How to Prevent, Treat and NOT Die from Heat Related Illness

How to Prevent, Treat and NOT Die from Heat Related Illness

It's a simple fact. The majority of wilderness emergencies and deaths occur due to heat related illnesses like hypothermia, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. So in this article we will focus on helping you avoid danger in warmer temperatures, AND learn the signs and treatment of warm weather's most lethal killers. In survival training and preparation we spend a great deal of time on hypothermia, don’t we? That is when the body gets too cold. However, what about hyperthermia, when we get too hot? Like most things in survival training, we like to keep things simple. Simple works under stress, whereas technical details are often lost. To keep it simple, I consider elevated body temperature signs and treatment in this way: do exactly OPPOSITE of what you would do for lowered body temperature. I am going to cover six levels of heat related illness. There are good options in a hospital setting or other location in which you have a large number of supplies. However, for this discussion, I wanted to consider the use of survival-related gear only.


Thinking Inside Out

Heat Related Illness

To illustrate this idea of doing the opposite of what we would do for a lower body temperature, let us first consider a reflective blanket/tarp. Typically we use them to reflect heat back onto us. However if were to set one up opposite of what is normal, then it serves to reflect heat of the sun away from us. I hope that illustrates the point of reversing your tactics for the assistance or prevention of heat related illness.


Here are 6 Levels of Heat Related Illnesses and How to Treat Them


Heat Rash – symptoms are raised, typically, red swelling of the skin, often times on sensitive areas of the body such as armpits, groin area or face, although it can be anywhere. In the field, care is to put cool clean water on the area affected. Please note that heat rash is not a life or death situation. If water is limited, deal with the inconvenience of the rash before using water on it.

 Heat Rash

Heat Cramps – you begin to feel pressure in muscles anywhere on the body. Many people feel it in the abdominal area, but others never do. For example, my calves start cramping first when I start getting dehydrated. Treatment is to get water in your body as soon as possible and to massage the affected muscle groups. Slow methodical movement of the muscle fibers will assist them to relax. The key, however, is loss of water and salt. Pack in or know sources for salt replacement (such as hickory root). Also hydrate EVERY time you go outside. The best place to store water is in your body.

Heat Edema – excessive heat causes the blood vessels to expand in your extremities. It is noted by swelling, particularly in your hands or feet. A contributing factor to edema is a poor balance of salt in the body. Treatment is to remove the person from the heat, and to raise the extremities affected. This might look like lying down and raising the feet. Gravity causes the areas to swell, so raising them will assist in getting the swelling to go down as gravity pulls the fluids back into the core of the body.

 Heat Edema

Heat Syncope – otherwise known as fainting, heat syncope is caused during heat-related overexertion. As your body tries to cool itself, it reduces blood flow because of dilation of the blood vessels. You will feel dizzy first and then pass out. The best method for treatment is to, again, remove the person from whatever is causing the overexertion, give them fluids- particularly cooling fluids- and have them drink water, with salt added, Vitalyte or in a pinch Gatorade.

Heat Syncope

Heat Exhaustion – if the person continues to overexert themselves but does not pass out, they may start becoming slightly confused, or exhibit irrational behavior, as well as exhibiting skin that will start becoming tacky. This is heat exhaustion. Remove the person from the heat source, and have them lie down, remove any excess clothing, particularly those items that are tight or constricting. Cool them down with water orally as well as applying cool water where available to the body through the use of a wet shirt, bandana or other item that is carried with you.

 Heat Exhaustion

Heat Stroke – this can be noted with extreme confusion, seizures, high temperature (approximately 104 degrees). Dark urine will also be noted along with much weakness. Remove person from the heat source and elevate them if the ground is hot. Submerge them in cool water if available and apply cool or cold compresses to sides of the neck, armpits, and groin area. This will help to cool the internal temperature of the person.


As you can see, the root answer to each of these issues is to remove yourself from the source that is causing you heat-related illness and to always hydrate, and have plans for continued hydration.

Here's a must-read survival book on this topic - from Cody Lundin:

For your convenience, here are links to other items mentioned in the article:

~ About Craig Caudill ~

Craig Caudill is the Founder and Chief Instructor of Nature Reliance School. He specializes in wilderness and urban survival, land navigation, scout/tracking and defensive tactics training for private, public and government agencies. Craig is a frequent survival and preparedness contributor to TV outlets, blog sites, magazines and is a popular online outdoor educator on YouTube via Nature Reliance and Dan's Depot channels. Craig also has a regular show on CarbonTV. Craig also has advanced rank in both Judo and Aikido and continues to teach and train after 20+ years of training in each and is also an avid student of all things gun. Forever a student, Craig always attempts to find ways to help others to develop their mindset and critical thinking skills so they can think on their own and for themselves. 

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