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Water and Hydration in the Desert- Dehydration and Heat Related Illness


Page 1: Water and Hydration- Dehydration and Heat Related Illness
Page 2: Water and Hydration- Finding and Using Water in the Desert




"There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning. "
                                      - Craig Childs, from the cover of The Secret Knowledge of Water


Prepare for the Desert Heat

To make your visit to the desert an enjoyable one, and to avoid dehydration and even worse conditions, plan your trip according to your ability- know your limits, prepare for the heat of the desert, and use common sense. Dehydration and heat related illnesses are primary dangers in desert regions. Each summer many visitors to the southwest become ill due to the heat, and some even die. Those of us accustomed to the desert heat are not immune. I have had many a headache due to the heat, have felt the effects of simple dehydration on more than one occassion. Pushing yourself can be part of the adventure. But common sense will tell you that you must pay attention to your body and take care to watch for the signs that you may be pushing yourself too far.

Protection From the Sun

Before you walk off into the desert, protect your body from the sun. Protection from the heat and sun includes:

  • A wide-brimmed hat to shade your head and face from the sun
  • A bandana around your neck to help with the same
  • Sunglasses
  • Plenty of sunscreen
  • Lightweight, light colored clothing- consider a long-sleeved shirt with UV protection
  • Long pants if you prefer
  • Most important of all is being properly hydrated

You should always have water at hand while visiting the desert, whether just driving through, hiking for a day, or backpacking for a week. If you leave paved roads carry at least a couple of gallons per person per day. At the very least, put in a couple of gallon jugs, or better yet, a five gallon container full. This may seem excessive, but if you need it, you won't regret the extra time spent filling a container and loading it in your vehicle. And remember to drink it- the best place for your water is in your body, not in your water bottle.

If you are not accustomed to the heat of the desert, give yourself plenty of time to adapt to the heat. You may want to consider making your visit in the spring or fall if you think you may have a problem with the heat. If you do visit the desert during the hottest months, plan your activities accordingly. Check the weather forecast so you know what to expect. If you are biking or running consider hitting the trail right at sunrise, and plan to be off the trail by mid-day. If you are hiking or backpacking, walk early and plan to rest in the shade during the heat of the day. You can always get in another hour, even 3 or 4 if you are so inclined, after the heat begins to subside. I often take breaks mid-afternoon and hike again in the late afternoon or evening, often till the sun sets. If the trail and the moon allow I will even hike into the darkness.

Water trough and warning sign at the head of Collins Canyon.

Stay Hydrated- Carry and Drink Plenty of Water

The necessity of remaining properly hydrated cannot be overstressed. Begin each day by drinking plenty of water, and continue the process throughout the day. If you are hiking, riding, or backpacking, wearing a pack with a hydration bladder greatly aids you in staying hydrated- REI has a complete selection of hydration packs. The hose being at arms length reminds you to drink frequently. Be sure to drink plenty- of course the “proper” amount depends upon the person and the temperature and activity. But as a rule at least a gallon a day should be consumed, and more during strenuous activity.

deep pothole of water at the mouth of cow tank canyon, cedar mesa, utah

In mid-summer it is not uncommon for me to use 2 to 2 ½ gallons of water per day while backpacking. Most of that is drunk directly, but some is used in meals and drinks such as tea. I also carry an electrolyte replacement drink and drink a quart a day, or more, during the hottest times of the year. When the body requires it, the affect of introducing electrolytes is noticeable immediately once you begin to consume the drink. I use Alacer Electro Mix, available at many natural food stores. It comes in pre-measured packets ready to be added to a quart of water.

Heat Related Illnesses

When the body becomes overheated, dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death can occur. It is a downward spiral that can happen quickly in the high temperatures of the desert if action is not taken- internal bodily functions can start to shut down, the thought process can become impaired and death can result. Deaths occur every summer in the desert due to the heat. The heat of the desert should not be taken lightly- following are links to news reports of more recent heat-related deaths. While all these incidents are not really under "ordinary" circumstances, they should convey the magnitude of the topic.

BOSS student dies of heat stroke- July, 2006
Outward Bound student dies in heat- July, 2006
Another article about both, and wilderness schools' policies
Another wilderness school death- July, 2002
A National Geographic report on the Outward Bound death

Dehydration, Heat Cramps and Heat Exhaustion

The simple definition of dehydration is loss of water from the tissues of the body. Heat cramps occur during or after the body has experienced dehydration, as a result of loss of electrolytes from the tissues. They can be painful, but are not life-threatening. The symptoms of dehydration are familiar to most of us. Symptoms for the accepted clinical stages of dehydration (dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke) are listed below. All of the symptoms may not be present in all cases. There may be overlap in symptoms, or they may be visible in differing degrees for different people. The symptoms of simple dehydration include:

  • thirst
  • loss of appetite
  • dark colored urine
  • dry skin
  • dry mouth
  • light headedness
  • fatigue

If water is not replaced when signs of dehydration begin to occur, this may lead to heat exhaustion. The symptoms of heat exhaustion include the symptoms for dehydration listed above, and in addition may include the following:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • decreased sweating
  • decreased urination
  • increased heart rate
  • weakened pulse
  • increased respiration
  • tingling in the hands or feet
  • loss of coordination
  • impaired judgement
  • increased body temperature (rising above 100 degrees)
  • muscle cramps (heat cramps)

At this point the body is in immediate need of treatment for dehydration to keep from advancing to the next, most dangerous stage of dehydration.

Heat Stroke

The most advanced stage of dehydration is heat stroke. Heat stroke occurs when the core temperature of the body rises to dangerous levels and causes tissue damage. Heat stroke is life-threatening and demands immediate attention. Symptoms of heat stroke can include all of those listed above, and will likely include the following:

  • absence of sweating
  • vomiting
  • painful urination
  • difficulty breathing
  • rapid pulse
  • confused behavior
  • decreased vision
  • muscle spasms
  • chest pain
  • body temperature of 105 degrees or more
  • seizures
  • faintness, collapse
  • unconsciousness

Treatment of Heat- Related Illnesses

The best treatment for heat related illness is prevention- drink plenty of water, pay attention to the heat and your body and you can avoid the symptoms and dangerous results of dehydration. If you come across someone in need of help, someone showing obvious signs of dehydration, the first step is to get them to drink water. Besides giving fluids, elecrolytes can be given. Be careful not to force fluids on them- allow them to sip water- they should consume it slowly, especially if showing more advanced signs. If you are dealing with someone in more advanced stages, the degree of dehydration will dictate your response.

For someone showing signs of heat exhaustion, besides giving water and electrolytes, you should attempt to cool them off. Get them into the shade, loosen clothing to allow air flow, and wet down their clothing to help bring body temperature down. Lie them down with their feet slightly elevated. Depending on the degree of dehydration, seeking medical help may be necessary. The victim should rest, avoid exertion and stay out of the heat long enough for rehydration and regulatiton of body temperature.

If the victim shows signs of heat stroke, first aid should be administered immediately. If the victim is conscious and will drink, this is a good sign. Do everything you can to cool their body down- move them to shade, loosen clothing, remove shoes, completely wet their clothing, even going as far as to cool their body with ice if it is available. Heat stroke is a critical condition and should be treated as such. Medical attention should be sought as soon as first aid is administered and the patient is stabilised.


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