Summertime means one thing for outdoor enthusiasts: hiking! Hiking is a great way to get outside and enjoy the beautiful scenery that our country has to offer. However, it’s important to be aware of the dangers that come with hiking in the heat and be prepared to avoid heat-related illnesses.
How to avoid heat-related illness
When it comes to hiking in the heat, it’s important to take precautions to avoid heat-related illness.
Some tips for staying safe include:
Drink plenty of water
One of the most common problems during the summer is dehydration. It is important to drink lots of water daily, but you need to be especially careful the day before you go hiking in hot weather. If you are dehydrated, it can make you sick and give you a headache.
Bring lots of water, or other hydration with electrolytes, during your trip. The human body can absorb just over 1 liter of water per hour, so don’t be bashful about drinking water while you trek. You’re not only losing moisture and minerals when you sweat.
If you are going on a long hike this summer, you can take water treatment options like a water filter or purification tablets. If you run out of water and are near a water source like a stream or river, these options can be useful. Ideally, you would drink from a known, clean source of water.
Wear appropriate clothing and use sunscreen
For both comfort and functionality, the clothes you wear are crucial. Light-colored clothing (such as tan or khaki), which will deflect sunshine off your body, is a good idea. You might also want to consider clothing with zip vents so that your skin can feel cooled air without trapping any against it.
Cotton clothes do not wick sweat away from your body as some technical shirts and pants do. In the summer, cotton clothes that retain moisture might feel a little cooler, but it can also lead to issues like painful chafing. If you are planning on hiking into the evening or night, avoid cotton.
Wearing a hat protects your skin from the sun. A trucker hat is good, but a bigger sunhat or wide-brimmed hat is better.
Don’t forget to apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to your skin.
Start early and pace yourself
When hiking in hot weather, it is important to start early, take breaks, and go slowly. This will help you avoid being too hot later in the day. The best time to hike is in the morning when it is cooler. If you finish your hike before noon, you will be less likely to be hot and sweaty.
The hottest time of the day is typically in the afternoon, around 3 pm. This is a good time to finish your hike because you will have more energy and it will be cooler.
Hiking in the heat can be strenuous, and it’s important to listen to your body and take breaks as needed.
How to identify heat-related illnesses
Heat-related illnesses can be prevented if you know the symptoms and what to do if someone you know has one. The CDC can help you learn what to look for and how to get help.
Heatstroke, also known as sunstroke, is a serious heat-related illness. It happens when the body’s temperature rises uncontrollably: the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. When heat stroke strikes, the temperature in the body may rise to 106°F or more in 10 to 15 minutes. If a person who is suffering from heat stroke does not receive emergency medical treatment, it can be fatal.
- Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness (coma)
- Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
- Very high body temperature
- Fatal if treatment delayed
How to help a person with heat stroke
- Call 911 for emergency medical care.
- Stay with the person until emergency medical services arrive.
- Move the person to a shaded, cool area and remove outer clothing.
- Cool the person quickly, using the following methods:
- With cold water or an ice bath, if possible
- Wet the skin
- Place cold wet cloths on the skin
- Soak clothing with cool water
- Circulate the air around the person to speed cooling.
- Place cold wet cloths or ice on the head, neck, armpits, and groin; or soak the clothing with cool water.
Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to losing too much water and salt, usually through excessive sweating.
Heat exhaustion is most likely to affect:
- The elderly
- People with high blood pressure
- Those working in a hot environment
- Heavy sweating
- Elevated body temperature
- Decreased urine output
How you can help a person suffering from heat exhaustion
- Take the person to a clinic or emergency room for medical evaluation and treatment.
- Call 911 if medical care is unavailable.
- Have someone stay with the person until help arrives.
- Remove the person from the hot area and give liquids to drink.
- Remove unnecessary clothing, including shoes and socks.
- Cool the person with cold compresses or have the person wash their head, face, and neck with cold water.
- Encourage frequent sips of cool water.
Rhabdomyolysis is a medical condition that can happen when someone is very hot and sweaty for a long time. This happens when the muscle breaks down and dies. When this happens, the electrolytes and big proteins that are in the muscle go into the blood. This can cause problems with the heart, seizures, and kidney damage.
- Muscle cramps/pain
- Abnormally dark (tea or cola-colored) urine
- Exercise intolerance
How to help a person with rhabdomyolysis
- Stop activity
- Drink more liquids (water preferred)
- Seek immediate care at the nearest medical facility.
- Ask to be checked for rhabdomyolysis (i.e., blood sample analyzed for creatine kinase).
Heat syncope is a fainting (syncope) episode or dizziness that usually occurs when standing for too long or suddenly standing up after sitting or lying. Factors that may contribute to heat syncope include dehydration and lack of acclimatization.
- Fainting (short duration)
- Light-headedness from standing too long or suddenly rising from a sitting or lying position
How to help a person with heat syncope
- Sit or lie down in a cool place.
- Slowly drink water, clear juice, or a sports drink.
Heat cramps usually affect people who sweat a lot during strenuous activity. This sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture levels. Low salt levels in muscles cause painful cramps. Heat cramps may also be a symptom of heat exhaustion.
Muscle cramps, pain, or spasms in the abdomen, arms, or legs
How to help a person with heat cramps
- Drink water and have a snack or a drink that replaces carbohydrates and electrolytes (such as sports drinks) every 15 to 20 minutes
- Avoid salt tablets
Get medical help if the person:
- Has heart problems
- Is on a low sodium diet
- Has cramps that do not subside within 1 hour
Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather.
- Red clusters of pimples or small blisters
- Usually appears on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases
People who have heat rash should:
- Work in a cooler, less humid environment, if possible.
- Keep the rash area dry.
- Apply powder to increase comfort.
- Don’t use ointments and creams.
Stay safe while hiking this summer!