How to Survive Extreme Heat

Tips for Thriving in Hot Conditions

Seek shade to cool off in hot temperatures. Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.

If you find yourself exposed in a hot environment, you could quickly face the dangers of heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. These tips will help you know what to do before, during, and after exposure to extreme heat. By planning ahead and taking care of yourself in a hot climate, you can reduce your chances of bodily harm and increase the likelihood that you’ll not only live through the experience but also enjoy your time in the outdoors.

Plan Ahead to Survive Hot Temperatures

Before going into an extremely hot environment, make sure that you have made plans to secure and retain your most important resource: water. If you plan to find a water source along your route, check with local rangers to make sure that anticipated water sources are not dry or contaminated, and plan to use a proper water purification system. If you know that you will be traveling in a hot climate, plan your movements at the coolest parts of the day--early in the morning or late in the evening. If you are on a multi-day trip, plan to travel less in the first few days of high heat exposure to give your body time to acclimatize, and then gradually increase distances as you adjust.

Replenish Water and Salt to Combat Heat Illnesses

In very hot conditions, plan to drink at least one quart of water in the morning, at each meal, and before strenuous physical activity.

Plan to drink one quart of water per hour as a general guideline, but realize that you may need to drink more than that to allow for variations in your body size, body type, and type of activity. It’s better to drink smaller amounts of water frequently than to gulp large quantities of water on a few occasions, as drinking large quantities of water may cause heat cramps.

If possible, drink cool water (about 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit), and make the effort to keep water cool by wrapping containers in wet clothes and keeping them out of the sun.

Salt also helps the body maintain its homeostasis, so plan to replenish salt by eating regular meals. Too little salt causes heat cramps, and too little salt combined with insufficient water supply can lead to heat exhaustion. It’s okay to drink beverages designed to keep electrolytes in balance, but these should not be the only source of water.

Choose Climate-Specific Clothing and Gear

Although you may be tempted to remove clothing when you are hot, resist the temptation and remain clothed to reduce your body’s water loss to evaporation. In very high temperatures and low humidity, sweating may not be noticeable because it will evaporate quickly; therefore, make an effort to keep sweat on the skin by avoiding direct sun and by wearing clothing that covers all of your skin. Lightweight shirts, pants, hats, and scarves can provide necessary shade and comfort. Wear sunscreen on any exposed skin, and consider carrying a lightweight tarp to shade yourself if you don’t anticipate finding naturally shaded spots to rest.

Final Tips for Surviving Hot Temperatures

Take frequent rests in the shade to allow your body the opportunity to stay cool. If the shade is difficult to find, get creative by making your own shade with clothing strung over your trekking poles or by sheltering in a hole in the ground if you find yourself in a desperate situation. Remember that water is your most important resource, so protect the water that’s already in your body by avoiding the sun and the wind, as both can increase water evaporation from your body. Do not eat unless you have plenty of water, and limit or cease physical activity if your water resources are critical.