“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…” So said the old George Gershwin song. It goes on to describe fish jumping and cotton growing high, but it doesn’t mention anything about riding motorcycles. In summertime the living is not always easy for those of us who ride motorcycles. Oh yes, there are days when it is – those days when the temperature hovers in the mid 20s and there’s blue sky and a light breeze – but there are many days when it isn’t! When the mercury climbs into the 30s, or more, and that “lucky old sun” (to quote another song) feels more like a blow-torch scorching down on the earth, and the wind feels like it’s blowing straight out of a furnace, then the living is anything but easy! In a way, Sharon was lucky: she had friends with her who took care of her and she recovered with no ill-effects. But riding in extreme heat can be dangerous, even fatal in severe circumstances! So, this article will look at the issue of riding in the heat: how best to prepare and handle hot riding conditions, the potential dangers, how to recognise the warning-signs, and what to do if you are effected by heat. I'll begin with a couple of my own experiences with heat. I've actually related these stories before, but stay with this, I use them as examples for points mentioned later on.
I’ve been effected by heat on a couple of occasions – although nowhere near as badly as Sharon though! Stupidly, both happened on rides I’d decided not to go on because it was too hot! In both cases, after initially deciding not go, I then decided to go part of the way and turn back. On the first occasion I did, but on the second I kept going. The first occasion was an over-night group ride through the southern tablelands of NSW. When the weekend arrived, the whole south-eastern region of Australia was in the middle of a heatwave, and the forecast temperatures for the area we'd be riding through were around 40 degrees. That was too hot for me, so I decided not to go. Most of the others still went though. (I must be a wusssy old bloke!). So I decided to see them off and ride a little way with them. For a while the ride was okay, but then we got into some very hot temperatures, so at that stage I bid them farewell and headed to a nearby town for a cool drink. (The photo on the left is of me, where I left the ride). At that point I was already regretting having ridden so far, but on the way home the heat suddenly got much worse: the sun burning down, and every breath of wind felt like it was coming from an oven! The temperature would’ve been well over 40. I was seriously concerned as to whether I could make it home again. Thankfully, after a while I got into some slightly cooler air, and the wind flowing through my Dri-mesh jacket almost felt cool by comparison with that former heat! That probably wasn’t the hottest I've been on a bike, (I remember being very hot back in my trail-riding days), but it was the hottest I’d been in a long, long time. The second occasion wasn’t as bad, but showed just how easily dehydration can creep up on you. It was a ride with a couple of riding friends, and the forecast on the day looked a bit daunting. Where we were headed the forecast was for 30 degrees, which would’ve been okay, but everywhere around that area was much higher; and I suspected the temperature would go well above the 30 mark where we were going too. So I decided not to go. The others were still going though, so I thought I’d ride with them for part of the way and see how it felt: if it was too hot I’d turn back. As we rode, the temperature varied from uncomfortably hot, to okay, and back to uncomfortably hot again. You know that old saying, “Procrastination is the curse of the thinking man!” Well, I put off making the decision to turn back until it reached a point where it was probably further to go back home than it was to our lunch destination. So I kept going. After riding for a bit over an hour we stopped under the shade of a tree in a small village. When I got off the bike I felt a bit whoozy. I hadn’t been sweating much, but I was feeling very thirsty. I went to a shop across the road and bought a bottle of cold water. That was better. The others seemed to handle it okay. The 20-minute ride from there to our destination was oppressively hot, and the sun scorched into my jacket. It was definitely way above 30 degrees! I told myself I really should’ve stayed home. The air-conditioned bistro in the hotel was almost like walking into a fridge! Nice! I even felt a bit cold. I checked the temperature, and yes, as I expected, it had gone way over the predicted 30 degrees! The ride back wasn’t too bad though, and felt more pleasant than the ride to there. It was probably just as hot, but I was handling it better.
THE BASIC RULE
In Australia, and especially in the part where I live, we are lucky; we can pretty much ride all year round. Compare that to many countries in Europe, Britain, and USA etc where the winter months are just too cold to ride. (Riding in snow and on icy roads is not fun!). You get 9 months on the bike, and 3 months looking at it in the shed. I read an item from someone in Canada recently, and they said it was half and half: 6 months on the bike and 6 months in the shed. So we shouldn’t complain if occasionally we have to call off a ride because it is too hot. (Or too cold, for that matter). We can afford to do that because the next weekend will probably be okay. There is a basic principle here: if it ain’t fun, it ain’t fun! When we ride for pleasure there’s no point in riding if our “pleasure” turns into a test of endurance! Even just being uncomfortably hot is a bit pointless – as I said, if it ain’t fun, it ain’t fun! I should stress too that, having made a decision, you should stick to it! I was sensible enough, on both of the above occasions, to realise it was going to be too hot for comfort, so I made the decision not to go. And look what happened! Also, in making the decision, bear in mind that the temperature will often go above what is predicted. Swearing at the weather-forecasters because they got it wrong isn’t going to help if you’re drowning in sweat and fainting from exhaustion!
ALL THE GEAR
If you are a regular reader of this site you will know that I follow the ATGATT principle: All The Gear All The Time! Notice in the photo above I am wearing a jacket (it was a mesh type), gloves, boots, and proper riding jeans. That bitumen is still going to rip into your flesh just as much in the heat as it would in the cold, so you still need the proper gear. If it’s too hot to wear the proper gear, it’s too hot to ride! Having the right gear helps. Ventilation is the key: a mesh-type jacket, and a helmet with plenty of ventilation, are essential. You can even get gloves that have ventilation. So really, there’s no excuse. Preferably, those items should be a light colour. Yes, I know black is the choice of many motorcyclists, but it’s the hottest colour you can get!
IF YOU HAVE TO, YOU HAVE TO.
What I wrote above relates to pleasure riding, which is what most (but I know not all) of us do. For those who have to ride, because the bike is your transport to work, or perhaps even your only transport, then you don’t have the option to say, “I’m not going to ride today.” So if you have to, then you have to. And you, particularly, will need to take note of the points that follow.
The key to surviving this type of heat – if you have to ride in it – is hydration: you have to keep well hydrated. This should really start before the ride. No, I don’t mean you should skull a 600ml bottle of Mount Franklin just before you leave. If you do that, you’ll be looking for somewhere to let most of it back out again soon after you start the ride! Ideally, you should start the day before the ride: drink plenty of water, in regular small amounts, to build up the body’s level of hydration. On the morning of the ride, drink regular small amounts of water during the time before you leave. And, while it pains me to say this (because I like my morning cuppa!), if you know it’s going to be hot, you’re better off not having that cup of coffee or tea with breakfast, but have a glass of water instead. That’s because coffee and tea are diuretics, so will tend to deplete the level of hydration, rather than build it up. Then during the ride, plan regular stops for a drink of water. (Probably a good idea to stop somewhere there is a toilet, to let some of the excess out while you’re stopped!). If you stop in a town you can buy a bottle of cool water from a shop, and drink it in the shop, where it will be cool. Or you might be lucky and find a café with some tables and chairs outside in the shade – as I did in the photo here. When you get your drink, again, don’t drink all of it in one go. Keep some for the next stop, or just drink half of it and throw the rest away – it’s only going to cost you about $3 for the bottle so you’re not wasting much, and it’s worth it to stay fit and survive the heat. Notice in my second story above how having that cool drink in a cooler, shady place really did help overcome my slight dehydration. Now, while you might not like their “plastic” food, MacDonalds is actually a good place to stop. The good thing about Maccas is you’re sure to find toilets, air-conditioning and a cool drink – the three essentials when you’re out riding in hot weather and need a break! A half hour inside there with the air-con going, and sipping a bottle of water or juice, will do wonders for the hot rider! You’ll feel notably refreshed when you head back out to the bike again. By the way, I’ve been saying “water”, but fruit juice is okay too. Water is probably better, but fruit juice is good, and will usually contain a bit of sugar as well (which is actually good for you in these situations). If you’ve got room (panniers, top-box etc), you can take water with you. I’ve done that. You can get one of those insulated “cool-packs” that will keep your water cool as you travel. If you don’t have that, just get a bottle of water out of the fridge and wrap it in a towel: it’s not as good as proper thermal insulation, but it’ll help keep it cool enough to drink. A thermos (which we would normally use for keeping water hot) will work too. An even better option is to have one of those “Camel-Packs” that you wear on your back, with a hose running up into your helmet. Then you can just take regular sips of water as you ride along. You’ll be amazed at how much difference that makes! If you do get sweaty, pull in somewhere and get a drink of Staminade. It tastes like orange-flavoured sea-water, but it does a good job in replacing the electrolytes and body salts that are lost in sweating. And if you’ve already got to the point where you are feeling dehydrated this will help relieve that – and is much better than just plain water. You can buy it at chemists, and as a lot of chemists have a water-dispenser out in the shop, you can mix it up right there. (Or if they don’t, they’ll probably mix up a drink for you if you ask nicely!). Cooling the body, when you can, is a big help too. Note again, in my second story, how my body was cooled (I was even starting to feel cold!) by being in an air-conditioned room for an hour or so, drinking orange-juice. (Remember, no alcohol or caffeine!). So when I left, my body temperature was down and I was well hydrated. That’s one reason why I felt better on the return journey, even though it was probably around the same temperature as the earlier ride. Something that Sharon said really helped her was what is sometimes referred to as a “cooling chamois”. One of her riding companions had one and it was having that cool cloth laid across her head, together with drinks of water, that helped revive her enough to continue a bit further. Its correct name is Body Cooler. Ones I’ve seen are made by Reliance, and distributed mainly through Rebel Sport stores. (Sharon’s friend – and Sharon, when she later bought one herself – got theirs from a bike shop, but not many bike shops kep it). They’re a cotton-type material impregnated with a type of crystals that becomes cold when reacting with water. They come in a cylindrical container and you pull it out, pour water over it, and then you have a nice refreshing cool cloth to put on your forehead or neck etc. Cost is about $15 at Rebel Sport. UNDERSTANDING WHAT’S HAPPENING The human body actually does a pretty good job of regulating its temperature. When body temperature starts to rise above normal, the brain sends signals that cause the blood vessels near the skin to open wider, which causes the body to sweat. This allows heat to leave the blood vessels and enter the air. Evaporation of the sweat pulls even more heat from the body. So there’s an important principle here: sweating helps cool us down. If we don’t sweat (Sharon said she doesn’t usually sweat – and wasn’t sweating much even in that heat!) that significantly restricts the body’s ability to cool itself down. And that’s where keeping well-hydrated is important: if the body is dehydrated, there won’t be enough water to make sweat. Another factor is humidity. High humidity – anything above 60% - hinders sweat being absorbed into the air, and thereby restricts the cooling process. That's why when it is humid, and the sweat clings to us, we feel hotter, because the sweat isn't being absorbed into the air as easily, thereby trapping the heat inside us. If the body’s cooling system is restricted, body temperature can rise high enough to make you sick.
THE STAGES – AND DANGERS – OF HEAT ILLNESS
“Heat Illness” is the general term that is applied to adverse reactions to heat. The severity of these conditions can range from just being unpleasant to a fatal shutdown of the body’s internal functions. There are three stages of heat illness: Heat Exhaustion, Heat Cramps, and Heat Stroke. Here is a look at each, with the symptoms to watch out for.
This is the first stage of heat illness. It occurs when the body loses a lot of water and salt through excessive sweating. This loss of essential fluids can disturb circulation and interfere with brain function. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, nausea, excessive thirst, vomiting, muscle cramps and fatigue, anxiety and confusion. Dizziness and even fainting can also occur.
As in heat exhaustion, heat cramps can strike when the body loses excessive amounts of fluids and salt. This deficiency, accompanied by the loss of other essential nutrients such as potassium and magnesium, typically occurs during heavy exertion. Symptoms include severe, disabling cramps that typically begin suddenly in the hands, calves, or feet. Also hard, tense muscles.
This is the really serious one. Heat stroke occurs when the body suffers from long, intense exposure to heat and loses its ability to cool itself. In prolonged, extreme heat, the part of the brain that normally regulates body temperature malfunctions. This decreases the body's ability to sweat and cool down. Heat stroke is serious and potentially life-threatening. It usually develops rapidly and can cause permanent brain damage or death if not treated promptly. Anyone with heat stroke needs emergency medical attention. It’s worth noting that people who have certain medical conditions that decrease the body's ability to sweat – such as scleroderma or cystic fibrosis – may be at greater risk of developing heat stroke. Symptoms of Heat Stroke can include confusion, staggering, faintness, hallucinations, agitation or loss of consciousness. A very rapid, or dramatically slowed, heartbeat is another sign. As mentioned above, it can affect internal organs and lead to coma or death.
HOW TO TREAT HEAT ILLNESS
If you, or a riding companion, suffers heat exhaustion, the first thing to do – if you can – is to get out of the heat. If you can find somewhere with air-conditioning (pub, club, supermarket etc) then go there. If you’re out on the road, try to find a shady spot under a tree. (As Sharon obviously did in the photo at the top). Obviously, get out of the riding gear – jacket, helmet and gloves etc. Lie down with your feet raised slightly above the level of your head level. And get some water into you (or your companion), if you have any. This is important, because the primary treatment for heat exhaustion is replacement of lost fluids and salt. As I mentioned before, if you don’t have water, other drinks like fruit juice, or sports drinks will do the job too. It’s important to do what you can, even if it’s just sitting in the shade with the riding-gear off: if you don’t take steps to cool yourself, heat exhaustion can worsen into heat stroke. If it gets to the stage of heat stroke, you need proper treatment – and fast! Call an ambulance. No, you’re not a wuss for calling an ambulance because you feel hot, you’ve got yourself in a very dangerous, possibly life-threatening situation because of the heat, and you need that proper treatment! While you wait for the ambos, do anything you can (or have others do it to you) to cool down. You’re not likely to have an ice-pack with you, but if you do (or even one those Body Coolers I mentioned earlier), place it on your neck, groin or armpits to help cool you down. Even having people blow on you will provide some cool air flow. (It will feel cool anyway, even if their breath is actually hot). When the ambulance arrives the medics will probably put you on a drip to prevent seizures or other complications. At hospital you might be given additional intravenous fluids, and will probably be confined to bed rest and monitored for at least 24 hours.
(References: Dr Komaroff on the web-site “Ask Doctor K.”; WebMD, reviewed by Dr Kimball Johnson MD; and others).
Okay, finally, a word or two from a couple of readers who wrote in following my mention of feeling dehydrated, in the second story. (This appeared in my Blog page at the time – as did the first one). Martin wrote: “Feeling a bit woozy is definitely the first signs of dehydration. In severe cases water alone can be dangerous, in fact too much water can cause irreversible damage due to a severe lowering of body salt, this is called hyponatremia. You need to replace the salt but is has to be combined with sugar where absorption takes place in the intestine. ‘Weary’ Dunlop, the war time army surgeon and physician, was aware of this and saved many lives of men suffering severe dehydration resulting from diarrhoea when working on the Thai/Burma railway.” Possum is a veteran of many long trips, several having been done in high temperatures. Here are his recommendations. “I drink water up until lunch time, then switch to a ‘Staminade’ type product after lunch to get me through the heat of the afternoon. Going across the Nullabour on the tail end of summer – 44+ degrees – I found that keeping up the fluids, wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt under a mesh jacket and I was comfortable enough. If you stop sweating you are in a world of hurt.” Well that’s it folks – all you ever wanted to know (and probably more!) about heat. Except it isn’t: I know there’s more information – and I’m sure more tips – out there. But this should be enough to see you safely through those “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer”. (Yes, I just had to end – as I began – with a song!).
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