There are a lot of intense dangers in nature, but perhaps the scariest of all is a hot, silent killer. According to the CDC, high temperatures kill more people in the U.S. than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods combined.
Here’s how to survive a heat wave when you’re going to be outside all day.
How Extreme Heat Kills
To understand how to survive in extreme heat, you need to know how extreme eat can harm you. Outside of making you severely uncomfortable, heat can slowly but surely shut your vital systems down – and the symptoms can be surprisingly hard to notice, especially in children and the elderly. There’s more to it than the sun slowly cooking you with it’s all-powerful rays.
Here’s how it works:
- A high pressure weather system moves in. That system pulls air down from the upper atmosphere toward the ground, then the air compresses and heats up. This high pressure system prevents cloud cover and inhibits wind, making the sun’s already intense heat even worse.
- When we spend time outside in this heat, our core body temperature rises, triggering our body’s cool-down system: sweat. We dissipate the heat by sweating out moisture, which then evaporates on our skin to cool us down. But in extreme heat, we either sweat too much for it to have time to evaporate, or high humidity prevents moisture from evaporating. That leads to more and more sweating as our body kicks your cool-down system into overdrive, and that leads to dehydration.
- At this point, you start to get very thirsty because your body is desperately trying to replenish the fluids you’ve lost while sweating. You also start to run low on electrolytes, which can cause symptoms like muscle cramps, exhaustion, and fainting.
- If the heat isn’t dissipated, you become in danger of suffering heatstroke. The heat completely overwhelms the body’s ability to cool itself and you stop sweating entirely. At that point, the heat overloads your brain and you become dizzy, weak, uncoordinated, confused, nauseated, and possibly unconscious.
- Eventually, your blood gets thicker and has less oxygen due to water loss and the heart and kidneys have to work harder to pump your blood and clean it. In response, the heart tries to pump more blood faster, which heats up the body even more.
- As your heart desperately tries to pump blood, your skin starts to feel cold and clammy. Before you know it, your brain can’t handle the lack of oxygen and shuts down for good.
Fortunately, as horrifying as that all sounds, there’s a lot you can do prevent it from happening.
Wear Loose, Lightweight, Light-Coloured Clothing Made of Cotton
The clothing you wear in extreme heat is paramount to both your comfort and your safety. Clothing should be loose enough to allow air flow between the fabric and your skin so evaporation of sweat is possible. Remember, no evaporation means no cooling.
Your clothing should also be lightweight, meaning both light to carry on your body (more weight means more work, which means more burning of energy and more generation of heat) and not so thick that air can’t flow through the fabric. Light coloured clothing, like white, beige, and other similar tones are ideal as well. Lighter colours reflect sunlight, thus reflecting some heat.
Most importantly, make sure your clothing is made of cotton. Cotton absorbs excess moisture on your body, which aids the evaporation process so your body can cool down. Fancy sweat-wicking fabrics may be great for a temperature regulated gym or during cooler hours of the day, but they aren’t ideal for high heat.
Soak Clothing, Hats, and Towels In Water
Because cotton is so good at absorbing and retaining moisture, you can soak your clothing in water and cool off that way. Take off your shirt, then dunk it in a stream or pour some water from a bottle all over it. Give it a wring, then put it back on. You’ll cool off quickly.
Hats are useful in more ways than one. They can keep sun out of your eyes and off your face, but they can also be soaked in water to keep your head nice and cool. Let outside sources of water evaporate on your skin so you don’t have to sweat as much.
Last but not least, it’s a good idea to carry a towel or rag with you when you head outside in the heat. Get it wet, wring it out, then wear it on the back of your neck. There are even some specialty towels out there designed to hold water better than cotton and keep you cool longer.
Find Shade and Spend Time In It Regularly
On days where it feels like the sun is mere feet away, shade is everything. No matter what you’re doing outside, you should be looking for shade and cooling off in it as much as possible. When someone is being treated for possible heatstroke, medical personnel follow the “cool first, transport second” protocol, and it’s a good rule to follow for your own adventures.
If you’re feeling your temperature rise, find shade and cool yourself before you try to move again. Don’t try to suffer through the heat in long spurts because you think you’re close to your destination. Take it slow and cool.
Don’t Overexert Yourself
Here’s the deal: the more you move the hotter you’ll get; the less you move the more you’ll cool down. Around 80 per cent of the energy you burn when you exercise is transformed into heat, and you don’t need any more of that when it’s already roasting outside.
Take breaks (in the shade) and don’t push yourself too hard. Exertional heatstroke, or what’s known as sunstroke, is one of the top three killers of athletes and soldiers in training.
Drink Water and Replenish Electrolytes
Drink water! The human body does a pretty decent job of keeping you cool, but you have to provide it the fuel it needs to do so. That means drinking so much water you think it might be too much. Also, replenish your body’s electrolytes with salt if you can.
And avoid drinks with alcohol, caffeine, and carbonation. These types of liquids can lead to dehydration or slow the hydration process. Obviously, you don’t want to waste water if you know you have a limited supply and a long way to travel, but you should pack enough to drink a lot during your time outdoors. Bring more than you think you need.
Avoid Using Handheld Electric Fans
As nice as they may feel, FEMA recommends you don’t use electric fans when temperature outside is more than 30 degrees. They explain that fans create air flow and a false sense of comfort, but they don’t do anything to actually reduce your body temperature. Furthermore, they dry the skin so evaporation can’t occur. This false comfort and lack of cooling could lead to a surprise attack of sunstroke.
Carry a Misting Bottle
Instead of a fan, carry a misting bottle. It’s your best bet for providing comfort in the high heat. A quick spurt or two of water covers your face in tiny water droplets that will quickly evaporate and help you cool off. It will only help lower your temperature a little bit, but it will help you feel more comfortable. Just make sure it’s a misting bottle, not a spraying bottle, so you can conserve water and provide more even coverage on your skin.
If the heat outside is above 30 degrees, be cautious and only go out if you are fully prepared. Heat above 40 degrees should be avoided if possible, and if it’s 45 degrees or higher outside, don’t even try. It’s not worth the risk.