Beat the Heat in a Survival Situation

Heatstroke and dehydration can be killers when you’re stranded outside on a scorching hot day. Here’s to how combat them.

a sunny and dry arizona desert

Arizona Desert Monument Valley

Surviving the heat can be a major challenge in a dry, shadeless environment.Max Pixel

Summer heat can be brutal on outdoorsmen and women. But what happens when we have to deal with both the heat and the hard work of a survival situation? We typically worry about the dangers of hypothermia in outdoor emergencies, but heat-related problems can be killers too. Heat stroke is the most dangerous foe, but dehydration, hyponatremia, and sun burn can also take their toll on a beleaguered survivor. Thankfully, there are plenty of strategies you can use to beat the heat.

1. Monitor for Dehydration

The human body is full of different fluids, each with a different job to do. Water is at the base of all these useful liquids. In fact, roughly 60 percent of an adult’s weight is from water. When this water is depleted through sweating or any other water loss, we become dehydrated. When the lack of water is mild, we face the familiar symptoms that we’ve known our entire lives. We feel an increased thirst and our mouths become dry. We don’t have to pee very often, and when we do finally pee – the urine is more yellow and stronger smelling than normal. We may also get a headache, feel sleepy or dizzy.

When dehydration is severe, the symptoms are more severe too. We will have a rapid pulse and quicker breathing. We will not need to pee, or have a small volume of dark yellow pee. Headaches will be intense, and we may feel dizziness, lethargic, or confused. If the dehydration is bad enough, we may even faint. Before things get that bad, it’s best to monitor yourself and your group for signs of dehydration. The best gauge available is urine output and volume. These two things take into account all variables (like heat, humidity, health, age, weight, exertion, etc.). Don’t worry, we’re not asking you to pee into a graduated cylinder and keep a chart of the results. A general impression is good enough. If you’re not peeing every 2-3 hours, and it’s not the normal volume for you – then you are dehydrated. It’s just as simple as that. Drink more water until your pee schedule is back to normal, and make sure you don’t overhydrate with plain water (since that can lead to our next problem, hyponatremia).

2. Identify and fight hyponatremia

salt and potassium
Salt, potassium and other minerals are critical assets for your body. When you lose too much by sweating and flood the body with plain water, you can be at risk for a rare, yet serious medical condition.DripDrop

High humidity and summer heat can cause the body to sweat profusely. When this goes on for days, and only plain water is consumed, your normal level of sodium can drop to a dangerously low percentage. It’s called hyponatremia, and it can kill. Those with heart and kidney problems can be even more vulnerable to this condition, and its symptoms are easy to confuse with dehydration. A person suffering from hyponatremia may get a headache and feel tired or confused, just like dehydration. If condition gets more severe, that’s when the symptoms veer off course from ordinary dehydration. Hyponatremia can cause mild to severe muscle cramps and spasms (some call this condition “salt cramps”). Victims may experience an altered mental state or worse. Seizure-like episodes and decreased consciousness can follow, if treatment isn’t provided. Without electrolyte replacement, the brain will swell, leading to coma and death. The solution is simple. When sweating heavily, keep replacing your salt and other electrolytes. The World Health Organization (WHO) has a simple recipe that is used during humanitarian efforts. Add a handful of sugar and a pinch of ordinary table salt to each gallon of water. This isn’t the perfect blend for optimal electrolyte replacement, but the price is right and the ingredients are common. For the next step up, consider adding oral rehydration salts to your survival kit. There are many tablets and drink mixes on the market. I’ve been using and recommending Drip Drop products for years. They do a great job hiding the terrible taste of potassium.

3. Prevent Sunburn

bull frog mosquito sunscreen repellent
Sunburn isn't just annoying. It can be really painful and add one more problem to your list of troubles in a survival scenario.Bull Frog

We’ve all been burned by touching something hot, usually by accident, but this isn’t the same kind of damage as sunburn. Thermal burns are caused by radiant or conducted heat, and they are actually cooking your skin. Sunburn is not caused by heat, but instead, by ultraviolet radiation. Even though sunlight feels warm, it’s not warm enough to actually cook you. The classic redness, swelling, and pain of sunburn are reactions caused by ultraviolet radiation damage to your skin cells. That’s why thermal burns hurt and get red immediately, but it usually takes a few hours for sunburn to manifest. Prevention is the key to avoiding this irksome injury. Avoid the sun when you can. Cover all exposed skin with clothing, if you can’t avoid the sun. If you don’t have enough clothing, find something else to cover your skin (mud works nicely). Best of all, consider bringing some sunscreen in your survival kit. This can be a life saver in terrain that offers no shade. You can double your protection by picking a product that blocks harmful UV rays and repels insects.

4. Learn About Heat Exhaustion

According to the CDC, roughly 600 people die of heat related illness in the United States each year. As we engage in our favorite outdoor activities in summer (or work to survive an outdoor emergency), we open ourselves up to risk as the temperature and humidity rise. Humid weather coupled with high heat is the worst culprit, since your sweat won’t evaporate in the water-saturated air and your body is unable to cool itself naturally. The symptoms of heat illness can vary, but victims generally have a body core temperature over 100 degrees F (technically called hyperthermia). They may also have symptoms like dizziness, weakness, extreme tiredness, clammy skin and very heavy sweating. Field treatment in a survival situation will not be as easy as an everyday situation (since cold beverages may be in short supply), but the treatment is still possible. Treat heat exhaustion with these simple steps.

  • You (or the hyperthermia victim) should lie down in the shade.
  • Raise the feet slightly.
  • Provide lots of cool fluid, ideally drinks with electrolytes.
  • Continue treatment until recovered.
  • Allow plenty of rest the day following heat exhaustion, or it may return.

Now obviously, if it’s not a wilderness survival setting and you can make a phone call, call 911for help – especially if your hyperthermia victim is elderly or reports other health issues. But when you must be your own first responder, try to catch heat exhaustion early in its progression, and make sure you catch it before it turns into heat stroke.

5. Spot a Heat Stroke

Severe hyperthermia (or heat stroke) can be recognized by a core temperature of 104 degrees F (or higher), hot dry skin, headache, dizziness and a loss of consciousness. Of all these symptoms, the easiest to notice early is the dry skin. When a person is typically having a heat stroke, they have stopped sweating. Take this symptom very seriously. In your day-to-day life, call 911 immediately if you suspect heat stroke. When you’re on your own in a survival setting, begin field treatment immediately.

  • Put your patient in the coolest place available.
  • Raise their head (this is the opposite of the feet raising for heat exhaustion).
  • Place cool wet cloth or clothing around their body and fan them to lower their temperature.
  • Monitor their temperature. When it gets below 104 degrees, replace the wet fabric with dry coverings and continue to monitor.
  • Watch for signs of shock, and be ready to resuscitate if needed.
  • Get the patient to medical care as soon as possible, or lead first responders back to your site.

6. Protect Your Pets

High summer heat can kill our pets with the same condition that can kill us – by heat stroke. If the body temperature of either a human or a dog gets over 104F, they could die. With their fur coats, dogs can’t cool down in front of a fan the same way a human can. Dogs cool down by panting, which becomes less and less effective as the heat and humidity rise. Many different animals pant to evaporate moisture from the mouth and lungs. This evaporation normally cools their body, but if the humidity is high – evaporation cannot take place and their body can overheat quickly. Keep your pets in the coolest place available in hot weather, and make sure they have plenty of cool water to drink. Shade is important, and cool surfaces to lie on will help as well. Never leave your pets alone in a vehicle, not even for a minute, in hot weather.

7. Handle The Heat

Getting out of the direct sunlight is a great start for keeping cool. Set up shelter in the form of tents or a sun shade made from tarps and rope. If these aren't available as building materials, then use brush and vegetation to build a brush hut for shade and protection. Next, cool down with wet cloth. This could be a wet bandanna wrapped around your neck or wet clothing (as long as you have something dry to changing into for the night time temperature drop). Don't work or travel in midday, if you can avoid it. If you must move during the midday heat, create some shade that is portable. Stretch a space blanket or a piece of cloth over a branch, and you have created a makeshift parasol. This can allow you to walk and bring your "shade tree" with you. Make sure you stay hydrated, and don't give yourself a heat stroke while trying to build a shelter to prevent heat stroke. Plan ahead for hot sunny days and high humidity, by building your shelter in the cooler temperatures of the morning or evening.