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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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.
— Noel Coward

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, right?

Well, maybe. Seacoasts, lakes, 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 difficult.

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 …

Drink up!

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 … well … too much. 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 electrolyte-replacement drinks.

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 …

Immediate Action

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 …

Warning Signs …

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 can't hurt.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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