat illness calls. He told me that every second someone is overheated, their body is getting damaged. If you’re in a position to help someone with heat exhaustion, cool them off as quickly as you can.
Bring them into the shade. Strip off excess clothing. Fan some airflow over them if possible.
If you have ice or cold packs, wrap them in a cloth or shirt, and apply them to body points with heavy blood flow, such as the neck, armpit, inside the wrist, and groin. Cool water bottles will work too, but not as well.
You can also get a washcloth, towel, or T-shirt wet and use them as a less-effective cold pack. Don’t completely cover the patient in wet towels, though, as they become an unwanted form of insulation.
If there’s cool water nearby then submerge the person up to the neck. This is best done if they’re conscious so they don’t drown.
But, if there are several of you, at least two people can partially submerge an unconscious friend. In this case, don’t submerge them as far.
If the patient is conscious, then give them water.
Make them take small sips so they don’t upset their stomach, but they should drink plenty of water.
Electrolytes should be avoided until the patient is cool (again, nausea), but electrolytes should be pushed once they feel better again.
Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are all illnesses you have to combat when the sun turns its anger upon the land.
Blistering heat is not pleasant to deal with, but if you stay hydrated, avoid sun exposure, and don’t exert yourself too much, you should be okay.
I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: bring extra pairs of socks.
When your socks are sweated through and your feet are miserable, few things feel better than clean, dry socks!