How to Stay Alive in the Desert During This Heat Wave

Dang, that's hot.

Note: Neither KCET nor the author are your physician. Following are some descriptions of heat-related ailments and some ways of avoiding them. If you have pre-existing health conditions some of this information may not apply to you. Check with your physician if you have questions and err on the side of caution and common sense.

The heat's on across the West this week, and the deserts bear the brunt of it. That boost in temperature that brings someplace like Santa Monica up to a scorching 91 degrees can make the desert as much as 30 degrees hotter. According to a National Weather Service Excessive Heat Warning for southeastern California and most of Arizona, the next couple of days will bring with them record-setting highs in the desert, possibly well into the 120s in low-lying urban areas.

That kind of heat is dangerous, and even after the heat wave passes those of us in the desert still have a month or so of triple-digits to look forward to. While being careless in 119-degree heat is potentially deadly, an afternoon ten degrees cooler than that can kill you just as dead. Meanwhile, protecting yourself and those you love from heat injury is relatively straightforward.

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If you're a moderately healthy adult with access to drinking water and shelter and the opportunity to relax, riding out the hottest temperatures the desert has to offer isn't that huge of a deal. Those who are most at risk from extreme heat are people who either can't get out of the heat, can't avoid strenuous activity, or have trouble regulating their body temperature. Thus the elderly, the homeless, or people who work outdoors are generally considered most at risk. You can add small children to that list as well, and pets: see the end of this article for advice specific to smaller family members of the two- and four-legged varieties.

We cool ourselves off by sweating, and that takes moisture. Staying hydrated is thus your first line of defense against heat injury. Plain water is your best best. Avoid sugary drinks if possible, and both caffeine and alcohol aggravate dehydration, so either abstain or drink more water to compensate. You'll be losing salt as you perspire; drinking pure water doesn't replace the salts you'll be losing. There's dispute as to whether drinking water without replacing salt can lead to hyponatremia, but as long as you're not hypertensive, eating a couple salty snacks along the way isn't a bad idea. Sports drinks are actually less helpful in restoring electrolytes than just eating a handful of pretzels or beef jerky or what have you.

If you do get dehydrated and overheated, heat cramps are a likely first result. These generally occur in the abdomen, legs, or arms, and often follow heavy activity, like hiking. These cramps are a warning sign. They're telling you to get in the shade, drink water, and take the rest of the day off, preferably in the company of air conditioning.

If heat cramps are the acute warning sign of overdoing it, heat exhaustion is their more chronic cousin. You need not overexert to suffer heat exhaustion: it can sneak up on you after several days of insufficient hydration in dangerous heat. Symptoms include sudden profuse sweating, clammy skin, dizziness and nausea. Left unattended heat exhaustion can become heat stroke, which is a life-threatening emergency, which means you don't want to leave it unattended. Cooling yourself (or your friend) with wet cloths or a cool shower is the recommended approach, coupled with drinking cool (but not ice-cold) water as long as queasiness permits.

When a person with heat exhaustion can no longer sweat, that's heat stroke. Heat stroke is extremely dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control, heat stroke claims more lives each year in the US than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. Aside from sudden lack of sweating, symptoms include high body temperature (105F or above), rapid pulse, headache, and unconsciousness. Death can occur within as little as 10-15 minutes from the onset of heat stroke. Treatment for heat stroke involves calling the paramedics immediately. Once the ambulance is on its way, cool the victim using whatever means are handy -- shower, garden hose, hotel fountain, what have you.

It's a good idea to bookmark the CDC's Extreme Heat page, which has more detailed information and is actually written by MDs to boot, as opposed to desert nature writers.

Prevention, of course, is the best approach. Stay hydrated, don't get sunburned -- sunburn interferes with sweating and thus makes it harder to stay cool -- always wear a broad-brimmed hat when venturing into the sunshine and put on light, breathable, light-colored clothing. Leave your Goth wear in more temperate climes. And don't be stupid. Every summer hikers get evacuated from the trails on Mount San Jacinto during the summer, some of them too late to appreciate the favor. If you don't live in the desert, these kinds of temperatures are hotter than you can imagine, and toughing it out might be the last thing you ever do. As the Park Ranger at the bottom of the Grand Canyon told a group of us as we prepared to hike back to the South Rim in 110-degree heat, "Testosterone is not an electrolyte replacement."

Kids and Pets: when it comes to toughing it out beyond all reason, few adults can match your typical five-year-old, not to mention your typical Jack Russell terrier. Kids have a much greater relative surface area than adults do, and they tend to much higher levels of activity, so they get dehydrated much more quickly. Frequent enforced shady drinking water breaks, and close supervision in general, are a must. Or keep them inside with the AC and let them play video games for once. They can get fresh air in October.

That goes double for pets -- especially dogs, who would rather follow you through the flames of hell and back rather than be left alone on the comfortable couch. Don't let them guilt-trip you into accompanying you on a mid-day shopping trip. I don't need to tell you not to leave your dog in a parked car, right? Consider this video from the far more temperate climes of Schaumberg, Illinois:

The animal control person points out that a car parked in the sun on an 80 degree day, reaches 118 degrees within half an hour, even with the windows cracked. That's hot enough to kill your dog. Now consider that Calexico is likely to see 118-degree temperatures in the shade this week. Parking your dog in the car could be a sentence to an excruciating death.

Even out of the car, this heat is rough on dogs. Walking dogs is best done before the sun rises or after it sets: a few minutes of desert sun on the sidewalk or asphalt can make it hot enough to burn your pet's pads. That goes double for metal surfaces. If you wouldn't stand on it with your bare feet, you shouldn't make your dog do the same. In other words, keep your dogs at home and indoors this week. In a month or so the desert should be cool enough for you and your dog to have outdoor fun again.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Hi Chris: I'm sure that you heard about the JTNP heat-related fatalities on Monday? http://www.pe.com/localnews/inland/stories/webpark.f1da612c.html

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Michael, I had heard about them, but while I was writing this I wasn't certain it was a heat-related incident. Tragic either way.