Surviving Heat Exhaustion in the Wilderness

Star of lifeWhen we step out into the wilderness, we do so assuming a certain level of risk is inherent. Our civilized beings reconcile variables and weigh that risk, which is what makes our wild being desire the adventure in the back-country. It’s the opportunity to test yourself, to push your limits, to grow, and learn to work with nature, not fight against it.

It’s a beautiful thing, really. Anyone who’s spent time in a primitive camp setting will tell you. But make no mistake, it’s not without its perils. Every year (with data provided from 1999-2005, via the CDC), there are an average of 569 heat-related deaths per year in the United States.

You need to be smart when camping and hiking, and make good decisions. You need to be prepared, carry the right gear (visit our gear store!), and have the right knowledge so ensure survival in the wilderness. So read on, and seek out more knowledge on this subject, for sure. Don’t wait till an emergency happens to “Google it”.

Let’s get to the skinny here. What IS heat exhaustion? Medical short answer:

a heat illness that presents with alterations in mental status, dizziness, nausea and headache, that is caused by mild to moderate increase in the core body temp.

A good case of heat exhaustion can reveal a CBT (core body temp) of up to 103°F, and if left untreated, may result in heat stroke. We’ll discuss heat stroke in another post, but for now, just know that it’s a place you definitely do not want to go.

How do you prevent heat exhaustion? DRINK. WATER. (visit our water/filtration gear shop) Yes, I know that’s a no brainer to most of us, but you’d be surprised how often people wait until they are really hot, and really thirsty to consume a decent amount of water. If you are waiting until your mouth is dry to hydrate you’re already dehydrated, and already riding the short bus to heat cramps and heat exhaustion. The next thing you can do is take frequent rest stops in shaded areas. If there isn’t much shade around, I hope you planned well and can pull out a pancho and create some.

Electrotabs vs Pink SaltAnother thing to consider is electrolyte balance. Drinking a bunch of water while sweating is not replacing electrolytes. This is crucial. When you work/hike/ruck in high temps, you can lose 1-3L of water per hour. Each liter you lose contains 30-50mEq of sodium chloride (salt), and each mEq is about 23mg of sodium.

In layman’s terms, drinking water is not enough, you need salt. I carry electrolyte tabs in my pack, and as a backup, a small zip-lock bag of pink Himalayan rock salt to ingest in small amounts every so often along the way. (unrefined Himalayan pink salt is absorbed easier, and contains small amounts of valuable minerals like potassium & magnesium, cations that are important to cellular osmotic balance).

Ok, so to recap on prevention: plan well, drink plenty of water, seek shade, rest, replace electrolytes and salts. Got it? Good.

However, being human, we’re going to mess this up. It’s inevitable.

So how do you treat heat exhaustion? Pretty simple, actually:

  • Step 1: remove yourself or the person suffering from it from the direct heat/sun.
  • Step 2: have them sip water, and replace electrolytes/salts.
  • Step 3: lay wet towels/handkerchiefs on their forehead, behind the neck, and on their chest/abdomen. You want to get that core body temp down. Spray them with water if possible, fan them to accelerate the cooling process.
  • Step 4: rest

If left unchecked, this gets more serious and may require IV administration of sodium chloride, which I’m sure not many of us pack in our gear. (I actually wish I could, but getting hands on 500mL/1000mL bags of NaCl is hard if you’re not an MD, but I digress…)

And there you are. Be smart. Be knowledgeable. Be prepared.

Ne te quaesiveris extra.

Sources used for reference:

Preparing for and Responding to Extreme Heat and Cold Events” “http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hsb/disaster/heatandcold.htm”

Mosby’s Paramedic, 4th ed. ©2012, by Mosby Inc.

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