We've finally gotten back to that time of year where we can ditch our heavy winter coats and everything starts to turn green again. The official start of summer is quickly approaching us. Despite it still technically being spring, however, the temperatures sure make it feel like summer!
In fact, here in Kentucky it has been hot to the point of being potentially dangerous. That's why I want to take some time to discuss heat exhaustion. This is one of the biggest threats to hikers this time of year, so it's important to know what it is, how to recognize it and what steps to take to treat it and even avoid it all together.
What is Heat Exhaustion?
Those of you that took any basic biology class may be familiar with the idea that your body tries to maintain a certain state of homeostasis. This is just a really fancy way of saying that your body likes everything to be maintained a certain way.
In the context of heat exhaustion, we are concerned with the body's tendency to maintain a constant body temperature. For an average human this temperature your body likes to maintain is roughly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Naturally, the outside environment will affect just how hard your body has to work to maintain this temperature. When it's colder out, your body will have to keep you warm. Likewise, in warmer weather, your body has to work to keep you cool. It does the later primarily by producing sweat.
When you heavily exert yourself in hot, humid conditions, however, your body becomes much less capable of maintaining its core temperature. If your body can't cool itself properly, you can develop heat exhaustion.
If left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to a much more serious, potentially life-threatening condition called heat stroke. Heat stroke can cause permanent brain damage and even prove fatal if immediate medical care is not given. This is why it's so important to recognize heat exhaustion and treat/prevent it before it can ever get to that point!
How to Prevent Heat Exhaustion
Before we dive into the symptoms and treatment of heat exhaustion, let's first take some time to discuss how to prevent it from ever happening! There are a number of steps you can take to prevent yourself from ever having problems with heat exhaustion out on the trail:
- Dress Appropriately: This should be one of the most obvious ways to prevent yourself from overheating. Your best bet is to wear loose fitting, lightweight clothing. This is going to do a world of good for helping your body keep itself cool!
- Drink lots of Water: The main way your body cools itself is by producing sweat. You can do this if you're dehydrated! It's crucial that you drink plenty of fluids while hiking in the heat. Also watch for signs of dehydration. Dark colored urine or infrequent urination can be early warning signs of this. That's your cue to start drinking more! It's also best to avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine, which can both dehydrate you.
- Take Breaks: Look, I get it. We've got places to see, overlooks to enjoy and sunsets to photograph. We all want to be able to crush those miles when we hike. In the heat, however, it's important to pace yourself. Take breaks in the shade to give your body a chance to cool off. Trust me, budgeting for these breaks are a lot better than getting heat exhaustion!
- Play in the Water: Who said these preventative measures couldn't be fun? The heat gives you a perfect excuse to go for a swim or play in that creek. It's a fantastic way to help your body cool itself. Even wetting your clothes can be a big help!
- Avoid Sunburn: Sunburn affects your body's ability to cool itself off. This, among other reasons, is a great reason to avoid sunburn!
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion
Even if you take steps to avoid heat exhaustion, it's still critical that you know how to recognize it. Not only for yourself, but for your adventure companions and anyone else you come across on the trail. Knowing how to recognize and treat heat exhaustion could save a life! The possible symptoms of heat exhaustion are:
- Profuse Sweating
- Muscle Cramps
- A weak, rapid pulse
- Pale skin
Treatment of heat exhaustion is pretty similar to the steps taken to avoid it in the first place. The whole idea is to get the person's body temperature back down to a safe level.
- Have the person cease all activity, sit down and rest.
- Remove any excess, tight fitting clothing.
- Give the person plenty of fluids to rehydrate them.
- Soak the persons clothing in water. If possible, sit them down in a stream.
In short, do whatever you can do to get that person hydrated and cooled down. If the symptoms of heat exhaustion don't subside, it's time to call for help. There's no shame in needing assistance from search and rescue or other emergency services. That's what they're there for!
Hopefully now you know how to recognize, treat and even prevent heat exhaustion. This is crucial knowledge for anyone that plans on adventuring in the summer heat!