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Dealing with the heat

Many associate Scottish hills with cold, wind and rain, but summertime almost invariably brings days or spells of clear skies and sunshine, when temperatures can soar even on the tops.

Welcome though that may sound when you're feeling your way through thick clag and rain, sunshine and heat bring their own issues which it's important to deal with. Remember: the temperatures you might enjoy while soaking up the sun at the beach can be ennervating and oppresive on the hill where you're working hard and there's no shelter to be found from the sun.

There's a high risk of heat exhaustion or heatstroke during hot weather or exercise. Given the high level of exercise involved in climbing a hill, in hot weather you might want to pick a less strenuous goal, or perhaps start earlier in the morning so you get the hard work done before the day heats up. Between 11am and 3pm will probably be the hottest part of the day, so the less strenuous activity you undertake during that time the better.

In prolonged hot, dry spells, many smaller streams may dry up, so it is a good idea to carry extra water. Most people usually carry about a litre of drinking water, but for hot weather you may want to take an extra water bottle.

To help prevent heat exhaustion or heatstroke:

  • drink plenty of cold drinks, especially when exercising
  • wear light-coloured, loose clothing
  • wear a hat with a brim for added shade
  • sprinkle water over skin or clothes
  • avoid excess alcohol

This will also prevent dehydration and help your body keep itself cool.

Keep an eye on children, the elderly and people with long-term health conditions (like diabetes or heart problems) because they're more at risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion can and does happen, and can be serious especially where there may be no shelter or help for miles. Itís important to know how to recognise it and what action to take, as well as knowing how to keep cool and well hydrated to avoid the problem arising.

Signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • a headache
  • dizziness and confusion
  • loss of appetite and feeling sick
  • excessive sweating and pale, clammy skin
  • cramps in the arms, legs and stomach
  • fast breathing or pulse
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • being very thirsty

If someone is showing signs of heat exhaustion, they need to be cooled down:

1.     Move them to a cool place or into whatever shade there is available.

2.     Get them to lie down and raise their feet slightly.

3.     Get them to drink plenty of water. Sports or rehydration drinks are OK.

4.     Cool their skin Ė spray or sponge them with cool water and fan them. Cold packs around the armpits or neck are good, too. Cold packs may not be available in the mountains, but you can improvise by using clothing soaked in water.

If there are no signs of improvement after 30 minutes of treatment for heat exhaustion it may be developing into heat stroke, which can be very serious if not treated quickly. So at that stage you should dial 999 and ask for the Police and then Mountain Rescue.

Symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • feeling unwell after 30 minutes of resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of water
  • not sweating even while feeling too hot
  • a high temperature of 40C or above
  • fast breathing or shortness of breath
  • feeling confused
  • a fit (seizure)
  • loss of consciousness
  • not responsive

While waiting for assistance from Scottish Mountain Rescue you should stay put, try to keep the casualty hydrated. Placing a wet buff or similar on the back of the neck and fanning can all assist with lowering of temperature. If you can provide shade this should be attempted. 

Put the person in the recovery position if they lose consciousness while you're waiting for help.

Remember yourself and the others in the party: you are all enduring the same high temperature. If the temperature remains high you should all be drinking plenty and doing what you can to remain cool.

More information on heat exhaustion and heatstroke from the NHS.

Sun protection is something many climbers tend to bypass. Protective clothing can inhibit movement, hats can fly off, sunglasses can dislodge, and sunscreen can be greasy, and when combined with sweat, it can cause a stinging sensation in the eyes. So, itís not a surprise that many donít bother, but at what cost?

Prolonged sun exposure will cause early ageing of the skin, wrinkles, age spots, hyperpigmentation and solar keratosis, which looks unsightly. Accumulated exposure can cause many types of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC), the most common cancer in the UK, which can be disfiguring. And at worst, melanoma, which can spread to other parts of the body.

Top five tips for coping with sunshine

1. The sun is strongest between 11am and 3pm so, if possible, look to be active outside of these hours, opting for early morning or evening sessions if possible.

2. Apply a broad-spectrum product with an SPF30 or higher, before you start activity, and reapply every 2 hours or more if in water or if you sweat excessively.

3. Wear light, tight weave clothing that protects arms and legs as this is the best way to avoid sunburn.

4. Remember to wear a hat or cap. Your forehead, scalp and ears are vulnerable areas, so be sure to protect them.

5. Hydration is vital, and ideally with water. Thirst is a sign you are already dehydrated, so drink at regular intervals whether you feel like it or not.

Read more about the dangers of prolonged exposure to the sun and about appropriate precautions to take.