First Aid for Hikers: Dehydration, 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.

Hikers in the Smoky Mountains are usually aware that hiking in the beautiful natural splendor of the Smokies does come with some risk. The trick is to reduce these risks as much as possible and if there is an emergency to not panic and take control of the situation so a minor injury or emergency does not become a life threatening issue.

Some of the most common issues that endanger hikers throughout much of the year in the Smoky Mountains is the risk of dehydration and heat related medical emergencies such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion and potentially deadly heat stroke.

Simply having enough safe drinking water and resting when necessary are the simplest way to keep from getting dehydrated and overheated which can cause any hiker or camper in the Smokies to experience a serious injury or even death.

Though you may start the day hiking in cool comfortable weather, the exertion of strenuous hiking especially when carrying a heavy load, being unprotected from direct sun or on a humid day when the body's ability to cool itself through perspiration is reduced, can easily make your bodies requirement for fluids and the potential for overheating skyrocket.

While most important thing a hiker can do to avoid dehydration and heat related syndromes is to maintain proper hydration by drinking plenty of fluids, it is also important to know the symptoms and treatment of these potentially dangerous conditions.



Water: A Hikers Best Friend to avoid Dehydration and Heat Related Illness

One of the easiest ways to keep yourself safe and healthy when hiking year round is to drink plenty of water when you go hiking. Notice the word "water", not iced tea, soda, energy drinks or sports drinks. Caffeine, sugar, artificial sweeteners and salts will increase your thirst and your dehydration - drink more and get even more dehydrated!

If you are going out for a very strenuous hike, you may want to bring alone very diluted sports drinks such as Gatorade or I as do, powder to make a diluted drink on the trail if you need to. Alternate between a liter or 2 of water before a liter of diluted sports drink. If your forehead gets gritty from salt in your sweat during a strenuous hike be sure to replace those electrolytes with a sports drink which is better than salty snacks.

Though water can be easily found on most trails in the Great Smoky Mountains national park, it is never safe to drink untreated water and in times of drought you may be required to make a long detour of 5 or more miles - each way - to find water which you must treat before consuming in order to keep from dehydrating or having a heat related medical emergency.

For extreme hikers, it just not possible on some trails in the Great Smoky Mountains national park to carry enough water in the heat of late spring, summer and early fall. Hikers along the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2007 and 2008 found long dry stretches of trails that were 20 miles or more long.

Not treating water in the Smokies can cause severe illness due to dangerous microscopic organisms. Never ever drink untreated water! Other than boiling water and then letting it cool before drinking it, the only safe and healthy ways to treat water is to filter it with filter systems designed for hikers or to use a UV Pen to sterilize the water. Tablets are not safe for long term use and some question the safety of the chemicals for even short term use. Don't believe me? just read the packaging on tablets.

What do I use to keep hydrated when hiking in the Smoky Mountains? A gravity filter system which has worked great for me for years after learning the hard way that it is impossible and impracticable on some long extended hikes in the Smokies to carry enough water with you.

Reducing my carry load to no more than 3 liters in a day has great increased my comfort when hiking, my pack space and I no longer ever have to ration my water which makes hiking even safer. Find a creek or stream, fill the bag, hang it while you rest and in under 3 minutes you have liters of cold safe drinking water that tastes great.

If you are planing to hike in freezing weather a gravity filter is not a good idea as the filter can freeze and get damaged. In cold weather I would suggest the pump filter below.

Though I own a SteriPEN, I still prefer my gravity feed bag. The SteriPEN is great to travel with as it takes up little room and works well however the water must be clear in order to be effective. Very muddy water or very stained water will not be made safe with the SteriPEN alone. A SteriPEN is the perfect accessory to bring to Mexico!

I love my pump filter but don't use it much in the summer and in warm weather as much as it is slower and takes far more effort. Don't get me wrong, pump filters work well when filtering water in the Smoky Mountains and take up less space than many other filtration systems for hikers and campers and the extreme high quality such as the one below can last for more than 13,000 gallons.

Traveling to areas where the water quality is worse than the Smokies, the Katadyn Pocket Filter is the best way to go for safe and reliable water filtration. The far from cheap, in the long run it will save you money because of its incredible long life span and dependability and is a must have for any hurricane or earthquake preparedness kit.

Water is life. Make sure yours is safe and you have the most dependable filtration system.

First Aid for Hikers with Dehydration


Dehydration can strike any hiker in the Smoky Mountains any time of the year although it is most often seen in warm weather.

Dehydration occurs in hikers when the body has lost too much fluid and electrolytes (both potassium and sodium) which can be accelerated by strenuous activity, altitude, illness, medications, diarrhea and warm weather.

Although proper hydration is one of the keys is keeping from becoming dehydrated, you also need to have the correct balance of electrolytes as well. Eating foods with sodium, drinking fruit juices and eating soft fruits and vegetables with potassium are best, but when hiking or camping it may not be as practical as supplementing your fluid intake with sports drinks such as Gatorade.

Dehydration in hikers if left untreated can be extremely dangerous especially in children and the elderly.

Especially dangerous is when the dehydrated hiker suffers from confusion, dizziness, weakness, very rapid pulse, or low blood pressure which normally means that the victim needs immediate medical help in order to get intravenous fluids to prevent the onset of shock.

The Symptoms of Dehydration are:
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Inability to urinate
  • Dark urine which may have a strong odor
  • Dry mouth and nose
  • Weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting

In children and the elderly, skin which pinched may holds its form rather than returning to its normal shape

Other symptoms of Dehydration that may be seen in children are:
  • No tears when crying
  • No wet diapers for 3 or more hours
  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • Listlessness or irritability
  • A high fever
  • A sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks

Remember, dehydration does not just occur in hot weather and the key to avoid it is hydration - even when you do not feel thirsty you should drink along with the occasional replacement of electrolytes you may have lost during hiking.


 

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