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It’s officially the dog days of summer. As we move from the second hottest month of the year into the hottest month (for Arkansas at least), it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, as well as how to properly plan for adventuring in the heat. Knowing how to stay cool while hiking could be a lifesaver. And it’s also a great way to implement Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare.
Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke, or hyperthermia, are caused when your body is not able to cool itself enough to maintain a healthy temperature. This can be caused by your body not being able to keep up with the high temperatures around you, or dehydration, where your body is not able to sweat enough.
Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, dizziness, fatigue, a weak but rapid pulse, low blood pressure when rising from a sitting position, muscle cramps, nausea, and headache.
If heat exhaustion is not addressed, it can progress to heatstroke. When you begin to suffer from heatstroke, you need immediate medical care. One sign of heatstroke is having a high core temperature of 104 degrees. You will also exhibit an altered mental state or behavior, such as confusion, agitation, slurred speech, and irritability. Seizures can also occur with heatstroke. Other signs and symptoms include dry or slightly moist skin, nausea and vomiting, flushed skin, a rapid and strong pulse, rapid and shallow breathing, and a throbbing headache.
It’s really important to pay attention to your body and know the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion so you can stay cool while hiking.
How to treat heat exhaustion
The first thing you need to do to treat heat exhaustion is to remove the patient from what is causing them to overheat and then cool them down. If they are exercising, have them stop. If they are standing in the sun for a prolonged amount of time, have them move to the shade. You can also remove excess clothing and cool them down with water.
Placing an ice pack or cold, wet towels on the person’s head, neck, armpits, and groin will also help lower their core body temperature.
If a person is suffering from heatstroke, do these same treatments, but call 911 and get them a hospital as soon as possible. If treatment is delayed, it can cause complications or worse – death.
How to stay cool while hiking
The best treatment for heat exhaustion and heatstroke is prevention. If you can stay cool while hiking, you can nip any heat-related problems in the bud.
I know it sounds silly to stay cool while hiking in the hot summer months, but with proper planning and preparation, you can greatly mitigate the chances of heat exhaustion.
Staying hydrated is your main line of defense against heat exhaustion. As your core body temperature rises, your blood carries the excess heat away from your vital organs to your skin. When fluid flows from one heat source to another, it is a very effective way of cooling. So when you sweat, it cools your body.
If you are dehydrated this process is limited. A person who is acclimatized, or adjusted to the heat, can sweat up to three liters an hour while working hard in a warm climate. You also lose water through your breath and urine, so it doesn’t take long to deplete your water source. If you wait until you are already thirsty, you can become dehydrated.
Knowing the right things to wear while hiking in the heat is also how you can stay cool while hiking. Cotton is the main offender here. Many people know to stay away from cotton during cold months because it is slow to dry. But it also can make you hotter. Cotton can absorb 100 percent of its weight in water. This makes it a vapor barrier and prevents your sweat from evaporating.
The evaporation process is what cools you when you sweat. So because cotton absorbs your sweat and also prevents it from evaporating, it blocks your natural cooling process.
Exposing as much skin as possible is best for keeping you cool. However, exposing skin to the elements increases your risk of sunburn. And sunburns can shut down sweat glands, so that is a lose-lose situation there. Loose-fitting clothes that allow your skin to breathe are best for staying cool while hiking.
When you exercise, it makes your heart pump faster in order to increase circulation to your muscles. When hiking in the heat, you are giving your circulation system two conflicting jobs – delivering blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your muscles and moving access heat to your skin and out of your body.
Also, your muscles and hard-working circulation system generate heat causing your core temperature to rise. By simply slowing down, you give your body time to catch up and adjust. Take a break and take in the view.
Acclimatizing is a great way to condition your body so you can stay cool while hiking. Acclimatizing is simply getting your body accustomed to the elements. So, for example, you have a trip planned to Death Valley, you can start running or exercising in the heat of the day to help your body get used to being hot.
Repeated heat stress helps the body become more efficient in working in the heat. This makes the heat produced lower so you’re not making yourself as hot. Acclimatizing also helps the body improve its heat loss mechanism so it can work to cool you better.
Go for a dip
One of my favorite things to do in the summer is lounge near a creek or lake. Picking a trail with good swimming holes is a great way to stay cool while hiking.
You can also use something like a cooling towel to place around your neck. They are great to help you stay cool.
Watch for hyponatremia
One thing to remember when you’re out there trying to stay cool while hiking is a thing called hyponatremia. It sounds scary, but basically it means you don’t have enough salt. Sweat and urine contain sodium and potassium, which are electrolytes.
Your body needs electrolytes. So if you are sweating or peeing a lot, you want to replace electrolytes, as well as your fluid. There are drink mixes with electrolytes or you can be sure to eat nuts and/or fruit to help.
The symptoms of hyponatremia are very similar to heat exhaustion. The difference with hyponatremia is you will be peeing a lot and with heat exhaustion, you will be peeing very little or not at all. And your urine will be clear with hyponatremia, whereas with heat exhaustion will be dark yellow or orange.
Stay cool while hiking
It’s hot out there! But with the right planning and preparation, you don’t have to sit inside and watch Netflix all summer.