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Understanding Heat Exhaustion

By Jason Lathrop - June 18th, 2003

On only two occasions have I thought I might die: The most grave occasion involved severe dehydration in the California desert. (The other occasion involved a stuck gas pedal, a Plymouth, and a twisty Wasatch road, but that doesn't concern us here.)

My brother and I had decided to celebrate my first vacation from that urban blight known as New York by spending a few days in Joshua Tree. I was ecstatic to be back among Western vistas, searing heat, and absolute quiet - all of which contributed to an impromptu decision to extend a six-mile, out-and-back hike into a 17-mile loop. It was early still and we felt strong. Our decision was supported by a hiker we met who assured us there was a water faucet at a campground along the loop.

Needless to say, there was no water at that campground. By the last three or four miles, I was suffering the beginning stages of heat exhaustion - nauseated, demoralized, and cramping. And scared.

Heat exhaustion and stroke are not conditions to dismiss lightly. In the American wilderness, foreign wilderness, or even a tropical capital city, you need to be aware of heat-related dangers.

Mistakes to avoid

We were extremely, extremely, fortunate we didn't make an error finding our way back to camp. We had definitely used up our margin for error and made nearly all the mistakes we could have:

We pushed ourselves while still acclimating. I had flown from cool New York to the searing California desert in late spring, allowing my body no time to adjust to the severe heat. Among other things, your body over the first few weeks in a hot climate transfers fat away from the skin and toward internal organs. It also becomes more efficient with water use.

We didn't have enough water. In the hottest of hot conditions, you need to drink what seems like a ludicrous amount of water. A liter every couple of hours is not unreasonable if you are working hard. Take an extra bottle and make certain you know where the next water is.

Other important points

While we did screw up on the above, there are other important precautions we did take. You should also:

Wear appropriate clothing. A wide-brimmed, well-ventilated hat and a cotton long-sleeved T-shirt are the most important items. Cover your legs as well. Light colored cotton is the best.

Rest during the heat of the day. Don't bite off more mileage than you can handle in two stretches - the morning and late in the day. By resting during the hottest hours of the afternoon, you recover energy, absorb food better, and spare precious sweat.


You should know the signs of, and treatment for, heat exhaustion and its much more dangerous cousin, heat stroke:

Heat exhaustion. The symptoms of heat exhaustion are weakness, muscle cramps, quickening heartbeat, nausea, and sometimes vomiting. All are related to dehydration and the accompanying rise in internal body temperature. At this point, the situation is not an emergency, assuming you handle it correctly:

  • Make the victim stop all exertion and lie down in the shade.
  • Apply a damp cloth to the face and upper body, wetting their clothes if possible.
  • Get the victim to drink water slowly but steadily. Adding some sugar and a pinch of salt helps absorption.
  • If improvement does not occur, make arrangements to evacuate the victim.
Heat stroke. Eventually, after sufficient dehydration and hyperthermia, a person will succumb to heat stroke. This condition can lead to death or disability. All the symptoms for heat exhaustion apply, except you will also likely notice delirium, irrational thinking, or unconsciousness. Once the victim is this far-gone, you must evacuate as soon as possible. Employ the cooling methods described above while transporting or waiting for transport.


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