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Heat and Cold Incidents 


Dehydration can play a significant role in a number of maladies including heat exhaustion, heatstroke, hypothermia, and frostbite.

Water is essential for nearly every bodily function, including brain activity and temperature control. We lose moisture through breathing, sweating, digestion, and urination. A person who gives off more water than he or she takes in risks becoming dehydrated. The first sign of dehydration usually is dark urine. Other signs can include weariness, headache and body aches, and confusion.

Help keep your body in balance by eating enough throughout the day. The importance of drinking plenty of fluids cannot be overemphasized. Don't wait until you feel thirsty—that's an indication that you are already becoming a bit dehydrated. Replenish your water supplies at every opportunity and drink often in warm weather and cold alike.

Incident Response for Dehydration

A person showing any indications of dehydration should rest in the shade and sip water until the symptoms subside.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion can be brought on by a combination of dehydration and a warm environment. The condition is not uncommon during sports activities and trek adventures conducted in hot weather, especially if participants are not fully acclimated to the conditions. Symptoms can include the following:

  • Skin that is pale and clammy from heavy sweating
  • Nausea and tiredness
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Headache, muscle cramps, and weakness

Incident Response for Heat Exhaustion

To treat heat exhaustion, have the victim lie in a cool, shady place with the feet raised. Remove excess clothing. Cool the victim by applying cool, wet cloths to his or her body and by fanning. If the victim is fully alert, let him or her sip from a glass of water and take bites of salted food, such as nuts. Recovery should be rapid. If symptoms persist, call for medical help.


Heatstroke occurs when a person's core temperature rises to a life-threatening level (above 105 degrees). Causal factors include dehydration and over exertion in hot environments. Symptoms can include hot, red skin that can be either dry or sweaty; confusion; and a rapid pulse.

Incident Response for Heatstroke

A heatstroke victim must be cooled immediately. He or she is in danger of dying. To quickly lower the body temperature and begin restoring hydration, move the victim to a cool, shady spot and cool him or her any way you can. Keep the victim lying down and comfortable, with head and shoulders slightly raised. Remove outer clothing and sponge the victim with cold water. Cover the victim with wet towels, wet clothing, or whatever else is handy, and fan him or her. Place the victim in a stream, in a tub filled with cool (not ice-cold) water, or in front of an air conditioner running full blast in a house or car. Use combinations of all available treatments.

Get emergency medical help as soon as possible. The victim's temperature might go up again, or he or she might vomit or require rescue breathing.

For more on conducting trek adventures when temperatures are warm, see the chapter titled "Hot-Weather Travel and Camping."

A group that knows how to treat hypothermia should be well enough aware of the risk that its own members will seldom, if ever, need to be treated for it.


Hypothermia occurs when a person's body is losing more heat than it can generate. It is a danger for anyone who is not dressed warmly enough, though simple exposure to cold is seldom the only cause. Dehydration is a common factor. Wind, damp clothing, hunger, and exhaustion can further compound the danger. The temperature doesn't have to be below freezing, either—a lightly dressed hiker caught in a cool, windy rain shower can be at great risk. So is a swimmer too far out in chilly water or immersed too long.

A person experiencing hypothermia might feel cold and numb; become tired, anxious, irritable, and increasingly clumsy; have slurred speech; shiver uncontrollably; make bad decisions; and lose consciousness.

Incident Response for Hypothermia

Treat a victim of hypothermia by preventing him or her from getting colder and, if necessary, by using any or all of the following methods to help the body warm again to its normal temperature.

  1. If the person is fully conscious and can drink, offer plenty of warm liquids (cocoa, soup, fruit juices, water).
  2. Move the person into the shelter of a building or a tent and get him or her into dry, warm clothes.
  3. Zip the person into a dry sleeping bag. Cover the head with a warm hat or sleeping bag hood.
  4. Provide water bottles filled with warm fluid to hold in the armpit and groin areas.
  5. If hypothermia is advanced, help the person to breathe warm, moist air to aid in rewarming.
  6. Monitor closely and be ready to administer other first aid.
  7. Seek medical care.

While one person is being treated for hypothermia, the rest of a group also might be at risk. Protect yourself and others by taking shelter, putting on layers of dry, warm clothing, and having something to eat and drink. Look after one another.


Flesh exposed to low temperatures or cold wind can freeze. Far from the warmth of the body's core, toes and fingers are especially vulnerable, as are the nose, ears, and cheeks. A frostbite victim might complain that his or her ears, nose, fingers, or feet feel painful and then numb, but some victims won't notice anything. Grayish-white patches on the skin are signs of frostbite. Since dehydration increases the danger of frostbite, cold-weather travelers must be every bit as diligent about drinking fluids as they are when the temperature is high.

Incident Response for Frostbite

Only superficial frostbite—frostnip—can be treated in the field. If you suspect that frostbite is deep (extending below skin level), wrap the injured area in a dry blanket and get the victim under the care of a physician as soon as possible. Don't rub the injury.

To treat frostnip, move the victim into a tent or building, then warm the injured area and keep it warm. If an ear or cheek is frozen, remove a glove and warm the injury with the palm of your hand. Slip a frostnipped hand under your clothing and tuck it beneath an armpit. Treat frostnipped toes by putting the victim's bare feet against the warm skin of your belly.

For more on conducting trek adventures in chilly conditions, see the chapter titled "Cold-Weather Travel and Camping."


Although skin appears to recover from sunburn, damage to its cellular structure accumulates. That can lead to premature wrinkling and is a primary cause of skin cancer. Use sunscreen to protect exposed skin, giving special attention to your face, ears, nose, and neck. To be effective, sunscreen should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Apply it liberally before sunlight exposure, and reapply if you are sweating and after immersion in water. Hats with large brims, long-sleeved shirts, and long pants will provide further protection.

Sunlight reflected by water or snow can intensify the damaging effects of solar radiation. Zinc oxide offers total blockage of the sun's rays, and might be what you need for your face and ears during watercraft adventures and treks at high altitudes or on snow. Wear sunglasses to prevent eyestrain, and shield your lips against chapping and sun injury by applying a lip balm with an SPF of 15 or higher.

Incident Response for Sunburn

Prevent further injury by getting out of the sun, either by seeking shade or by putting on a hat and clothing that affords protection. Treat painful sunburn with damp cloths. Remedies containing aloe vera also might provide relief.

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