Surviving Summer's Heat |
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Every year people die from heat in the United States and elsewhere. The summer heat can be a killer if you are not prepared, and do not understand the ways of the sun. We are experiencing a heat wave in the NW right now, and I thought it would be a good time to talk about how heat works. Knowing a few essential things about heat could save your life. Whether you are involved in an auto emergency, or have gotten lost hiking, or even if you are just experiencing high heat levels in the city, there are things you should know about heat and health. For instance, waiting until you are thirsty is not a way to gauge dehydration. Waiting until your skin is pink is not a way to gauge whether you are getting sunburned. It is considerably hotter (up to 30 degrees hotter) at ground level, than if you are sitting up a foot off the ground. These are some of the heat basics you can learn now, to make your life safer in heat.
The main things that affect health in a heat situation will be dehydration, direct radiation saturation including sunburn, hyperthermia in the day and hypothermia at night. Heat emergencies (or hyperthermia) fall into three categories of increasing severity: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. In excessive heat situations, heat cramps (caused by loss of salt from heavy sweating) can lead to heat exhaustion (caused by dehydration and the body getting too warm), which can progress to heatstroke, which happens when the body can no longer cool itself down and is overwhelmed. Heatstroke, the most serious of the three, can cause shock, brain damage, organ failure, and even death. The symptoms for heat exhaustion are headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and confusion. Heat stroke can be deadly, and many symptoms of heat exhaustion can go unnoticed until they bowl a person over all at once, and the situation is suddenly critical. One medic I talked to said, "The scary thing about heatstroke is: you can be treated in the field, rushed to the hospital, treated further, and released in good condition, and two weeks later, you die anyway because of irreversible damage to vital organs. ER care is not enough -- heatstroke survivors need appropriately skilled aftercare." Prevention is the key here.
You can supposedly live 2 ½ days in 110 degree heat on 8 pints of water every 24 hours, if you rest during the day and travel twenty miles a night on foot. The idea is to conserve sweat, not water. This can be applied to city life too. You still need to conserve sweat, not water, on city streets too. Remember that it takes water to digest food so eat sparingly if you are drinking little water. But do eat. You will need the salt and nutrients. People rarely starve to death in heat emergencies, but instead suffer most commonly from dehydration, hypo/hyperthermia, and injury. Experts say if you have water, drink it, do not ration it. Breath through your nose, and keep your mouth shut, to reduce water loss and drying of mucous membranes in mouth. Talking, smoking, excessively salty foods and alcohol will quicken dehydration. Some recommend "prehydrating" during hot spells, drinking lots of water, as well as Recharge, and other sports drinks, so you have a "fluid cushion" to fall back on during the day's scorching heat.
Remember, by the time you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. You need to make sure to replace salt and electrolytes, as well as water, if you are sweating a lot. Once feeling dehydrated, take sips of liquid, not gulps, or else you may become nauseous. The U.S. Army website (http://www.usariem.army.mil) has a rehydration recipe: "Add to 1 liter (1 quart) of water, 3.5 grams table salt (NaCl), 2.5 grams baking soda (NaHCO3), 1.5 grams potassium salt (KCl), and 20.0 grams sugar (glucose), and drink as needed for rehydration. Note: 5 grams equals 1 teaspoon." It also has a "Garrison Recipe," of "One cup (8 ounces) of fruit juice (orange or apple) with one half teaspoon of sugar or honey and a pinch of salt, followed by one cup of water with a quarter teaspoon of baking soda added. Drink this combination until thirst is quenched." It may be wise to include the ingredients for these recipes in a first aid kit.
Sun umbrellas are quite common in hot countries such as Africa, and they come decorated in beautiful designs. Bringing a collapsible hand umbrella in your vehicle, in case of a heat emergency, is not stupid. While minimal clothing, such as sun dresses, shorts and sleeveless tops can provide maximum ventilation in the shade, they are not cooling in the sun, as the skin will absorb the heat from the sun directly. Nor will sleeveless clothing protect skin from sunburn. It is best to take loose, lightweight, cotton clothing that covers the skin in sun/heat situations. And anyone who has touched a hot car handle in the sun, knows metal in sun burns. Watch out for metal necklaces and rings, that will brand you in the sun, as well as hair accessories that are metal, as they will radiate heat for hours after the sun is gone. Metal rimmed eye and sunglasses can also be problematic in direct sun.
It is recommended that you stay with your vehicle if you have a breakdown in excessive heat. A car is easier for rescuers to spot than a person wandering in the sun. If you are on a road, it is better to stay on a road, than wander off road. And you can use the vehicle as shelter, and it can hold supplies. You can tie a tarp off the side of the car for shade, and use a tires, car seats, branches, etc. to get yourself sitting up off the ground at least 12 inches. Do not sit or lie directly on the ground as it is exponentially hotter the closer to the ground you sit. If you are driving in summer heat, your car should have lots of water, food, sports drinks, proper clothing, and tarps, clear and dark. Tarps can give you essential shade that could save your life, or can be used to build solar stills in a dire emergency. If you break down and are near water, it is best to remain there and signal rescuers. Use smoky fires for day signals and bright fires for night signals. Three fires set in a triangle is an internationally-recognized distress signal. Other ways to signal for help are disturbing the natural landscape, and/or using rocks or brush for a triangle. A signal mirror can be seen 10 miles away, and at great distances even on cloudy days. Face the mirror towards the sun and flash the sun on and off it. It is hard to miss the on and off motion from afar. Your vehicle will have mirrors on it, but a belt buckle will work too.
In a worse case scenario, if you must leave your car in a heat emergency such as in the desert, etc., make sure to take light colored and loose fitting clothing, as well as a head dress of some sort to cover neck and scalp, and protect from the glare of sun, etc. Clothing will also help protect from sunburns, which will help with cooling, as sunburned skin does not cool one's body down the same as normal skin. Also, sunburn does not begin to appear until 2 - 8 hours after exposure, and usually peaks 24 - 36 hours later, so do not wait for pink skin to alert you to take precautions. Wear shoes, as sand can chafe feet eventually. If you have to walk, walk at night, rest every hour, and prop feet up regularly. Some warn that you may not be able to get shoes back on once you take them off in extreme heat while walking, due to swelling, so the recommend do not remove shoes, but instead adjust them on rest stops. Take a tarp with you if you are walking, for shade and water condensation. Carry all the water you can.
If you must find water in the desert, try not to spend more water in sweat than you gain back in water found/made. It is good to have water purifier/iodine tablets with you on your trek also, as desert water can have Giardia, and other bacteria and viruses. Take iodine tablets or some other purifier with you and use them before drinking any water you find. Look for green areas, with plants and trees, there is probably water there somewhere. But remember, what looks like 5 miles in a desert is probably 20 miles, so wherever you think you see something, realize it is probably four times that far in reality once you start walking there. Flocks of birds will circle over water holes. Watch and listen for them, they fly at dusk and dawn. Do not follow eagles and hawks to water though, only birds like doves and pigeons. The presence of bees signals surface water is within a few miles often, as bees fly in a straight line to and from water up to 1000 metres away. You can wrap a plastic bag around tree branches, such as Mesquite and palo verde, and through transpiration, the tree will give off water through the leaves and leave water in the bag for you to drink, but you will have to wait a while for very little water, although it is said this method can collect up to 2 cups of water per day per branch.
Another method of water collection is a solar still. One digs a hole in the ground, fills the pit with vegetation, puts a container to catch the water in the middle of the pit, then puts a tarp over the pit, held down by rocks. A rock is placed on top of the tarp, in the middle of it, once the pit is sealed with rocks. The desert heat will make the water condense and then run down the sheet into the container. Supposedly this is a last ditch effort and usually consumes more water making it, through sweat, than one recovers in water extracted. But in a worst case scenario, it is better than nothing. And last but not least, watch out for flash floods in deserts during storms. Stay out of washes, even when thunderheads are far off in the distance. Downpours in the distance can quickly roll down the parched desert floor in a torrent. Take care to prepare when you travel through desert areas in the summer. Use common sense, and take necessary precautions, just in case you ever need them for unexpected desert survival.
I have written two other articles that may interest you related to heat: "Surviving Summer Protests" (resist.ca/~kirstena/pagesurvivingsummerprotests.html) which covers the interaction of protest and heat issues, and another article called "Natural Sunburn Remedies" (resist.ca/~kirstena/pagenaturalsunburnremedies.html) which has recipes for natural sunburn care.