Mitigation Strategies When Riding in Extreme Heat

Mitigation Strategies When Riding in Extreme Heat

Extreme heat is when temperatures and/or humidity levels are noticeably above historical averages. In 2001 some 300 deaths were, reportedly, caused by excessive heat exposure. As we roll into the middle of summer, thermometers already have reached record highs in many parts of the country.

When riding in extreme hot weather, motorcyclists are exposed to progressively higher levels of health risks. Here are some of the main ones:

1. Severe Sunburn: A rider with exposed skin in extreme heat will, undoubtedly, suffer burns that will soon become irritating and uncomfortable. Blistering and swelling of the skin can also develop. Prolonged exposure can cause more serious health effects, including various types of skin cancer. Severe sunburn reduces the body’s ability to release excess heat and leave riders more vulnerable to other heat related illnesses.

2. Dehydration: The hotter the temperature, the more riders sweat and deplete their bodily liquids. In very dry climates, the sweat evaporates so quickly that a rider may not realize the rapid rate at which he or she is dehydrating. The loss of approximately one quart of body fluids can produce symptoms of dehydration, which include decreased urine flow, which also becomes more yellow in color, reduced physical strength and stamina, drowsiness or even dizziness, slower mental processes, and impaired judgment and decision-making.

3. Heat Cramps: Painful muscle cramps in the legs and/or abdomen usually result from heavy exertion in hot weather.

4. Heat Exhaustion: When dehydration becomes prolonged or acute, riders are likely to experience heat exhaustion. The symptoms include fainting, rash, fatigue, and nausea. In addition, the skin can become clammy and moist or hot and dry. A rider experiencing these symptoms needs to take immediate corrective action to lower body temperature.

5. Heatstroke: A body temperature of 105 degrees or higher, hot, red, dry skin, a rapid and weak pulse rate, and rapid shallow breathing are strong indicators of a heatstroke. Victims may also lose consciousness. This is a life threatening condition in which the body’s internal thermostat has quit functioning. If unchecked, the body’s temperature can rise far enough to cause brain damage and death.

Who is Most at Risk?

Generally speaking, the elderly, the very young, and folks with certain chronic diseases are most at risk in extreme heat. On the other hand, though, these folks are less likely to be riding a motorcycle during these times. But even motorcyclists outside these groups are more at risk if they are engaging in strenuous activity, like riding off-road or on technically and physically demanding paved roads, or have some other form of temporary illness.

How to Mitigate Hot Weather Riding Risks

Because health risks are present in all hot weather motorcycling, the following mitigation strategies are recommended for more than just riding in extreme heat:

1. Cover-up: It may seem like riding in shorts and a tank top would be a sensible way of staying cool in hot weather, but it isn’t. Besides the considerably elevated risk of severe injury in the event of an accident, the hot wind wicks moisture from the under clad rider’s body at an accelerated pace with little—if any—evaporative cooling benefit. As mentioned earlier, uncovered riders also are highly susceptible to severe sunburn.

To avoid sunburn, mitigate severe injury in a crash, or becoming quickly dehydrated, wear mesh motorcycle riding gear (with armor), synthetic undergarments that promote evaporative cooling, a full-face helmet, sunglasses or a tinted face shield, gloves, and boots. In summary, leave no skin uncovered.

2. Stay Hydrated: It’s obviously a good practice to drink water and other clear fluids when you get thirsty, but in hot weather that usually does not rehydrate our bodies sufficiently for two reasons: (1) humans, unlike most other members of the animal kingdom, do not always get thirsty when they need rehydration and (2) even when we think we’ve consumed enough water, we usually haven’t. While riding in a hot dry climate, your body will need to consume at least a gallon of water each day to replace lost fluids. If your riding off-road and exerting a great deal in the process, then a much higher consumption of water will be needed.

Many of us stop only periodically to drink water in large quantities, but much of this rapidly consumed water winds up in our small intestines and isn’t absorbed into body tissues. A more effective technique is to carry a water bladder on your back and sip small amounts from it frequently while riding. This is one time when it’s OK, actually much more than OK, to drink and ride.

3.  Avoid Diuretics: Caffeinated drinks can produce an unquenchable thirst and act as a diuretic, increasing urine production and the loss of bodily fluids. So avoid any drink, or any other substance, that produces a diuretic effect on your body.

4.  Replace Electrolytes: As riders sweat and produce evaporative cooling, they’re losing both water and other chemicals, which are critical to keeping muscles and the nervous system operating normally. Consequently, it’s important to replace your body’s electrolytes (potassium, chloride and sodium) with fruit, juices or sports type drinks to maintain effective brain and neuromuscular functions. But avoid those drinks, which also contain high levels of caffeine.

5. Start Early, Stop Early: One of my favorite strategies for avoiding extreme heat is to begin riding very early in the morning, before the intense heat builds up, and then call it quits by early to mid afternoon. By beginning your ride at sunup, it’s amazing how much better you feel and the distance that can be covered by noon. The absorption and radiation of heat from pavement reaches its peak in the late afternoon, which adds to discomfort in late afternoon riding. Stopping early also is a good strategy for avoiding severe weather, which often arrives later in the day, when temperatures are at their peak.

6. Cool Down: If your body is suffering from being too hot, then it’s simple logic that cooling it down will help mitigate any heat related symptoms. Making frequent stops for cool drinks in an air-conditioned environment is an effective strategy for keeping body temperature under control. Wearing evaporative cooling type garments (like a vest or a neck wrap) can help keep riders stay cool while still on the move. One of the best strategies for achieving a rapid cool down is immersion in water in the form of a cool stream, a shower, a bath or just being dowsed with a bucket of cold water.

7. Get Medical Help: Once a rider has progressed to, or near, heatstroke, getting medical assistance becomes critical. If in doubt about the seriousness of a rider’s heat related illness, call 911, because it’s always better to be safe now, than sorry later.

When is it too Hot to Ride Safely?

Even after employing all of the recommended heat risk mitigation strategies, sometimes it’s just too hot to ride safely. A good yardstick for measuring heat discomfort is the widely reported heat index, which quantifies the combined effect of heat and humidity. Last August I rode in temperatures that reached a heat index of 112 degrees. I know, from the way I felt, that this level of heat was close to my personal limit. Each rider will have to decide their own limit, but my quantification of extreme heat, which is too dangerous to ride in, is a heat index above 115 degrees. A more prudent benchmark is probably about 110 degrees.

In Conclusion

Heat illness, undoubtedly, increases a rider’s risk of having a serious accident. In more extreme situations, dehydration, can lead to a life threatening condition. For their own safety, riders should recognize the early symptoms of heat related illnesses and mitigate them before they progress to a more serious state. And, if it’s too hot to ride, don’t!