Your survival guide to outwitting the heat

Summer may soon be over- but the heat is still with us.

As we move into fall, we begin to ignore the potential for heat-related emergencies.  Equip yourself with the information and knowledge you need to avoid becoming a statistic. Safety through knowledge and preparation is your best defense.

Heat Emergencies: 

Here's the Deal: The most likely to ruin an outing or experience, sunburns are the most forgotten and ignored of Heat Emergencies. Those of us engaged in activities like hiking, climbing, and skiing are at higher risk for severe sunburn because of altitude, length of exposure and distraction by whatever activity we are doing.  If you’re lying by the pool you are likely to pay attention to your skin.  If you’re climbing, you probably are not.

Prevention: Management of sunburn is all about prevention.  Wear hats and cover up, and use sunscreen. Do these things early, before you burn, because once you do it’s really difficult to make it feel much better.  

Treatment: A sunburn is a first degree burn just like any other except it’s usually over a large area.  When a sunburn blisters it is a second degree burn and creates risk of infection in addition to ongoing pain.  If the sunburn is severe, cover the blisters with loose, clean gauze.  Ibuprofen and related medicines can help with pain.

Heat Exhaustion:
Here's the Deal: Heat exhaustion is the first stage of a real heat emergency.  The symptoms result from the body starting to lose its ability to compensate for the heat.  

Signs & Symptoms: People with heat exhaustion typically have cool, pale, and sweaty skin, and a fast heart rate.  They usually are short of breath, dizzy, and often are nauseated.  Depending on how serious their degree of heat exhaustion is they may have some or all of the symptoms.

Treatment: When you recognize these symptoms in yourself or a team member you should begin treatment immediately.  Remove the person from the hot environment if at all possible.  If you are in the field, find or make shade for the person.  Evaporative cooling is best.  Wet the person’s skin and then fan.  Once they are no longer nauseated they can begin to rehydrate.  Repeated smaller doses of water or electrolyte drinks work better than drinking a large amount all at once.  Putting down a whole liter at once is more likely to induce vomiting.

Heat Stroke:
Here's the Deal: If heat exhaustion is not treated it can progress to heat stroke.  During heat exhaustion, the body’s thermoregulatory mechanisms are working, but beginning to be overwhelmed.  Despite the symptoms, the body’s temperature stays within a reasonable range.  In heat stroke these mechanisms fail and shut down and the body’s core temperature begins to rise dangerously. 

Signs & Symptoms: A victim’s skin will be hot, flushed, and dry- because they will have stopped sweating.  These people will be confused or unconscious.

Treatment: The treatment for heat stroke is the same as for heat exhaustion. However, this is an immediate life threatening emergency.  As the temperature rises damage to the brain and other organs will begin.

Note: Some people are more susceptible to heat stroke.  The elderly, the very young and those on many medications face the risk of progressing from heat exhaustion to heat stroke much more quickly.


A focus on prevention is by far the best way to manage these environmental illnesses. Any experienced outdoor enthusiast will account for each of these three heat-related emergencies during their planning. 

Preparing for the heat is an everyday task. Consider these key points: 

  • Keep extra water in your vehicle.  If you and your party run out of water but make it back to your vehicle you want to have the benefit of rehydrating before you have to drive.  Driving while severely dehydrated can be dangerous, especially if it involves off road travel.
  • Do not have too much faith in your GPS.  These devices are great for many things, but they frequently lead people who are driving in rural areas into unexpected conditions.  There continues to be fatalities due to people putting their faith in their GPS and getting lost in remote areas during hot or cold weather. Verify the information. Have a map. Trust your instincts and use good judgement. 
  • Do not assume there will be water at a site just because there has been in the past or because a map, book, or video says there is.  Talk to rangers or locals to make sure it is still available.  It can be very dangerous to arrive at your backcountry destination having consumed all the water you brought with you only to discover you can't refill your bottles. 
  • Have a "B-Plan" in case your water filter malfunctions. Your backup plan may be to boil water, use iodine, etc. 
  • Do not base your water budget on weight, base it on your needs.  You may not want to carry 16 lbs. of water but if that is what your body will require it is foolhardy not to.  Trying to get by on less water than you need is always a bad idea.  Sometimes a particular hike just can’t be done in certain conditions.  Pick a different trip and wait for cooler weather.
  • Manage both your intake and your output.  In situations where water may be scarce and the heat relentless, it is important to consider your level of exertion or exercise. During these times, it is important to pace yourself and consider the risk-to-benefit ratio of completing a task that requires physical effort.

Share your stories and experiences with folks. We'd love to hear from you.