Water, planning, and rest are the keys to successful outdoor activities when the heat is high. The plan for extreme heat must include taking along enough water for the activity or having infallible means of procuring more water, planned cooling off time, and plans for keeping hydrated. Water can be carried in old fashioned canteens like my well worn one on the left, water bottles, or hydration packs. The most important aspect of the plan is following it.
She thought I was dead. I was on the second day of a bike ride from Menomonie to Madeline Island. The temperatures were in the upper 70s when I began riding, and quickly climbed into the mid 90s. I could not drink water fast enough. I decided to stop every 45 minutes to an hour to cool down. I stopped on a gravel road with a shady spot. I parked my bike and lay down on the road to chill for a few minutes. Then the bike tipped over in the soft gravel. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to leave the bike on the ground until I was done resting. Suddenly, a pickup truck come around a bend in the road, made a sudden stop, and the woman driver jumped out and yells, Are you alive? I immediately sat up and told her yes, I was fine and explained that I was taking a cool down break and that my bike had fallen over in the soft gravel.
Because I had been taking precautions on my ride, I was not suffering from one of the several heat related problems that can arise when the temps rise. Physical problems related to heat include dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. The underlying causes of heat related illness is lack of fluids in the body and loss of electrolytes from the fluid loss. With out these two items, the body cannot function properly and over heats leading to a variety of problems that can be painful and even fatal.
Dehydration can occur in any temperature, but high heat causes excessive sweating and without a conscious effort to replace lost fluid, one can become dehydrated. One can become dehydrated and not initially be thirsty so thirst is not a good indicator of dehydration. One way to check your fluid level is by keeping track of your urine. When a person gets dehydrated they urinate less often and the urine turns a darker color. Dark yellow or even reddish colored urine can be a sign of serious dehydration. Other signs of dehydration include fatigue, dizziness and confusion, and eventually extreme thirst. Drinking water in smaller amounts very frequently is the best way to prevent dehydration.
Heat cramps often occur after one stops strenuous activity in the heat. The muscles have painful and rapid spasms. The cramps usually take place in the limbs or abdomen or can affect any part of the body. Treatment for heat cramps includes resting and cooling down in a shady place; drinking lightly salted drinking water, clear juices, or sports drinks with electrolytes. Light stretching, and massage of the cramping muscles can help, but do not over do as too much stretching or massage can worsen the problem. After the cramps end, wait several hours to a full day before resuming activities.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body heats up faster than it cools to the point of being over heated. Signs of heat exhaustion include dizziness, fatigue, weak rapid pulse, low blood pressure when standing, faintness, heavy sweating, nausea, thirst and headache. The skin of a person will be pale or dull colored.
To treat heat exhaustion, get the person to a cool shady place. Remove any heavy or tight clothing, and have the person lay down with feet slightly elevated. Give water to the person in small quantities since drinking large amounts of water may trigger nausea. Use damp clothes or misted water to help cool the victim. The victim should begin to show signs of recovery within an hour, but full recovery can take up to 24 hours so its best to pitch up your camp right where the person is diagnosed with heat stroke. Also, a person who has suffered heat exhaustion is more vulnerable to a relapse, so they should be watched carefully for the rest of the trip. Heat exhaustion can develop into life threatening heat stroke, so it must be dealt with immediately.
Heat stroke is a life threatening condition that can occur in two forms: classic heat stroke and exertional heat stroke. Classic heat stroke most frequently effects people indoors who are in a room that is too hot for too long. The signs of classic heat stroke are skin that is red, hot and dry.
Victims of exertional heat stroke will act irritably or irrationally. Their skin may be cold with heavy sweat. Victims of both types of heat stroke can have rapid pulse, nausea and or vomiting, and headache. Fainting can be a sign of heat stroke. Because heat stroke is life threatening a call to 911 is in order. Emergency treatment includes getting the person into the shade remove excess clothing, cooling with water, ice in the arm pits or groin, covering with damp cloths. Have the person drink water in small quantities. If in a wilderness setting and EMT personal can’t be contacted, the victim must be transported out of the woods via stretcher.
Prevention is the best way to avoid all the heat related illnesses. When heading to the woods in hot weather have a plan to stay cool and hydrated. Plan for frequent breaks in the shade and drink frequently. Wear appropriate clothing. I prefer lose fitting breathable clothing. Pay attention to the humidity level also, as very dry conditions in the desert require lots of water, and very humid conditions make evaporation difficult, so evaporation cannot help keep the body cool. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Both substances make it harder for the body to regulate internal temperature. With wise planning, heat does not need to keep one out of the wilds.