First Aid for Hikers: Heat Cramps, Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
Warning: If you encounter a life threatening or an emergency situation when hiking or camping seek professional assistance as fast as possible. Hikers, campers, hunters and fisherman should take first aid classes before venturing into the wild or before engaging in strenuous or potentially dangerous outdoor activities.
During heavy exertion such as hiking in warm or hot weather painful, involuntary muscle spasms may occur that are called heat cramps. A dehydrated hiker is especially vulnerable to getting heat cramps.
Symptoms of Heat Cramps:
The pain of heat cramps can affect a hikers leg muscles, calves, abdominal wall, back or even arms. Any muscle group that is over exerted in heat may feel the pain of heat cramps.
Treatment of Heat Cramps:
- Hikers should stop and relax in as cool and shaded an area as possible. Great time to find a cool stream!
- Take in plenty of fluids preferably water and or sports drinks with electrolytes without caffeine
- Gently massage the effected muscles and stretch gently
If the heat cramps do not go away after an hour of rest, fluids and stretching, it is time to seek medical attention.
While heat cramps are usually not dangerous, they can be quite uncomfortable and be the precursor to the more dangerous heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Properly hiker hydration and reasonable exertion in hot weather should reduce or completely eliminate heat cramps when hiking in the Smokies.
Heat exhaustion in hikers is caused by heavy exertion in a hot environment often accompanied by dehydration caused by excessive fluid loss through perspiration.
Additional factors which may contribute to heat exhaustion are the intake of caffeine or alcohol, obesity, cardiovascular disease, medications, or persons with an impaired ability to sweat.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion:
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Low blood pressure
- A rapid weak heartbeat
- Cool, moist, pale skin
- Low-grade fever
- Sweating Heavily
- Heat cramps
- Dark-colored urine
Get immediate medical attention if a hiker faints, has seizures, has a body temperature of more than 102 F (38.9 C), or exhibits signs of confusion.
Treatment for heat exhaustion:
- Get the hiker to as cool an area as possible out of the sun
- Hydrate the hiker with water and electrolytes
- Cool water is your friend, soak body, hands, wrists and feet in a stream, or wet down loosened clothing and hat or sponge down overheated hiker with damp cloth
- Have the hiker lay down with his or her legs and feet slightly elevated
- Monitor the hiker carefully as heat exhaustion can quickly become heatstroke
It's a good idea for any hiker who experiences significant heat exertion, especially one with existing medical conditions to be checked out by a professional health practitioner as soon as possible.
If you think a hiker is suffering from heat stroke you must get immediate medical attention! If you don't have someone else to send for help along with you, stabilize the hiker in heat stroke first but get professional help as quickly as possible.
Heatstroke is a potentially deadly heat related syndrome that occurs when the human body loses its ability to deal with heat stress by using its normal mechanisms for dealing with heat such as such as sweating and thermal control and is often caused by improper hydration and heavy exertion in hot weather such as hiking uphill or with heavy packs.
Untreated Heat Exhaustion can rapidly turn into Heat Stroke. The factors that cause, raise the risk factor or can exacerbate heat exhaustion are the same for heat stroke.
The main sign that someone is going into heat stroke when hiking is that their body temperature can reach 104 F (40 C) and beyond at which point the hikers may exhibit personality changes, confusion and even go into a coma.
Symptoms of Heat Stroke:
- Skin hot to the touch
- Irritability, confusion or unconsciousness
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid and shallow breathing
- Elevated or lowered blood pressure
- Cessation of sweating
- Fainting (Often the first sign in older adults)
Treatment for heat exhaustion:
- Get medical attention immediately for anyone that is suffering from heat stroke
- Cool the victim of heat stoke down by removing them from direct sun
- If possible move them into a stream or creek or soak their clothes with water
- If the hiker suffering from heat stroke is conscious have them rehydrate by drinking water or sports drink