As Summer Heats Up, Stay Cool, Stay Hydrated, Stay Informed!
While Mt Washington and the White Mountains might be better known for cold weather risks like hypothermia and frostbite, the summer comes with its own risks related to heat illness. Heat-related illnesses commonly occur when the body produces more heat than the environment can allow the body to lose. While northern New England this summer has not been experiencing the triple-digit heat that the American south has been experiencing, we have experienced a few days with warmth and many days with high humidity in the mix this summer. When you add in the exertion that comes with hiking or other outdoor activities in the summer, even a warm, muggy day can lead to heat illness for some individuals. So it is essential to recognize the signs of heat illnesses and take precautionary steps to have a safe and enjoyable hiking experience in the White Mountains.
Summer sunrise on the northern summits of the Presidential Range. Left to right: Mt Clay, Mt Jefferson, Mt Adams, Mt Madison, and Ball Crag
While a few heat-related illnesses can occur, there are three to be on the lookout as they can lead to severe complications or, if not addressed correctly, could lead to death – heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Heat cramps can be the first symptom leading to more severe issues of heat syncope, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Heat cramps typically occur when heavy sweating occurs during intense exercise. If you are an individual that is not accustomed to hiking, that could be an intense activity causing you to sweat heavily. And while hot weather causes people to sweat, even a warm day with high humidity can cause individuals to sweat. In the cases of high humidity, moisture is not getting wicked from your body which causes your body to sweat even more as it tries to cool and get back into a neutral state. As your body loses salts and nutrients through sweat, you might feel uncomfortable tightening in the muscles in your abdomen, arms, hands, legs, feet, or elsewhere. If this occurs, stop physical activity and move to a cool, shady location. Drink (don’t chug) water or, if available, a sports drink with electrolytes (come in bottled form or a powder you can add to water). Eat foods with salts and nutrients to replenish what was lost. And wait for the cramps to entirely subside before resuming activity. If the cramps continue to occur even after recovering, if the cramps last longer than an hour, or if you have heart-related issues, end your hike/activity and seek medical attention.
The next stage is heat exhaustion. When this occurs, individuals will experience heavy sweating, their muscles will cramp, their skin will be cold, pale, and clammy (despite how warm the air temperature might be), their pulse will be either fast or weak, they might feel nausea or will start to vomit, they will begin to feel tired or weak, they might have difficulty breathing, they might become dizzy or disoriented, they might be noting a headache, and they might faint (pass out). If this occurs, move the individual to a cool, shaded place, loosen their clothing if possible, including undoing shoe laces, if possible, put cool/wet clothes on them or, if available, get them in a creek/stream, and have them sip water or, if available, a sports drink with electrolytes (come in bottled form or a powder you can add to water). And as their stomach settles, have them take small bits of foods with salts and nutrients to replenish what was lost. If an individual continues to get worse or the symptoms are not subsiding after an hour, it is time to end your hike/activity and seek medical attention.
The next stage is heat stroke. When this occurs, sweating might be heavy; however, by this stage, sweating has typically stopped resulting in the body overheating with body temperatures typically reaching 103F+. Skin will appear hot, red, flush, dry, or damp. An individual’s pulse will become fast and strong. Individuals will usually experience headaches, dizziness or disorientation, nausea/vomiting, confusion, severe restlessness, high anxiety, difficulty breathing, and could lose consciousness (pass out), or seizures might occur. At this stage, if possible, call 911 to get emergency services heading your way. However, suppose you are hiking in several areas in the White Mountains. That might require sending someone out for assistance or hiking to neighboring areas where radio communications (huts or shelters) might be possible. While waiting, move the individual to a cooler, shaded location. Try to reduce their body temperature by wetting clothing, removing any unnecessary clothing, or, if available, placing them in cool bodies of water (streams, creeks, ponds, lakes, etc). If available, ice packs should be applied. Most people by this stage will have an altered level of consciousness, and providing them with fluids will not be safe.
Luckily most individuals can side-step heat-related illnesses with a bit of preparation. The first is to stay hydrated. To remain hydrated might mean packing more fluids than you usually do (typically double or more if you are a heavy sweater to begin with). Or, if available, refill your bottles more often. Do not drink caffeinated drinks (coffee, soda, etc.) or alcohol, as those can dehydrate and alter your state. Pay attention to not only your ins but also your outs – if you haven’t peed in a long time, that might mean more fluids are needed, or when you do pee, if it is dark, that too can be a sign of dehydration that could later spiral out.
Wear loose-fitting, lightweight, light-color, moisture-wicking clothing. Shade your head and neck with a hat. If excess water is available, like a creek or stream, wet your clothing periodically to aid evaporative cooling.
Start outdoor activities early. I know 6 am is early for some, but during hot/humid days, you should think more around 3 or 4 am. If you choose a later start, reconsider your plans, aim for shorter, less strenuous hikes, and maybe find trails next to a waterway. Regardless of when you start, take frequent breaks, even more than you might usually take, and go at a slower pace than you might do on a cooler day. If you are from a cool climate, acclimatize to hot/humid environments for several days before doing anything strenuous. And wear sunscreen.
Suppose you are on medications or have heart, lung, or other health factors. In that case, it might be worth consulting your doctor or physician to ensure hiking/outdoor activities are OK in hot/humid conditions.
Lastly, know the symptoms that lead to heat cramps, exhaustion, and stroke. If you or anyone in your party is experiencing symptoms, take the necessary steps to address issues immediately and, hopefully, before they worsen. And there is no shame in ending an activity early if you are not feeling well. The mountains are not going anywhere, so it is always safer to turn around and try again on a better day. Stay cool, stay hydrated, stay informed!
NWS quick reference card, heat exhaustion and heat stroke
Ryan Knapp, Weather Observer/Staff Meteorologist