Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Outdoors in the Desert in Summer

If there is one thing living in Las Vegas has taught me, it is how to stay safe outdoors during the summer.  Years ago I would camp and backpack outdoors all summer long but generally in northern climes.  Occasionally I would take a trip to the southern Appalachian trail (lots of tree cover), but generally I would stay in the Washington/Montana/Maine areas where summer meant balmy 70ish degree temperatures.  Hiking in the desert—in not so balmy 110 degree weather—is a whole different animal.

Here’s how to stay safe in the summer in the desert no matter what kind of outdoor activities you are pursuing:
  • plan any outdoor physical activities for early morning (daybreak until 10 or 11am) or late evening (8pm until dark).  Mid-day, the sun is brutal and can quickly sunburn you, dehydrate you…basically make your life a complete misery.
  • drink copious amounts of water.  Obviously you don’t want to over-hydrate (hyponatremia) which can be deadly, but you should be drinking enough to make up for the water that is being lost when you exercise in hot weather.  Note that depending on your activity this can take some practice (ie: in the case of marathon running, you need to “practice” how to best hydrate before, during, and after such a strenuous activity).  Also, carry more water than you think you will need.
  • speaking of beverages, if you are going out for a day hike, be sure to freeze partial bottles of water the night before, fill them the rest of the way with water before you head out, and then you will be set with cold water for the day.
  • bring along electrolytes.  One of the side effects of both exercising in the heat AND drinking large quantities of water is that your electrolytes (salt and other minerals) can become out of balance leaving you feeling like roadkill on a bad day.  Using electrolyte products--everything from Gatorade to electrolyte tablets or drink mixes—can reverse this problem and leave you feeling fine even on the most brutal summer days.
  • cover up.  While many people think they will be cooler in the heat if they wear shorts and a tank top, your body will actually do better if you remain covered up.  Long flowing pants and long-sleeved shirts (made of natural materials like cotton or linen), as well as covering your head with a hat will keep you cooler and less likely to get sunburned (think Bedouins in the desert attire).  Other clothing choices include clothing specifically made to protect you from the sun (SPF clothing).
  • bring your own shade.  In only takes a couple of hours of hiking in the barren desert to realize that when shade is most needed to help you cool down, you are least likely to find it.  During the heat of the day you want to seek shade, ideally in an air conditioned building, but if you are literally out in the desert you can find your own shade (in caves or beside rock formations) or bring your own shade (an umbrella, a reflective tarp set up, etc).
  • cool off.  There’s something to be said for drenching a bandanna and putting it around your neck as you hike or dipping a cotton t shirt in the river then letting it dry as you hike.  Consider bringing chemical ice packs if weight isn’t an issue; in an emergency these can be quite useful (place them under armpits or the groin area where blood circulates for instant cooling).
  • wear sunscreen.  Even if you usually eschew the stuff in the city, it will add another layer of skin protection while in the desert.  Don’t forget the high SPF lip balm.
  • wear good quality, dark sunglasses.  Nothing like burning your eyeballs to make you wish you had heeded such a precaution.
  • eat often.  Salty granola bars and nuts are a good choice.  Gels and frozen fruit like grapes are another good choice.  While the heat may make you lose your appetite entirely, you need to keep yourself fueled for the activity you are partaking in. 
  • plan your trip accordingly.  I’ve seen some people think they can do the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in one day, in the summer, not realizing that the majority of their hike will be under the burning sun and straight up the side of the canyon (going straight up the side of the canyon on a 60 degree day is harder than most people will ever experience their lifetimes, in the burning sun it is much worse).
  • choose your activity/hike based on your abilities.  50 year old couch potatoes who want to start adult soccer practice in June in Vegas?  It happens.  It isn’t pleasant to watch.  Ditto young people who never walk more than a mile at a time who think it is a good idea to “hike just a few miles” into Red Rock Canyon in the summer.  In flip flops.  With a tiny bottle of water.   If you can’t/have never done an activity during temperate times, don’t do it during the hot summer.
  • plan for an emergency.  Know what the signs of heat stroke/heat exhaustion are and what to do about them.  Symptoms include: dizziness, nausea, faintness, cramps, rapid heartbeat, etc.  Treatment can range from cooling off to seeking immediate medical attention.
  • have a bail out plan.  Hopefully if you follow all of these steps you will avoid an emergency but in the event that the worst happens (injury, severe heat stroke, etc) it is a good idea to bring a PLB (personal locator beacon) with you.  It will be the fastest way to signal for help, especially in places that may not have cell phone reception.
Good luck and stay safe out there!

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