Two recent outdoor-related news stories underscore a serious summertime risk when exploring high desert terrains. The first is the heat-related death of a family dog hiking with its owner in the Boise Foothills. The second is the passing of a father and his adult son, both experienced hikers, while exploring the above-ground trail system at Carlsbad Caverns National Park during extraordinarily hot temperatures. A likely common thread: dehydration.
Dehydration occurs when you use or lose more fluid than you consume. Water and body salts are essential for many body functions. Our bodies naturally lose these nutrients through sweat and urine. If we don’t replace those losses, it wreaks havoc with our body’s built-in regulation systems.
Not everyone responds the same to heat-related dehydration, but typical early signs are flushing face, muscle cramps, fatigue and the absence of sweat — despite sweltering heat. Other symptoms may include dry mouth, intense thirst and light-headedness. A low volume of urine, which may be a darker color than usual, is another red flag.
These symptoms initially may be tolerable, but dehydration can quickly progress. A lack of fluid may impair cognitive function and physical dexterity. Rapid heart rate and labored breathing are signals that things are getting worse. Ignore these warnings, and you may experience lethargy, confusion, headache and difficulty standing and walking as well as chest and abdominal pain. Insufficient body fluids also decrease normal blood volume, which can reduce blood flow to the muscles and skin, and ultimately lead to life-threatening shock.
Staying hydrated in austere remote sites, such as Southern Idaho’s Owyhee Desert or even the Treasure Valley Foothills during extreme heat, can be challenging. When temperatures are in the triple digits and shade is scarce, your risk for dehydration escalates. And the more time you spend in the intense heat, the more your body struggles to stay cool.
So, what should you do if you opt to venture outdoors in extreme conditions or find yourself in extreme conditions?
Know before you go
▪ Drink before, during and after your outdoor adventures. If you are outside in 100 degree or higher temperatures, aim to consume four cups of fluid per hour. Water is best. However, any nonalcoholic beverage will do. Steer clear of alcohol. It increases urine production and output, elevating your risk for dehydration. Also limit carbonated drinks — they can make you feel full, which may lead you to reduce your overall intake of fluids.
▪ In addition to water, sweat also contains sodium and electrolytes. Consider bringing energy drinks along on your adventure.
“Sports drinks containing salts, potassium and electrolytes are effective” for remaining hydrated and replacing lost nutrients, according to the American Hiking Society.
And in case of an emergency, “people hiking with children should carry a product like Pedialyte that is formulated for kids,” says Kathy Spellman, a retired Bureau of Land Management ranger who worked at the Kanab Field Office in Utah.
Be aware that some energy drinks contain caffeine, and opinions vary about consuming caffeinated beverages when recreating. Those who advocate against it note that caffeine can increase the need to urinate and the loss of electrolytes. However, the American College of Sports Medicine says that “moderate caffeine intake does not affect hydration status or urine output.” The takeaway: Consider your individual tolerance for caffeine before heading out with a caffeinated energy drink.
▪ To help stay hydrated, pack water-rich fruits and vegetables such as apples, grapes, oranges and strawberries. Carrot and celery sticks also contain a high percentage of water and pack well. Salty snacks, such as trail mix, can be helpful for replacing lost body salts.
Know the signs and take precautions
Consuming fluids can only reverse mild to moderate dehydration. Severe dehydration requires medical treatment. If your symptoms last for more than one hour or get worse, find help. You need to get to a clinic or hospital as soon as possible.
That can be difficult when you’re out in the boondocks, so take some proactive steps to help decrease your risk for dehydration right from the start. For instance:
▪ “Don’t be tempted to wear clothing that exposes your skin. Exposure to sun — and especially sunburn — dehydrates you. Wear a lightweight cotton long-sleeved shirt and lightweight cotton pants,” advises Spellman. “Never jeans. Always wear a hat.”
▪ In the Treasure Valley, the heat of the day does not hit until the afternoon. To avoid extreme temperatures, plan activities for earlier in the day. Or explore shady areas, such as the Boise National Forest, during the late afternoon — and take frequent breaks in cool spots.
▪ “Share your itinerary with a friend. Let them know that you will contact them when you are back and, if they do not hear from you, to send a search party. This is especially true if you are wandering in backcountry, where cell signals are weak or nonexistent,” says Brian Carey, who was the deputy superintendent at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Arizona and is now retired from the National Park Service.
▪ Backpacks with hydration bladders make it easy to carry water. During her time as a ranger at the Wave, a unique rock formation in a remote area of northern Arizona, Spellman advised visitors to “always bring one gallon of water for one day’s use” and not to “worry about the initial weight of your pack, it gets lighter as you eat and drink throughout the day.”
Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and principal at HealthComm Solutions, a public health consulting company based in Boise. Gordon is also an adjunct instructor with the University of Idaho and Boise State University. Learn more about dietitians and healthy eating at eatrightIdaho.org.
Tips to beat the heat in the right way
▪ Snack it up. Sometimes when it is hot, we feel less hungry than we do in cooler weather. Keeping fresh snacks on hand is really important, especially when you are spending time outside in the sun.
▪ Stay cool. Popsicles, slushies and ice cream are summertime sweets we all love, but they also contain a lot of processed sugar. Try making fruit smoothies, frozen yogurt and fruit-sicles instead.
▪ Drink water. We are all about drinking more water all the time, but especially now. Dehydration is no joke. Put some cucumber or melon in your water for flavor.
▪ Have your kids drink water. Children are at a much higher risk of dehydration than adults. Make sure your kids are hydrated before they go out to play, and encourage that they take breaks to drink water throughout their play time.
▪ Wear sunscreen. A sunburn is not only uncomfortable, it causes long term damage to your skin and takes a while to heal. Make sure you apply — and reapply.
These tips are from Eat Smart Idaho at the University of Idaho Extension. Learn more at uidaho.edu/extension/eat-smart-idaho.
Keep your dog safe, too
Heat stroke can happen quickly in dogs, and many people don’t recognize the signs.
Dogs only sweat through their toe pads, which makes it more difficult for them to cool off than humans.
“It tends to become a very, very big problem that a lot of people don’t even recognize,” Dr. Jessica Loweth, an emergency veterinarian at All Valley Animal Care Center in Meridian, told Idaho Statesman Outdoors editor and writer Chadd Cripe recently. “They’ll see that their dogs are panting a lot but don’t actually recognize that the body temperature is going up quite a bit, especially for black dogs and really dark brown dogs.”
It’s important to always bring fresh water along on your adventures — not just for you, but for your dog, too. Read Chadd’s story here for more tips.