The word “summer” means many things to many people. For some it is a reminder of warm days beside the pool, cookouts and wonderful evenings. For residents of the Southwest, the word summer is more of a warning than a season. With the temperature reaching triple digits for days and weeks at a time, the Southwest has a well-earned reputation of being brutally hot all summer long.
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While the obvious locations such as Death Valley are known for extreme heat, most residential centers across the Southwest see scorching heat as well. Lake Havasu, Arizona, currently sits at the top of this list with a record temperature of 128 degrees Fahrenheit on June 29, 1994. Not far behind it is Phoenix with a toasty record of 122 degrees set on June 26, 1990. The air temperature reached the point that Sky Harbor International Airport was temporarily closed as pilots did not have sufficient information on their lift charts to safely take off or land. These population centers see not only extreme highs, but constant heat as well. The vast amount of concrete and asphalt create heat islands. As these hard surfaces are bombarded by the sun they heat up and stay hot for long periods of time. This makes for even dangerous nighttime temperatures in the 100-degree range at times.
Yes, it is a cliché, yet there is a great deal of truth to dry heat. The lack of humidity in the air can make the temperature seem much cooler than it is. This is dangerous for the uninitiated as they may not take proper precautions while outside and end up with heat-related health issues. With the arid nature of the desert, people dehydrate simply by breathing. To better make this point we need to explore some of the dangers associated with extreme heat.
Heat pushes the human body to keep cool and maintain a normal internal temperature. This is accomplished through sweat, which evaporates on the skin, thus cooling the body. In arid, hot areas, this moisture can evaporate so quickly that the person never gets the cooling benefits of the action. This can lead to a chain of health problems. The first thing generally experienced are heat cramps; these are severe muscle cramps brought on by the initial stages of dehydration. While not fatal, they are a painful reminder that heat can be your enemy. The second stage possible is heat exhaustion. This can be characterized by headaches, dizziness, nausea and fainting. If left untreated, it can move into the most dangerous of the conditions—heat stroke. Heat stroke is a serious, life-threatening condition where the body’s core temperature reaches 105 degrees or above. Unconsciousness is one of the primary signs of heat stroke, along with short, shallow breathing, a rapid heart rate and hot, dry skin. Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition and victims will require emergency medical attention.
Long-time residents of the arid regions understand the need for proper hydration and protection from the sun. It is a rare sight to see someone living in one of these areas without water in their hands during summer outdoor activities. Water really is the elixir of life in the desert.
Surviving and thriving in extreme heat takes some serious planning and understanding of the dangers. Arizona is well known for its epic summer temperatures. It is also a great place to look at what we can do to protect ourselves from the heat. These rules can be used anywhere there is extreme heat. As with any known threat or danger, it is essential that it be recognized and respected. For visitors to hot regions, it is important to educate yourself about the unique challenges you may face. Read guides and talk with locals to better enjoy your time. The keys to dealing with the heat are straightforward and simple.
Stay hydrated. Drink water at every opportunity. Avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages as they tend to speed up dehydration. A well-made water bottle is essential equipment in the Southwest. One of the most popular is the CamelBak Groove bottle. It is a solid water bottle with a built-in filter. It’s a good looking, functional item that should be part of your everyday life. A commonly accepted, if not socially uncomfortable, way to check your hydration levels is through urine color. If hydrated properly, it should be mostly clear. Dark or cloudy urine is a telltale sign of dehydration. There is no shortage of electrolyte drinks on the market. If you go that route, choose one low in sugar. While not the same as getting electrolytes from whole food, Gatorade G2 has less calories and sugar than its big brother.
Cover up. While it seems counterintuitive, you need to protect your skin from the sun. Lightweight, baggy, light-colored clothing can help keep the sun’s cooking rays off of your skin. Equally as important is a light, wide-brimmed hat to protect your head. Together, they can help you avoid painful sunburns. A company popular in the Southwest is Coolibar. This company makes clothes designed to provide solid SPF protection while staying light and comfortable.
Eat light. Avoid heavy, protein-rich foods as they demand large amounts of water from your body to digest. Meals should be well balanced and include fruits and vegetables to help maintain your electrolyte levels.
Manage your time outdoors. Plan your activities for the early part of the day if possible. Take breaks indoors with air conditioning to allow your body to cool down. If you must be out in the hottest part of the day, pace your activities and increase your water intake. Seek shade when you can.
Listen to your body. While physical issues caused by heat tend to start small, they do not necessarily happen slowly. Depending on your physical condition and health issues, people can quickly suffer heat stroke. If you begin to feel fatigued, it is time to seek shelter and cool your body.
If you find yourself in the wilderness during extreme heat, you need to be diligent about hydration. Travel only at night if possible and seek cover when the sun becomes high in the sky. If you are lost, it is best to stay in place and construct a marker capable of being seen by searching aircraft. If you must move, follow game paths and move towards lights. If you plan on spending time in rural desert areas, it is prudent to understand plant life and the creatures that inhabit the region. While some cactus can be used for water, others can be toxic. It is important to know which is which before you start the adventure. Even if you plan on just a short hike, it is recommended that you take along a survival kit. It can include everything you would keep in your car with the addition of a Gerber Survival Tool and an Adventure Medical Kits SOL signal mirror. Channel your inner Boy Scout and be prepared.
Heat Wave Hazards
The realities of summer heat are not the sole prize of the Southwest. Heat across the rest of the U.S. can be as, if not more, deadly. Residents of the deserts understand the heat and are conditioned to it over time. Low humidity and exposure management allow these people to thrive in the desert. Less fortunate are residents of areas that occasionally see incredible temperatures in comparison to what they are accustomed to. Areas such as Kansas and North Dakota have experienced temperatures as high as 120 degrees. This, combined with high humidity, makes them an extreme heat danger to residents.
According to statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the years between 1999 and 2010, there were over 7,400 deaths attributed to excessive natural heat. A majority of these people lived in areas unaccustomed to sweltering heat waves. When humidity becomes a factor, we must look a little deeper than just what the thermometer says.
The heat index is a formula that combines the air temperature with relative humidity to produce what the perceived temperature is. Essentially, it measures how hot it feels. The natural act of perspiring to stay cool becomes impeded when the relative humidity is high. The sweat on your body just sits and soaks into clothing more than it evaporates. This creates a level of discomfort because our natural cooling process is slowed. The heat index is an important number in determining the dangers residents of an area face. This is especially true for the elderly and ill. Excessive heat with humidity is more than an annoyance—it can be deadly. If you experience a heat wave, follow the same guidelines laid out for desert dwellers. Drink water and strive to keep yourself cool. Seek air-conditioned buildings and check on elderly or ill friends and family.
Regardless of whether you live in downtown Phoenix in July or Kansas City in August, heat can be a challenge. By being prepared and staying hydrated you can go beyond just getting through the summer and actually enjoy it.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE TM Fall 2014 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.