In Zion National Park and many other parts of southern Utah, it’s not at all unusual for temperatures to climb into the triple digits this time of year. Add in other factors like hiking steep, rocky trails, climbing sheer cliff faces, or even just strolling down an easy trail that lacks shade can turn an afternoon of fun into a dangerous situation.
Each year, nearly a hundred people in the U.S. die of heatstroke. Thousands more are stricken with the heat-related illness, leaving them with symptoms that could pass in hours or affect them for years to come.
Dehydration and heatstroke are a serious threat to visitors to national parks in the south, southwest, and various other regions during the summer months. In nearby Grand Canyon National Park, over 80 search and rescue, or SAR, incidents take place each year as a direct result of the heat. Many occur during June and July.
In Zion, the average daily high in July is 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But most summers, there are at least a few days when the temp goes much higher, sometimes even reaching 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Even temps in the 80s or 90s can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared. That’s why it’s so important that every hiker or visitor to Zion and other national parks know the signs of heatstroke. Keep reading to learn the symptoms to watch for, and what you can do to prevent them.
1. Throbbing Headaches
One of the first signs that many heatstroke sufferers notice is a throbbing headache. This symptom coincides with dehydration; your body is letting you know that it doesn’t have enough water to cool itself down. In fact, your brain can physically shrink or contract when it doesn’t have enough fluid. This causes that headache that you’ll begin to feel. The longer you go without water and the more your body heats up, the worse the headache will get.
Unfortunately, this is also a symptom that many hikers overlook. After all, you’re spending long hours hiking. If you’re on vacation, you may not have gotten enough sleep the night before. Your diet is likely different than what you typically eat. Any of these things can lead to a headache. But if you notice a throbbing headache coming on, ask yourself if you’ve been drinking enough water. Increase your intake, and pay attention to your body so that you’ll notice if any other symptoms set in. If the water doesn’t help, turn to that trust first aid kit you have packed for relief.
2. Dizziness Begins
Along with headaches, another early sign of both dehydration and heatstroke is dizziness or light-headedness. Once again, your brain isn’t getting the fluids that it needs to continue functioning properly. As a result, you might suddenly find yourself wavering or stumbling.
If you are only mildly dehydrated, this symptom will be most noticeable when you’re standing up. Hydrate and rest for a bit to give your body a chance to cool, and this symptom will likely go away. Don’t hydrate, and this symptom will become worse. In the later stages of heatstroke, individuals may become disoriented or confused. They may fall, get lost easily if traveling alone, or even become unconscious.
3. Sweating Stops
When you’re scrambling over rocks, scaling cliff faces, or otherwise trekking miles in the southwest heat, you’re going to sweat, even if you’re someone who doesn’t sweat easily. So if suddenly notice that you’ve stopped sweating, take it as a sign that something is wrong.
Sweat serves an important purpose for our bodies. It’s one of several ways that our bodies release heat. As the sweat evaporates off of our skin, it takes some of our heat with it.
When you are dehydrated, your body won’t have enough fluids to keep producing that sweat. If you don’t begin to hydrate, and quickly, a vicious cycle begins. Your body can’t sweat, which means that it can’t cool itself down. Therefore your body heats up more and continues to be unable to do anything about it.
4. Skin Becomes Hot and Red
As your body overheats, it makes sense that your largest organ is going to start to show signs of trouble. As you become dehydrated, your skin will likely become very red. This is yet another sign that can be tough to spot; after all, many people get red in the face when exercising, especially in the heat.
Your skin may also become dry or even hot to the touch. This will be much more noticeable. The dry skin will be a sign that you aren’t sweating as much, or at all. The hot skin may feel feverish to the touch. Along with that headache and perhaps some dizziness, it will be clear that something is wrong.
5. Muscles Begin to Cramp
Your brain and skin aren’t the only parts of your body not getting the water they need to function. As you continue to lose fluid and overheat, your muscles will begin to ache, feel weak, or even cramp.
When hiking, this muscle soreness usually starts in your legs, and especially in your knees or feet. If you notice sore muscles earlier in your hike than usual, it may mean that you need to up your water intake as soon as possible.
6. Nausea and Vomiting Occur
Late in the stages of dehydration and heatstroke, the individual may become physically ill, or at least feel that they may be. Coupled with dizziness, you may vomit. If your body doesn’t have enough fluid to generate vomit, you may instead suffer from stomach cramps or a general feeling of nausea.
7. Seizure May Happen
Perhaps the scariest symptom of heatstroke is a seizure. Your body is shutting down and you are a critical turning point. If a seizure occurs, the individual is long past being able to simply hydrate on their own and then continue with their hike. They will need immediate, professional medical attention as soon as possible. Seizures can lead to permanent damage, and can be deadly if they occur on remote trails or somewhere that the individual could fall from.
Beating Dehydration and Heatstroke
Some individuals, including young children, the elderly, or those with certain health conditions, are more prone to dehydration and heatstroke. But the reality is that both can happen to anyone. Whether you choose to take on a hike that’s more difficult than you’re used to, the heat is worse than you expected, or you simply don’t drink enough to keep up with your activity level, your body will suffer.
If you catch these symptoms early enough, you’ll likely be able to take a break and drink some water, then get back on the trail. But let them continue, and you may find yourself in a situation that requires immediate medical care, even if you’re far from it.