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How to Beat the Heat while Traveling

how to beat the heat while traveling

This past spring, I took a bus trip through northwestern Mali. It was the hot season in a region of the world known as the “pressure cooker of Africa.” The windows were open on the bus, but it felt like we were driving through an oven.

High temperatures can cause discomfort and dehydration, not to mention heat stroke and heat rash (also known as prickly heat, a condition whereby the sweat glands are clogged and a red rash results). Through my own experimentation and the advice of others, I have learned a few tips for managing heat on the road.

Use nature’s coolant: water

Mountain of Ice
  • Wet a handkerchief, bandana or t-shirt and wrap it around your neck. This part of your body is particularly important in regulating your core temperature. A cool, damp cloth will provide some instant relief.
  • Put your wrists under cold water. Ten-fifteen seconds with your wrists under cold water will help to cool your whole body.
  • Dunk your feet in ice water. Like your wrists and neck, your feet radiate body heat. This will cool down your whole body.
  • Stay hydrated. Whether you are active in the heat or not, you should drink more fluids than normal. Drinking cold water will also help reduce your core temperature. Make sure to also replenish your electrolytes. See our recommended travel health products post for our favorite oral rehydration salts.

Clothing and skin care tips

  • Loose fitting, lightweight and light-colored clothing is the name of the game. Avoid dark colors and multiple layers. Also, cotton and other natural fabrics are better than synthetic materials like polyester. While cotton will absorb and release heat and sweat, polyester will simply trap it.
  • Wear a hat. A wide-brimmed hat will help protect your from sunburn, but it will also help keep you cool. In particular, it is important to keep the sun off the back of your neck – this has a big impact on your internal temperature.
  • Use talcum powder (baby powder). Talcum powder can help control moisture and it can also have a cooling effect on the skin.
  • Wear sunscreen. A sunburn can contribute to the feeling of overheating. In addition to wearing a hat, make sure to apply sunscreen, even if you don’t burn easily. See our tips for finding the best sunscreen.

Overheating in your hotel or hostel?

If you have air-conditioning, these most likely do not apply.

Backlit Fan
  • Close the blinds. If you have the option, close the blinds during the hottest part of the day.
  • Embrace the power of fans. Air conditioning is not a common feature of many budget hotels and hostels, but often there is a fan or two. Take a shower or put on a damp t-shirt and sit in front of the breeze.
  • Lay on the floor. This is a quick and easy way to cool your whole body.
  • Take your clothes off. This is another easy way to reduce your core temperature. If you are staying in a hostel dormitory, proceed with caution.

Out and about

  • Avoid physical activity in the sun during the hottest part of the day. Take a siesta, relax in a park (parks typically have a lower temperature than other parts of a city because trees are a lot better than asphalt when it comes to cooling the local environment), or enjoy a cold drink in a bar or restaurant.
  • Seek air conditioning. You may not have it where you are staying, but if you are staying in a city, you can probably find it somewhere. Shops and restaurants are good bets, as are museums, movie theaters and malls. Spend 20 minutes inside and you will have a new lease on life.
  • Exercise in the morning or at night. Unless you want to turn into a bag of sweat, plan to do your most intense physical activity in an air conditioned space or in the early morning or evening.
  • Use the local cooling elixir. Whether it’s gelato, frozen bissap juice or coconut water, there is always something available that will provide instant refreshment.
  • Don’t do too much. It’s possible to acclimate to high temperatures, but it takes time, and you won’t get anywhere, other than possibly the hospital, if you try to run 5 miles at noon on the first day that you arrive in your tropical destination.

Concerns beyond discomfort and dehydration

Heat stroke is a serious problem. If your core temperature rises too fast for your body to effectively reduce it, you may be at risk of heat stroke. Common symptoms include an abnormally high temperature (above 103 °F or 39.5 °C), nausea, confusion, dizziness, pounding headache and a rapid pulse. If you or someone you are with is experiencing these symptoms, seek medical attention. Seek immediate relief by getting out of the heat, taking a cold shower, and/or sitting in front of a fan with a damp cloth over the body.

Heat exhaustion is less threatening than heat stroke, but it is not to be taken lightly. Heat exhaustion occurs when high temperatures meet inadequate replacement of fluids and electrolytes. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include weakness, dizziness, fainting, profuse sweating, loss of color, shallow breathing and muscle cramps. Seek relief the same way you would if you were experiencing heat stroke (see above), but also be sure to hydrate.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the heat? Please share them in the comments. Also check out 3 ways to freshen up while traveling.

Photo credit: jetsandzeppelins and daadi

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Katrina October 11, 2011, 8:53 am

    Abdominal cramping and digestive issues can also be an indication of a heat injury. Also, sometimes when you think you’re hungry, you may actually be dehydrated — drink water!

    They told us in bootcamp, “The water you drink today will be used by your body tomorrow.” I think they were exaggerating to frighten us into drinking enough, but it is a good point: don’t wait until it’s too late. Start drinking water early. This is a good thing to remember whether riding on a bus in Mali or traveling on a plane, where they seem to put industrial strength dessicant in the air system. I also learned in bootcamp that once you’ve had a heat injury, you are more prone to having another — so take care of yourself!

    Finally, don’t wear synthetics if you can help it. Unless specifically designed to do so, they don’t breathe well, trapping that heat and moisture in and making even more difficult for your body to cool itself.

    Cheers and cool travels! 😉

    • phil October 11, 2011, 10:50 am

      Thanks for this awesome comment. A lot of great info in it. Heat cramps are terrible. I mentioned the synthetic clothing bit, but I think I’m going to summarize the rest of your comment and insert it into the post! Thanks!

  • Katrina October 11, 2011, 11:59 am

    I missed the synthetics bit, d’oh! Wish I could edit my comment. 😛

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