In the Heat of the Day
Keeping Your Cool on the Water
By Tamia Nelson
August 12, 2003
Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
Hot enough for ya? Thought so. How about getting
out on the water for a couple of hours? It's bound to be cooler out there,
Well, maybe. Seacoasts,
and rivers may be
less steamy than city streets, but that doesn't mean it's always cool on
the water. I've broiled in the middle of mountain lakes and baked on streams
that meandered through beaver meadows. Not even the coast can be relied upon as
a refuge. I've lost count of the times I've sweltered on sandy beaches.
This won't surprise most paddlers. It's physics, isn't it? The sun's rays are
absorbed (and reflected) by sand, rock, and water. And you're on the receiving
end of all this solar radiation. Out in the middle of a lake at midday, the sun
pounds relentlessly down, striking your body like a forging hammer in a foundry.
The only relief is the shade provided by your hat. If no breeze ruffles the
lake's surface, stinging sweat trickles steadily down your brow, right into your
smarting eyes. To make matters worse, on many popular waterways an acrid cloud
of powerboat exhaust hovers low from dawn to dusk, making even breathing
It's not a pretty picture, I admit. Still, I'd rather be on the water on a
hot day than just about anywhere else. Staying home isn't an option. But I also
can't forget that summer heat is as dangerous as winter cold. What to do?
An Ounce of Prevention
Is worth a pound of cure. A cliché? Sure. Yet it contains more than a
grain of truth. Preventing heat illness is a lot easier than treating the
consequences. When the sun's near the zenith and the thermometer is a red streak
running right to the top of the tube, you can go a long way toward staying
healthy simply by remembering to
Water, that is. (Whatever the season, alcohol has no place in a boat, and
it's pure poison on scorching days.) Sweating is the human body's primary means
of temperature regulation in hot climates as your sweat evaporates, it
cools your body. And keeping your cool means replacing the lost liquid. So drink
up! You can't train yourself to do without water. Don't wait till you feel
thirsty, either. Thirst is a lagging indicator. By the time your mouth is dry,
your body's already running on empty.
How much is enough? That depends. Four quarts of clean water a
day is probably the safe minimum for healthy adults in summer
temperatures. Twice that amount (eight quarts) or sometimes even more
isn't too much in extreme conditions. But don't gulp it all down
at once. It's better to stop for a drink every half hour or so. How will you
know if you're getting it right? That's easy. When did you last have to "pump
ship"? If you can't recall when you last needed to make a pit stop, you need
a drink right now!
A couple of cautions are in order here. Though drinking enough water is
essential, it won't make you Super Paddler. In very hot, humid climates,
sweat just pools on your skin, and when your sweat doesn't evaporate, it can't
cool you off. If this is what's happening to you, it's time to take a break.
Jump in the lake or take a nap in the shade. Anything else? Yes. Call it Mae
West's misunderstanding. I've used the line before: Too much of even a good
thing isn't always wonderful. Sometimes it's just
And too much water can be as bad as too little, particularly if you don't
replace the salts and other electrolytes that are lost when you sweat. Salt
tablets used to be de rigueur in hot climates. Then they fell out of
fashion. Now, with the realization that salt depletion is the principal cause of
disabling heat cramps, they're back on the shelves, along with dozens of
Confused? Who wouldn't be? There's no cause for panic, though. You don't need
an escort tanker of Crocodile-Cooler to cross Golden Pond. Just use your common
sense. Drink up, to be sure, but don't try to see how high you can float your
kidneys. Replace the salts you sweat away, too. Fruits
(both fresh and dry) and nuts are
often good sources of potassium, and most processed foods are already high in
sodium, as are many camping meals. If your meals are low-sodium, and if
you're otherwise healthy, it might be a good idea to up your salt intake a
bit when paddling in hot weather, either by salting your food more heavily or by
taking a few salt tablets during the day.
But what if you're not quite so healthy? What if you're among the many
active folks who have high blood pressure or heart disease? The answer's
obvious. Talk to your doctor, tell her how you spend your leisure time, and then
follow her advice. 'Nuff said.
OK. Water intake is important very important but it's not the
only important thing. You'll also want to
Dress for Excess
A magazine-cover model's tank-top, shorts, and killer tan may look cool, but
it's the model's dermatologist who really stands to make a killing. Out on the
water, in the heat of the sun, it's best to cover up, whether your natural skin
tone inclines to alabaster or ebony. Brimmed hats are better than ball caps, and
loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts are better than snug tees. Light colors are
better than dark, too. Check the fabric. A tight weave may not feel as cool as a
looser one, but it will be a far better sunscreen, and unlike the stuff in the
bottles, it won't wash off as you sweat.
Need something more? Protect sensitive areas like lips, nose, and ears with
barrier agents. These include clown white (zinc oxide) and red veterinary
petrolatum (RVP). While these greasy unguents won't do much for your appearance
you can probably give up any hope of seeing your picture on the cover of
Beautiful People you won't get burned, either.
Ready to head out? Good. But before you do, take a minute to consider this
warning from an old ditty by Tom Lehrer:
Don't Breathe the Air
It's hard advice to follow, but in some places, at some times, it's the only
course open to active canoeists and kayakers. If your favorite paddling area is
also popular with jet-ski jockeys and other powerboat enthusiasts, and if your
lungs aren't as good as they used to be, consider going somewhere else for the
day. Even "clean-burning" marine engines leave a pungent plume of unburned
gasoline and combustion by-products in their wake. It isn't exactly a breath of
fresh air, and paddlers can't just lean back and let a motor do the work. That's
not the whole story, either. Sunlight works an evil alchemy on this witches'
brew of hydrocarbons, sending local ozone readings through the roof. Ozone's a
good thing when it's high up in the stratosphere, but closer to earth it's very
bad news for anyone with allergies, asthma, or emphysema.
The remedy? Get out of Gasoline Alley while you can still breathe. Try to
find a body of water that's too small, too shallow, or too swift to interest the
motorized legions. And good luck!
But what if you've done everything right, and something still goes wrong?
What then? Then it's time for
Hot-weather maladies range from the irritating (prickly heat), to the painful
(sunburn), to the life-threatening (heat stroke). Prickly heat and sunburn
aren't often medical emergencies. Heat stroke is. Prickly heat and sunburn
usually respond to home remedies. Heat stroke doesn't. Get the picture? When
prevention fails and your body's temperature-regulating mechanism packs it in,
you're headed for a world of trouble. So it's best to heed the
And take immediate action. The body's machinery usually doesn't fail without
giving notice, and its thermostat is no exception. Heat stroke is the end point
of a malignant process. The early signs are often labeled heat
exhaustion. These include:
- Headache, dizziness, or fainting
- Rapid pulse
- Nausea and vomiting
Sometimes the skin is sweaty, pale, and cool to the touch. But sometimes it
isn't. If the heat's on, don't waste time waiting for all the classic signs to
appear. If you or anyone you're paddling with ever complains of a sudden
headache or dizziness, vomits, or just seems out of sorts, head for shore and
shade without delay. The trip's over, at least for the day. Once you're
comfortably settled out of the reach of the sun, encourage the "patient" to
drink copiously salted fluids are best and rest with his feet up.
When the patient has to empty his bladder, he's on the mend. Happy ending.
But what if he'd ignored the early warning signs? Then things might not have
turned out so well. As body core temperature rises, the body's thermoregulatory
system breaks down. Temperature spikes often well above the highest
reading on a standard clinical thermometer and the skin feels hot to the
touch. The victim's pulse races. He pants like a gun-shy pointer, and a sort of
"solar madness" soon has him firmly in its grip. He fails to recognize his
friends, loses control of his movements, begins to rave. Unconsciousness
follows, with death close at its heels.
This rapid, progressive deterioration from health to delirium,
unconsciousness, and death is "heat stroke." And it can strike like a bolt from
the blue. Notwithstanding many oft-repeated textbook accounts, the patient's
skin need not be dry. Indeed, if he's been paddling hard, it almost
certainly won't be. No matter. At the first sign of confusion or delirium, begin
to cool the patient, even as you head for shore. Seconds count. A few minutes
may make the difference between life and death. Soak the victim's clothing with
water. Fan him, if possible, and massage his arms and legs to move cooler blood
out of his extremities and into the body core. Elevate his feet. And if he slips
into unconsciousness, make sure he's still breathing.
Once on shore and in the shade, continue to cool your patient he's
definitely a patient at this point by whatever means is most efficient.
(If the water isn't too warm and the patient isn't thrashing about, partial
immersion may be your best bet. A canoe dragged under a shade tree makes an
excellent cooling bath.) Hospital treatment is essential, so get help as soon as
possible. But don't leave the patient unattended even for a moment. Recovery
from heat stroke takes time, and relapses are common in the first few hours. You
can't help your friend if you're not there.
Phew! What did I tell you? Prevention is certainly better than cure. Want to
keep your cool? Then drink up and dress for excess. And just to be on the
safe side, ponder the wisdom in the jingle about mad dogs and Englishmen. It
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